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Instant Campaign

In which I follow my own suggestions

Not long ago, Zak posted a great article about describing a campaign setting using more game-terms and less narrative prose. I added my 5 cents in “here’s why it’s good” style, mainly going on about how much time this approach can save.

So, naturally, time to test it out.

Source Material

For reasons unknown, The Sword tune Barael’s Blade has been knocking about my skull for some time. I think it’s because it occupies a campaign urge I’ve always wanted to explore. A read through the song’s lyrics suggests a Sword-and-Sorcery setting with a lot of background possibilities.[1] It offers little snippets of background that the GM can flesh out however he likes.

This is all about inspiration. You hear the song, or you watch an episode of Firefly or catch Thundarr on YouTube, and you instantly start thinking of how you would play this stuff out on the tabletop.

And this actually says a lot about Zak’s approach. All you need to get creative is a teaser—a name, a lyric, a scene acted out. If you’re a GM, it beats writing four paragraphs of 10-point justified text, then realising that you still need an encounter table anyway. If you’re a player, it definitely beats reading those four paragraphs and being like, “That’s nice…next” when you’re done.

Instant Cartography

Just as a song lyric or movie scene can be a teaser, so too can an existing map, especially if it shows important RPG stuff like terrain, borders, and settlements. Don’t worry about what the map really represents—just ask yourself if it can support your source material.

Germanic Kingdoms and East Roman Empire

Instant Campaign Map?

Barael’s Blade makes me think of Conan, Hyperborea, and shaggy Germanics kicking civilised peoples’ asses. Your standard lawless landscape, filled with danger, ruins, and treasure—like Newark, but bigger. As it happens, there’s a map for that: The Germanic Kingdoms and the East Roman Empire in 486 (from Historical Atlas, William R. Shepherd, 1911).

Aside from being well-rendered in a useful way, this map shows familiar territory (i.e., Earth-Europe), which helps your players get into the setting more easily. Naturally, your campaign won’t mirror the historical record, but if you’re using an historical map, there’s a good chance that some parallels exist. Feel free to use the same place-names and settlements—again, these don’t have to represent the same things as in the real world, but it helps newcomers dive into the campaign without a lot of preamble.[2]

As a bonus, you’ll note that this map is in the public domain. This is good because you have free license to change and share the original. So by all means include your modified version in the PDF campaign guide you’ll no doubt make available on your website.

Campaign Stuff

So I have a vision (thanks to The Sword) and a map (thanks to Mr. Shepherd and the University of Texas). Let’s flesh it out ever so slightly, starting with my elevator pitch:

The Roman Empire that once dominated the civilised world has been reduced to a fraction of its former glory, and the barbarian warlords who pushed it back are the new masters of Europe. They have reawakened the old gods Christianity put to sleep, but in so doing, let loose powers they had forgotten how to control. Europe is a chaotic realm of warriors, sorcerer-priests, and thief-kings, all vying for power and wealth in the vacuum of Roman stability. Will the PCs seek fortune as mercenaries in the service of a barbarian warlord? Or perhaps they’ll win a name by recovering the treasures of ruined Christian halls. Maybe still they’ll stem the tide of Chaos and revive the worship of the One God to bring order to an unruly land.

Sack of Rome

Vandals (literally)

The map shows continental Europe packed with Germanic kingdoms—these are the chaotic barbarian peoples who live by might, sorcery, and cunning (and by sorcery, I mean pagan demon-stuff). Each kingdom is a confederacy of petty states who cooperate only to thwart the aggression of neighbouring kingdoms. When not so engaged, they fight amongst themselves. Most states are ruled by warlords, but some are under the control of sorcerer-priests who use demonic allies and minions to enforce their rule.

The East Roman Empire is all that remains of the Roman supremacy that once stretched west to Gibraltar, yet Christianity still holds sway there, and it is far more ordered than Europe as a result. While firmly rooted in the land of its birth, Eastern Christendom seeks to recapture the Holy Lands of Europe, where the great evil of pagan gods was once defeated (I’m thinking “reverse Crusade”). It is the hope of the Church that the Germanic warlords will again bow before the cross (else it is the task of the Christian fighting orders to make them kneel under the sword).

