Beware of hidden knowledge,
And the secrets you might learn,
For sometimes when you read a blog,
it reads you return
For the past couple of years I’ve been involved in a secession D&D campaign (the first chapter of which inspired me to take up painting again, and to start this very blog). DM John kicked us off with a trek through a quasi-medieval landscape to foil an evil sorcerer’s plot; he set the tone, drew the map, and outlined the history of the place. DM Mike then took over for a classic, brutal dungeon crawl, somewhere far from civilization where terrible things (and awesome handouts) awaited us. And then I took on the challenge.
I wanted to try a couple of things from the start:
- Develop the setting and history of John’s world. George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is the best example I’ve seen of this. It’s not only compelling for the story he tells, but for all the ones he leaves to the imagination. Characters who are already dead by the time the narrative begins had inner lives and stories of their own.
- Break the fourth wall and immerse the players in the game. Mike had designed puzzles, sent us handouts (by mail), and put on
sillyterrifying voices. I’d use ciphers, codes, clues, and riddles, and set individual player objectives with the promise of gold and experience. And as a lapsed illustrator, I would try to capture some of the visual identity of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.
I needed clues to advance the narrative each session, so there’s nothing to complicated. It made sense to me that an demon-worshiping cult would favour morbid verses, a thieves’ guild might use numeric code, and goblins would use a different language – or at least a different alphabet. The coat of arms on the lower right was a lucky find. One of the players wanted their character to join one of D&D’s factions, the Harpers, whose symbol includes a harp and crescent. I’ve been dropping those motifs all over the environment but I don’t think she’s noticed many of them yet.
One player wanted to keep his character from the previous campaign, so the story began with Thargon the Wood Elf Druid wading through the marshes away from the horrors of Mike’s dungeon, with only a sarcastic, anthropomorphic tree for company, and plagued by
dinosaurs visions of a lost staff of great power. There he met an unlikely group of travellers: Balaax the dragonborn, Jester the spy, a biker named Grove (illustration by Tom, his creator – I am lucky to know such a creative crowd), the Dwarf Wizard and tour guide Uoloft “Yolo” Frostbeard, and Mippa, cleric, librarian, and gnome. The party were quickly drawn into a story structured loosely around the old Warhammer Fantasy RPG module, The Night of Blood. Pursued by undead things, they would come to The Blinded Halfling, an inn with a dark secret.
Mippa’s affinity for books gave me the perfect excuse to write dozens of seemingly disconnected tales. In-character, I’d once made an offhand comment about reading of someone’s exploits in The Adventurer’s Bulletin, and the party often found pages from that illustrious journal. John eventually wrote an article, reporting on the strange goings on in the Blinded Halfling. Other books would mention possible antagonists for the party – Velkurr the Mutator, a hobgoblin warlord whose raiding parties were harassing travellers, an ancient enemy known only as “The Warlock”, a magician with the face of a tiger, and a sinister, unseen enchanter called Dralbimeli. A highlight of the campaign was when Tom pushed an NPC – who had never been intended to be more than a background character, into a pool of lava and declared:
I’ve been waiting to do that for months!
Mippa died, too. Clerics didn’t last very long in this campaign. She was replaced by Finnigan, a badger-riding simpleton with flexible morals. Finnigan constantly tripped me up; if I showed the party a room full of evil cultists, he’d engage them in conversation – and then spend the next few weeks trying to find a ceremonial knife, because all his new friends had them.
Another of my favourite moments came when the party spent the night in a cave and found an old skeleton with a missing fingers. After turning up a few other clues, I gave them a story about a warlock whose fingers were plucked from his hand, each of them containing a different magic. One player quietly said (paraphrasing, because it’s a while ago):
This is us. We’re in that story.
For one of the above pages in-game I used a found-image titled Prince Feroze-Shah And The Enchanted Horse, but I can’t credit it as I don’t know the name of the artist. But I’ve illustrated this story myself at university, so there are no major copyright problems on this blog.
There’s more to worldbuilding than maps, but maps are a fun part of worldbuilding! John and I have spent many hours working out the major continents, oceans, trade routes and power dynamics. I decided to start small. The lower-right portion of John’s original map (with the hills between the kidney-shaped woods) caught my imagination, and seemed like an area where an adventurer might find Mike’s haunted dungeon. I re-drew the map in pen and ink, added some local landmarks, and dropped the players into the action. I also re-drew John’s map using Inkarnate, for practice, and as a dwarf schematic-map (complete with runes which can be translated using the Inkarnate map as a reference. There’s an Easter egg on one of the maps which I don’t think the party have found yet, pointing to a possible future adventure).
The map on the bottom right was hastily drawn when one of my players threatened to murder an NPC if he didn’t draw them a map. Credit for the dungeon layout goes to SavingThrower on DeviantArt. I had been really struggling to design a dungeon and this one had everything I needed – cells, secret passages, and dead ends. I literally wrote “trapped” on one of the rooms, and the party still walked inside and started snooping around.
I’ve had to take a break from the DM role due to work commitments. But having set the scene I’ve now got story that I want to tell. When I get back, I’m hoping to take the narrative south, to the happy land of the Three Valleys, where a completely human baron without any trace of devilish ancestry is under attack by an army of mutants, led by a familiar hobgoblin. I don’t know yet which side the players will choose, or if they’ll choose to explore another part of the world we’ve built.