As happens every now and then, this isn’t the blog post I had intended for this week; the planned post was simply taking too long to come together and would not have been ready to post. So, instead, I offer up for your consideration All is Three: A 3.x fantasy campaign premise.
In February last year I offered “The Frozen Lands: a Science-Fiction Campaign Premise,” in which I explained that I often come up with ideas for new campaigns, some of which are rubbish and immediately tossed aside, some of which I save for later use, but most of which simple get set aside and forgotten because I don’t need them, and that whenever that occurred in the future, I would instead present it for public use here at Campaign Mastery.
One such idea recently came to me. Rather than develop it completely and present it as a package, I thought that I would simply document my thinking process as an illustration of how I go about designing a campaign.
I had just two ideas to start with:
- All lizardkind are related – Kobolds and Trolls and Lizardmen and Dragons.
- There are three types of meta-energy in existence: Defiling, Sanctifying, and Arcane – and each is defined as the absence of the other two. There’s only so much of this meta-energy to go around, so concentrating some in one area leaves another short, encouraging the other two types to struggle for dominance.
The first pass at Campaign Development is a process of extrapolating from the initial concepts and examining implications and ramifications. It’s at this point that a lot of campaign concepts hit the wastepaper bin – either because the ideas weren’t inspiring enough or the results weren’t interesting and unique enough.
The first idea is really vague and needed immediate refinement, so that is where I started: by answering the question, “How Are they related?” It was when I came up with an answer that I realized how interesting a premise this would be – and that this was not going to be a throwaway. The answer I came up with:
Lizardkind are all part of the one greater lifecycle.
Kobolds hatch from eggs, many of them to a single egg. Most die quickly; Kobolds are not as intelligent nor as sentient as the DMG would have us believe. They can parrot a few words in other languages, but cannot really communicate. What they are is crafty and mechanically adept – hand one a device or mechanism, and they will push, pull, pry, and lever it in every way imaginable until they have taken it apart. If it did something they found to be useful – i.e. something within the bounds of their comprehension – they would also be able to reassemble it, better than it was before, or at least oiled and maintained. (Shades of “The Mote In God’s Eye”!)
Campaign Impact: Kobolds, better known as “Tinkers”, would be too useful not to be ubiquitously present in every household that can afford one. If it’s possible, they would be domesticated and bred in captivity; if not, organized hunting parties to capture them would be a primary industry (think of the human-hunts in Planet Of The Apes). Households that couldn’t afford one would have access to a “Town Tinker” owned by the local noble.
NB: The intelligence thing is because I want a continuity to the overall development, from less intelligent to more intelligent.
Adventure Content: the first adventure should bring the PCs face to face with a Tinker, making sure that the PCs are aware of this campaign element.
Ideas on the side:
Perhaps Kobolds are semi-marsupial, and after the eggs hatch they are deposited in a an adult Kobold ‘pouch’ to mature. This would give each mature Kobold a place to hide tools and the like. It would also mean that newly-hatched Kobolds could be quite small, only a couple of centimeters in size, which reduces the size of an egg to something that looks appropriate to a Kobold adult, further obscuring the connection between Lizardkinds.
The popular belief would be that Kobolds give birth to live young, but can’t or won’t breed in captivity.
Trolls & Lizardpeople
When Kobolds die, if they have achieved sufficient maturity, they reanimate or reincarnate or transform in some fashion into either Trolls or Lizardpeople. The process, and hence the connection, should not be known at the start of the campaign, and hence it should not be obvious.
With the ‘domestication’ of the Kobolds, it follows that mortal realms would be under siege from Troll and Lizardpeople armies. This fact becomes a third campaign premise.
Perhaps Kobolds have an inherent “alchemic imbalance” that requires them to consume a certain root or die. If they do not consume the root, they are unable to heal. However, the root itself – a common weed – is also a slow poison, and when enough of it builds up in the Kobold’s tissues, they also die.
Ideas on the side:
The root is the basis of all “Healing Potions” and has a similar effect on people when distilled (Fourth Campaign Premise). Consuming more healing potions than a character has points of constitution in a week permanently costs a point of constitution (First House Rule).
Only the religious orders know the secret of brewing Healing Potions (Fifth Campaign Premise). It is common knowledge that it is based on the root, which is farmed extensively by the Churches, but the root itself only heals one point and takes an hour to consume. The second most sought-after prize in alchemy (right after turning base metals into gold) is this secret, but none have discovered it. (Unresolved campaign question – what is the secret?).
