Here we are – September 2016, seven months after the end of my CROWN OF THE DEAD D&D v.3.5 campaign. By luck and coincidence, I was able to end the game ran exactly one year after it started on February 5, 2015.
In real time this translated to 35 game sessions – a good average for as diverse a play-group as ours. Accounting for long weekends, the schedule of our generous host E.G., and my own unavailability, that meant we had a game about 2/3rds of the time. Which was excellent; my intention was to provide a consistent D&D night, and I think that was a success.
CROWN OF THE DEAD came about because our group needed a game. E.G. was running a winterlands-adventure (in which I played Bard ELROY WICK) but he had to pause it to focus on school. A.T.’s low-magic low-metal campaign was (and remains) mothballed. With no-one else stepping up to DM something, I offered my services.
To get a sense of what the group wanted, I posted an online survey. Figured it smartest to run a game that a majority of players actually wanted to play, instead of some esoteric pet-project of mine they’d suffer out of obligation.
I proposed several systems besides D&D v.3.5: RIFTS, ROBOTECH, HEROES UNLIMITED / TMNT / NINJAS & SUPERSPIES, and even 2nd Edition D&D (I would not consider 4th Edition). No surprise, 3.5 was the clear winner.
Next for a vote were story ideas: a sailing-ship-based adventures; on a ship, with a fugitive/pursuit angle; completely random encounters; adventurer party that is a mercenary platoon in a Human-Orc war; long-duration “escort mission”; a home-base “Stargate Atlantis” type of setting, which would utilize travel portals; or an Undead campaign in a remote location. The last one was nearly unanimous.
Which was great news for me – that kind of setting was one I’d already been tossing around in my head. I really wanted to combine a) an outpost under siege, with b) frontier-town wilderness dynamics like in the HBO series “Deadwood”.
The core elements of my setting would be:
- Physical isolation.
- A limited economy of good and services.
- An expensive standard of living.
- A small cast of interesting NPC’s.
- Constant and plentiful external threats.
- Untapped resources with the potential for development into wealth.
Physical isolation. Our adventures usually take place in a ‘suburban-rural’ environment, close to cities and towns with active trade routes, seldom far from the nearest shop or tavern. I wanted the enclave of Riddley’s Crown to be a somewhere in the middle of nowhere – a small safe haven in a sea of trouble.
A limited economy of good and services. Scarcity of equipment, healers, food, and consumables in other campaigns was more a contrivance of the DM to slow or challenge characters, than it was an aspect of the setting. Having the town in my game offer a limited selection of goods would, I hoped, encourage the players to appreciate the value of their characters’ possessions…and make the characters more self-reliant…and give characters the opportunity to contribute to this island-society any way they could.
An expensive standard of living. Given how remote Riddley’s Crown would be, it only made sense that food, accommodations, and supplies would be substantially marked-up over book-list prices. I’d hit the players with this “sticker shock” and the high cost of just being there would push them to adventure to pay their way. Again, coming back to self-reliance. Granting a free rank in a Craft or Profession of their choice was a step towards this, too.
A small cast of interesting NPC’s. I wanted to develop fleshed-out, multidimensional Non-Player Characters in this setting. With only a handful of residents, I could create what I hoped would be interesting NPC’s. Some with secrets, others with hidden motivations – memorable characters who are not what they appear to be.
Constant and plentiful external threats. Using Undead as the primary antagonist, especially dime-a-dozen Zombies, I would have an easy source of conflict. It’s fine to have a good setting and colorful NPC’s, but the mainstay of our RPG’s is the dice-chucking of a mid-session fight. If we don’t get into a scrap, a night’s adventure feels lacking. And there’s always good reasons to throw down against Undead – no moral qualms or sympathies will divide the party on fighting enemies like those.
Untapped resources with the potential for development into wealth. This was a big personal goal for me. I really wanted to see happen in a way it usually doesn’t in other campaigns.
The benchmark for our character’s wealth has always been their “carry-on” possessions – fancy weapons; tweaked armor; magic items and artifacts. Our characters basically wore their riches, with little else to show for their efforts like land, titles, or wealth-generating enterprises.
There were rare exceptions. In E.G.’s first v.3.5 game, each of our characters were rewarded with a small plot of land in a city we helped defend. Over time, we developed the sites into homes. In D.W.’s old 2nd Edition D&D game, several characters came to own keeps with small standing armies – though these came in trade for financing a fellow player-character’s many gambles on a Deck of Many Things.
