Wednesday, January 23, 2013, 3:57 PM
An often overlooked element of world building are organizations. Even if they are included, organizations are often limited to the role of antagonists. This might be to avoid heroic groups that might be seen as deus ex machina (or a dreaded Dungeon Master PC). This does a disservice to groups as they can play multiple roles in a campaign setting and have varied benefits for a setting.
There are innumerable examples of organizations in official worlds. Dragonlance is especially known for its organizations with the Knights of Solamnia, Knights of Takhisis/Neraka, the Legion of Steel, and the Wizards of High Sorcery. Dark Sun has the Veiled Alliance, Eberron has the Order of the Emerald Claw, and the Forgotten Realms has several such as the Red Wizards, the Zhentarim, the Cult of the Dragon, and the Harpers. The Realms is also good example of organizations not being valued, with the Spellplague and 4e transition neutering the Harpers ostensibly to make more room for PCs to be heroes.
Organizations are not limited role-playing campaign settings. In folklore there are the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood’s Merry Men. The Wheel of Time series has the Aes Sedai (and the Black Ajah), the Children of the Light, the Kin, and arguably even Darkfriends or the Forsaken. Drifting into the more futuristic end of the speculative fiction spectrum, Star Wars has the Jedi and Sith Order, Black Suns, and Mandalorians. The TV show Babylon 5 , while science-fiction, was influence by fantasy and has the Rangers (the Anla-shok), the Psi Corp, and technomancers. If you want to see the influence fantasy has on B5 just look at the code of the Rangers: We are Rangers. We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass. We live for the One, we die for the One.
But what are organizations so prolific? And are they really important to a world? Read on.
This is the ninth part in a series on fantasy world building.
Below are links to the other chapters in this series.
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Factors
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Room for monsters
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Factions
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player's Guide
Roles of Organizations
Organizations are handy because they’re so darn flexible and add so much to the world. On their most basic, stripped down level they serve two opposing purposes: to help or to hinder. Groups can be allies that aid the Player Characters or they can be adversaries that try and harm the PCs.
Or they could start as one and then become the other. Or they can be both depending on the situation. Or they could even be neither, with goals unrelated to whatever the heroes are doing. Or they could be an enigma that is there but whose true nature and motives are unknown.
Organizations make excellent recurring villains. The problem with good villains in D&D (and RPGs in general) is that they die. Quickly. If a good villain manage to encounter the PCs and escape (which is rare without a little DM aid) then they’re the first to drop in the rematch. It doesn’t matter how many henchmen you plant as a buffer between the Big Bad a the party, the villain will be the first to die. But if the villain was a member of an organization, be it a guild or society or brotherhood, while the individual dies the evil organization lives on. Marvel comic’s Hydra is a good example of this (boasting: “We shall never be destroyed! Cut off a limb, and two more shall take its place!” ), but any organization full of henchmen and interchangeable lieutenants works. This allows the PCs some sense of accomplishment and progress as they cut a swath through the society while not completely eliminating the threat.
In many ways, an organization is even more easy to hate than a single NPC. With more screen time, an organization can have their goals examined and opposed. Captured and interrogated flunkies can fanatically spout the evil goals of the organization. After awhile the society doesn’t need an introduction, they’re just known. While good villains often require complicated motivations for their monolithic evil, you don’t need as much much for an organization. The head or founder of the organization might not be pure evil (and should have the standard background and motivations), or even misunderstood, but the monolithic force he has erected to do his bidding lacks his subtlety. Meanwhile, the underlings just need to be slightly evil, or amoral and need the work.
Organizations also work nicely as allies. A single helpful NPC can become bothersome, quickly toeing the line of the aforementioned DMPC (Dungeon Master Player Character), a little like Gandalf or Elminster in a bad Forgotten Realms campaign. But organizations can make this more palatable: consulting a group of scholars for information seems less like begging an NPC for help and more like asking a librarian for help finding rare information in a book. It’s logical and makes sense in-world. If you’re trying to find the lost temple of the god Ketzalkoatl then asking his priest is just a smart move.
An organization does not need to provide active help in combat to be considered an ally, and instead could supply information, supplies, healing, or just a place to rest. For players who like a little more direction and guidance, an organization can act as patron and quest giver.
The final role an organization can have in a campaign is as a goal. This is a bigger and understated part of the campaign, so I’m giving it its own section.
A forgettable aspect of organizations is one of goals. Not the goals the groups set, but the goals they represent. Dragonlance is a good example of this with the knighthoods and Orders of High Sorcery. Gaining membership in the knighthood was a major character goal for one of the protagonists. Likewise, PCs might not start as members, but have to earn their place. Its a position to be aspired to, and membership is an accomplishment. The organization represents a character goal, and frequently one that can be achieved without railroading the story or dominating the campaign.
Organizations allow players to make their characters part of the world. Once a character joins an organization they are a part of the setting. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the Forgotten Realms and have only experienced it through what the DM has supplied, if you join the Harpers you can feel like your character belongs in that world and only that world.
There’s also a lovely element of accomplishment that comes with having your character recognised and respected/feared as a member of an organization. No matter how widely known the PC and other adventurers are known, they are likely less common knowledge than a century-old organization. And becoming well-known in such a prestigious organization is even better. Being a knight is one thing, but being held as a paragon on the knighthood is even better.
Organizations can also be used to set a mechanical goal as they often have unique crunch. 2e represented this through kits, 3e through Prestige Classes, and 4e did this best through themes. And it sounds like 5e will return to something akin to Prestige Classes. Options like Prestige Classes are great because they’re another way a character can feel apart of the world despite not not starting as part of the world: the players show up, rolls a generic farm kid PC, and plays the game. But at higher levels they can change their character into something that could only exist in that campaign. Prestige Classes have always worked best when they were world specific, and organizations are a great way to generate world-specific Prestige Class ideas.
Because there might be an organization-specific Prestige Class, this also sets goals for the character. If a mechanically minded player wants the benefits of the “Legionnaire” Prestige Class they first need to earn a place in the Legion of Steel to be taught the implied specialized training. Even though this is a mechanically inspired decision, the goal is no less valid or influential to the story.
(Design Aside: While Paragon Paths worked, they tended to be a little higher in implied skill and also focused on role. 4e characters just start more potent; it’s easier to have your 1st level character as a member of the organization. This fit with the design goal of not having to work towards your character concept. If designing for 4e it’s better to have Paragon Paths focused on a higher and more specialized place in the organization. They’re not just a “Harper” or “Solamnic Knight” but a “Harper Scout” or “Solamnic Honour Guard”.)
There are some more ephemeral benefits to organizations in a world and campaign.
First, organizations can provide much needed NPCs and characters. Most NPCs are tied to a location, such as a favourite innkeeper or the king. Meanwhile, a party of adventurers might cross a continent or live on the road. Members of an organization can follow the PCs, or conveniently be nearby. This can give the players a supporting cast of allies, friends, friendly rivals, or even antagonists. Even if the NPCs are unfamiliar, the PCs might feel comfortable they can always walk into a Bard’s Union Chapterhouse and be greeted and warmly.
Organizations also provide depth and detail, both to the world and for the world. Groups suggest what the values of a nation or world are, telling what is important and necessary (or viewed as important and necessary). Similarly, how people view and react the organization is often as telling as what the organization represents. In the world of Dragon Age the existence of the Grey Wardens suggests the Blight and darkspawn are dangerous (or there wouldn’t be a group dedicated to stopping them) but the setting also establishes things are not well in the region as the order is not what it once was. The Orders of High Sorcery in Dragonlance suggest both that magicians must band together for protection, that magic has to be trained and regulated, and that wizards must identify themselves as such dressing in appropriately coloured robes. In contrast the nature of the Veiled Alliance of Dark Sun suggests that magic is considered dangerous and practitioners must keep their craft secret, but also that good wizards must oppose those who would abuse magic.
Because of the above, organizations offer a subtle information dump. In explaining the organization and touching on its history the players are given a glimpse of the larger world. A good organization has rites and traditions that offer clues and background to the world without lengthy narration.
Another way an organization can potentially help the game is by unite the party. It’s quite possible for the PCs to all be newly initiated members of an organization or a newly forced taskforce. This helps solve the problem of the party working together despite clashing personalities or relying on the trope of meeting in a tavern. This does require a little player buy-in - or at least ambivalence - unless the organization uses press ganging (like pirates), the draft (an organized military), or some other means of coercing new members. You could do an interesting campaign with a group akin to the Nights Watch that recruits criminals, and require the PC’s backstory to involve a crime, either real or mistaken.
The first step in creating a group for your campaign setting is deciding what you want its motives and purpose to be. Clubs and societies don’t just exist for no reason. Even if it’s just a social club the motive is entertainment and diversion. What is the organization trying to do? What are its goal and ambitions? If it had unlimited power and influence, how would it change the world?
While alignment can be overly restrictive and all-encompassing (as organizations might be composed of both good people and bad people) it can be a helpful guide and limiting factor. Is the group generally Good (allies of the PCs or dedicated to noble causes) or Evil (dedicated to corrupt goals or enemies of the party) or Neutral (self-motivated but not entirely selfish or selfless). In short, are you trying to create an organization that will (usually) help a group of heroes or (usually) hinder a group of heroes?
Consider how active you want the organization to be. Do you want a primarily physical group that will regularly be in the field and is known for its presence in the world, or an intellectual or scholarly group such as a monastic order? Or does the group have a combination of both, such as the Pathfinder Society of Golarion, which have field agents (often PCs) and support agents at the various lodges. Also ask yourself how much you want to group to be a part of the action; one organization might help communities by training troops and supplying weapons while another might just go out and kill the raiding orcs.
If you need help thinking of potential organizations, the rules can actually be a good source of inspiration. In D&D Next, Backgrounds have certain assumptions, such as Thieves’ Guilds, academies where people can study magic, the existence of a knighthood, etc. Filling those holes is a good starting point, and a great way to tie the PC directly into the world (“Oh, you took the Guild Thief background? Well, that means you likely come from the city of L____ and know ____” ).
Don’t forget to consider membership in the group. Are there any particular limits? Knighthoods tends to be restricted to noble families and something like a wizard’s guild would obviously be restricted to mages and spellcasters. There might also be age, national, or gender limits. Also consider race when thinking about organizations. Is a particular group open to all races or only some? If open, was it always so or is the change recent? Was it founded by a particular racial group?
Organizations can be either public or secret. Cults and secret societies tend to be more villainous than heroic, as good people seldom slink around in the shadows hiding their actions, excluding resistance forces and the like. Some cults or secret societies might have a public front: while the public believes them to be one thing, such as a social club or scholarly organization, the group’s true motives are different.
Spend some time thinking about how one joins the organization, or how the group recruits new members. This is mostly important for organizations the PCs might join, but it can be useful from a world building perspective. If a guild of assassins has to kill someone to gain membership it sets the tone of members as killers. However, iif the first victim has to be a family member or loved one then members take an entirely different light. Likewise, what requirements does the organization place on its members? Do they have to pay dues or tithe a percentage of their income? Do members have to obey a hierarchy or attend meetings or rites?
Finally, add quirks and memorable traits to your organization. This might include rites and rituals, things like oaths or formal ceremonies but also small things like prayers before important actions or deeds. This is much like building NPCs, as groups need a few memorable traits but too many and the quirks blur together and are forgotten. A couple fairly memorable traits are often better than a dozen unique features. Stereotypes are best avoided unless the stereotype is going to be turn on its head or the cliched nature of the cult is an important aspect. Cultists wearing dark robes holding candles and chanting in Latin before a giant stone idol is going to be mockable more than eerie.
