BorderLands: Session 7.5

My BorderLands campaign is on Holiday Hiatus until early January, assuming things go as planned.

With the longer gap between blog entries I’m taking this opportunity to write about campaign details unrelated to planning for a specific session, such as the party, the ongoing gnoll metaplot, and maybe some worldbuilding musings.

The Heroes

I have a table of four players. I’d like five, but balancing that extra schedule is tricky, and every time I manage to get a good fifth player, someone else pulls out. So I’m keeping this stable while I can.

The player characters are:

The Archer. Giles Reaper, aka Giles the Grim aka Giles of the Yew. A human champion fighter McRanger, Giles wants to rebuild his hometown after an attack by undead.

The Red Mage. Edgar, human favoured soul sorcerer of the Grigoran Imperium. He lost his travelling companions during an early gnoll attack, and harboured the impossible dreams of having them resurrected. Also inherited a magic hat that does… stuff.

The Shadow. A grippli thief rogue, nicknamed “Shadow” by the group. She’s wandering the world looking for shiny objects.

The Swashbuckler. Damocles Damascus Flynn, son of the 22nd Earl of Brighthome. A human battlemaster fighter. Destined – in his mind – to be the greatest swordsman in the land.

In terms of story potential, the group is varied. As a DM it’s good to know what your players want, and give them stories that interest them.

Giles, the Archer is giving me the most hooks to work with in my narrative. He wants to train with the elves to gain access to an elf-only homebrew feat (found in one of my DMsGuild products). He also wants to rebuild his hometown after a backstory-caused destruction. Plus he’s also your standard hero figure that wants to save the day.

Similarly, Flynn the Swashbuckler, is motivated by fame and his reputation. Anything he thinks will boost his profile is a deed worth doing.

Those two are the easiest when considering adventure hooks and story arcs. I seldom have to worry about hooking them, and they’re providing the most inspiration for potential stories. They also tend to take the spotlight during the session, and have the most interactions with NPCs. In a traditional narrative, these would be the co-stars.

Edgar the Red Mage is in the middle of story potential. There’s a lot of small stuff, but not all of it is particularly strong or long term. Sidequests more than full narrative. He’s a support character for lack of a better description. In a video game, he’d be the companion character that has small loyalty quests unrelated to the main plot.

The player’s first idea at a hook was his two dead companions: escorting their bodies back to their home or getting them raised from the dead. I didn’t want to allow resurrection magic to be accessible to low level characters, especially since the companions had been dead for over week by the time the party reached civilization. This really impacted the character’s story potential. The Red Mage also has the inheritor background (from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) with his item being his scarlet hat. That’s caused me some issues, as I needed to give some reason a hat would be passed down his family, and why it would be protected. I decided that the souls of creatures who die wearing the hat are contained in the hat (perhaps even those who die touching the hat… or perhaps just being close to the hat). This gives a minor mechanical and roleplaying effect, in that he can consult his grandfather for advice (and maybe other souls), but has the added complication that he really doesn’t want to be wearing the hat when he dies. Or lose the hat since he’s losing the souls of several loved ones. There might be a soul of particular importance as well, perhaps someone or something of great evil that would otherwise be unleashed. When fiends die they do return to the Outer Planes to be reborn, so trapping the spirit of one would be a way to permanently defeat a devil or demon without having to kill it on its home turf. Or it could be a good soul, such as a religious prophet or bearer of a great secret. I haven’t decided though. Although, having a succubus in the hat would be fun, and allow mental conversations and temptations, like Lash from the Dresden Files or Harvey from Farscape.

Sorcerers in my world also gain their power by consuming an elixir made from the blood of magical creatures. Typically dragons. As a favoured soul (using the option from an early Unearthed Arcana), Edgar draws his power from the blood of celestials. In theory, his sorcerous power could also begin to wane, necessitating finding more blood. But that’s a plot I want to keep in my back pocket until a dramatic moment, when it can cause the most problems and craziness at the table.

