"The scene: The festering jungle city of Batul Darab. A courthouse of sorts, though a kangaroo court . . . of course, they don't have kangaroos there."
"Um, yeah -- very funny, Eddie," said Vince.
"Sorry," Eddie said. "I just got lost in the moment! Anyway, a renegade bullywug sorcerer is being tried for dabbling in forbidden arcane magics without permission and unleashing uncontrolled summoned beasts upon the citizenry. Siv justice is nothing if not swift and certain in such cases."
"You know what your problem is, Eddie? This is all great theater if the party happens to see this anti-arcane witch hunt -- it's a classic fantasy scene, but it's just not going to happen in the game. Okay, maybe Mikko sees it while out scouting or maybe if Melantha does some kind of scrying or clairvoyance or something, but that's one PC while the rest just get it secondhand. Yes, have a little something prepared just in case that situation comes up -- atmosphere is easy when you're recreating a novel scene with the flavor text. But getting atmosphere in the nuts and bolts -- that's where you've really gotta work!"
"Hey, have a little faith, willya?"
Welcome to Part 7 of our Behind the Screen workshop on building campaign story arcs. Our fictional DM, Eddie, is building a theme around an ancient race of frog-folk called sivs, and we're using his process as a model for creating your own unique campaigns.
The social angle on divine magic is an important element and one that sometimes we drop too easily in D&D games without taking advantage of the potential for enriching the campaign world. Religion has power apart from the magic mojo wielded by its leading adherents. If the priestly caste is able to assume control through its power over the minds and hearts of the masses, it can work to suppress other forms of magic and assure its own dominant position. That's pretty much how Eddie has set up the siv city of Batul Darab.
The priests being large and in charge means they need their magic to have a little kick, to be fun and different. Even if they were the gutter-swine of their society, they would still need something special about their magic, but it would be less important for the campaign overall. For Eddie, just as the sivs are his main villains, the siv priests are the main villains among the main villains, so they need to pop. In this month's article and the next, we'll talk about kicking up your priests and their magic another notch.
Obviously, you could make up new stuff for your priests to do, but in a way that's too easy. Why not try making something new out of something old? Take a fresh look at what you thought was stale, and see if you can weave it together in a new and interesting way. That is what Eddie has decided to do in trying to craft a new Jungle domain (see sidebar) out of entirely standard, official spells and abilities from the Player's Handbook. The jungle is the major terrain feature of Batul Darab. This is a domain that would be a natural for the sivs to access through their patron, Wastri, though other deities could use it (e.g., Fenmarel Mestarine of the elves, Thard Harr of the dwarves, Ubtao in the Forgotten Realms, or any deity of yuan-ti or other jungle-dwellers, such as races using the jungle template from Unearthed Arcana).
When thinking about making a cleric domain, start with its defining characteristic. Try to free-associate with the theme. For Eddie, several things come to mind when he thinks "jungle": oppressive heat, clinging damp, vines, waterfalls, rainbows in the mist. A zillion bugs. Leeches! Huge, beautiful flowers. Monsoon rains. Monkeys and elephants and lions and leopards and snakes and poisonous frogs . . . you get the picture. Even if something isn't technically a "jungle" element in the real world, if it feels like something jungle-ish, like dinosaurs or volcanoes or earthquakes, use it! This is a fantasy world, and as long as it feels right, it can work.
With your free-associations in mind, think about how you might work up a list of spells and a granted power. Eddie is sticking to the Player's Handbook, so where can he find something jungle-appropriate for a granted power? He might try an endure elements-like ability, so clerics could wear their armor in the jungle heat. That's a great advantage in terms of game mechanics, but it doesn't really fit the feel of the jungle theme. Pass.
What else defines the jungle? Well, it's impassable and tangled, right? Perhaps something like a druid's woodland stride would prove handy.
That's pretty weak for a granted power all by itself (though it would work if the spells in the domain were truly potent and useful). For a domain full of less-than-stellar spells, something more powerful, or a couple of lesser abilities, would be in order. Still looking at the druid, it would be tempting to add something like wild empathy, but maybe restrict it to jungle-based creatures. Of course, that's not much of a limitation since most clerics with the Jungle domain will be spending their time in the jungle. In other words, he would have just given out two druid class abilities for one domain. What are the poor Jungle druids going to think?
Following the precedent of adding class skills to the cleric list might prove a better solution than raiding the druid's class features. Escape Artist could make sense for getting out of tangled vines and other vegetation, but it is made superfluous by woodland stride. Still, the whole getting-around-in-the-trees angle is a good idea, so maybe we should add Climb and (since it actually makes a lot of sense, what with splicing vines together and such) Use Rope as class skills. Adding more than one class skill as a granted power is pretty generous, but several domains do so. Woodland stride, however, is comparatively weak for a primary granted power, and Climb and Use Rope are hardly unbalancing skills, so it's a decent package, provided the spell list isn't overpowered.
