Friday, October 22, 2010

Dungeoncraft #3: Local starting point

Keeping in mind the two rules of Dungeoncraft introduced last time, we can start to take on developing some real campaign specific details. What we'll work on today is the development of a "homebase" for the players, the place they begin play, as well as some local government and culture surrounding the homebase. I'll explore various options and what the implication of each is for the game.

First of all, keeping in mind Dungeoncraft rule #1, we need to think about government and politics on two levels. You need to have a "national" level politics, but luckily we don't need to develop this much beyond a basic idea. However, you will need to look a little more closely at "local" politics, because that will impact the PCs right away in their homebase area. Also, keep in mind as you develop these to implement Dungeoncraft rule #2, and add secrets to these elements as you develop them. It might be handy to keep these secrets written down on index cards or somesuch -- you'll end up with a fair deck of secrets, each of which is a plot hook for the PCs to eventually follow up with and give you a great deal of gameplay.

Ray Winninger believes, and I actually disagree with him on this, that a homebase area should be an area of relative security, seperate from the "adventure" areas. Because of this, he believes a good alignment, relatively peaceful area is ideal for the homebase. Personally, I believe the homebase should be the source of a good deal of the adventure seeds--and even the adventures themselves--that player characters navigate through the coarse of a campaign. So, I'll present his theories modified to what I prefer, but also note where he differs from my opinion on the matter as we go through the development of a homebase. As to his basic premise--a good aligned and sleepy little homebase requires that the PCs follow leads to somewhere else to find anything interesting, which I disagree with, but I do also agree that PCs need a place to hole up after taking a beating so they can regroup and prepare to move on to the next phase of the campaign.
Rather, I'm more interested in a homebase that follows the first rule of dungeoncraft, and is easy for me to create with a minimum of initial effort, so I can gradually fill in details as appropriate later. What does this mean? It means I want a homebase that is cosmopolitan enough that I can have urban adventures, wilderness adventures, and everything in between, yet isolated enough that I don't have to invent all kinds of complicated trade routes, relationships with TBD regions and areas and the like. A homebase that is too big or cosmopolitan probably requires you to develop much more than you want to at this stage just to explain everything that goes on there. Similarly, a homebase that is too isolated and sleepy requires you to develop surrounding areas with more detail, because that's where the PCs will likely be going just to do something interesting.

The first option for a homebase is an urban sprawl--a large city. These are fun, adventures can be entirely self-contained in the city as PCs struggle with thieves guilds, corrupt politicians, underground sewers crawling with monsters, or whatever other fantasy city ideas you want to throw at them. The PCs also potentially have access to things like libraries, shops, black markets, and all kinds of other interesting things. All of these are great gaming opportunities, and very much along my taste. However, there's one big problem with using a city as a homebase: it takes more work to develop it sufficiently to actually use it than the other options. You need a relatively detailed map, and a good idea of where things are in the city. You need lots of NPCs. Especially in a traditional fantasy setting, large cities are probably rare, so any that exist are likely to be very cosmopolitan, and this means you'll have to develop even more of your world just to explain where the "dwarftown" ward came from, for example. This can be partially avoided if you're good at inventing stuff on the fly, but few of us are, so you're probably better off grabbing some tools to help you. Lists of names in different languages that you can pick from if you need a named NPC immediately come in handy, as do lists of tavern names, shop names, ship names, or whatever else your PCs are likely to encounter as they go about their business in the city are invaluable. A good idea of what the various districts are like in the city, and what various things there could be to do in them is important too. With these tools, contrary to popular belief, you don't need to detail too much of your city ahead of time after all, but you do need to to spend some time setting up the tools to allow you to run the game smoothly. You also need to be a good note taker. In my experience, the most obscure, unexpected and unanticipated NPC or locale inexplicably becomes a PC favorite, and if you're not consistant in your portrayal of something that you might have literally made up on the spot, then they'll notice. While I love urban adventures and frequently set my campaigns in fantasy versions of the classic "wretched hive of scum and villainy", i.e. the city, I can only guardedly recommend that option, and only for those GMs with a bit of experience.

Another option is the stronghold. A stronghold is a fortress of some type built along a border region. It may be a stopover for various people, and a local trade center, but they are typically fairly isolated from major population centers. The fact that they are in border regions makes them ideal also in that the hostile territory on the other side of the border is a ready-made adventure area, and even within the stronghold itself, spies, threats of invasions, border raids, etc. all provide potential story fodder. In addition, because they are relatively isolated, and are bulwarks of safety in an otherwise relatively hostile region, most fortresses tend to attract towns near or around them that are populated by civilians. If you play your cards right, you can even get many of the advantages of city gaming without many of the disadvantages of having to invent lots of campaign material to explain it. Ray Winninger calls this out as a seperate option, the feudal town, but since that assumes that feudalism plays a role in your campaign (it may very well not) and doesn't add anything particularly new to the mix, I've consolidated it here with the stronghold.

