Category Archives: Adventure Design

Intangible Rewards in the Really Wild West

One of the ways I try to make ttRPG sessions fun, as a GM, is to give players rewards above and beyond just loot and items.

I think of these as non-tangible rewards, though certainly some can be “tanged.”

For example, in my Really Wild West campaign, the players have formed a group known as the Knight Rangers. The Knight Rangers have recently been listed in national newspapers as one of the “Great Posses of the New Wild,” bands of extraordinary adventurers who are making a differences in the increasingly dangerous New Wild West. There’s even a ranking of the Top Ten Great Posses, so the PCs know what their reputation looks like.

Just for fun, they are ranked as follows:

1. Blud-Hexen Bunch

2. Tannerfaust

3. Knight Rangers

4. Sweet Daisies

5. Irregulators

6. Swordslingers

7. Hell-Wranglers

8. The Sawed-Off Seven

9. Snakenails

10. Dragonpunchers

So when it turns out one of the bad guys the Knight rangers killed in a previous adventure was the brother of one of the Irregulators, who calls out the PC who did it with an eye to vengeance, the players all have an idea of their relative reputation compared to the band calling them out.

Similarly, the Knight Rangers have been named “Trustees” of a number of organizations and businesses, who officially trust the group to be both intending and able to help deal with major problems, and thus worthy of giving favors to.

The centaur paladin in the group has learned she is so feared, crime bosses track when she is in town, and reduce the crime level when she is. The soldier with a mystic bent is talking to daughters of death and crow and raven fylgiur. The roboticist technomancer is becoming a renowned expert on Martian tripod technology, and asked to give lectures. The technomancers has been invited to teach at a rebel salon bucking the official theosophy university. The whole group has had conversations with deputies of the supernatural Marshal in charge of hunting down “gravejumpers.”

The trust, fear, and reputation are all things the players can work with, use as tools, or just accept as an evolution of their characters stories. But they are often a lot more interesting than getting another ring of resistance.

Although the Airship in a Bottle IS kinda cool loot.

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 4

Fourth part of a series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

You can find Part One here.

You can find Part Two here.

You can find Part Three here.

Event

An Event kickoff begins with some big happening that has long-lasting consequences, and that the PCs are intentionally part of one way or another. If the PCs are all contestants in a bloodsport that determines the fate of the world (or just has prize money they all want), that’s an event set-up. If they are all arriving in the Big City for the World’s Fair, Queen’s Birthday, Anniversary of the End of the Z-Wars, Inauguration of the Jack of Graves, or Battle of the Planar Rock bands, and plan to partake of those happenings, that’s an Event setup.

An Event can often be tied to other setups, as a lead-in to a longer-lasting framework for the campaign. If the annual Demigod Trial Festival is a continent-wide celebration the PCs are all attending, with various chances to get up to mischief, and at the end of the first adventure the PCs are all going to be accepted in the Demigod Academy, then it’s an Event leading into an Organization.

An Event can be particularly useful for new players if you can have their participation in the events help showcase individual elements of the rules. If the PCs are all young adventurer-hopefuls attending the Adventure Academy Admittance Trials, those trials can highlight the game’s various systems (a mock combat, a lockpicking speed trial, tightrope walk, insult-duels, riddle contests, and so on) allowing the players to see how their PCs do in those situations and how the rules world while the stakes are fairly low.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time

The difference between an Event and Wrong Place/Wrong Time is largely intentionality of both attendance and what spawns the adventure. It can be on a large or small scale. If a dragon (or kaiju, alien starship, floating castle, demigod, zombie hordes, tank battalion–whatever is genre appropriate) attacks a city that is home to all the PCs, or is hosting a major festival the PCs are all attending, turning it into a ruin from which they must escape, that’s a Wrong Place/Wrong Time setup. If the PCs are on a train headed west when it’s hijacked by teleporting snakemen, that’s also a Wrong Place/Wrong Time setup.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time is a great way to get quickly and directly into some action. All you need is to have all the PCs in one place, and then the adventure can come to them. This works best if the action that occurs naturally leads to more adventure, so the PCs don’t just go their separate ways when the first adventure ends. For example, if the PCs are all on a fantasy-themed roller coaster, and it warps them to an actual fantasy realm, not only do they have to deal with whatever is waiting for them when they arrive, they now have to figure out how to survive in this new realm, and make a living, or make it home.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time can be a good addition to a longer campaign setup. Even if you are doing Family, Organization, Patron, or Tavern as on ongoing setup, you can start with a Wrong Place/Wrong Time to get the PCs into the action, together, quickly.