I thought, let’s have a party of fresh Level 1 adventurers come to a place where luck, hard work, and foresight could build them a small empire. There’s be plenty of abandoned wealth out there – cabins and houses in ghost-towns, mines and timber leases, deeds and treasures … all sorts of unclaimed, forgotten resources. Of limited worth because of the Undead infestation, but with the potential to explode in value if and when the Undead could be wiped out.
With these concepts as a guide, I built my game. I put a lot of thought into behind-the-scenes mechanics … an unfortunate number of which really went nowhere.
I created a “zombie plague” to bring an element of danger to an otherwise mundane antagonist. Physical injury from a zombie would require a Fortitude Save against contracting an infection that would drain a character to death, and then Undeath. But I didn’t properly scale its effects against the strength of the characters’ Save bonuses. By the rules I set out, the “infection” turned out so toothless that eventually I just handwaved-away the need for saving throws.
On another angle, I built a table of NPC reactions to measure of how liked or disliked characters were by each residents of the enclave. Positive or negative interactions with NPCs would slide characters up or down this scale. Better rapport would grant characters discounts on goods or priority for services. Worse relationships would see services cut off or prices jacked up. In the case of the secretly-Lawful-Evil Cleric, Sister Janus, she’d stealthily kill anyone who offended her beyond a certain point. A few sessions in, I found the reaction-table too difficult to maintain, so I set it aside with no visible harm to the game.
My other ideas was a Jobs board, with odd jobs characters could take to earn some money. For use either when their player was absent on a game night, or when the player didn’t want their character out in combat. The concept was useful for the first couple adventures, and then it was redundant. A few sessions in, the party didn’t need the work.
Looking back on the campaign, evidently many things did not go as planned. What ever does ?
It was lack of time, more than lack of creative drive, that limited my ability to expand the game. Mapping, populating with enemies, determining treasure and properly scaling that against the party level – these were all tasks I’d relegate to the late hours of weeknights, when my energy levels and focus were depleted from the day at work.
Ten years ago, I could have made CROWN OF THE DEAD a three-to-five-year campaign, and made a solid go of it. But this was meant to be a stop-gap series of adventures, to buy E.G. time and for our group to tread water. A “big-budget epic” wasn’t the point. I invested what time I could, and the return was good, by that measure.
Certainly over the year the game ran, there were complications, mistakes, miscalculations. Not one of them the fatal blow to my vision, but each in their own way a contribution to the gap between what I hoped would be, and where we ended up.
Adventures played out in a short time-frame.
A feature common to our other campaigns, was the “jump ahead” – the frequent skipping over of days, weeks, occasionally months of our character’s lives to fast-forward the mundane day-to-day (traveling, resting, training) and get to the action.
CROWN OF THE DEAD didn’t do that – every game session picked up very shortly after the last one ended. Though the campaign ran for a year in real-time, in the game world the characters arrived at Riddley’s Crown on March 15th of their calendar and the story ended around April 11th.
Many aspects of D&D – resting/healing, Crafting, working a Profession, copying spells – require a considerable amount of time that isn’t role-playable activity. As I slowly spooled the story out from a calendar of milestone-events covering each day, I was not factoring in the need for down-time. Consequently, characters didn’t have time to do things besides exploring and fighting. Or have the ability to skip over periods of unavoidable waiting.
The isolation and limited local economy were problematic.
A further consequence of the progress of time, was a stagnant local economy and hopeless delays with having goods shipped in or magic items constructed. Logically, it should take more than two weeks for items ordered in a shop at Riddley’s Crown to arrive from distant cities. Fresh inventory should arrive no sooner than weekly. The adventure, start to finish, took place over about four weeks.
Following the rules on how long it takes to create or upgrade magic items, having only one magic shop / blacksmith in Riddley’s Crown meant that characters’ requests were seriously backlogged for most of the campaign. And for in-stock items, there was a very slow refresh-rate on inventory, especially with few local buyers and sellers. Upgrading the bog bridges, and the party’s efforts in fighting back the Undead, would have improved the frequency and quality of trade, but we never got there.
The expensive prices were never the obstacle I’d hoped they would be. After a few lucrative Undead encounters, the party had all the money they’d need for room-and-board for the foreseeable future. I didn’t create a realistic, workable isolation-economy.
The characters grew faster than the setting.
This was a big flaw on my part. I did not challenge the party to go further afield than they did. Literally just outside the walls, every adventure night, there were Undead waiting to be fought. As the party advanced in level, I scaled the Undead encounters to match the party … instead of making their challenge proportionate to their distance from the enclave.