Rural villages have many of the disadvantages mentioned above, in that they are typically not located near borders, and so certain types of adventures require the PCs to hike a considerable distance in order to get anywhere interesting. They do offer peace and stability, and if you want your PCs to be able to dabble in things like item creation or spell research, they are places where these kinds of things can be done relatively easily without interruption. They aren't locations brimming with adventure ideas, though -- unless you want to make the village the headquarters of some kind of evil cult or somesuch, which does at least give you a very Lovecraftian feel. That, however, defeats the primary advantage of the village, according to Winninger at least. I'd suggest villages are better as stopping points when the PCs are traveling, rather than permanent base camps.

Ray's last example is a bit interesting: the homebase could be a mobile camp of some kind. Whether it's a traveling merchant caravan, circus or camp of nomadic herdsmen, the advantages of a wandering camp are that it allows you to make up campaign detail at your own pace (when you've got something new, the camp moves) and it is full of story potential (PCs could be scouting for new areas for the camp to move, or smoothing the way through hostile territory as the camp moves, or even working security for a camp that is having trouble with attacks from bandits or hostile natives.) You do need to figure out exactly why the camp moves--are they following herds, seasonal hunting grounds, or are they wandering traders or a circus, for example. Also, what kind of structure does the camp have--most would be meritocracies in which the most capable are the authority figures. There is a real communal sense to camps, and they don't tolerate troublemakers or internal threats though. PCs have to tread a bit more carefully than they might otherwise, or risk getting booted out.

After you select your homebase type, you'll want to take just a minute to give it some life via a few vague details. First of all, what's the basis for the local economy? You don't want to spend tons of time working out detailed trade routes or the like, but give the matter some thought, at least. Here's a few ideas:

- Residents are hunters or farmers, and trade for other commodities.

- Perhaps the residents work a mine, or other commodity and trade for food instead.

- Alternatively, the region could be renowned for its skilled tradesmen or some kind -- maybe local weaponsmiths are the best in the region.

- Maybe the region is funded through the community--some noble or the ruler himself might have established it as a military installation, for example, and supplies it out of government funds.

- Something unusual--maybe the region is an area that recieves pilgrims, or has a famous oracle in residence, or guards a choke point that charges a toll for all travelers.

As noted earlier, don't go crazy with details, just pick a broad description; that's enough to work with for now. Other than the economy, you probably want to come up with a local custom or tradition or two that sets the area apart and gives it some local color. Some historical examples include the warrior culture of ancient Sparta, the great library at Alexandria, or the great games held in Rome's coliseum. This also leads somewhat into the next step, where you flesh out a litle bit the politics and government at a bigger level--how does the countryside beyond the homebase region itself work? Luckily, because this probably won't have a major impact for some time yet, all you really have to do is pick a broad category and move on to the next step. Here are a few options:

- Despotism: a dicatorship of some kind. Freedoms are likely curtailed, loyalty to the ruler is a favorable quality, although subversive, rebellious elements are also a key element of this kind of campaign. However, despots don't have to be evil or oppressive despots -- that's just one way to handle it.

- Monarchy: a monarchy is similar to a despotism in most ways, except that they generally have more stability because there's a clear system for handling succession when the ruler dies or steps down.

- Republic: a democratically elected government of some kind, or at least one that is representative of some section of society. Truly representative democracies are extremely recent on our world, but Rome and Athens both offered prototypes for a more traditional type of republic that you could establish. Not that a fantasy campaign setting has to resemble the real world all that much, of course.

- Anarchy: interesting for a change of pace. An alternative to this is the city-state -- basically a collection of mini-nations that all operate independently. Typically anarchies are easy pickings for more organized nations, but Greece was able to hold off Persia quite handily as a collection of city-states.

Once you've got these broad details established, try to come up with an interesting twist or quirk to the basic assumption. The example of a good despot is one such example. Anything unusual about the nation's history, culture, a unique custom or commodity -- all of that helps to flesh the area out. Then, invent a few neighboring nations, each with as little detail as you've got here (a name, maybe, a government type and a twist is all) just to refer to vaguely. They can be fleshed out much later, if they become important to the campaign.