Right Place/Right Time

The difference between Wrong Place/Wrong Time and Right Place/Right Time is that while the former is about misfortune arriving wherever the PCs are, the latter is about something good (in the broad scheme of things) occurring and leading to adventure. If the PCs are all hanging out at the Taco King parking lot when a Dark matter meteorite bathes them in cosmic radiation turning them into superheroes, they have been thrust into a world of adventure by being in the Right Place/Right Time.

Right Place/Right Time can later be revealed to be Destiny, if you want. While it may seem the servants of Sir Gerginald got lucky by being present when he was slain by a dragon, bathing them all in martyr’s blood and anointing them with eldritch magics, that may in fact have been the fulfillment of the Blood Guild Prophecy. Or perhaps Mr. Cellophane has been injecting hospital patients with experimental super-serum, and the PCs as survivors of a train wreck were just the first recipients to survive his efforts (which, obviously, they find out when they see right through him).

Right Place/Right Time doesn’t automatically assume the PCs are going to agree to participate in the adventure those events open up for them, so it may be useful to combine it with anther setup. It’s easy to have Right Place/Wrong Time blends by having the triggering event be random and a mixed blessing. Perhaps the PCs were in the same hospital as the Ghoul Outbreak, forcing them to fight for their lives against bloodthirsty undead, but as a result they also have immunity to the ghoul virus, and develop various necromantic powers. The outbreak forces them to deal with the Wrong Place/Wrong Time survival threat, getting the campaign started, but it also gives them powers which are going to make survivors in the ensuing Ghoul Apocalypse turn to them for help and leadership.

Obviously there are LOTS more kickoff setups you can use, but hopefully this short list will give you some options and help get you creative juices flowing.

Game On!

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 3

Third part of a series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

You can find Part One here.

You can find Part Two here.

Organization

Using an Organization for the setup of your campaign kickoff can make things extremely easy at first, but may come with hidden work for you later-on. The simplest form of Organization setup is that the PCs are all members of the same Organization, and it sends them on missions that create adventures. This can be a military organization, a knighthood, an NGO, Star Fleet, a mercenary company, adventuring guild, thieves guild, wizards guild, the Honorable and Holy Order of Sewer Guardians, SpecterBusters, a newspaper, the FBI, a Lady’s Sewing Circle, insurance claim investigators, doctors without dimensional barriers, CDC field team, the Imperial Diplomatic Corps, starship crew, space trucker union, Lamplighter’s Guild, Library Overdue Asset Network and Interdiction Team (LOAN IT)– whatever fits the genre and tone of the campaign, and that the players are all willing to be members of.

Of course just because you start a game with players as part of an Organization (or even just trying to get in — a first session that is the Admission trials of the troubleshooter’s Union could be a lot of fun) doesn’t mean they have to stay in it. Here in my experience the two most important issues are player expectation and current player satisfaction. If you have proposed that a game is the adventures of the Stellar Alliance Battlecarrier Valorous, and you plan to have the characters all cashiered out over something that isn’t there fault by session 3, you may have a lot of unhappy players who were excited to be part of a big starship crew. OTOH, if the players end up hating how Stellar Alliance regulations hamper their desire to help non-member citizens and want to go it on their own, forcing them to stick with the organization they dislike can also be a big problem.

One good way to subvert expectations in an Organizations campaign is to have sub-organizations, perhaps secret ones, that the players can find out about and choose to join (or not). If the Lamplighter’s Guild has a secret “Bump in the Night” department that handles horrific things their lights sometimes illuminate (an awesome idea I am stealing here from my friend Carl), the players can work with that group, or look to join them, or even work against them if they think the Bit-N are actually traitorous vampire spawn.

Patron

The idea of a Patron setup is that the PCs are working for, or at least aided by, a powerful Patron who can direct them to adventures, and help them gain access to resources and/or people when it might otherwise be beyond the PCs’ reach. A Patron setup can be a nice mid-point between Organization and Wanted Posters — the PCs need not be as wantonly mercenary as an entirely Wanted Post campaign might suggest, nor as beholden to a set of rules as is common in an organization-style campaign.