Perhaps it is rumored/theorized that a related process creates a longevity potion. (Unresolved campaign questions – is the rumor true? Who knows this process? If not, the quest for an Elixir Of Youth would be a central goal of the church. If so, the process would be restricted to the nobility and the higher-ranking members of the clergy by expense, and the government would be a theocracy, regardless of the apparent form of government).
Getting back to the subject at hand: When too much of the healing herb accumulates in the Kobold’s tissues, their muscles begin to liquefy into a marrow-like jelly, which is perceived as a wasting away of the tissues. (Unresolved campaign question: does the same thing happen to humans?) Eventually, their internal organs liquefy and the Kobold – apparently – dies. Some time later (three days has a symbolic value, but the longer it takes, the more remote the connection) the Kobold is reborn as a small troll, which quickly grows to become full-sized. Perhaps one in ten Kobolds survive to become Trolls.
Trolls have a cave-man level of sentience – they have their own language, with an extremely limited vocabulary, and operate at a pack level in the wild.
Some of these transformations go awry – perhaps 1 in 20 – and instead of a troll, the result is a Lizardman. These are stunted, in comparison to Trolls, but much smarter; but they lack the healing abilities of the Trolls. (Unresolved campaign question: Why does the process give a different result?)
NB: My initial thought was that Lizardmen would occupy the point in the cycle following Trolls, but that would have a large creature becoming a medium creature and then becoming a much larger creature, which is a logical inconsistency; so I have decided to have a developmental fork at this point.
Lizardmen have normal healing capabilities but continue to consume the same root/herb as Kobolds for the extra healing it provides. Trolls do not; they are self-healing.
Lizardmen would naturally form tribal societies and rule over their ‘tribe’ of Trolls. If the relationship is to be kept a secret from the players, they must either be unaware of their kinship with the Trolls of their ‘tribe’ or they must be disdainful of it, refusing to acknowledge any kinship.
Lizardfolk shed their skins several times in the course of their life (at least once every year), changing slightly in appearance each time – skin tones, spikes, horns, size of the ears, etc. As they age, their forelimbs begin to wither with disuse and become stunted, while their backs become progressively more swollen, forcing the Lizardfolk into an increasingly hunched posture. After roughly 20 years, there will come a time when the shedding of skin will permit bat-like wings to erupt from these shoulder swellings; the Lizardman has become a Dragon (assuming that he has survived this long).
Dragons are driven by natural instincts even they don’t fully understand. Their primary goal is the propagation of the species and of their offspring in particular; the eggs of rivals are competitors and potential threats to the survival of their own offspring, so they are solitary by nature and bloodcurdlingly violent by instinct.
Dragons are natural accumulators of the three energy types, and can expend these energies in various ways. In fact, because the three are mutually incompatible (any two are fine), they have a need to expel/expend one of the three. They internalize one form of meta-energy, expel another, and partially expel the third. Differences between the type of energy retained and the amount of the partially-expelled energy that remains give rise to the different colors of dragon.
Perhaps one energy type is expelled as a breath weapon, and the partially-expended one is consumed/released to give the dragon its other capabilities? This is an intriguing notion, but would alter fundamentally the nature of draconic breath weapons. Some would be arcane, some would be spiritual, and some would be corruptive, and the type would always be in disconcert with their nature.
This concept could radically change dragons in another way: if they use their spell-like, natural, and supernatural abilities, they would transform down the colour scale to a lesser dragonkind (red to black to blue to white to green; gold to silver to bronze to brass to copper); if they conserve their energies, they would slowly ‘evolve’ up the scale. This would (in turn) drastically alter their behavior.
There would need to be a third branch of dragons to reflect the third energy type. Final campaign creation would also require the construction of a table describing these various aspects of dragons to permit the appropriate changes to be made to the descriptions of the abilities and breath weapons. But, in general, I like it!
From time to time, the mating instinct would override the natural tendency towards a solitary existence, and two dragons would have a brief and tumultuous fling. The females would then lay eggs, one or two at a time, for years or decades thereafter, perpetuating the species. The draconic ability to fly that MOST of them enjoy would permit these eggs to be scattered far and wide, giving their genes the maximum chance of surviving into a new generation. If these egg-layings are infrequent, the development of the draconic spell-like abilities, as aides to survival, is also explained.
So, what happens to Trolls? There are two possibilities: Either the ‘healing ability’ suppresses the evolution into a higher type, or they evolve into something else after a period of time, but their aren’t many major Lizardfolk types left.