Ideas for organizations can come from real world organizations. This could be modern groups like the Boy Scouts or the US army’s Rangers or Marines, groups from recent history such as the Nazis (reputedly the inspiration for Eberron‘s Order of the Emerald Claw) or the ‘20s Chicago Mob, or far older history such as the knights of Charlemagne, Spanish Inquisitors, Crusaders, Mamluks, or Hashshashins. There is no shortage of potential templates for guilds and groups.
It’s also helpful to think of groups that could act as potential mentors and aspirations for PCs. Look at the various archetypes and classes and consider if there’s a group that supports that class. Who do all the little boys dreaming of being fighters look up to? Who do guttersnipes living in the alleys tell stories of? Is there a bardic college or holy order? Is there particular monastic schools and orders (both religion and kung-fu given the existence of the monk class)
Organizations in War World
I start with a checklist of the basic assumptions. I need some kind of mage academy, thieves’ guild, as well as many military forces and maybe an assassin’s guild. As a theme of the world is warfare, both open and subtle, so there should be opposing forces and rivalries. Furthermore, I don’t want magic to be too standardized and united, so I’d like a couple opposing magical guilds.
As a personal preference, I like having a group of international meddlers and do-gooders in my worlds. Something akin to the Harpers or Grey Wardens but often drawing more inspiration from the Rangers of Babylon 5. In War World these might be more akin to the Pathfinder Society. After a thousand years of war much art and history has been lost, as has knowledge not useful to warfare. The organization seeks out lost wonders, treasures, and art, making them equal parts explorers and archaeologists. They believe that eventually civilization will stop fighting and people will long for what they have lost, and the group plans to be ready for that time. Because the world is dangerous there are two arms to the organization: scholars and guards. These operate in small groups venturing out in the field for weeks at a time.
I have a few potential military nations who would might use magic. Some, like Khaledon, must have some magic to animate their armies of the dead. I see this as courtly wizards tasked with maintaining the military and workforces. Given the militaristic nature of the nation, this would be formal with highly trained yet specialized wizards singularly educated in necromancy. In the mercantile nation of Firaxies mages would be trained as enchanters, hired to make premium weapons for the southlands. Magic academies would be more like sweatshops and workhouses where as many mages as possible can be trained in basic enchantments to be used for the finest swords and magical wands.
The high elves would have highly trained war wizards serving as their standing army (or special forces). While the high elves might have once been generalists and used magic for beauty, these aspects of the art have fallen into disuse, being replaced by weaponized magical skills: evocations, golem crafting, enchanting weapons, creating fortifications, defensive magic, etc. I think I’ll add a dash of sexism here. Elves are fairly human-like so the average male is likely larger and stronger than the average female. To an elf's eyes, males are more suited for battle and things like swinging swords. Magic, being a mental skill, is thus the realm of women. Men are the grunts and infantry while the women are the spellcasters and hold positions of power in the military hierarchy. As such, the elven magical academy (State Wizards, ala FullMetal Alchemist) would be principally female. While men have been allowed to enter (a recent development) all ranking officers are female and there’s a glass ceiling. Likewise, elven State Wizards would typically be elven or half-elven.
I’ll also have a magical academy in the westernmost nation. This was both a nation I loosely described both as being caught in a violent civil war and also the land of tieflings. It’s less a mageocracy and more a land that embraced magic, and relied on it at resulting in its fall into diabolism. This was the land where magic flourished and there were a number of wizardry schools. A League of Mages, for lack of a better name. However, people in that nation have become frightened of magic as it is used more and more for summoning devils and demons, used in the warfare of the land, and used to kill. Magic has becoming a corrupting and defiling force, one too easily abused.
The academies have divorced themselves from the actions of the state and students are now taught restraint and the dangers of unbridled power and the focus is on magic for magic’s sake. Students are tested, judged, and slowly introduced to magic to weed out those seeking power and gain. The League of Mages has spread eastward slowly, establishing new strongholds as its old bastions fell to demons, warlocks, becoming abused and corrupted. (There would also be the corrupted version, wizards and warlocks that summon demons and continually seek more power.)
Thieves’ Guilds are a trope of the game, yet one that has not been widespread in published worlds. Thieves’ Guilds tend to be localized affairs, limited to single cities and separated. It might be interesting to let a Thieves’ Guild spread out farther, thus justifying a single unified Thieves’ cant. The Fraternity as I’ll call them, have cells that are kept purposely small, for you can’t have many thieves in a city before you run out of potential victims. It focuses on various illegal activities including smuggling, theft, extortion, blackmail, prostitution, and the like (plus the occasional assassination). Members are taught to treat each other like family (specifically brothers and sisters). Each town has its leader (Eldest Brother/Sister) but they are expected to work with the Eldest from other towns. There is no true leader, as the Elder singlings hold councils to determine policy. They propagate the legend of “the King of Thieves” and Father to the Fraternity, to keep full attention off themselves and on some non-existent central power. When bored, some cells will stage elaborate and overly complex heists under the name of The King of Thieves, grand public affairs that only the greatest thief could ever pull off (or a dozen coordinated thieves).
The Fraternity regulates the business so wealthy targets are not robbed too often (unless the Thieves need to set an example), and collect protection money from businesses, which is often just that: businesses protected by the Guild are left alone by everyone as no one wants to hurt the Thieves’ source of income. In this respect, the Guild is Neutral, if not Lawful Neutral as it has its own laws that are to be obeyed. The Fraternity has declared certain targets “off limits” for theft (orphanages, monasteries, the military) and maintains neutrality in the wars by not engaging in espionage or targeting one side or the other.
For a martial order, I’m starting with an earlier idea: the followers of Tadir, god of lightning and warriors, and then expanding it with an elite version. Knights of the Lightning (Lightning Knights?) are essentially honourable mercenaries that serve for food and shelter, Ronin with some sense of honour who seek battle and glory. The knights do not take applicants but recruit the best and brightest, seeking out warriors with a reputation for both skill and honour. They dedicate each fight to their god with prayer. Once the blade of a Knight of the Lightning is drawn, it cannot be sheathed until it has drawn blood. Knights of the Lightning are easily identified by their bright yellow cloaks, meant to evoke the colour or lightning.
I also need a few evil organizations, dedicated evil villains. While the above could be adversaries, sometimes you want som full on mustache twirling maniacal laughing eeevil.
I like the yuan-ti / serpent folk and they need a place in the world. Instead of a separate race they work nicely a cult (possibly with ties to a fallen race). There's less room a dedicatedl serpentine god, but something akin to a serpentine demon prince or Old God ala Dagon would work. (Coincidentally, Dagon has been represented as a demon prince in earlier editions of D&D.) As a twist on having a seemingly good group be the front for evil, I might have the yuan-ti work behind the scenes of an evil group, inhuman evil hiding behind mundane evil. In 4th Edition, the yuan-ti god Zehir was also the god of murder and assassination, so having the front be an assassin's guild makes narrative sense.
Anyone can join the Assassin’s Guild, but new recruits are subjected to a series of tests with failure meaning death. The guild has seasonal meetings with a renewal of oaths and a communion. The assassins think they're just part of a your standard group o' killers being fed magical potions to make them stronger, when really they're being fed venom and essence of serpent, to bring out their inner snakeman and prepare them to be used as breeding stock. This also helps explain some of the different types of yuan-ti. You have the fallen human purebloods, the naturally inhuman abominations, and the halfbloods which are the children of both.
For a final example, I’m drawing inspiration from the War World's hooK. After a thousand years of open and violent warfare, traditional pacifist movements would have evolved and potentially grown more desperate and extreme. In order to end the wars and save uncountable thousands, it has become acceptable to sacrificing hundreds. The Peacebringers want to end the perpetual warfare dominating the continent, and have moved to terrorist actions to do so. The group operates in your standard autonomous cells but have the advantage of magic (crystal balls, sending stones, scrying pools, etc) that allows them to anonymously communicate, coordinate, and share information. They do their best to disrupt the flow of war, sabotaging arms and targeting troops.
The Peacebringers have a few active long-term plans. They hope to be able to find something that they can use to force kingdoms to stop fighting, a weapon they can use to broker a peace. They’re also aware a mutual enemy might be enough to encourage peace, but such a threat would need to be continent-wide in scope.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013, 5:00 PM
The Minotaur is a pretty iconic monster: half man, half beast. From a symbolic perspective, it’s the epitome of masculinity: the bull is already a masculine symbol, but then you pair it with an actual athletic male body it’s all the more potent. And with its bull head it lacks all the softness and emotion that comes with a face. The Minotaur is man removed from humanity, from civilization. According to mythology, the Minotaur itself is a sad figure, almost tragic. He’s the offspring of the Queen of Crete and an actual bull. In her defence, she was enchanted by Aphrodite. He was cast into a labyrinth by his stepfather, fed a diet of captured humans, and eventually killed by hero Theseus.
So famous is the story of the Minotaur that Microsoft Word autocorrects it, capitalizing the name “Minotaur”. Which is a pain if you’re writing about minotaurs in D&D.
This is one way D&D (and fantasy fiction) separates itself from mythology. There is not a Minotaur, there are the minotaurs. In earlier editions, minotaurs were a group suffering under a divine cursed, all male but in the world of Dragonlance minotaurs are a race, descended from ogres but differing from standard minotaurs due to being medium sized and having feet instead of hooves. D&D takes a single creature and makes them legion, so an adventuring party can defeat one time and time again. Given the design of 4e, not only was it likely a party would fight more than one minotaur during their career, but they might even face multiple minotaurs in a single encounter.
But does D&D lose something by its focus on ecology and the reproduction of monsters, by having each monster be one of many? Does moving away from unique creatures remove some of the mythical feel from the game?
Why the Change?
Let’s start by addressing the related question: why are most singular monsters species in D&D? The answer is fairly simple. The monsters of classic mythology are the superstars of the monster world. Mythology has set the bar for heroism and everyone wants to see how they compare: everyone wants to kill the Minotaur or see if they can do better against the hydra than Hercules.
While WotC (and TSR before it) might like to believe their Intellectual Property is second to none it simply cannot compete with monsters created and distilled across centuries of stories from the myths and legends of dozens of cultures. While I adore many D&D beasties, but the Minotaur and hydra and medusa are memorable in ways the Mind Flayer, beholder, ettercap and owlbear can never be (going with some personal favourites for that example). Non-gamers - young and old - are familiar with the medusa or the sphinx. While an Illithid might instantly grab the attention and evoke familiar feelings (due to its similarities with Cthulhu), it is just not known to the uninitiated. New gamers, those who have not snuck a peek through the Monster Manual, won’t react to it any differently to an Illithid than they would a displacer beast, mimic, or even a flumph.
There’s actually an interesting learning curve to monsters in the game. Experienced players know if an Illithid or beholder shows up they better bring their A-game while rookies will laugh at the absurd floating beach ball covered in eyestalks (while the really experience players - at least of those familiar with the last two editions - will know DMs typically only use level appropriate monsters and just charge in).
Benefits of Species
There are a few benefits of graduating monsters from unique status to races. First, there’s the aforementioned chance for different players to face the same foe. There’s also the opportunity to increase the stakes and double the number of monsters. Stuff gets real when in the middle of a pitched battle with a hydra its mate shows up.
There’s also the opportunity for variants. Mythological monsters are a known commodity: you decapitate a hydra and burn the stumps. But if you suddenly throw a pyrohydra at the party then the standard tactics have to be abandoned and new strategies formed. This evil surprise only works if the traits of the creature are well known.