A Patron might be just a wealthy or well-connected individual, but there can be other interesting options to. A Patron could be someone unable to operate in society easily on their own — a sentient magic item, or a strong AI, or a member of a marginalized group the culture won’t take serious or treat with respect. Or they could have legal or societal limitations based on standing and position — Commissioner Gauthier can’t be seen operating outside the law, but instead makes a deal with a group of vigilantes that as long as they play by his much looser rules, he’ll feed them intel and not pursue them himself.

One common trope is for a Patron to actual be evil, and planning to betray the PCs, and/or destroy them. While this is pretty well expected in some genres (noir detective stories especially, and things inspired by those tropes), I am personally not a fan of that “twist” unless it’s actually a stated part of the game’s assumptions. I find it much more interesting to do things like have the Patron trust the PCs more and more, in time setting them up to be independent or even take over the patrons wealth and power, because betrayal is no fun in real life, and when it comes in my entertainment, I like it to not be a huge surprise or have a big impact. YMMV.

Mysterious Patron

The big difference between a Patron and a Mysterious Patron is that there’s some big element of the Mysterious patron the PCs aren’t aware of. Perhaps they only communicate through a speaker in an office, send coded messages through the bottlecaps of daily milk deliveries, or meet the PCs in the back of an abandoned opera house while wearing a all-concealing cloak that suggests they have a massive hump… or maybe wings and horns. In my experience it’s much harder to get players to trust a Mysterious patron (which can be fun), and they almost always want to Solve the Mystery, which means only use this setup of dealing with those issues seems likely to be fun for you and your players.

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 2

Part two of the series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

Family Ties

This setup is a lot like the Organization, but you may not have any choice about being part of it. The campaign is driven by PCs’ ties to a family, which they may all be members of, or may have some different connection to (such as all working for the same noble clan, or all having been infected as hosts to related strains of the same sentient fungus). At their simplest Family Ties can drive forward a campaign through familial connections, ranging from helping out other family members to working to expand and protect all family holdings.

Family ties can be little more than an excuse to be in the Wrong Place/Wrong Time, such as if the reading of a family scion’s will brings all the characters together into a haunted house (or onto a secret seabase, into an exclusive club, at the lost keep, in the big boardroom, or around the meadhall fire, depending on genre). They can also come with duties that are hard to refuse (such as being the nobles who oversee a territory, or being the only bloodline that can activate the planetary defense grid… or the bloodstone altar, or whatever). Family ties can also come with enemies who don’t care if the PCs want to be involved in family business or not, from demons sworn to end all descendants of a great champion (or great champions sworn to end all descendants of a given demon), to rivals for a familial claim to a throne–whether the PCs have any interest in claiming it, or not.

One great way to subvert this is to make it family of choice, rather than blood or marriage. In a session 0, players can all be asked to create one NPC that is close friend and beloved companion to them all, even if the PCs do not themselves know each other (or do, but don’t like each other much). This gives players power to help define their driving force, and no player will be a bit surprised if that group-generated NPC is kidnapped, or needs help dealing with blackmail from the wererat mafia.

Wanted Posters

At their simplest Wanted Posters are literal posters offering a reward for some deed to be accomplished, from bringing in known criminals to coming along on time travel expeditions. Players can all be told they are answering the same Wanted Poster, or get caught up on some NPC’s attempt to make good on on. The format can vary as needed, from the town crier to personals columns in newspapers, late-night public access shows, spraypainted messages on underpasses, online forums and electronic bulletin-boards, or Dark Curve InfoSphere Sites.

Many fantasy and scifi settings have formalized versions of Wanted Posters, and assume a self-employed persona can make a living answering one call after another. There may be a big Notice Board just outside the city’s biggest auction house where offers of rewards for quests are posted, or a Bounty Hunter’s Guild that passes out tracking fobs for specific freelance reacquisition jobs. If there are enough such tasks, an Organization may evolve to bond and insure the best adventurers to answer such offers, but it’s perfectly possible for individual middlemen, fixers, and “Agent Johansson” underworld figures to connect employers and for-pay-troubleshooters on an ad-hoc, if frequent basis.