Hmmmm… Demons are often described as ‘scaly’….
If the demonic ability to travel from one plane to another were the equivalent of the draconic ability to fly, and their other spell-like powers also operated on a similar principle to that outlined for Dragons… yes, that would work – you would have (once again) a hierarchy of subspecies, which an individual demon could ascend or descend. Obviously, the type of energy they internalize, and which gives rise to their nature, would be Defiling. The type of energy they consume would be Sanctifying – and the LESS of it they had, the more powerful they would be? That doesn’t quite work, but the alternative would be for their abilities to be Divine in nature, and that is even stranger. What if they could consume either type of energy – but that the quantity of Spiritual Energy they accumulate blocks their ability to expend Arcane energies as Spell-like abilities? This would force them to get rid of Spiritual Energy – say, by committing vile acts – and the more and worse the Vile acts they commit, the more powerful they would become? That seems to fit with the Demonic style! Some tweaking of individual descriptions vs. power levels might be needed to provide greater continuity, but the general concept works.
Logically, then, there would be two other varieties of being – one which accumulates Sanctifying energies, and one which accumulates Arcane energies. Archons would seem to fit the bill of the first, and they would evolve and become more powerful by doing “Good deeds”. Once again, there might need to be some tweaking of descriptions to give a more logical progression from one type to the next – Lantern Archons, being pure Spiritual Energy, or close to it, should be at the very top of the pecking order.
This significantly alters the relationship between these two varieties of being. Rather than being antagonistic, they would be symbiotic in nature – you can’t do a good deed unless a good deed needs doing, and Demonic Vile Acts would provide that opportunity. Both would have a parasitic relationship with mortals – though the mortals wouldn’t perceive things that way!
We still need a species that accumulates Arcane energies. None of the remaining major types of creatures – Elementals, Gods, and Devils – really fits the bill, so we’ll set them aside for later. There are three choices: either
- there ARE no such beings, and that’s why mortals can work magic; or,
- we need to create a new order of being that does so, and that can evolve up and down the order by committing Arcane acts; or
- we need to add another concept, another new idea, to the mix to resolve the dilemma.
Any of these three answers can work, and they all have their own appeal. They would each produce very different campaigns. Because I’ve thought of what that “another new idea” could be, I’m going to go with answer number three, but I’ll pause for a moment to contemplate the other two.
There is no other order of being, and that’s why mortals can work magic
This idea forges a new relationship between “spell” and “spell-like”. It implies that mortals can ascend to higher forms of existence by accumulating Arcane energies and expending the other two types – and hence puts Gods, Demigods, and Devils all on a continuity of existence with mortals. It means that Gods have to commit as many Vile acts as they do Divine acts, which is very strongly in keeping with the anarchic nature of the Greco-Roman pantheons. It would also explain where the energy to form Ghosts comes from. And finally, it makes mortals analogous to mortal Lizardkind, bringing a level of internal consistency to the campaign. So there is a lot to commend it.
A new order of being that accumulates Arcane energy, and evolves by committing “Arcane Acts”
This also holds a lot of appeal – a type of creature that does nothing but make the game universe a more wondrous and interesting place. It has a very old-school sense of whimsy about it! The stronger your imagination, the more weirdness that you can invent, the more strongly this approach gives vent to that creativeness. Libraries that contain every book that was never written, endless staircases, Halls Of Forever, Doorways into the twilight zone… it all sounds like a lot of fun.
But, the option I am choosing to run with here is behind door number three, adding a new concept: What if it is the Arcane Energies that cause the evolution within type that has been assigned to Mortal Lizardkind, Demons, and Archons? In that case, by expending that energy, our third order of being would be unable to evolve, but would remain fixed in place on the hierarchy of creature types. And if, by nature, Arcane energies tended to twist and distort in a Frankensteinian way, then we end up being able to place that variety of creatures labeled “abominations” in this category. Some are intelligent and powerful; some are unintelligent and more powerful. They all have their own variety of spell-like abilities. Illithids, Dopplegangers, Beholders… the list goes on. Some are even capable of breeding more of their own kind, but most simply ARE.
The Second Pass
For the second pass through the creative wringer, I look to try and answer those questions that were left unanswered the first time ’round. With the initial burst of ideas now documented – or at least hinted at, in the case of the relationship between the three types of energy – there is a foundation which can hopefully be extended to answer at least some of them easily. Also in this stage, I would look at matters that were briefly touched on only indirectly in the preceding thought process, like what the Gods were, and what the Devils were, and what Elementals were, and where these three varieties of being come from.