Players are not the only ones at the table with favourite monsters. DMs also have beloved beast they love to throw at parties. If owlbears were unique and the result of a singular magical experiment than DMs who love them some bear-owl hybrids would only be able to use them once per campaign setting. Multiple campaigns in the same world would gradually reduce the pool of potential monsters. This goes double for published campaign settings, where DMs might conceivably have to consider adventures and novels. Has there been a hydra featured prominently in the Forgotten Realms? While DMs should always be encouraged to make worlds their own (your own private Forgotten Realms) not everyone wants that. Some people like being part of a larger shared experience.
Sometimes you don’t want a monster to be unique. Random encounters are meant to be forgettable diversions. Having to come up with a backstory for an incidental filler encounter is unnecessary busy work.
There are also a few benefits from species that come from problems with unique monsters.
First, unique monsters can also be a bit of a narrative crutch. This comes down to the first rule of writing: show not tell. If a monster is The Monster then you’re not showing it being special, you’re telling the players that it’s special. If a monsters a monster then more work needs to be done to make it memorable, which means you need show more (additionally, as the first rule of good DMing is involve not show, then demonstrating why the monster is memorable should include some interaction). Just having a bugbear appear in a battle doesn’t make it interesting. The bugbear needs more to be more than an easily dispatched random encounter.
Second, there’s no reason needed to explain where the monster came from. The hydra terrorizing the swamp came from a mommy hydra and a daddy hydra who loved each other very much. No origin story is needed, no history or mythology. That particular monster might have a history, but in the same way a humanoid villain has a history.
Benefits of Uniques
There are a number of benefits to having monsters be unique and special. Most of these are related to the desired tone of the campaign.
First, there’s the inherent name value that comes from singular monsters. If you kill unique monster, the characters become instant legends. For those wanting a more mythological campaign, one that is less fantastic, this helps maintain that tone. It’s an excuse to allow the Player Characters to develop a reputation and become recognised. Those are the adventures bards sing songs about.
Likewise, in a lower magic world, monstrous species might be rarer and more creatures might be unique. This doesn’t mean the PCs are fighting fewer monsters; Solomon Kane (or Buffy the Vampire Slayer) never lacked creatures to kill, there was the implication monsters were the anomaly, variations on the norm. You never read a story where Conan enters a new kingdom and nothing interesting happens or watch an episodes where the Doctor lands the TARDIS where he’d planned and has some uneventful sightseeing. The PCs just happen into the rare and unique monsters, either due to luck, destiny, or being the only people fool enough to walk through the horrible bog or horribleness.
Being the ones to face unique monstrosities helps differentiate the heroes. In a world where any town guard might be called on to kill orcs or defend against a manticore the PCs might be better but not necessarily special. In contrast, if the worst the town constabulary has to ward against is bandits while the heroes are fighting the Chimera then the heroes are something rare indeed.
With unique creatures, there’s also the benefit of not having to worry about the ecology of monsters: where they live, how the land can support families, how they breed, etc. Having been reading my 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual lately, it’s impressive how many monsters were antisocial and pair up just to breed and then forsake their kind once again. There’s the understated question of why these solitary creatures with strictly enforced territory several miles across don’t end up dying out because they never see another of their kind.
Unique monsters also helps justify why the world isn’t completely overrun. If it takes roughly a dozen battles for the PCs to level up then there are 12 solo-monsters at each level.
Not defaulting every monster being part of a species means those that are members of a race have a reason to be so: it means something and the fill a role in the world. Even assuming many extraplanar threats, there still must be well over two-hundred monsters in the world, half of which are above level 10 and able to destroy villages. Why haven’t those hundred horrors wiped out every living soul on the planet under 10th level? If most of them are unique, then it’s because most of them know they’re alone against an entire region or kingdom of people. But if there are a dozen, then banding together for an afternoon of genocide seems logical.
There are a LOT of monsters in D&D. There are no shortage of new creatures to pit against even seasoned players. Having some monsters be “unavailable” due to having been killed in an earlier campaign forces a DM to try new monsters and move out of a comfortable groove. Rather than just go with the most recognisable monster of appropriate CR and level the DM has to look a little deeper.
Unique monsters deserve unique stories. If there’s only one ettercap or choker in the world then why does it exist? How does its appearance and abilities reflect its origin? This is a great way to get the flavour of a world across. There’s only one dragon in Dark Sun and it exists for a reason, and it’s background is tied to the entire history of the setting. Sometimes this is easier than others, but if every monster is unique it’s hard for them to remain unique without eventual narrative overlap. Unless your gods are incredibly fickle and vindictive, not every monster should be the result of a divine curse. Likewise, being the result of a mad wizard’s experiments is a valid origin once or maybe twice.
It’s good to occasionally stop and challenge your assumptions regarding a world or trope of a game, stopping to wonder if it still works or it’s a remnant of prior assumptions best discarded. This goes double when planning a new campaign or building a new fantasy world.
Are minotaurs a species? Maybe. But maybe not. Even if they’re not a true species, that doesn’t mean there’s only one solitary minotaur. Each minotaur might be unique, but there might be many. If the gods cursed one man for his sins with the form of a half-beast, why not curse others? It might be a standardized curse - just because they’re a god doesn’t mean they’re inventive.
But remembering to at least ask the question is a good lesson.
Friday, January 4, 2013, 4:10 PM
A convention of D&D campaign worlds and much fantasy fiction is the great metropolitan capital, the focal trade-city and hub of the continent, which is often a nation unto itself. This only somewhat reflects reality: there are many great cities in the world but few tend to be city-states, which predate the medieval periods D&D bases itself on. Large cities tend to be a rarity in the medieval world, having size limitations.
And yet every D&D setting has some large city. Greyhawk takes its name from the central Free City of that setting. Dragonlance has Palanthas, the Forgotten Realms has Waterdeep (and others), Eberron has Sharn, and so on. Planescape has Sigil. The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories have Lankhmar and the Discworld novels have Ankh-Morpork. The excellent Ptolus mega-book is almost entirely a city and related dungeon. Even Dark Sun, where all civilization is a series of city-states, has Tyr standing out as the centerpiece. It's almost expected that there will be a large metropolis for urban adventures, so this warrants it's own chapter in this series.
There are a number of online tools and referneces that might help. Medieval Demographics Made Easy and The Domesday Book are handy. WotC released the book Cityscape as one of their 3e environment series. And while working for Fantasy Flight Games Mike Mearls wrote the book on designing cities, called City Works (well worth the $20 if you plan on seriously designing a city for an urban campaign).
This is the eighth part in a series on fantasy world building.
Below are links to the other chapters in this series.
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Factors
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Room for monsters
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Factions
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player's Guide
Placement of Cities
Placing cities was covered in the Nations chapter, but I'll reiterate quickly.
City placement requires some thought thought as cities have large fresh water and food requirements, and are frequently built on rivers for that reason. Given you cannot farm inside a city, large cities are dependent on the surrounding countryside, which is often a network of satellite farms and villages. As a loose rule, cities need twice their space in farmland.
As they grow, large cities expand onto the surrounding arable land. Thus very large cities are either exceedingly rich and able to import all the food they need (but are vulnerable to sieges), part of empires that can ship food to the capital, or are surrounded by large stretches of truly rich farming land. Thia is one of the reasons many cities expand up rather than out to avoid building atop farmland. In a fantasy world cities might expand even higher (see Sharn), or out into water, or even down into the ground.
Defence is a big issue for cities. Prior to gunpowder, walls were a reliable and necessary defence against assault; rocky areas have stone walls, forested areas would have palisades, arid lands have clay or adobe walls, and plains have man-made hills. Castles and fortified keeps were kept close on the most defensible nearby location, often atop cliffs or upon bluffs. These would often be a short distance away from the city, having to balance proximity with defence. Sometimes these distant castles become surrounded by the city as it grows, as was the case in Edinburgh.
Capitals tend to be in a central location, acting as a hub for communication with messengers equally able to reach all corners of the nation. Settlements at the edge of territories lack the land buffer to ready defenses, making those cities vulnerable to sacking. Trade cities are located near borders, along trade routes, or by the coast, although coastal trade cites tend to be a short distance upstream from the actual harbour for defensive reasons, but like all cities these expand and often end up absorbing their harbour satellite.
Cities also form in strategic location and need not be important for military reasons, and instead might be trade cities if set on a choke point. Larger nations often have important cities necessary for providing goods, such as mining or quarrying towns. The settlement might have grown and serve other purposes, such as processing and smelting the raw materials prior to shipping.
Layout of a City
Modern cities tend to be build on a grid, as it is easy to navigate. This is a feature of planned communities with the luxury of time and money needed to both plan ahead and work around the terrain such as uncooperative hills, gullies, and trees. Medieval cities tend to not be built on a grid, with streets growing and connecting organically. Wide straight roads are also easier for invaders to navigate and travel, making them a potential liability. And with cars being exceedingly rare, city streets seldom need to accommodate anything larger than a horse. Large cities are often unplanned. Small towns might be planned to a point, but often lack the time and money to smooth rough terrain and cut dense foliage, not when they could just build around. Thus, the terrain guides the layout. Until someone wealthy enough notices the prime real estate that just needs to be cleared.
Due to location and luck, some towns grow wealthy and expand until they reach their neighbors, becoming a single city. This plays havoc with layout as the streets of two or more towns suddenly intersect. As mentioned earlier, large cities frequently have satellite communities that provide food (grains and meats) to the larger city. As large cities expand, they often amalgamate the closer satellite communities, which adds to the mismatched feel to city streets.
In a small town, important buildings tend to be centralized. The main street or village square design. Cities aren't that different, but because of their origins they might have two or three centers. It often becomes handy to separate and segregate the centers, with business being on one center and government or religion in another. Alternatively, one center may expand into a single sprawling downtown.
These are pretty huge generalities and lots of factors could change things. A fire might gut part of the town allowing it to be redesigned from scratch. A ruler might demolish the city for similar reasons. A city built on a river might join with the city on the other side but not overlap. A planned city might be built overtop the ruins of a sacked city. A few kings have even built whole cities from scratch.
Designing a City
Where you start in designing a settlement depends on its size and your needs. For a small town the heroes are just passing through all you need is a name, maybe an inn, and the standard list of random names in case the PCs strike up a conversation. For someplace the PCs might have an adventure or two, some kind description or memorable feature helps. Something so they can describe it later as "the place with the _____." However, for a town that will be the base of operations for the players or serves some other important or memorable role, knowing the layout (or at least a list of places) is handy.When designing a city that will see a lot of use a little extra work can make all the difference.
I recommend starting with the reason the town exists. Settlements don’t exist without reason. People don’t decide to spend months breaking ground on a new town “just because” nor do people move to that town for similar reasons. They don’t do it in the real world and they certainly don’t do it in a fantasy world with monsters around every corner lurking in every dark space, not when they have the safety and shelter of other established towns. So why are people there? Is there ore? A ready supply of lumber? Good ranching or farmland? Was the area very defendable? Is it between two (or more) other towns making it a useful rest stop? Is there a fresh water oasis? Is there some unique nearby feature such as a freshwater spring, geyser, or waterfall? Did god speak to the founder and tell him to settle there?
From there, pick the terrain and loosely sketch out what the ground looked like. Decide where the hills and dips were and where the heavy brush was. This step can be skipped if you want a very planned city, but it adds a nice organic feel. You don’t need to draw every house (and likely shouldn’t) but you can mark where major structures would originally be and sketch the major roads, likely with busier roads connecting the major landmarks. If you’re doing a small town just expand the city wherever it’s easiest, stopping when the town looks large enough.
As always, scale and numbers are important. Don’t forget to establish how large you want your settlement to be before you start, in terms of both population and geography. A good estimate for the average house size of a medieval home would be fifteen to twenty feet. Mostly due to the size limits of timbers for overhead and support beams. Nails and rope needed to tie beams together for larger houses would be a complicated procedure requiring some skill and more help, so it would only be done for wealthier folk or communal buildings.