Still, some of the Germanic peoples cling to Christianity, struggling for safety and stability under the despotic rule of brutal warlords and pagan sorcerers. The legendary hero Barael hails from such folk and is rumoured to roam the land today, seeking demons to slay with his holy blade.

Here are some other details I’m pulling from the Barael’s Blade lyrics:

  • The crow-mage is probably some druid guy who, while not Christian, is opposed to the Darkness (capitalisation mine)
  • The Darkness is a general descriptor of some past cataclysm (and I think I’ll let the GM figure out exactly what that means); somehow, the (literal or metaphorical) shards of this were key to creating Barael’s sword (which also contains pure steel and “fragments of bore,” whatever that is)
  • Barael is a halfbreed bastard—great pedigree for a legendary hero (I figure one half is human—but what’s the other half? Do I even need to define it?)
  • Demons have silver for blood. Or maybe it’s something more exotic, like mercury (ahem, “hydragyrum”)
  • Barael’s legend is based on killing a demon lord, a bunch of spider-priests, and some dude named Lor—three leads for the GM to tinker with right there

I’m reluctant to flesh any of these out too much, as that would defeat the purpose of the exercise. What I’m hoping is that these concepts will take shape during play, as much from my own planning as from the (speculative or certain) input of the players.

Final Words

The plan is to develop this campaign bit by bit it on the foundation above, but to simultaneously resist the temptation to over-engineer it. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, what do you infer from the above? Is there enough here to get started?
_______________

  1. In somewhat related news, Blair over at Planet Algol provided a quick adventure hook for each song on The Sword’s Warp Riders album. Whether or not his post is an April Fools is irrelevant—the ideas are no joke. Which make me think about other bands who write “instant campaigns” in their songs…
  2. This is kind-of-cheating, since I’m avoiding a lot of background detail by using this map (e.g., climate, cosmology, technology, etc.). Still, no apologies—this exercise is about creating a compelling setting with as few entry barriers as possible.
  3. Vandals image from: http://www.usu.edu/markdamen/ClasDram/chapters/121romhist.htm

  1. April 8th, 2011 at 10:32 | #1

    Erin,

    I really like the idea of your campaign. Instant, yet evocative. Somethings to consider:

    The crow-mage evokes a Wotanic image, where Odin has his two crows that are his spies in the world.

    At the time of your map, the Western Empire still was trying to hold on in exile in the territory of Dalmatia.

    Rome continued to have a Christian presence. Popes continued to hold onto the faith despite barbarian rule. St. Felix was bishop of Rome at the time of your map (and not much removed from one of my personal heroes, St. Leo the Great). Thus, Rome could become a Keep on the Borderlands type of HQ for the players.

    The Visigoths of the “Kingdom of the West Goths” in Iberia were Arian Christians. Heretics were not killed by the Romans, they were banished to the barbarian lands outside the Empire. There, they managed to find some footholds. Thus, you have an extra twist to throw at players when they go exploring.

    Finally, a note about Barael’s Blade. Despite the song’s heroic demeanor, there is a built-in note of tragedy. How can one fight the dark with darkness? Utimately, those who would use Barael’s Blade should fail.

  2. Anarkeith
    April 8th, 2011 at 12:26 | #2

    Erin, I’m often inspired by everything from song titles to names to art on collectable cards. Whole mythologies sometimes spring to mind in those instances. But, I also sit and write out long-winded prose. It’s the act of the writing that solidifies the ideas for me, not so much the product of that act. Later I’ll go back and cut and paste portions of those documents into others. The ideas that are repeatedly used become the campaign world, while others just sink into the digital mire of my hard drive. Just another perspective on evolving campaigns I thought I’d share.