So, to look at my example campaign, let's try out this methodology to give me a workable nation and homebase with a minimum of effort. I'll choose a frontier city as my example, the city of Iclezza. Iclezza is situated such that it is a major trade hub. It's a coastal city and a seaport on the widely traveled Mezzovian Sea, so it gets traders, diplomats, and other visitors from the south, east and west (Iclezza is on the northern edge of the Mezzovian Sea. If the Mezzovian Sea can be compared loosely to the Mediterranean, then Iclezza would be smack dab on the coastline of Italy.) In addition to it's seafaring trade, Iclezza is situated at the mouth of a river that flows from the Garriga Mountains to the north, and timber floats down this river to its ultimate destinations. Furiers are also an important part of the economy, and trappers and lumberjacks and panhandlers from the wild regions to the north frequently flow into Iclezza as well.
To rule Iclezza, I've decided on a governer who is a (somewhat) distant member of the royal family. Because he's important and is a recognized member of the peerage, a small court of sorts has sprung up in the area in spite of its rough and frontier nature, including minor nobility and successful burgeouis traders and merchants. This in turn has facilitated a relatively cosmopolitan array of service industries in the area to meet the needs of these nobles and nouveau riche.

Tacking a few names to these features, I've named the nation itself the Terassan Empire, and the ruler of Iclezza is known as the High Lord; his real name is Galceran Nicasi. Iclezza needs a few interesting features and local color, and I've decided that because of the prevalence of timbers, much of the entire city is made of logs; even the streets are logs laid down side by side and covered with dirt and gravel. This makes the city a fire hazard, so one of the few strictly enforced set of local laws are related to fire control.

On a larger level, the Terassan Empire is, of course, a monarchy, but it is a decadent and impotent one, on its last legs. Iclezza is one of about half a dozen major urban centers that operate almost as if they were merely loosely aligned city-states, as control of the hinterlands and far flung provinces slips away from the central government that hasn't the will or force to maintain colonial interests anymore. The Empire's seat is on the southern rim of the sea, and the native Terassans are from there; the original inhabitants of Iclezza were another ethnic group altogether known as the Balshatoi. With the fading of imperial power, Balshatoi culture is undergoing a revival of sorts all along the northern Rim, but in Iclezza itself, the inhabitants tend to see themselves as Iclezzans first and their other ethnic and cultural differences as a distant second consideration. This is because Iclezza is also infamous (or famous, depending on your point of view) as a hotbed of religious reformation and revolution. A generation or two ago, this caused Iclezza to also be a hotbed of the Inquisition, headquartered in the south, and many prominent local personalities were hung, burned at the stake, drawn and quartered, or otherwise publicly and messily executed. Finally the Iclezzans had enough, killed most of the Inquisitors in town, and precipitated a retaliatory crusade from the south. For six months the city was under seige until they managed to negotiate cessation of hostilities. This means that Iclezza pulled together as a municipality; "Iclezza-ness" versus the decadent southerners is highly valued amongst the patriotic and almost jingoistic locals. It also means that Iclezza remains a popular destinition for religious pilgrims of all stripes even today.

Now, the second rule of Dungeoncraft compels me to develop a secret for these campaign elements I've just now introduced. Here's a couple:

The High Lord's wife, a very young woman who is noted for her beauty and strong-will, has been involved with illegal and heretical occult--the summoning of ghosts and demons and the like for seances. She's not evil, she just likes the titillation factor of doing something potentially so dangerous. However, unbeknownst to her, a web of intrigue has been building up that may bring her down because of it; several much more serious occult players want to exploit her to enact rituals without fear of reprisals which would bring real danger to the area. In addition, certain members of the local Inquisition (who now keep a much lower profile than in the past!) are aware of her activities. They haven't moved yet, because the High Lord is such an important personage that moving at the wrong time would likely cost them their heads. But they are biding their time and waiting for the perfect opportunity to catch her in something illicit and expose her. The PCs could become involved in several ways, either trying to prevent disastrous rituals from taking place, exposing the High Lord's wife, or depending on how things work out, trying to keep her from being exposed from the Inquisition.

For a secret on the national level, the High Lord Imperator who rules in southern Terassa is just crying out to have secrets developed about him. The High Lord Imperator has, in fact, been alive for centuries; since the founding of the empire even. Because he rules from seclusion, few guess at his longevity, and it is presumed that multiple generations of heirs have all born the High Lord Imperator's name and title over the years. The reason he still lives is a combination of arcane and occult magitechnology that has made him a combination of undead and semi-living construct. However, living in a decaying artificial husk has snapped his mind, and he does little to actually lead the nation anymore, while many of the High Lords grind the people under their heels for their own benefit in his name. This secret isn't terribly difficult to guess for players who are used to looking for the worst in all the NPCs I develop, so it probably needs another layer. The High Lord Imperator was one of a group of conspirators that originally made a deal with demons to overthrow the past local powers and cause his people and nation to become ascendant. The reason he's so scared of dying is because he and his original co-conspirators promised their souls as payment to the demons at the end of their lives. He's the only one still alive. However, the demons that entreated with him so long ago are getting impatient and are looking for a loophole in the deal. They will likely start sending demonic hordes against Terassa in an attempt to bring it down and harvest souls in the thousands. I can detail exactly how this is supposed to happen later.

Next time, I'll have a look at the last cultural details we need to develop before we start drawing maps, including religion.

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