Ideas Scratchpad: I am not going to complete this step (or those which follow it) in the course of this article, because each GM should have the opportunity to find and implement their own solutions, customizing the resulting campaign to their own tastes and players, but I do have some ideas, which I will provide as suggestions. No guarantees of consistency are offered!
It doesn’t take much adjustment to modify the standard D&D cosmology to accommodate the new concepts, but if we go beyond the minimum adjustment, some interesting results become possible.
To start with, the outer planes get classified into three branches instead of two: the Heavenly Outer Planes, the Abyssal Outer Planes, and the Arcane Outer Planes, depending apon which of the energy types dominates the nature of the plane. These may be “lined up” neatly as shown, but a more interesting option would be to map them on a grid:
This is interesting because it places some planes closer to others, and because of the empty spaces where there are no planes – implying that there once were, or that new planes will eventually form there. This makes the planar structure a dynamic thing that changes over time.
The traditional view of the inner planes has also been tweaked slightly. The illustration depicts the prime material plane, surrounded by the four elemental planes. Surrounding this is the Energy Plane, divided into Positive Energy on the one side, and Negative Energy on the other. Binding this mélange together is the Ethereal Plane, which is co-existent with the Astral Plane.
The same structure is repeated for each of the outer planes, but there is just one Positive Energy Plane, one Negative Energy Plane, and one of each of the energy planes, each broken up by ethereal soap bubbles.
Why is this structure superior to the traditional? Supposedly, the prime material plane is as complex and rich as it is because it partakes of both positive and negative energies and all four elemental building blocks – but when you visit one of the outer planes, they are just as substantial. They have sky, and land, and oceans, and life, and air. This never made much sense to me. Giving each it’s own set of building blocks makes a lot more sense. What’s more, many outer planes are connected to each other; the official products break these into “layers” in order to retain the mythological structure from which they derive. Making each of these sub-planes its own separate plane and having multiple passageways through which a “tunnel” or “passage” can connect (or interconnect) them gives a consistency and a richness to the cosmology and a number of ways to connect one plane to another so that the one that is closest to the source mythology can be chosen.
The interface between the positive and energy planes deserves greater mention. The conflict between the two is the source of arcane energies, and the stronger this conflict, the more arcane energy is available within the plane. This has two effects: it means that given planes of existence migrate from top to bottom on the “grid” layout as they age; and it means that older a plane is, the less sharp and distinct the dividing line between positive and negative. Planes of shadow and twilight, planes of gray – those are what are left when a plane wears out.
Again, the notion is to provide something more than a static image of reality, to make the cosmology dynamic and evolving.
Nature Of The Universe
I have two different concepts in mind for the nature of the universe, two answers to the question of “why” the cosmology is the way it is.
The first is, perhaps, the more distinctive. The universe is a virtual reality created within the subconscious of a gamer plugged into a computer bank, his cortex forming part of an organic CPU. Defiling Energies embody user commands, against which he struggles; Sanctifying Energies embody his attempts to resist these instructions; and Arcane Energies embody system commands, which alter the environment (i.e. the context) of the other two. The different worlds represent different areas of memory, and individual locations represent symbolic locations within that memory. Hence, each plane will grow and shrink depending on how much memory retains data and how much is free. Some memory addresses can form symbolic links to other memory locations (gates and portals). A fair amount of memory is used to retain the operating system, and hence is relatively stable; other parts are used as temporary registers and are extremely volatile. The Astral Plane is the memory index, while the Ethereal Plane is a bus to other parts of the core architecture.
The second is more traditional. Once, two great races of humanoids (which I will call the Old Ones for the sake of giving them a name) fought a war of mutual annihilation. In fact, they annihilated all structure within their multiverse. Infinite anarchy gave infinite scope for the recombination of the energies unleashed by the final acts, and eventually the most improbable of configurations was accidentally achieved – one that was stable, or at least quasi-stable. Like a crystal forming in a supersaturated solution, this orderliness propagated outwards from the central core, creating the universe.
Gods, Devils, and Elementals in the Virtual World:
The nature of the Gods will clearly alter with the concept of the nature of the universe.
Under the ‘Virtual Reality’ plan, the gods would be anthropomorphic representations of the will of the universe, and would possess human-like form because the universe was itself human. The goal of the gods – which none of them would realize – is to develop a means to break the universe free of its unnatural confinement. This of course would be the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories – without the Dreamer being connected to the computer banks that control him and keep him Dreaming, the Dream ends. But even if this were to be discovered, it would be viewed by the Gods as a Noble Sacrifice.
