Ah, Gentle Readers, I return, at last, to the world I’m creating for a D&D Next campaign. In my previous articles (1, 2, I began my work by coming up with a feel for the game (a points of light model, based loosely on Medieval Europe influenced by the Interregnum period of the Holy Roman Empire) and deciding to use an old blank, pre-made map as the beginnings of my campaign’s geography.
I’m lacking some things I normally like to have in place, like a name for the campaign or an overarching theme. I suspect a name will come more easily when I know what the setting is all about, so I begin by examining a theme.
The Theme’s The Thing…
In choosing a theme, I’m hampered a bit by my lack of knowledge of the kinds of campaign I want to run in this setting, but I already have some ideas…some of which I don’t want to do.
My current campaign, Seven Kingdoms, revolves around the idea that there were once seven kingdoms that banded together to create a vast, continent spanning alliance. Together, they vanquished many evils and brought a real civilization to the world. Unfortunately, one kingdom ultimately betrayed the others, and now the world has fallen back into darkness. Part of my campaign is centered around the idea of restoring some of that ancient glory, and I hate repeating myself so shortly after doing this game, so I want to avoid a storyline that involves that.
One thing that immediately leaps to mind is the idea of wilderness. The world of Seven Kingdoms is an old one, where most of the Known World has been mapped and is well understood. Central to the new campaign will be the idea of the Borderlands (and the Keeps thereon). If these Borderlands are literally lands that the PC races have never explored, then I can offer the possibility of a campaign based on exploration. Maybe the Borderlands are home to orcs, goblins, and the like, but humans, elves, dwarves, and others have no idea what lies much beyond the line of their Keeps. So I’m pondering a theme of “Exploration of the Wilderness”.
Another theme I’d like to explore is that of “Ruins of Empire”. I’m thinking that various non-human cultures may have once lived in the Borderlands. Perhaps some of the explorations will bring the PCs to these ruins, so that, as they explore, they’ll be rediscovering signs of ancient civilizations, now overrun with monsters. In such a setting, information can be as important as treasure, and they may be slowly filling in the history of the world, discovering who these ancient peoples were, and why they abandoned their great kingdoms. Like, I’m imagining the players finding the equivalent of Moria, but a Moria that the dwarves don’t even remember existed. Why was it abandoned, and why don’t they remember it?
I’m also thinking about the roles of the PCs. One theme I explored in my 3E campaign is that of “Adventurers as Rock Stars”. The role of adventurer is one that carries the possibility of fame, fortune, and social mobility. In that setting, Adventurers are the celebrities of the day. Their tendency to be colorful, larger-than-life personalities made it easy to have people recognize them as they traveled. In my 4E campaign, it’s more of “Adventurers as Superheroes” – similar in feel, but acknowledging the almost super-natural elements of things like Action Points, Healing Surges, and so on as being things that largely only Heroes can do. In earlier campaigns, adventurers just seemed to be mostly normal people who went out and did extraordinary things. I’m inclined to slide back towards that feeling. So maybe the theme for that this time out is that of “Adventurers as Extraordinary Ordinary People”. The Backgrounds system of Next lends itself to that, as it gives you some idea of who your character was prior to setting forth to adventure.
What’s in a Name?
With all this in mind, I reflect on what I know about the campaign so far. I want it to be a traditional Medieval Europe setting, specifically concentrating on periods like the Interregnum of the Holy Roman Empire and the Anarchy of Britain. I want it to prominently feature the concept of the Borderlands in a “points of light” style setting. I can imagine that the inhabitants of Civilization mostly stay to a central area of rolling fields, forests, and the like, leaving a no-mans-land of dangerous barrens between them and the monster-infested wilderness: a true Borderlands.
In ancient times, the Borderlands were watched over by powerful Keeps, ruled by lords who were sworn to protect Civilization from what lay beyond. These days, however, many of these Keeps no longer hold to their ancient oaths. Maybe some have fallen to monsters or brigands, some are now ruled by lesser lords who shut themselves up inside and do not sally forth to fight the evils that surround them, and some are now ruled by lords who’ve become robber-barons who use their strength and position to tax their people, rob passerbys (collecting tolls, of course), and otherwise make gains for themselves.
What’s more, beyond the Borderlands is a wilderness that’s prowled by deadly monsters. Here and there in the Wilderness, ancient ruins of civilizations unknown can be found. Within these ruins, great treasures can be found, but great dangers must be faced as well.
All of this suggests the idea to me that, while the PCs may well take up operations in a “Keep on the Borderlands” style setting, a lot of the adventure will involve going past the Keep into the Wilderness. From all of this, a few title ideas begin to gel, and I know I want to give my story a title that will recall an old school module, because I want it to have an old school feel. I ponder titles like Beyond the Borderlands (for The Keep on the Borderlands, of course), Into the Unknown (which calls to mind “In Search of the Unknown”, the very first module I ever owned), and Against the Unknown Dread (to suggest Against the Giants, In Search of the Unknown, and Isle of Dread). Ultimately, however, I still don’t feel like I know enough about my campaign to truly name it, but Beyond the Borderlands speaks to me, so I decide to use that as my working title. It may end up modified, but it’ll do for now, and I’ll refer to the campaign as that in future articles.
It looks like Keep on the Borderlands will be a major inspiration in this campaign, so I’ll likely sit down and re-read the module for inspiration. It might be nice to take an old module and fully develop it out, giving names and personality to everyone in the Keep, giving the players a place to really belong and people to care about. I may also look at some old AD&D modules for updating and use in the campaign. A module like The Lost City could really fit into this setting.
Now that I have some themes and a tentative name, I want to begin work on the history of the world. I will likely sit down with the D&D Next rules, looking at the various races therein and seeing how I see them fitting in. The classes will also likely provide inspiration for my world, as will the backgrounds. I have work to do, but I have a direction to go in.