The average village would have a couple hundred people in it, with fifty to a hundred buildings. People in towns frequently lived where they work, sleeping above shops or in the back rooms. Towns have a few thousand people in them, again with five-hundred to a thousand buildings. Cities have around ten thousand people, while big cities would top off in the hundred thousand range. 200,000 would be massive by medieval standards and millions would be inconceivable. The 130,000 of Waterdeep puts it as the equal of Medieval Venice and far larger than medieval London or Paris, and the Free City of Greyhawk is a reasonable 70,000. Palanthas is a modest 32,000 but Krynn is a mite smaller than other campaign settings.
Two final things to consider when designing a town are the trades present and the settlement’s demographics. These can get a little finicky and can also make-or-break the verisimilitude of a town.
People need places to get clothings, food, tools, and other goods they cannot make themselves. Very small towns might only have a general store while everyone makes their own clothes and grows most of their own food. Other towns might rely on annual or seasonal visits from traders bringing needed goods. Larger towns have more specialization, as there becomes enough people that it’s easier to focus on one profession and trade for what you need.
The tropes of D&D help with this, as PCs need to buy weapons, repair gear, and generally restock. The needs of the game and expecting starting gear help establish a baseline of what should be available somewhere, and its absence should be deliberate. There should always be a longsword somewhere in town. Even if there is not weapon shoppe or smithy, there might be a former guard who has an extra blade or someone whose father was a member of the army and has the sword tucked away in the attic, but s willing to sell it for a price.
There won’t be every available profession represented in a small town and most villages are not going to support someone who does not work or earn their keep: folk might rely on “the next town over” for certain goods. A farming town middle of nowhere might not have a dedicated blacksmith as there might not be enough ore to employ one full time; each farmer might do their own smithing or there might be a part time smith.
For example, a town of one-hundred likely does not have a shoemaker despite everyone needing shoes. Even if it takes him two days to make a pair of good boots (which seems long even if he’s curing his own leather and spinning his own thread) he’ll have made one pair for every inhabitant of the town in eight months and a spare pair in sixteen months. People will not be wearing out boots fast enough for him to remain employed for more than a year and a half. But in a small city of five-hundred, there’s likely enough people to employ a couple shoemakers, especially with passing trade.
Demographics are similar, in that they require some thought but get nitpicky quickly. While this blog is all about making a detailed Top Down campaign setting, going too deep into demographics is likely overkill. You don’t need to know how many children or seniors are in a town. But demographics are something to keep in mind, but only to avoid anomalies.
In real world terms demographics would be the breakdown of genders and ages. Typical women outnumber men by a hair. Fantasy kingdoms and settlements have the added wrinkle of demihuman races. In addition to knowing how many people are in a town, it’s handy to know how many elves, dwarves, dragonborn, and the like are in the town.
For example, a small town of 150 people is unlikely to have more than a handful of people of different races. There might be a family or two, but not many for the obvious reason of breeding: the family is going to last a single generation before the children need to go off to find mates or they die alone and childless. If you try and squeeze a token elf, halfling, dwarf, gnome, dragonborn, half-orc, tiefling, deva, shifter, and goliath family of 2.5 (half of them have a child) into the town, that eats-up a seventh of the total population of the village. It’s fine to have a small family of elves living with humans, but there should be a reason, there should be a story there.
Features of a City
Just having a town complete with buildings, known businesses, a map, and a rough idea of population does not make for a living breathing fantasy location. What defines a city is everything else. Specifically, things like landmarks, local features, events, and the like. What is the town known for? Are their any local customs or fairs? Local superstitions or legends?
A city’s memorable features might be constructed, such as a large bridge the town came together to build across the river, or natural objects, such as a massive tree thirty feet wide or massive boulder at the center of town, or even relics from a bygone age such as a ring of standing stones or the massive head of a fallen statue long whose body has long since crumbled to rubble.
A few options include places for people recreate such as parks and wild areas, but also amphitheatres, theaters, brothels, or coliseums. There might be monuments, such as dedications to past wars or famous residents, or royal memorials such as armies of clay soldiers, giant pyramids, or bronze statues. There should also be places of worship, both small shrines, modest churches, and a few grand cathedrals. Don’t forget graveyards. While these are often outside or at the edge the main town, larger cities frequently surround and engulf their old graveyards.
Given the fantasy setting, don’t forget places of objects of mystery. Inspiration can be gathered from some real world sites such as Stonehenge or the assorted massive works seen in the Lord of the Rings movies. These can enigmatic yet magical objects such as a massive stone tor of perfectly smooth rock with no sign of tool marks or entrances, statues of a forgotten king whose expression changes with the season or the nature of the onlooker, rocky cairns from an unknown era with pictographs of strange people and unfamiliar gods, or a pillar of fire that consumes no fuel and never goes out regardless of the weather.
A unique feature of urban campaigns is the possibility of courtly strife and politics. So when designing your city, remember Step 2: Conflict. Where is the conflict in the city? Who hates who? This doesn’t just apply to feuding noble houses but also competing merchant companies, rival guilds, and opposed churches. In the lower quarter,there might be rival gangs or tension between smugglers and the law. As always, think about where there might be adventure. Think about who the movers and shakers might be, and possible patrons for adventurers.
Metropolis in War World
I'll describe a couple settlements for my continuing example campaign setting of War World. I'll be using the northern mercantile nation of Firaxies for both. There is the smaller crossroad town of Lamres and the bustling port capital of Nespirc.
I didn’t write much on Firaxies, unnamed until this blog, so I’ll reiterate what is known, for myself as much as readers. It’s a nation of merchants that is plutocracy (the rich rule). I’ll further refine this as an autocratic plutocracy (i.e. no slaves) with a theocratic background that is still present. Tying things together is always nice, so I’ll use my previous article on gods and connect this nation with Sampait, god of wealth and merchants. The nation literally worships wealth and the richest rule directly. I thought about making this a republic with only the wealthy voting, but I like the idea of non-idle rich who actively rule. The wealthy of Firaxies are not people of leisure, and decadence like Kaledon, for they know there is innumerable poor folk hungry for wealthy and eager to depose them and take their place among the rich elite.
I’ll start with the smaller crossroad town of Lamres. I picked this town, as I designed Firacies around its southern river - which serves a quick natural highway - then connected the cities with roads. I placed a city (Lamres) at the intersection of a couple roads: being roughly a day’s travel from two of the towns it would be where people stopped to rest and eat overnight.
When planning the town I drew the roads first and then added a few buildings where the road intersected. I randomly drew where the thick forests happened to be. Then I added the second wave of housing. The town continues to grow along the road but also expands outward, moving first into the clear spaces between the woods.
A note before I continue, I’m not drawing individual houses so much as blocks or groups of houses, connecting or with alleys in-between. I’m trying to quickly get the overall layout of the town, not give it a full map. This should be a large town with five times as many homes as it looks like my map will show.
Next, I expand out even farther, now going into the treeline as people view the extra work of clearing the land as an investment, rather than building even farther away from the center of town. From there the city expands once again, continuing along the road but also finishing construction over the trees.
Now, onto some landmarks and features.
The buildings along the main road would be the businesses that appeal most to travellers. Food, shelter, places to restock and rest. Taverns, inns, caravan yards and the like. The actual heart of town might be off to the side, where it’s quieter and there are less visitors. This is where the government buildings would be, smaller businesses that cater to the locals, and the like. I’ll call that “main street” opposed to the busier “market row”. At the key real estate of the junction of the main highways I’ll put a small park and monument. Something big and expensive to show off how impressive the town is to travellers.
I’ll put the richer part of town to the south. It was initially at the edge and erected during the third wave of construction, when the town became noteworthy enough to warrant the wealthy living there (and for the older families to build newer properties). Since then more housing has recently gone up to the south, also wealthy homes creating a division between the “old money” and the “newer money” across the road. Socializing “across the road” is mildly inappropriate and saying someone did is a local insult.
The lower end of town is to the north. I gave it a colourful name. It’s the housing that continued to build in the cleared area, when townsfolk were effluent enough to clear forest. Everyone who couldn’t afford a better home instead built in the Tangle, which is less organized and planned.
That's more than enough for a quick location. This isn’t a vital place, and while it has become a large town, it’s still just a town most people just pass through. It should feel like that: not particularly memorable yet fairly familiar. If I were going to have my PCs intersect more with the town I'd name the inn and stores, but keep them deliberately generic. The Red Dragon Inn and such.
If this were meant to be a more important local, such as the launch point of an adventure or place to regularly refuel between adventures I'd give it more memorable features. For example, Lamres is in light woodland I'll suited for crops yet likely good land for orchards. Grains are rarer, but fruits are common. It's fairly northernly (Nova Scotia / Portland) so apples might grow well ( as well as cherries and plums). This means it's a cider town. The wealthy like their brandy by everyone else gets hard cider. The local inns are known for their varieties and house blends of cider. Beer is an expensive luxury from a couple towns over. Suddenly Lamres isn't "that place" but "that place with the cider."
Moving onto the capital. Nespirc was built along the river, where the mouth opens into the ocean.
The river turns before it reaches the sea, so there’s likely some higher terrain at the bend. This would be a defensible hill, so I’ll be starting with a village there, as well as a couple fishing villages on either side of the river’s mouth. It’s a swift river (two large rivers combined) so there’s likely a noticeable river valley. However, it’s not quite cliffs, as the nation is in the rain shadow of the mountains. At this point in the sketching, there’s won’t be housing down by the edge of the river where the ground is rougher and steeper.
Trade comes down the river, both wood and ore, so the city becomes a good hub. People sail there to buy goods, so the fishing villages grow and become wealthy. Defended against costal raids, the village on the nearby bluff also grows. Traders set up shop. Mercantile companies are established. The ports grow.
There’s no natural harbour, so the city would rely on docks along the river. Another smaller satellite springs up offering alternate docking on the other side of the river. At this point, the two eastern towns likely flirt with amalgamation, and the western settlements might be convinced to join over the next few years. And thus a city is born.
While not on the below maps, the city would be wealthy enough and worried enough of raiders that it would fortify itself. There’s ore and rock coming from downstream and the city has money, so this fortification is likely a stone wall quarried and shipped to the city. The wall initially surrounds the eastern city, but a second wall is built around the western settlements, as they slowly agree to join the city. (If there was a wall surrounding the city on the hill, it would be torn down at this point to help make the newer more secure wall.
From there the city hits critical mass. Houses explode within the safety of the walls, even in the rougher ravine of the river valley. Then more housing is built along the outside of the walls.
With the city now being a true city more and more people flock to the safety it provides. As mentioned in an earlier blog, the nation of Firaxies is a neutral nation that acts as arms merchants for the other nations. It’s one of the few places not at open war, which attracts many people who are tired of war and battle. Refugees, artists, objectors, and pacifists from across the continent. The city balloons in size.
Swollen but wealthy, the city constructs even more walls. It knows its wealth and that the city is a target to its southern neighbours. While it is too remote to be easily assaulted, the city does not want to be too tempting by leaving itself undefended.
Adding some names to the city I make the older areas of one of the towns the government offices. As the town has a distinct religious slant, I also have a number of churches nearby. The largest is likely the cathedral to Sampait but there are likely a number of other churches to the other gods or the entire pantheon. Surrounding that is the “Old Town” where they money lives. The rent and taxes are high to keep out the riffraff, but it’s the place to live. Everyone aspires to live in Old Town.