The weak link is Shadow the rogue, played by my pretty wife. Her introduction to the game was Living Greyhawk, so her comfort zone is player characters who adventure at the drop of the hat, leaping at the flimsiest plot hooks. Handy for me when dangling hooks, but not very useful in generating character arcs or brainstorming adventures. But she makes her own fun at the table and is generally happy to follow along with the rest of the party. Knowing her as a player, she wouldn’t be incredibly interested in an expansive personal quest and story anyway, so planning too much for her character is more work for less payoff.

Predation of Gnolls

I refer to the gnoll storyline as the campaign’s “metaplot” rather than the “plot” because it’s not really the story of the campaign at the moment. It’s stuff that’s going on in the background. In general, stuff should occur in the background of the world whether or not the Player Characters are involved. People have lives, history unfolds, and things change while the adventurers are in a dungeon.

When the campaign began I had a vague concept that gnolls were more active than normal, but nothing more. I didn’t need more: after emerging from the first session, the players could have been full of gnoll hate and dedicated themselves to killing all gnolls, but they could have also learned to fear gnolls and tried to avoid them at all costs. I worldbuild for fun and am happy wasting time on world lore and setting details, but I don’t really want to sketch out heavy details of a campaign plot that won’t see play. And I really wanted to let the players find their own path and make their own story.

That and I didn’t have an awesome idea.

With the second session, I introduced the idea of gnolls taking slaves. Gathering workers for some purpose. Food stock for an upcoming war on the humans or elves? More labourers for the same? I had no idea. But it was a small detail. A clue to events going on. Later on I teased that the gnolls were more active, concentrating themselves along a stretch of the desert. At that point I was still considering the idea of a gnoll alpha uniting various packs into a cohesive force. Perhaps a gnoll touched by their demon lord or wielding some magical plot device. I had enough to run with if the players decided to go off and investigate, but it still wasn’t “wowing” me to the extent I wanted; I just laid down the breadcrumbs for the players, making a mental note of the clues they were given to avoid overt contradiction when/if I had a better idea. It was the release of Volo’s Guide to Monsters in early November when a *good* idea finally came to me, a hook related to a different monster group in that volume. A creature group potentially associated with demons or fiends, whom I then tied to the gnolls. This group is manipulating the gnolls to their own ends, controlling the pack lords and flinds in charge of various gnoll packs. The gnolls are taking slaves and delivering them to this other faction for various reasons. Which are still only loosely outlined. But, again, I have a foundation if the PCs decide to go investigate.

Moving forward, I need to continue to brainstorm and consider the consequences of the PCs’ actions, and what will happen between the gnolls and their mysterious masters in the meantime. I already know the slaves are being used as a labour force excavating a temple in the desert sands, which was buried centuries ago  (predating even the elven empire,) and was finally exposed after the Catastrophe upended the status quo and flipped the axis of the world. A century of changing wind patterns and erosion have revealed the top of this ancient ziggurat or unknown size, the majority of which is still beneath the sand.

At this point I should also start building metaplot and background events for other places in the world. I should move the Predation of Gnolls metaplot to the back burner, otherwise the players might think that this is “the plot”. Years of adventure paths and published adventures have conditioned my group to follow the hooks. As such, I need to introduce other elements and plots in the world that are either happening because of the gnoll metaplot or are independent of the gnoll metaplot.

Off the top of my head, the swashbuckler’s rival Gharrinthar needs to continue adventuring. (The player is a Pokémon fan, so, yes, I purposely gave him a rival named “Gary”; partially because it’s amusing, but also because it’s a sneaky mnemonic that makes the name easier to remember.) The noble families of the elves and the humans need to continue to cement their trade alliance, as do the kobolds trying to set up relations between their nation and the humans. I should also consider what events are occurring in other nearby city-states while the gnolls are apparently busy in the west.  There might also be a vacuum of power in the east, that goblinoids or orcs are taking advantage of. The human and dragonborn lands to the east are also largely being left alone, and might be trying to eliminate the nearby goblins and orcs, or using the lull to expand their fortifications.