As the Undead got stronger, I felt their “loot drops” had to improve. Again, this is me equating the character’s rewards with the players’ enjoyment. I know from personal experience that campaigns that go stingy on the treasure feel less enjoyable or worthwhile than those where every fight yields a good haul. Disappointed players I take as a sign I am faltering as DM. To avoid stagnation I allowed for treasure-inflation.
Naturally this made the party richer than I’d hoped they’d become so early, and it eliminated the need to seek better rewards further from their safe home base.
Limiting the party’s geographical range also hurt my ability to introduce any number of intriguing (I hoped) plot points and locations: in the bog; far to the west and east; and especially into the forest and towards the mentioned-but-soon-superfluous castle where the Undead plague got its start.
By the time I was ready to move the characters further from the nest, we were a year into the campaign, my motivation and drive were sapped, and the characters has leveled to the point where they were tougher than antagonists I hadn’t introduced yet !
The level-adjustment deal.
A cohesive party is a critical must-have to any campaign. The players work together because they support the DM’s campaign. The characters, on the other hand, need a sensible reason to join forces. Motivation is everything. Normally it’s a shared purpose or common past. (I did posts about this here and here)
Looking back, I feel my level-adjustment decision broke CROWN OF THE DEAD – because it reshuffled a solid party.
Sure, the call came from a good place – a damning hybrid of ‘good intentions’ and ‘mild ignorance’. It was a misunderstanding of a set of rules, and that had unintended consequences.
From the start of the campaign I said that any kind of character was open for use, and players could swap in for a different character at any time. This being a temporary game, I wanted a sandbox where players could do something different. They could play something E.G.’s games wouldn’t (or couldn’t) fit. And the players did; most stepped outside their normal choices.
A.T. opted to play a Paladin – not an easy role to play. And he had some refreshing takes on a typecast Class. When Raygar Brightblade was slain in combat in the goblin-infested keep (Session 20), I felt bad. I always do, when a character ‘buys it’ in one of my adventures. I didn’t kill his character intentionally – it was just bad luck and unfavorable dice.
A.T. caught a bad bounce that day. He was disappointed. As he pondered a replacement character I offered that he could reduce his new character’s Racial Level Adjustment by 1. I knew he was eyeing Thri-Kreen but the +2 Level Adjustment was daunting.
I thought that Level Adjustment was just a penalty to a character’s advancement – that a Level (X) character with a +2 Level Adjustment was actually Level (X-2) in their chosen Class. So if A.T. made a [Level 6 Thri-Kreen Fighter] with a +1 instead of +2 Level Adjustment, he’d be a Level 5 Fighter but needing the XP for Level 7 to achieve Level 6. Seemed simple enough.
Well no. Apparently there’s a WHOLE LOT more to Level Adjustment than I thought – involving racial Hit Dice, stat boosts, Base Attack Bonus, and other fancy-pants crap that I still don’t fully comprehend.
Can of worms, meet can-opener. Once I granted that offer to A.T., it set off a mild revolt at the Table. Those players who knew the additional effects of Level Adjustment that I didn’t, demanded compensation for their existing characters. They felt left out. Other players immediately started planning new, Level-Adjusted, characters to capitalize on this deal.
At E.G.’s suggestion, I agreed to balance things out by granting characters more points towards their attribute point-buy. This was for existing and future characters.
Some players retooled their characters. Other players, now seeing a better starting point-buy, jumped at a chance to scrap their existing characters (now underpowered compared to others) and roll up stronger ones with more focus on key stats.
I saw at once that the party was falling apart. And with it, the flow of the campaign’s story.
In one fell swoop, I lost a cohesive party of characters that knew and trusted each other. In its place formed a mix of new and old characters with very little overlap in previous sessions’ knowledge. It was like starting the story over, halfway through.
To top it off, now the whole party was considerably stronger, meaning I had to scale up enemy encounters even more to maintain a challenge. At this point I knew the campaign wouldn’t go down as I planned. The level-adjustment debacle was my cue to steer the adventure to a soft landing, somewhere short of my goals.
* * *
This shouldn’t sound like a grim postmortem. I believe we learn more from critical examinations of failures than we do from self-serving lauding of successes. This post is the former; an honest assessment of the gap between “could have been” and “was”.
In the end, all things said, I got to run a game for really good friends and a great group of players, and we had a lot of fun. I got to work in elements of mystery and humor and horror. I had the chance to defy some conventions and create some unique situations and encounters. And I think we struck a good balance between dice-chucking and critical thinking.
In the next two posts, I’ll discuss story ideas I had for CROWN OF THE DEAD that I didn’t get to do… and NPC’s I had planned to appear.