To the north of that is the original docks, and surrounding that is likely a glut of warehouses (to store goods being shipped elsewhere). The offices of most of the trading companies and the like would be nearby, but a safe distance from the docks themselves.
Between the old wall and the newer wall is the stretches of New Town. There’d be a number of small markets and sub-districts here. This is likely divided among species, with a “little elfland” and “halfling town”. Near one of the gates would be the local market, for out of towners to shop and buy and were smaller traders sell their goods. This would be the great bazaar of the city. It starts out cheap closest to New Town and the gates (growing more illicit the farther away from the main road) but grows all the more pricey as it nears the walls of Old Town where the expensive stores and goods are sold.
On the other side of the river we have much of the industrial businesses. The refinery has been collectively moved close to the old docks, where the ore can be unloaded and processed then the runoff dumped in the river where no one will drink it (or no one wealthy). From there the ore is moved back upstream to the vast smithy that has replaced the small satellite community that makes the arms and armour Firaxies is known for.
As the weaponry is made and limited to the west side of the river, weaponry can be controlled on the wealthier east side of the river. Carrying a sword requires permission and a licence (to keep them out of the hands of the poor and servants) and weapons are typically peace bound. However, on the western side of the city, weapon laws have to be a little more looser with so many are being made and tested, so it’s a little more common.
Sadly, the slums of the city are also on the west side, making sword violence fairly common there. The Alleys, as the slums are known, are cheap houses constructed in the easily cleared land just inside the newest wall but between the still forested sections (likely wild parkland now, as it was easier to build the wall around the small forest than cut through the woods). Like New Town, there’s likely some ethnic or racial neighbourhoods here. The neighbourhood south of the forest is likely lower income but not quite as bad as the Alleys.
By the Old Docks, there’s some old town that’s likely home to fishermen, sailors, and dock workers. It’s the place for labourers, with many taverns and inns closer to the water. Being a trade town there would be a lot of temporary residents living here, and the population would shift depending on the season. "The Seaan District empties with the tides." Its a rough part of town but honest in a Blue Collar kind of way. Folk are poorer but all have jobs and no one goes hungry. The old wall cuts the labourer Seaman District in half, but I don’t see this as being more than superficial division: every home beside the wall has a ladder on the roof. The guards stopped trying to reinforce use of the gates long ago and just let people pass as they please. There is likely a problem with drunk people not quite making the full journey and falling off ladders, which is likely a local joke: “taking a tumble from the wall” (or “taking a tumble” for short) refers to being drunk. "Crossing the wall" refers to going home.
As I forgot about drawing in walls until late in my design process there was a small anomaly in my design: I had a large gap which ended up inside the wall (aka the first place people build) that I had few people building on. Rather than just let it slide as a mistake, I decided to embrace that goof and that area became the necropolis.
To justify it being the sole graveyard and so far from the original towns, I’m saying this was an ancient graveyard that predated the founding of any of the towns. The land naturally has some form of hallowed properties that keep the number of restless dead down (although the reasons for this are unknown). And so all the villages burried their dead there, until the last few centuries.
The necropolis is now quite full and is riddled with catacombs and cairns that date back centuries or even millennia. After the ground was filled up the wealthy knocked over gravestones and just built mausoleums to inter their dead above ground (with plaques representing the former headstones to hopefully avoid upsetting any restless spirits).
For a citywide hook, the phrase "everything's for sale in Nespirc" works and emphasised the mercantile nature, as does "everything in Nespirc has a price." It's the place to find anything. But everything has a cost in one way or another. There are information brokers, sages that sell their knowledge, drugs, prostitution, and the like.
Life in the city is expensive. Whie slavery is likely one of the few illegalities, debt and indentured servitude are not. People fall into debt and are forced to work for their debt holders, with debt transferred like currency. I can see this becoming foralized quickly. First it's word of mouth ("I give you this 100gp debt" or "I'll exchange half of Greiner's debt to me") and then paper, and finally something else. Something passed around the wealthy like currency. Magical scrolls inititially spring to mind, but they I started thinking glass beads: they are easy to wear and pass between people, and enchanted so the signer knows who holds it and the wearer can look through the beas and see the signer. More expensive ones might have defenses against theft. I'm going with beads as making them physical means they're also fashion statement and makes them a descriptive element. Nespircian merchants are identified by their beads and you can set the tone of the city with noblemen buying things with beads as much as gold. It's memorable.
Briefly thinking conflict, I'll have racial gangs in The Alleys (elven and kenku). There is a division a,of the laborers, typically between the dwarves (long employed in the smithies and shelters) and humans, with discussion of guilds and unions. There will be a number of thieves guilds of course, reflecting the existence of that background in the core rules. As the rich rule, there'd be a continued struggle for financial power, weathy nobel families and guilds competing and struggling to advance. The church would be a wealthy landowner and formidable power, but no longer the sole ruler. While they are but the fifth most wealthy organization in the kingdom, they are also the most stable. A strong economy needs some stability.
And that’s some thoughts on designing a city. This is a topic you could quite literally write a book on, so this blog just scratches the surface of the topic. But it’s enough to work with.
You don’t need to follow all the steps, especially if you want to explore the city with the players, making it up as you go along. But for those of you making a settlement ahead of time from scratch, I hope this helps.
I personally like the creative touches that happen when you design how things might naturally go and then have to react to that design. Such as the gap in my map becoming the graveyard, or the wall dividing a district and thinking about what that might mean for the inhabitants. It’s small unique touches that sell the city as a place and not just some names on a map.
Check out my webcomic at its new url: www.5mwd.com
Wednesday, December 26, 2012, 5:50 PM
It's review time. I refer of course to the end of December surprise of one last playtest package before the end of the year. This would be our fourth real package, excluding the small updates with added an extra class or two to the mix. This time we have the full 1-20 level range of for five classes.
It seems like as good a time as any to really look at the playtest package and the playtest process in general.
Let’s start with the biggest addition to the playtest package, the one rule that makes me most happy: the addition of falling damage. I swear, this came up a half-dozen times in my playtests and I always bounced between d6 and d10 damage.
Wizards of the Coast has been managing this public playtest for roughly seven months, since the first package was released back in late May. We’ve seen some ups and downs and some changes to how the design has been approached.One thing that has not changes is the reaction-seeking nature of the playtest.
The MO of the paytest is that changes are introduced with the intent of garnering feedback less than testing the actual mechanics. The designers are using the playtest as a means of eliciting design and game feedback. Such as the 3rd package’s deliberate nerf of sneak attack and rogue damage to see how forgiving people were regarding classes having differing combat effectiveness. This most recent playtest also has a lot more dead levels and very few additional powers at high level, likely to see how many people want continual advancement at higher levels or if players will be more satisfied with a plateauing of options and powers. Likewise, changes such as skill dice, high level spells like wish returning, and meteor swarm having such a long range are likely included to illicit as strong a reaction as possible, to gather feedback and see exactly how many (and much) people care.
It’s undoubtedly effective. People will react, either strongly and vocally or through silence and ambivalence. This provides a strong answer, likely more than polling the audience. But it feels manipulative, as we (the fans) are being deliberately poked to see what our reaction will be. And because the poking begins at an extreme it potentially increases the number of vocal detractors; people that would be okay with a more middle-ground approach or would not have notice suddenly disagree with the direction the playtest seems to be going.
A sad side effect of regularly provoking a response is that the playtest is burning a lot of bridges. Rather than seeing a refinement or improvement, the playtest seems to lurch to various extremes, reguarly and repeatedly infuriating players with each iteration. Hopefully they’ll return and see the later packages, but many people will not realize the incremental and provocative nature of the test and decide 5e is not heading in a direction they enjoy and walk away.
The above also means that we’re being given a product to test that’s not actually in a testable state, because the rules are not what are being evaluated. It’s a little like testing rats to see how the run a maze to see how the maze is designed versus testing how rats in a maze react to mild electric shocks.
At the end of the day, after a month of testing, little feedback on the rogue was relevant as most would relate to its lesser damage output compared to the fighter. The benefits of mass public playtesting – having 80,000 people looking at the balance and problem areas of the game – are lost.
Following-up on the previous point, after a year of design, very little has emerged as consistent. The fighter has radically changed with each package, and the rogue has been heavily overhauled in the last two packages. And the cleric and wizard have also been revised to some extent. After half a year, potentially a third of the length of the playtest before work needs to be finalized, nothing has yet been solidified.
This is problematic. While the early stage should be one of refining and seeing what works, to design the best game eventually designers have to stop designing and start balancing and finetuning. Are the classes perfect? No. But they never will be. Ever. They designed 4e for three years, continually tweaking classes, and were still able to overhaul the design for Essentials and again for the later builds. You can continue designing, tweaking, and revising a game forever. Even if you get it as close as possible, if it takes too long what people want out of a game will change and the game will no longer be perfect. This is why some video games are never released: the designers want everything to be perfect but it never can be.
This was one of the big problems with 4e: the designers never stopped designing long enough for the game to settle into a truly testable state. This is the state where they could notice the smaller more subtle problem areas. Problems like the failed monster math, game tables not getting larger to accommodate Epic-powers, paladins running from enemies to abuse their mark, and the broken nature of the skill system. If testers are distracted learning how sneak attack works this package they’ll never notice abuses of subtle problems in time for them to be fixed. And not just fixed, but re-fixed. Fixes always, always need to be tested to make sure they don't go too far or make things too complicated.
This isn’t a real problem yet. But this should be the focus of the last six months of the playtest in the second half of 2013. Major changes and additions should just STOP and the focus becomes making the game actually work. Ideally, given the modular focus of the game, it would make sense to finish solidifying the core earlier - such as the middle of 2013 - and then test rues modules for the last couple packages.
Games tend to have a design focus. 4e designers really focused on being the best tactical combat resource management game it could be. Everything that was not part of that focus was set aside as “good enough” as then design moved elsewhere. You can already see this happening with 5e, with the focus on classes being the best representation of that class. There have been some small tweaks to other aspects, but for the most part other elements haven’t changed. A good example of this is races, which have only seen minor, minor changes since the first package.
If any part of the playtest were to be seen as “done” it would be races, which haven’t changed in any serious way since the first package. (As mentioned above, this is likely because the continually shifting classes are taking the majority of the design time and taking attention away from the rest of the game.) I think dwarven poison immunity became resistance and skills were added but that’s about it. I’m mostly okay with race design, but some elements do need work.
The lack of regular skill bonuses seems glaring, especially after skills crept their way into the base assumptions of the game. A couple races (dwarves and elves) get free training, which is nice but not that great, as the default system does not let you pick your skills (more on this when I talk about backgrounds). Elves and dwarves are not better at their skill, they’re just trained. Which seems odd. I’d like a return to bonuses, which are simple as you can do the math on your character sheet once. It's not something you need to worry about every time you roll. You can imagine elves getting a bonus to spot and listen, either static or having the skill dice improving one step.
Most races seem to only get a single stat boost, which seems low. Personally I’d like one base stat boost and a second tied to subrace. All dwarves should have a good Con, but the subrace could boost Wisdom or Strength.
Dwarves I’m not a huge fan of dwarves only having low-light vision. I never saw the point of that change. They live underground and thirty years of fiction has them seeing in the dark, they should have darkvision. It’s not that huge of a power increase. Given the short range of darkvision, they'll need torches for large cavernous chambers anyway.
Elves Elven Weapon Training is kinda useless for high elves, the go-to wizard race, as wizards lack proficiency with those weapons. This is the opposite of 3e, where elves granted proficiency which was nice for wizards but useless for everyone else. It might be nice to double down and have Weapon Training grant proficiency OR increase the damage die if you already have proficiency.