Filling in the Gaps

I’m a worldbuilder at heart. I literally wrote the book on worldbuilding. Okay… a book. Rich Baker and Kobold Press have some great ones as well.

My current world was the second world I created. I was working nights and had a lot of free time, so I brainstormed my little heart away. This was the end of 2nd Edition and I was still learning how to make a world. My grasp of history, geography, scale, and general design were off. I made a lot of mistakes, such as having a good kingdom of good right in the middle of the world, just sitting there being boring and noble. When 3rd Edition came out I update the setting slightly, pretty much just changing the races and acknowledging sorcerers.

With 4th Edition, I completely reworked the setting, reimagining things from the ground up. There was a new prehistory, the map changed, the nations changed, and more. Such as adding dragonborn, goliaths, warlocks, tieflings, and genasi to the setting. It was pretty much a brand new campaign setting, albeit drawing names and inspiration from the original. I added more conflict and details, more fantasy and mystery. And generally made the world a crappier place to live. Because crapsack worlds are ones that need heroes, and also ones that drive people to become adventurers.

With the extra free time between sessions (and the holidays), I’m poking away at the setting.

There’s still a lot of gaps in the world, especially around the edges of the map. Even for top down worlds like mine it’s a good idea to leave blank spaces, where you can add locations and new details as they come to you. That was one of the reasons I set the campaign in a more detail-sparse area of the setting. There’s more freedom for the players to create and inspire locales, and more room for me to reactively add locations.

Right now I’m adding new places of interest to the desert. Such as a location below sea level, similar to to Death Valley, but in an area that receives almost constant sunlight. Or a patch of sulphurous landscape akin to the Danakil Depression, which spawns pools of concentrated acid. Places that might be interesting for my party to stumble across. 

I’m also wondering if I should incorporate some of the new races from Volo’s Guide to Monsters into the setting. Specifically, the tabaxi/ catfolk and kenku. They’re classic races that date to 1st Edition, so I’m inclined to find room for them, but the world is already pretty crowded with playable races. This is a common problem with D&D settings: sentient species are epidemic. I could hold off on those in the event people play them, but then I’ll be caught by surprise if a player shows an interest. Plus, with the grippli already established, I really don’t need three “klepto” races, so finding a niche early might be nice.

(I’m not worried about the firbolg, as they’re a feywild race. Not much has been said about my world’s Feywild, and as an infinite plane there’s plenty of room for races and such.)

There’s some planar overlap in my setting, which is part of the “post apocalyptic” theme. Even reality cracked a little. As my death goddess is inspired by the Raven Queen (from 4th Edition D&D), it might be interesting to make the kenku a race from the Shadowfell, in service to the goddess of death. The shepherds of spirits, as a nod to that god, as well as the movie The Crow. They can have faith in a way the other races just don’t. Spiritual, not religions. Which also gives an interesting spin on the 5e kenku’s inability to speak. When they talk, they might sound like a zen monk. Or Lucas from Empire Records.

At the same token, I’m none too happy with the role of goblinoids in my world. Goblins are fine (being the Pathfinder take on goblins, who are crazed arsonists, who love singing, and think writing steals words from your head), but bugbears and hobgoblins are lacklustre. Likely in part because even Pathfinder’s bugbears and hobgoblins are so-so: there’s no connection between the races. Volo’s Guide to Monsters tries to unite the goblinoids, but its method doesn’t work in my setting, which is very deity-lite. Getting back to my recent interest in the planes and fiends, the different species could represent a fiendish influence upon the goblins. Goblins who signed a diabolic pact with an Archdevil became hobgoblins, while goblins who communed with demonic forces became bugbears.

It’s a start anyway. Something to think about in my free time.


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