Some beings have instinctively realized that acting in accordance with the Positive inclinations would lead to their own destruction – if the Gods ever succeed, the universe will be destroyed. Hence, they embrace the Abyssal and attempt to foster the manifestation of Vile energies in opposition to the Gods – they are the Devils. They place their own survival over the needs of their creator.
Finally, there are the neutral Servitors, the checksums of existence, the beings that create planes of existence and die out with each plane’s ending, the Elementals. These represent a form of ‘police force’ within the universe, a ‘reality police’ that ensure that things are where they are supposed to be and everything is fulfilling the function that it is supposed to perform.
Gods, Devils, and Elementals in the World of the Old Ones:
The ‘Old Ones’ plan offers a more interesting perspective on the Gods. When the Old Ones were annihilated, the energies were so overwhelming that an imprint or relief of each was burned into the resulting chaos itself. In some cases, that afterimage acted as a mould for positive energies, spontaneously creating a human-like ‘God’. While the resulting being’s conscious mind would be self-developed and original, its hereditary is one of power and control and of enmity with a group of other such beings.
Because they are suffused with Positive Energies, and depend on the presence of a strong Positive Energy Plane, the Gods have misidentified their opponents as those beings which resulted from Negative Energy suffusing one of these spiritual moulds – the Devils. In truth, the Gods are the remnants of Old Ones on both sides of the former conflict, and so are the Devils. The result is that some Gods are nicer people than others, and the same would undoubtedly be true of the Devils – except that the Gods tolerate differences of opinion and the Devils don’t.
This also means that both the Gods and Devils must, from time to time, migrate from their existing planes of existence when the contrast between positive and negative energies begins to run out. Since they depend on these respective energies to survive, when their world becomes too grey, they must migrate.
Of course, some moulds are suffused by pure Arcane energies; these are the original Elementals. Neutral with respect to the Gods/Devils conflict because they are not tied to either of the principles to which these two forces are tied, these must also migrate periodically because they live off the conflict between the two types of energy.
The Third Pass
In the third and final pass through the creative process, I look at everything that’s been decided so far and try and assess the impact on mortals, and also look at demihumans like Dwarves and Elves and how they fit in. Can they be tied to one or more facets of the ideas included so far? What do they know, and what don’t they know? How do these ideas impact on their society and their history?
Key questions to be answered revolve around the creation of the various mortal breeds. One option is that they are an experiment, or series of experiments, in ways of re-infusing the positive and negative energies and preventing the ‘graydeath’ from overwhelming the Prime Material Plane. Another is that mortals were created by the Gods to be soldiers in their war against the Devils. Still another possibility is that they have arisen independently of the Gods and are simply being manipulated by both sides.
Of these, the only ones who live long enough to have encountered the same dragon in different colors are the Elves. There’s a smaller chance for Dwarves and very little chance for anyone else, but the Elves are almost certain to know this secret. So another question that needs to be resolved in this pass is why the elves haven’t told anyone. There must be some secret that they are trying to protect – perhaps they did something shameful once and are still actively covering it up, or maybe its just that they keep secrets to make themselves superior to humans. With so many things coming in threes in this campaign concept, I have to admit that I would base the elves on the Minbari from Babylon 5 – and therefore base the Dwarves on the Narn. Although the temptation is always there to make the elves more like Vorlons than Minbari…
Continuing this general theme, Halflings would be Centauri and Gnomes would be Drazi. Drow as the Shadows? There are definitely possibilities there, but that seems a little obvious. Drow based on the Pakmarah, now that would be an unexpected twist – perhaps with a touch of the Drakh. Yes, let the Dragons be Vorlons and Shadows, and leave the lesser races to the smaller positions, I think! :)
The Fourth Pass
Finally, House Rules and other nuts and bolts. Everything so far has pretty much been high concept; it is now time to get down to brass tacks. What needs to be altered from the standard rules to reflect these new concepts? What is the scope for adventure? What limitations will be placed on PC generation, and what additional freedoms can be offered to compensate?
The Final Compilation
The final step is to compile all this information into two documents (possibly more) – one with what the PCs may be told in advance (the briefing) and one with the GMs notes. The campaign is then ready for players.
Hopefully, this walk-through – which has very much been written ‘stream of consciousness’, with ideas presented as they came to me – has illustrated my campaign design technique and offered a few ideas into the bargain.