Halflings I still think stout halfings (hobbits) and lightfoot halflings (kender) have the wrong abilities: hobbits are stealthy burglars while kender are fearless handlers. The stout Fearless ability does not seem particularly useful. Spending an action to remove frightened is a steep penalty, especially when they could just attack and use Lucky to reroll the lower die. The frightened condition also only applies to attacks and checks, making it not as detrimental to spellcasters and with its Charisma bonus the stout halfling is better suited to being a spellcaster.
Humans Boooooring and yet overpowered. Why wasn’t this race completely redesigned three packages ago? Especially now that other races have skill bonuses. I still dislike the idea that the average human is just as agile as the average elf, as tough as the average dwarf, etc.
It’s hard to say anything about the classes that won’t be redundant in a couple weeks (if not already redundant as WotC provokes a reaction to confirm what they already suspect).
The latest package introduces high level play which is most decadently... non-Epic. The power level feels very restrained upon reading, but perhaps it plays differently. Classes seem to get very few new powers, not even getting improved versions of their powers. It’s hard to evaluate how well this works without knowing WotC’s plans. Are they thinking of a “Epic Module” like Pathfinder's Mythic Adventures rules, which will add epic to all levels? We already know there's a Legacy system that might do something simmilar, and Prestige Classes might affect tone. But there's so many other options. Is this just to test balance by aiming low and working up until the system breaks? Are they seeing how epic fans want high level play to be? Will there more Epic content for levels 21+?
I’m especially saddened by the lack of capstone abilities and the sheer number of dead levels. This hurts. While those are very easy to add – as we have been told via a Google chat – it doesn’t make the game any less unimpressive to test. Dead levels are an overly visible gap, a flaw that will continually attract attention away from other less visible problems.
Cleric The big change in this package is the inclusion of martial dice, which is likely a continued attempt to see how far they can push that mechanic into non-fighter territory. While clerics are a potentially melee-heavy class, the dice don’t seem well-suited to every cleric. A robed priestly cleric that relies on spells won't use them, so they might be more suited as a bonus tied to domains. Having the martial dice be an option tied to deities works, leaving a gap in other domains that shouldn't be too hard to fill; granting additional bonus powers at higher levels would take some of the differentiation of domains away from Channel Divinity, which has become a bit of a catch-all.
Right now, the Channel Divinity are too combat focused lacking any fluff, the worst example of 4e power design. For example, we have Channel Regrowth, whose name suggesting healing or plants or nature (and tied to Lifegiver gods) yet is just damage reduction against an attack. Is it healing that damage? Is it imbuing extra life? Is there some kind of magical shield? We're not told as it's solely a selfish version of Channel Shelter. I'm not fond of this as no fluff means there's no ways of using it creatively or for story reasons (such as healing a corrupted forest or the like).
I'm not a big fan of class design where your build just gives you a new stack of powers that are unrelated to every other build. I think I might much prefer a single Channel Divinity option as a baseline with domains modifying it slightly rather than reinventing the wheel every time.
Fighter With Martial/Expertise Dice spreading out farther and farther, fighters still need a unique mechanic. Right now WotC is experimenting with a flat bonus to damage. This is nice and simple, without adding too many extra dice and math. I like it, as it’s something that can easily be yanked out wholesale and replaced with more maneuvers or tactical options for experienced players or those who like more complexity to their classes.
I’d still like to see a bonus tied to fighting style, to make them more than lists of suggested maneuvers. It would be silly to suggest differentiating wizards by spells known, so I'm not sure why it's acceptable for fighters.
I also preferred the multiple attacks of the earlier playtest to the Combat Surge of the current playtest. While many people were calling out for a fighter resource to manage, it's not particularly exciting. And not being able to regularly attack multiple times limit's a fighter's effectiveness against many small opponents. In an edition that is built around having battles with mobs or weak enemies being stuck attacking one minion at a time, well, sucks.
Monk I’ve never been a monk fan but the class looks solid. The lack of monastic weapons does stand out. Monks without sais or quarterstaffs seem odd.
I don’t see many powers inspired by actual martial arts or fighting schools (no Money Style or Drunken Masters), and there’s no way to play a less overtly magical monk. While the monk should liberally draw from Wuxia and kung-fu films, equal effort should be placed on making the class flexible enough to play a lower magic monk.
Rogue I like the changes to the rogue, focusing less on improving their chances for success at tasks (which frequently removed the reason to roll) and more on granting bonuses when attempting certain skills. It’s a good idea.
Schemes provide a nice unique bonus, which is something I would like to see done for the fighter. And the return of later features like Evasion is nice. Like the fighter, it's a little odd that the rogue stops gaining familiar options at higher levels, not even getting better at what they can already do, and instead gaining an entirely new mechanic. It's almost like the rogue becomes a prestige class for levels 11-20 (the Luckmaster or Acehole).
Wizard I’m not a fan of the change of spell preparation. It’s a neat idea but I don’t like it as a core assumption (but it will be nice as an option), especially as it makes every wizard a spontaneous caster. At low levels you can regularly prepare fewer spells than you have slots, invariably having to cast the same spells again and again. This makes it harder to justify having those non-combat spells prepared to use as rituals; each potential ritual means having to rely on spamming At-wills a little more.
There's an odd change at higher levels with the reduced number of spells per day, which means that you can suddenly prepare more spells than you can cast.
Backgrounds & Skills
The background system remains fun, and a neat way of managing the skill system. The big problem with the background system is the lack of ability to swap skills. No rogue is going to pick the “Guild Thief” background as there is a skill overlap, reducing your total number of skills. Likewise, if a race grants you training in a skill it potentially limits your choices of backgrounds, or you have one fewer skill.
This is an easy fix. Perhaps backgrounds could give you a choice of four skills from a list of five or six. Or doubles could boost the skill die (from a d6 to a d8 and such). So a rogue would be encouraged to be a Guild Thief as it makes them better at a couple skills.
Let’s talk about the skill die for a moment. While I was initially not fond of the idea, not seeing it as very D&D-ish, it is a solid idea. It reduces the average total of a skill check (a d4 is slightly less than a +3 bonus) while adding more dice to the mix. Rolling dice is fun. Still, with skills now seemingly part of the core, raising the assumed DCs by 2 wouldn't be a bad idea.
However, some discussion should be given to the increase in PC potential from stat boosts and skill bumps. DMs should be aware that the DC 13 check might not be as hard to make at level 17. Assorted boosts potentially lead to a disparity of 7+ between someone with an un-bumped yet high ability score and someone training a skill while bumping, and a disparity of 11+ for someone who dump-stated the relevant ability. Which is high but not as high as the 25+ of 3e/PF or the 14+ of 4e. It's unlikely PCs will never need to even roll, as a "1" or "2" might still lead to failure.
I'm not a fan of all the skill dice going up at the same time. I like being able to have customize a character, picking areas of focus. Plus it's a nice easy benefit to levelling. Being able to pick a couple skills every couple levels and increasing their die is nice. There might be a level based cap on the die, so you can't increase the same skill over and over again and have to spread around your increases.
I’m uncertain how I feel about specialities. They were more interesting before feats were separated and they became packages of pre-assembled builds. The flavour is nice and they’re handy for new players, but they’re a lot of design work for little benefit.
There’s also the problem of what happens when you need to add a new feat to the game as every new feat idea needs to be built into a Speciality. Specialities seem to be set with no options, so if a new feat is added do you give the appropriate speciality the new feat as an option making it more flexible than other specialities, or build a new speciality? If the latter, I can imagine much Speciality bloat as we get numerous needless Specialities every time we need one new feat. It also means options patch feats, pre-req feats will be harder to work into the game.
Initially Specialities were interesting because they acted as shared builds between classes. Instead of every spellcaster class needed an Illusionist build or Necromancer build - each incompatible with the other and needing their own mechanics, there’d be the one Necromancer or Illusionist speciality. It was a good design idea. But now they’ve moved back to giving each class some customization options, which are taking much of the design away from Specialities. We’re back to needed a distinct Psion and Sorcerer and Warlock Necromancer or Enchanter option.
Because Specialities needs to be useful for all builds there’s some questionable decisions elsewhere. There’s a feat that grants Maneuvers (so clerics can gain access) but that needs to be in a Speciality somewhere, so we get that in the archer speciality, however there are also archer builds for the fighter and rogue with recommended Maneuvers in the class. So they need to deliberately exclude a useful archery Maneuvers from the class build so the archery Speciality is still useful and desirable.
Of all the bits of the Playtest, I think Specialities are the weakest link. They hurt the design of feats and artificially limit the design of classes. And they don’t really add anything that couldn’t be done in half the space with shorter lists of suggested feats.
Monsters are... okay. The numbers are still being fine tuned.
A few monsters still suffer from a flaw of 4e design, where they have unique snowflake powers rather than just replicating a known PC power. Like the death knight. The Next death knight has the eldritch fire power. What does it do? We don't know but creatures that fail their save in the effect must make a saving throw or take fire damage. Do they just catch fire? Is there a ring of fire or flames rising out of the ground? Given death knights in prior editions could cast fireball and the mechanics are pretty much identical, it's likely a renamed fireball. but if it walks like a firey ball and quacks like a ball of fire why not call it fireball? For the most part the names make it obvious what the power is doing, but it's easy to slip and get too creative or not include a descriptive line.
Monsters still use the 4e recharge mechanic, which works well. But I wonder if making it a d20 would be easier. With monster attacks having static damage, it would be possible for the DM to run an entire session with just a single die... except if a monster has a recharge. Plus having it use a d20 let's recharges be retooled by abilities that allow a d20 reroll, including advantage/disadvantage. A leader monster granting advantage on recharging would be interesting.
The oddities of bounded accuracy are also very apparent with this test, with an Asmodeus that seems very low in hit points, damage, and AC. Again, this is likely a test to see how hard people want end boss monsters to be, but currently he looks quite killable for even a level 15 party. Bounded accuracy means not letting the numbers increase while the chance of hitting remains static, but there's no reason high level monsters might not have a lower chance of being hit. As PCs do have some limited attack and ability boosts, monster numbers should go up a little between levels 1 and 20. Level 20 foes should be rocking a 20-25 AC, and likely some limited DR so they're not too easily defeated by an army of low level commoners.
I'd like to say I like where the playtest is going. I would. I really enjoyed the first couple packages, for the initial simplicity of the game followed by response to feedback. But since then, so much has changed and the core game appears to have bloated a little with Backgrounds and Skills becoming mandatory and Specialities becoming the same. And not all of the changes appear to be going in a direction I like.
Intellectually, I know this is due to the iterative design process. Things will change and not always change for the better because different ideas are being tested at different times. I know that just because something I like was removed does not mean it is gone for good as they might just be trying out a new concept for a package or two. In my mind I know this. But so much of my perceptions of gaming are not informed by my mind. I listen to the voice of my heart, which is so much more reactionary.
So while I already like this edition more than 4e, I'm not sure if I still feel it's going in the right direction. Mostly because I don't know what direction it's going, and with all the changes I'm not feeling like it's any closer to completion. While the playtest was designed to be this big open process I don't feel very much in the loop or informed regarding the design. As the playtest continues I'm becoming less and less excited about the new edition at the same time apathy is setting in over the fact the news of 5e is almost a year old.
Monday, December 17, 2012, 4:16 PM
Most editions of D&D have been very neutral in terms of world lore. Races might receive a small assumption of flavour but this is very easily altered, and most classes make no assumptions regarding the type of fantasy world the DM is running. All save one: the cleric. The cleric makes a pretty huge assumption that is going to drive this entire blog.
Before I say my say, there are a plenty of good resources already on the web for creating fantasy pantheons. In a 30-second Google search I found this site and this site, but there are many others (Edit: such as Lord Archon's here). Feel free to check them or do your own search.