  3. April 8th, 2011 at 13:24 | #3

    One other thought occurred to me over lunch. As the Gothic Tribes moved west into the former Roman Empire, the Slavs also moved west. The large white space on your map labelled “Slavic Peoples” could be the source of the Darkness. Riffing off the Wotanic flavor of “crow-mage” and the traditional vision of Russian winters, this could be a giant frozen wasteland that is the source for much of the Chaos let loose upon your world. Things like frost giants, white dragons, etc. immediately come to mind…

  4. April 8th, 2011 at 22:52 | #4

    @FrDave : Thanks, David–I knew your input would be valuable here. I’ll preface my comment with the provision that I’m not sure how closely I want to cleave to historical accuracy, but there’s a lot of campaign potential in your advice.

    The Wotanic imagery will dominate the Germanic Kingdoms (cf. Germanic Paganism), but there will be Christian strongholds across Europe. Not sure how I want to handle the Papal progression in Rome, but I’m definitely thinking of a single pagan pantheon to represent the the Germanic/Anglo-Saxon/Norse gods, which has been “reawakened” in the absence of Catholicism. Largely (for adventuring purposes) I see the Germanic Kingdoms as “on the fence.” Some are progressing with Christianity, but many more are reverting to the “old ways.”

    I love the idea of Dalmatia being a stronghold of an exiled Pope. Much adventure opportunity there. I also like the idea of some Germanic Kingdoms being Christian, but not necessarily “orthodox,” and I think this is where “flavours” of Christianity come into play: Arian and Nicene “factions” will help colour the cultural flavour of the setting.

    The “white” areas of the map are indeed supposed to be terra incognita, populated (generically) by “Huns,” whether of Asian, Slavic, or Finnish origin. Basically those areas are outside what one would consider civilisation. I really like your idea of equating the “darkness” with those regions, and that’s a great intro for snow-based creatures. I was prepared to exclude dragons and frost giants, but your idea of putting them on the fringes makes a lot of sense.

    You’ve inspired me to do some more historical research. While that kind of effort is antithetical to the point of this exercise, I think it’s worth it in this case. My next post will be about differences between the historical record and what actually exists in the campaign.

    Thanks again!

  5. April 8th, 2011 at 22:56 | #5

    @Anarkeith : Inspiration comes from many points, at many times. I find myself thinking of adventure plots at the antique store, in Barnes & Noble, and on the train to work. All. The. Time.

    The difference here is that this is the first time I’m launching a new campaign from those ideas. In the past, I’ve always put those inspirations into an existing setting. In this case, I’m using those ideas to start from the ground up.

    Bonus: I’ll be putting out material in Chimera terms, but everything should be generic enough to work with any system.

  6. April 8th, 2011 at 22:57 | #6

    @FrDave : Almost forgot: The thing you said about Barael’s Blade is true–darkness vs. darkness will be a theme, and you nailed the problem.

    So, stop peeking into my brain. Please avail yourself of the nearest exit from my head. ;)

  7. deimos3428
    April 9th, 2011 at 01:07 | #7

    @Erin: “Is there enough here to get started?” Let’s find out.

    At this point, you’ve got the big picture painted well enough. Pick a smaller region that you want to focus upon, flesh it out in a bit more detail, and play. Great campaigns are not made on paper, anyway.

    I think I have seen that very map before; I may own a copy of this atlas.

  8. April 13th, 2011 at 20:26 | #8

    @deimos3428 : Thanks, Deimos. I have some more homework to do on the Big Picture before I start to drill down, but that’s mostly to differentiate between the historical record and this particular campaign.

    BTW, if you actually do have that atlas, I am officially envious. Shepherd’s 1911 version of Historical Atlas is difficult to find around these parts. Willing to sell it to a good home? ;)

  9. April 16th, 2011 at 16:16 | #9

    @FrDave

    I assume you’re talking about the ravens Hugin and Munin. Tricksty little carrion birds. Associated with Odin in his Germanic guise of Wotan; god of death, trickery, and treachery. Their association with Odin is a carry over from his days as a god of death, trickery, and treachery

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