The less common way to use Wanted Posters to drive a plot is for the faces of the PCs to appear on them, turning the mercenary community against the characters. This can be a subplot at any time, but if the PCs are all selected by some nefarious force to be blamed for a crime, it can kickoff a campaign to have the unknowning character all wonder into the new town on the same day, and discover they have a collective price on their heads, even though they’ve never met. This can become a variant of Wrong Place/Wrong Time.

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 1

Kicking-off a ttRPG campaign can be tough. You need a setup that gets all the player characters in the same place, working toward the same goal, and in most cases you want that setup to both not take a lot of time to explain, and have long-term impacts on the ongoing campaign so what time you take explaining the setup remains useful as the campaign moves along. Setup is connected to, but separate from, the plot, theme, and tone of a campaign. Some setups remain the backbone of the campaign for its duration, while others are mere starting points that are discarded once the PCs are comfortable working together and have their teeth in the meat of the game’s adventures.

Basically, anytime you think “That’d be a cool way to start a campaign!,” you’re considering a campaign setup.

Over the course of this week, we’re going to look at some common (and less-common) kickoff setups, including Tavern, School, Family Ties, Wanted Posters, Organization, Patron, Mysterious Patron, Event, Wrong Place/Wrong Time, Right Place/Right Time, and maybe a couple more.

The Tavern

It’s a well-known trope, and overused, but that doesn’t mean there’s no utility to it. The idea is that there’s a gathering place where you can go to get into an adventure. It may be the home of your Patron, a favored hangout of members of your Organization or the School, or the place where Wanted Posters get put up.

I actually think the most interesting idea for the Tavern as a campaign kickoff is to look at Lloyd’s Coffee House, which lead to the creation of Lloyd’s of London. What began as an effort to have reliable news for maritime patrons turned into a global insurance market. It’s not hard to see how a popular tavern (or meadhall, cafe, diner, or intergalactic truck stop, depending on genre) near areas that need adventurers might work to have news of potential adventures and people hiring same.

You can subvert this setup in a few ways. One is to lean hard on the Lloyd’s example, and have “taverns” have simply evolved over decades from primarily places to get drink and lodgings to primarily places to do adventuring-related business (or maybe the evolution of function means those places aren’t called taverns anymore, but Hire Houses or some other term you introduce to the campaign). Another is to make a tavern itself the primary site for early adventures–perhaps a famous and massive tavern was abandoned after some horrific tragedy, and now new owners need the stables cleared of dire rate, the stockroom cleaned of psychic fungus, and the zombies in the basement dealt with.

The School

Whether it’s Backrazor’s School of Berserking and Skulldudgery, the Starknight Academy, Eerie Indiana’s Stranger High School, or Miskatonic University, the idea behind the School setup is that all the PCs are students of the school, and that is what’s going to get them into the adventure.

If the school is training people to BE adventurers, or something similar (military academy, space knight squire class, witches and wizards community college, whatever), it’s easy to see how both minor adventures may be part of the standard class and exam methodology and lead to bigger adventures. For schools with less esoteric curriculum, adventure may come in the form of a locational threat (your school just happens to be at the center of the zombie apocalypse, or the hellmouth, or where the aliens land, or where the Queen of Love and Thorns sets up her fallback command post), or the secret headquarters of an Organization, or again as the home of a Patron.

School can also be easily blended with other setups. If the PCs are all AbHumans with superpowers, learning how to control those abilities at the Kenson Academy while participating as members of the Young Crystal Knights hero team, the academy is obviously also part of an Organization, and may even have a Patron in the form of Professor Kenson. If the school is ground zero for the Dragon Invasion, then being there put the PCs in the Wrong Place, Wrong Time.

One way to subvert this setup is to make the “school” something very different from a big building on a formal campus. Perhaps all young nobles of the realm must spend one full year with a touring knight-magistrate, learning about their lands and its problems. Maybe there is a specific starship for training cadets, and easing them into their final roles and duties. You could have a French Foreign Legion-like group that operated airships with sign-on-mercenaries (no experience needed) to patrol the Diesel Mountains, facing off against Sky Pirates, Wand-Runners, and Panzerdemons.