This is the seventh part in a series on fantasy world building.
Below are links to the other chapters in this series.
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Factors
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Room for monsters
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Factions
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player's Guide
The Cleric Question
The cleric brings with it a heavy load of assumptions. There are gods in the world. These gods are separated by alignment and/or portfolio. And most importantly, these gods grant powers to mortal followers.
It’s possible to dump these assumptions, as Eberron did by having clerics of philosophies, and Dark Sun did so by not having gods at all. But these are pretty big changes. Dark Sun in particular was defined by its lack of deities: it was the world without gods (and, later, a world where the Primordials won). Given the existence of clerics is one of the very few core assumptions D&D Next makes regarding a world, DMs should remove clerics very cautiously. Making this issue even trickier, clerics are also one of the very few classes that can serve the role of combat healer, which makes them even harder to omit.
Because of this, clerics – and to a lesser extent Paladins – throw DMs a curve ball from a world building perspective. A DMs needs to know what gods exist in their world because it affects the abilities and options of clerics. If a player wants to roll a cleric, the DM needs to know what kind of pantheon is in their game world. As such:
Even if a DM is creating a Bottom-Up world created as the campaign progresses, they should give some thought to gods and pantheons.
Types of God
There are a number of different approaches one can take in designing gods for a campaign setting.
Standard Most D&D worlds stick with the standard Greek/Roman/Norse style of pantheon: a role for every god and every god with a role.
The gods represent a single attribute or archetype. The 5e playtest rules define a few of these quite nicely, but they often include important events (war, marriage, the harvest), natural phenomena (the sun, weather, seasons, death), and professions (blacksmiths, farmers, sailors). Sometimes there is an overlap (a god of the weather also being the god of sailors and fishermen, a god of both seasons and harvests). As an example, the Greek gods could arguably be divided into the gods of the air (Zeus), the land (Hades), and the sea (Poseidon). But there were also gods such as Ares (war), Athena (battle & wisdom), Nike (victory), Psyche (the soul), and Aphrodite (love).
For quick list or major divine portfolios Wikipedia has specific articles on Death, Fertility, Health, Hunting, Knowledge, Love/lust, Lunar, Night, Nature, Rain, Sky, Tree, Thunder, Water, War, Weather, Wind, and Wrath; those are the gods that exist in the most religions. Of course, as mentioned there’s often an overlap.
Personification Not every religion worships true deities. Instead of a being that has control over an element or force, it is possible to worship the force itself: there is no Thor, there is just Thunder. The “god” then becomes a personification of the force. This is akin to pantheism and animism. The force might be personal or impersonal, either having a personality and values or just existing. There may even be different aspects of the force, different personalities or perspectives. For example, fire is both a purifier and a destroyer. A little like how the mood god Jarilo is sometimes portrayed as changing personalities with the shifting of the moon.
Abstraction A step beyond the personification of natural phenomena, is personifying / deifying philosophical elements. These might be emotions such as Love or Hatred, alignments like Order and Anarchy, or actions like Creation and Destruction. The Hindu Trimurti/Trinity is a little like this, with Brahmā the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Śhiva the destroyer (although Śhiva can also be described as the “transformer" ). Again, these personifications might have a personality (or two) or just be impersonal forces that grant power to those who tap into the force.
Types of Pantheon
There are a few different ways of organizing gods.
Extended Family These deities are all members of the same extended family. In this organization, gods beget gods and the children of greater gods become gods (or lesser gods and demigods). The pantheon might change over the years, as older gods fade away or are cast down by their offspring, much like the Greek gods cast down the titans. As an example, the Dragonlance pantheon is sixteen gods that are all related.
There’s always the slight “creepy” factor of familial pantheons. For there to be a second generation, some brother has to mate with his sister. Although divine inbreeding might explain why the second generation of gods are typically lesser gods.
One thing I’ve always wondered about is the lack of new gods. In most familial pantheons, the gods had their children at the dawn of time and then apparently stopped breeding. Grandchildren are almost always with mortals and not the web of distant cousins, and there’s seldom newly born gods.
Ascended Mortals A variation on the standard god is the idea of the ascended mortal. This is common in some campaigns, with a half-dozen examples in the Forgotten Realms and Golarion. It makes a nice option for a possible campaign end cap: become a god.
There are a couple questions raised by this. First, in a pantheon entirely made of ascended mortals, who made the world or the mortals? Second, what happens if these new gods have children?
There is also the potential for ballooning of the pantheon, as multiple characters ascend over time, requiring new roles and narrower and narrower portfolios. This was seen in the Forgotten Realms: there were different gods for Death and Murder and Assassination. It’s a little trickier to have a tight pantheon with symmetry and solid hooks without having to justify why certain roles were filled. For example, in a world where all gods were once mortals, who’d be the god of farmers? Is there really a farmer who was so good he shed his mortality and became a god? Likewise, there really should be multiple overlapping gods relating to adventuring or dungeon delving, each fighting for worshippers. It’s fun to imagine the god of farmers being a former rogue who saw opportunity but would rather be the god of merchants, but you can only effectively have a god cast against type once before it loses its impact.
Mix-and-Match This option combines the above, with some natural gods who were born gods (or created by high god), in addition to gods who were once mortal.
This has the strengths and weaknesses of both options. It solves the problem of who were the first gods, while also keeping the pantheon fluid and allowing players to potentially ascend. It’s easier to explain away the gods of uncommon yet expected portfolios, like craftsmen and fishers. But it can seem a little hodgepodge, with unifying element or design between the gods. And there’s still the opportunity for “god bloat”, with a rapidly inflating pantheon as mortals ascend.
The Forgotten Realms' is archetypal of this, with multiple ascended mortals over several generations. The role of the god of magic has particularly rotated and has lacked some real job security.
One way to make this work is to put a cap of the number of gods, such as by saying there’s a limited godhead that can power the divine. The only way to ascend is through dead-man’s-shoes, so a god must be killed and replaced and their role filled.
Other Design Considerations
Here are some shorter points to consider when designing pantheons.
Polytheism or Monotheism? The first question a DM should ask is one god or many? Monotheism is tricky in D&D as the cleric class assumes multiple gods, so much so that clerical builds are dependent on different gods.
In the real world, many cultures have a single god. This could work in a fantasy world, with different races or cultures having their own god essentially creating a pantheon of different monotheistic faiths. It might also be interesting to have a single distant god with many churches and sects that fulfils the divided roles of many gods. As a real world example, the Abrahamic religions are pretty well connected, but there’s a great deal of dogmatic and philosophical differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
Racial Pantheons This is the Greyhawk design: many different pantheons each tied to different racial groups. There are gnome gods and elf gods and human gods and more. These gods aren’t just different aspects of the same divine being, but separate deities. This makes some sense, as the deities each created their own chosen people, and there’s no reason elves would respect a human deity (or ascended dwarf). But it definitely adds to the number of gods and there’s a heck of a lot of overlap in portfolios. Is a god of elven magic that different from a gnomish god of magic?
Dragonlance takes this in a different direction with the one pantheon but all the races have different names for the gods. In practice this just made for more names to remember with little payoff. It’s hard enough getting players to remember the name of a couple gods, let alone three or four secondary names.
National Pantheons The Forgotten Realms used this design, with different nations and ethnicities formerly having their own god(s) or pantheon(s). Some of this is mimicking reality, where the Egypt analogue worships gods resembling the Pharaonic pantheon.
In a larger world this might work, and can help emphasise the Other in foreigners, who worship unfamiliar gods. I can also help justify ignorance in the characters, as both the players and their PCs don’t know about the other faiths. And it can emulate reality somewhat, where different lands have radically different religions.
Alignment D&D also tends to add a clear distinction between good gods and bad gods which doesn’t usually exist in real world analogues. Zeus is just as capable of being a hero as he is a colossal jerk (and I’d be insane if I were to consider attaching a “Good” or “Evil” label to Islam or Catholicism).
Personally, I dislike it when PCs know an NPC is Evil (with a capital “e” ) because of their holy symbol or choice of divine patron. “Oh look guys, it's a priest of Nerull. Let’s kill him!!” At the same time, it can be convenient to have an Unholy Order of Bad Dudes that you can throw at your heroes without them worrying about the morality (or legality) of mass murder.
This can be avoided by making the Evil gods have not entirely evil portfolios. A god of Undeath or Murder will always be worshipped by jerks to be killed with impunity, but if the Evil god is also the god of the sea it gets trickier as sailors and fishermen might also pray just to maintain their livelihood and clerics might see themselves and performing a necessary service to a seaside community by serving an Evil god.
Alternatively, the conflict in the setting could be driven by Law versus Chaos. This was a big element of Moorcock’s Elric stories. Law versus Chaos was the big background conflict of Planescape and also drove the tension of Babylon 5 with law being represented by the introspective Vorlons and chaos being represented by the desire-focused Shadows.
Innate Power or Fuelled by Worship? This is one of those questions that I don’t believe has been answered by game lore, or at least not been consistently answered. Do gods need the prayers of mortals to sustain their power? Can gods be created by believing really, really hard? Do gods gain or lose power through the number of their worshippers? Can you weaken a god by killing all his followers?
This is really asking “why do gods want churches of mortal followers?” Other than vanity. Likewise, an answer might also explain why gods empower mortals through spells.
Overt or Mysterious? Some campaigns have the gods actively interfering in mortal affairs, directing wars, influencing politics, and generally walking among mortals. Actually… most D&D campaign settings have the gods taking an active role, up until Eberron.
This also leads to the question about why the Big Bad Evil God doesn't just directly smite the heroes at level 1 before they get into the three-hundred or so fights it takes to pose a direct physical threat.
There’s some wackiness in having visible gods. Such as if faith is still required when you can literally talk to god, why people aren’t nicer when the afterlife is a certainty (and as Hell is pretty terrible), and the like.
Unified or Divided Churches? Most D&D religions tend to be fairly uniform. Worshipers of Tempus generally follow the same rough dogma, be they northern barbarians or southern warriors. I always found this ran a little contrary to the real world where any faith separated by even a few days travel began to shift to need of the parishioners – unless traditions were heavily established and documented.
But keeping things uniform keeps things simple and memorable. Remembering fantasy gods can be tricky at the best of times.
Gender A last idea is gender in gods. Greek and Norse gods have a set sex. Thor is always male, and Aphrodite is always female. But other religions have more fluid genders, and different aspects of the gods might be male or female. If you’re a quasi-phisical being with infinite power, what’s a little gender changing? The gods of Dragonlance often had multiple forms, some with different implied genders.
Making a Pantheon
Let’s move on to creating your own pantheon. Start by looking back at step one (The Hook) and step two (Conflict) and consider how much the pantheon and gods reflect those. Do your gods embody the hook of your word, contrast with the hook, or are largely separate. Sometimes the hook will impose limits on the pantheon, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Limits help reign in creativity, giving you a starting point.
From there, decide what type of pantheon you want. Decide if you want a narrow, focused pantheon or a sprawling pantheon of more niche gods, and decide if you want gods to be natural gods, ascended mortals, or a mixture. Decide on the organization and hierarchy of your gods: are certain gods more powerful than others? Is this consistent or does it vary from culture to culture?
These decisions can be informed by your campaign. In a Top Down world you have the freedom to pick a pantheon that fits your world. For a Bottom Up world created as the party explores it is better to have either a larger pantheon with many gods (so you can add gods as needed) or a few key gods (so you can create the entire pantheon quickly). The former option works well for games where the players have input in the setting, so they can just create their own gods and leave their mark on the pantheon.