On to spells! Again, sticking to the standard Player's Handbook spells, we can still get our jungle traits across. Tangled plants and vines? How about entangle, snare, spike growth, and maybe wall of thorns? Spells like warp wood and ironwood are tempting as well, as in the jungle metal might prove scarce -- adding value to spells that affect wooden weapons. Rusting grasp could represent the tendency of metal items to corrode, but how useful would that really be if metal items are supposed to be scarce? Rainbows in the mist? Obscuring mist or fog cloud is a possibility, but they already show up on several domain lists. Rainbow pattern, on the other hand, is interesting and thematic as an unusual spell for clerics. A spell like sunbeam or sunburst or maybe scorching ray could represent the oppressive heat of the jungle (so could heat metal, but remember what we said about rusting grasp). Contagion or poison could represent all the nasty little toxic or pestilent surprises the jungle can hold, while neutralize poison or remove disease could be designated as domain spells specifically to counter such blights upon the people serving the powers that grant this domain. Earthquake or maybe incendiary cloud (like an exhalation of superheated volcanic gases) might get to that hot, primal nature feel.
Eddie should also consider spells that work with jungle wildlife. Summon swarm appears an obvious choice, especially if freshened up with new swarm types that fit the setting better than rats and bats (such as leech swarms). Insect plague could also fit, as would creeping doom. Repel vermin might be a nice addition, considering the prevalence of such creatures in the jungle. Animal growth or animal shapes could easily be made to fit the jungle concept, and something like liveoak (though oak trees may be in short supply in the jungle) or shambler could make the jungle greenery come alive to attack! Lastly, spells in the summon nature's ally family are a (pardon the pun) natural fit for the Jungle domain, especially if tailored a bit. Eddie might restrict what can be summoned with this spell as a Jungle domain spell (as the aligned domains do with their summon monster domain spell), stipulating that the spell can summon only creatures that fit with a jungle theme, such as normal, giant, or dire apes (maybe girallons could be included if the selection of summon nature's ally spells fits that creature), crocodiles, dinosaurs, elephants, lions, snakes, or tigers.
In deciding which spells to use, a DM must be selective. If Eddie just chose all animal-summoning spells, the domain becomes kind of boring and one-note. Besides, this isn't the Animal Summoning domain, it's the Jungle domain! It has to feature a little bit of everything. Also, in assigning levels to spells as domain spells, exercise care. You can change spell levels from their normal level, because some domain spells are supposed to be a little better than regular spells (like antimagic field, which is an 8th-level cleric spell but only 6th level in the Magic and Protection domains), but you wouldn't, for example, want priests of a Jungle domain to be better at doing animal stuff than those of the Animal domain. In general, it's best to stick the spells at their regular levels, or maybe a level higher if it's a spell not normally on the cleric list (especially if it's normally an arcane spell, like rainbow pattern). In any case, the more powerful and useful the spell list, the weaker the granted power or powers should be, and the weaker the spell list, the more powerful the granted power should be.
As you can see in the sidebar, Eddie's final choices were eclectic. Entangle was an automatic. He ended up passing on summon swarm because creeping doom seemed like a better fit for the jungle and he didn't want two spells that were so similar in type (though obviously different in power). Warp wood seemed to fit well with the low-metal jungle concept. He chose poison over contagion mainly because he didn't like having a spell with the evil descriptor in a domain that might be granted by a nonevil deity with good clerics; if the domain were just for the sivs, it would have been no problem. Still, the sivs are more about poison than disease anyway, so it's all good. Rainbow pattern proved just too much fun to pass up, and wall of thorns fit as well. He did include two summon nature's ally spells, selected at their particular levels because they offered the best range of jungle-type creatures that he wanted. For the highest-level spell, shambler narrowly edged out incendiary cloud, sunburst, and animal shapes (which seemed a little too weak for a 9th-level spell, given that he was planning to apply the same jungle-creatures-only restriction as for the summon nature's ally spells).
In the end, the Jungle domain has four plant- or wood-related spells, three creature-summoning spells, and two others: a pretty balanced assortment, but not a world-beater, so we'll stick with our full list of granted powers. You can't fit in everything, but it's a good representation, and they all fit the theme. Eddie would really have liked to include some sort of a mist or rain/monsoon-type spell, but he couldn't find anything that seemed to fit (except maybe control weather, but that was just too general). Still, he could have gotten really clever and assigned sleet storm as a 3rd-level domain spell. . .
WHAT? Sleet storm, for the Jungle domain? It might sound nonsensical given the theme, but if you read between the lines (and read the next column!) you'd be surprised what can be brought out with a little creativity.
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He writes freelance D&D articles but pays the bills as a medical transcriptionist while finishing his Ph.D. in social and cultural foundations of education. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.
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