When creating you gods, remember to ask yourself who would worship each god, and make sure there’s a god for most of the major professions and activities. Who do people pray to? There doesn’t need to be a god of scotch brewing, but there might be a god of revelry or alcohol might fall under the purview of the god of the harvest. The big professions would be the providers (fishermen, farmers, ranchers, hunters) and the makers (carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners). However, also consider the game. Who do adventurers worship? Not just the cleric or paladin (but the cleric domains are good starting points that need to be filled) but all the other classes. Who does the fighter dedicate his kills to during the heat of battle? Who does the rogue whisper a quiet prayer to while struggling with a difficult lock? Do druids serve a god of nature or do they draw their power from spirits of nature and primal powers?
The paytest document (and eventual 5e books) can help with this, as the cleric class has a list of domains and related gods. In the current iteration of the playtest there are eight archetypes for gods, which serve as an inspiration check-list it's good to make sure all the core options are covered in case a player has their heart set on a particular type of cleric. As such, it's a good idea to have each covered by at least one god. This might four gods that each cover two of the domains, eight gods that each fill a role, or even sixteen with several doubles. There will likely be more options later, so it's handy to have some gaps in your pantheon.
At the same time, it's advisable to not have a god that fits none of the established archetypes, as clerics of that god will lack rules support. At the end of the day, the pantheon you're designing is for a game system, so it does have to support the rules. If you're comfortable enough as a designer to make your own build for the cleric that's fine, but that's a bit of advanced design work that shouldn't be done needlessly.
Once you have a loose idea of your pantheon (or the necessary starting point of your pantheon) you can flesh out the details of your gods. Decide on what the dogma and teachings of that god (or their church) are. What does the god encourage and what does the god discourage? What should followers do and what should followers avoid? What are the small sins (worthy of the equivalent of Hail Marys or small donations) and what are the mortal sins that will condemn the soul to the Nine Hells?
Foods tend to be an easy yet memorable restriction. There are so many examples in real life: no eating meat on friday, no eating between sunrise and sunset for a certain period, no eating pork or shellfish, etc. The harvest god might mandate daily consumption of beer, and the god of death might require the consumption of once-living flesh every holy day.
Limits on activities and actions might seem like a good idea, they should be done carefully. It seems easy enough to say “Friday is holy day and you shall make no labour nor shed any blood” until a Friday comes along in the game and the rest of the party wants to adventure. Or they’re trapped in a dungeon for a couple days longer than expected. This is fine if the intent is to make the cleric test their beliefs, and making religion a memorable and meaningful choice. But this is only fine up until it regularly impacts the player’s fun; the point of religious taboos is to restrict the character not the player.
Other restrictions might involve hair (cutting or not cutting), clothing (certain colours or articles), or accessories (crosses, prayer beads, totems or fetishes).
Decide what day of the week is holy (if any), and how followers of that god revere their god. Is it a quiet, respectful religion or a celebratory affair full of singing and praising. Are there sacrifice? Sacred animals?
You don’t need to give each god the details and history of the Catholic church, just a few key features. Think of each religion like an NPC: each needs one really memorable trait. Important and key religions might receive a couple smaller traits and extra details, but it’s all about the one memorable belief that captures the imagination and acts as a mnemonic trigger.
Gods in War World
Moving on to my sample pantheon for War World. When I first started this blog I actually had no idea what my pantheon would look like. I had been deliberately putting off thinking about it to apply my advice at the same time. I didn’t want the perpetual war of War World to apply too much to the gods. Having the gods always at war would justify their followers also at war, almost making the battles in the mortal world alright. If god says kill, you kill. But I wanted the wars in the world to be the result of mortal action not higher powers. People had chosen to start and continue the wars.
I continued to have no idea until I started writing about the greek gods and their trinity of Zeus (sky), Poseidon (sea), and Hades (underworld), which is pretty close to three of the four classical Greek elements: Air, Water, and Earth lacking only Fire. The elements are pretty big in D&D as well, and had a special role to play in 4e with the Primordials who were the opposites of the gods. I had been considering giving the Primordials a big role, liking that bit of the 4e lore.
As a small aside, I’ve been a little disappointed by how much the lore has pulled away from 4e. While I agree that pulling back changes in the lore to a 1e default is a good idea - in the event of contradictions go with the earlier version - many of the editions were good. The elemental titans gave the giants an interesting focus. I had been thinking of keeping some of the lore already, but after seeing neither archons nor primordials mentioned in the article on elementals I’m a little more motivated to make Primordials a big part of my world.
I’ll start with a High God. He created the world from the bones of the Elemental Chaos, giving it structure and order until there was a balance and allowed life to spread across the world. Then he created the Primordials: Sky, Sea, Land, and Underworld. The High God gave each dominion over their land and withdrew. The Primordials ruled firmly and inflexibly until they had children. These children were the first generation gods and shared a mixture of their parent’s elemental nature, but also a connection to the life giving them an abstraction not found in their parents. The four gods paired off and had children of their own, a second generation of gods that were even more tied to the world of mortals. The Primordials disapproved of the actions of the children and the existence of their grandchildren and there was battle and strife. Some say this was a great war in the Dome of Heaven while others equate it to a family squabble. Whatever the truth, the Primordials took a lesser role in the world, beginning to slumber amid their elements, letting their essence spread and dissipate.
This gives me twelve gods to work with in my world. The four primordials, that might still inspire elemental cults. The first generation of gods and the second generation of gods. Which I can kinda represent in a diagram like this:
The first generation of gods lack true names, having different names and titles for their various aspects. Being fickle and chaotic beings, beyond good and evil, they have different personalities and traits depending on what trait of fire or air is being called upon. (This is a cheeky way of letting me use multiple different primordials in my world, including classics such as Imix.
To design the second generation I combined the elements, and thought about how they would interact. So we have Hanala god of storms, who is the child of the Sky and Sea. The full list of the second generation is: Haneal lord of storms (god of battle, and master of weather), Lohar lord of metals (god of blacksmiths and miners), Raettu lord of nature (god of seasons and plants), Akasit lord of the sun (god of light and happiness).
For the third generation, I paired off the gods from the opposite side, mating Hanael and Lohar, with each having a child that takes after one parent. We have Jaidu god of magic and creativity, Tadir god of lightning and warriors, Phashay god of the harvest and farmers, and Sampait god of wealth and merchants.
The design of the portfolios was inspired primarily by the connection of the two elements. Water and air produce storms. Earth and fire produce metals. Metals and storms produce gold on one side and warriors on the other. I also looked to the 5e playtest document to make sure most of the archetypes were filled. Sampait, the god of wealth, was one of the last until I realized I lacked a Trickster deity. Not all of them are perfect fits, but there's one for each and making the god fit the archetype helps inform the gods.
For alignment, my gods will all be variations of Neutral, so that there can be both good and evil followers. Given the focus on war in the world, I’d like subjective morality to be a theme. I want good and evil to be personal decisions and not tied to the gods.
One thing you might notice is the first sounds: Ha, Lo, Ray, Ack, Jie (or Jay), Ta, Fay, and Sa. One hard lesson I’ve learned is to avoid too many overlapping sounds for similar things. Two nations or gods or races that sound too alike will be hard for players to remember or distinguish. Naming is a finicky thing.
As a larger example, I’ll expand on a couple of the gods.
Haneal is the god of battle and storms, because both are wild chaotic affairs that spread across the landscape. She is not a lawful god, being unpredictable in her favour. She values strength and self-reliance. Evil followers believe that might makes right while good followers advocate teaching strength and independence.
Worship of Haneal is an outdoor affair, done before a storm or battle. There are no set holy days, for any day can be one of battle. Hanael cares little for small skirmishes or duels, and seldom grants her favour to individuals. People pray to Haneal for gentle weather, during storms for personal safety or the safety of loved ones. War clerics will often lead armies in quick prayers prior to large battles, with the chants used to motivate troops as much as gain divine favour.
Hanael asks little of her followers, save sacrifices in her name, typically grains, gold dust, and light objects that can be cast into the wind.
Raettu is the god of seasons and plants, being favoured by druids (although storm druids would also favour Hanael). She is a hard god for nature is heartless, being neither lawful nor chaotic and instead striking a balance in all things. Her followers accept this balance although good followers believe small acts of mercy and kindness will not upset the balance. Evil followers revel in the heartlessness and casual cruelty of nature, or place wilderness above other forms of life.
Worship of Raettu is done in specially sanctified glades or other secluded natural areas, such as small valleys. While these areas can be pruned for space, planting and the like cannot take place: the glades must be wild areas.
She is the god of wild untamed nature and not worshiped by farmers. She is revered by those who live off the land – such as hunters – as well as anyone travelling through the wilds. Traders and explorers give her offerings before long journeys. Clergy of Raettu only wear non-animal fibres such as hemp, linen, and cotton. They avoid wool and silks. Clerics try and live off of fruits, vegetables, and nuts and are only permitted meat once a week.
Mechanically, Raettu might fill the archetype of The Lifegiver, but that role might be better served by the plants and harvest god Phashay. As there is currently no "Plants" archetype, instead, clerics of Raettu might also follow The Reaper build. Every season has its end and winter and death are as much a part of nature as life.
Jaidu is the god of creativity including magic. Her purview is inspiration and inner brilliance. She is an orderly god of structure and form. While creativity can sometimes be wild and chaotic, it should always be a controlled and structured level of chaos, there must be patterns beneath the veil of abstraction.
Arcane magic is separate from the divine and Jaidu does not grant arcane magic to her followers, but she is held responsible for enabling mortals to learn the magical arts. However, the majority of her followers are bards, musicians, painters, and other artists. Even mundane craftsmen sometimes give thanks to Jaidu before doing the fine work on a project.
Clothing with bright colours are the mark of clerics of Jaidu, preferably also in the newest fashion. Accessories such as scarves and shawls are also common. Followers of Jaidu are required to create things of beauty. This might be a painting, a song, some pottery, or a poem. She also takes sacrifices of the elements of creation: ink, paint, wood or stone chips, and the like. These are places aside and burnt at shrines. This should be done at the start of each week, to ensure creativity for the following week.
Tadir is the god of lightning and warriors. While Haneal blesses battles and wars, Tadir blesses individual fighters. Tadir is a god of honour. Attacks must be announced, just as thunder is announced by lightning. Surprise and sneak attacks are the tactics of cowards. Good followers of Tadir are noble warriors and knights, while evil followers are honourable men of their words who lack all compassion or mercy.
Warriors of Tadir must identify themselves as such, adorning their armour with a lightning bolt. This is typically done on their shield or on their spaulder/pauldron. During battle, knights and followers of Tadir are obliged to offer no quarter or special treatment to other knights but at times of peace (even during a war but before or after a battle) all followers of Tadir are brothers and are to be treated with respect and hospitality (lay followers seldom go this far).
At the end of the week or prior to battle, followers of Tadir sacrifice an animal, offering the god its blood in place of their own. Once the animal has been bled, the worshiper can do what they like with the corpse. Before large battles, armies will often slaughter a few goats or cows and then cook and distribute the carcass among the professional soldiers.
The neat thing about creating your own mythology is how the stories and lore spread out in interesting ways. Clerics of Tadir sacrificing animals to their god is a pretty standard image, but the idea that the blood belongs to their god generates some inspiration. What if in War World, vampires were cursed followers of Tadir who kept the sacrificed blood or did not properly sacrifice animals, and now can only drink blood as a reminder of their sin. A generic monsters is suddenly made world specific without actually changing the monster.
Plus gods are a good way of making clerics and paladins stand out. A catholic bishop and a southern baptism minster both worship the same god but do it in very different ways, just like two clerics with the same build (such as protection or lightbringer) might be very different with different gods.
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