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Random Idea Generation Methods. 1. The Reverse and Twist

Sometimes, I just need an idea to play with. I may need a starting point for a new project, or some color and side-thoughts for a bigger ongoing work. Often I just generate new random ideas as a palate-cleanser when I need a break from something I am grinding on. Other times I want to throw ideas out to other people, either for fun or to jump-start their creative processes.

Now if I am lucky, a random idea just comes to me when I need it. Or, if one comes when I don’t need it, I can jot it down with just enough detail to come pick it back up later.

But more often than not, i have to generate an idea, and when i have to come up with dozens at a time, I have verious methods I use to do that. Here’s one”

Reverse/Twist The Starting Point

This is one of my favorites, and it’s a good way to use inspiration without turning everything into a pastiche (or rip-off). The basic idea is to take the core premise of an existing setting or story you like, and make a major change to it. Then, you follow the permutations of your new set-up.

For example, take Moby Dick. It’s a captain’s obsession with getting revenge on a whale. It’s compelling, but it’s also been done and redone hundreds of times. So, what if we reverse a number of elements.

Our Captain is still a whale hunter, but he has not a care in the world. The Red Demon, which may or may not be a whale but is certainly a sea creature, seeks to destroy the captain as revenge for the captain slaying the Demon’s mother. We still have stories of obsession and revenge, but now our focal human point is ignoring the risks, his arrogance convincing him that even if the Red Demon is real, it’s a brute animal, and he has all the advantages of human civilization and intellect to overcome it if it ever finds him.

Now, the inspiration for that idea are pretty clear. That’s fine–the starting place of a story, setting, or even writing prompt is only a small part of the work of making something. But once you have that nugget, you can twist and add/alter as you see fit. Instead of a whale-hunting captain hunting you could have a famous ivory poacher, clearly a villain and an up-and-coming local warlord–who does worry about human threats (and perhaps kidnaps a journalist to tell “his side” of his story, giving us our narrator), but ignores local legends of a Red Demon elephant out to get him, even when other poachers are slain by it.

The further we get from the trappings of the original idea, the more our end product will be clearly its own thing.

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Do ttRPGs Need to Define Death? Fire? … Steam?

More than one ttRPG has made its players giggle when they realize there are no rules about what a character being dead means. Sure, there are rules that tell you when you die and (sometimes) how to come back, but nothing that says, for example, “A dead character can not take any actions.”

So, the argument goes, the Rules-As-Written game lets your dead character keep running around and doing things, right?

Okay, so that’s a silly example (though it DOES come up in some game groups). And a common counter-argument is, that’s only a problem if a game actually defines TOO much, so the GM and players expect everything to be defined. We all know what dead means, right?

Well… maybe. Like, if a spell can only affect and object, and not a creature, which is a corpse? Surely I can’t use Charm Creature on a corpse, so it must be an object? So can I use Fix Object to make a mangled corpse pristine?

Similarly, some games go into fair detail about different kinds of damage, for example tagging things that do fire damage with a [Fire] keyword. But we all know what fire is, right?

So if a Squirming Rat Mound takes double damage from fire, the players and GM all know that burning oil, a lit torch, and a firecube spell all do that double damage. But what about a cone of embers? Steambolt? Superheated frying pan? Jalapenos?

Now, yes, as long as the GM and players can all agree on how things ought to work, it doesn’t matter – But there are three good counter-arguments to that position.

First, if a GM and their players feel things should work differently, but it’s not obvious they have different opinions, that can cause during-the-game unpleasant surprises and debate. If a fire elemental is immune to fire damage (and maybe they shouldn’t be), and the players focus a blast of superheated steam at it, what happens? The GM may declare that since fire resistance is heat resistance and thus prevents damage from steam, and the elemental is immune to fire, it is immune to steam. The players might argue that steam is water, and water puts out fire, so the elemental should not just take damage, but take double damage like it does from a water elemental’s wet fish slap power, or Biggly’s Aquatic Hand spell.

Second, even fit the GM perfectly well can make all these rulings, many GMs don’t want to have to do any more mental work than absolutely necessary. If everything that does fire damage has a little [Fire] tag, that makes things easier for those GMs. Of course, there’s a limit to that. Like, do [Acid] and [Base] attacks have different tags? Can you counter an [Acid] attack with a [Base] attack? Are there strong [Acids] and weak [Acids]? Is the level of complexity being kept where it belongs?

Third, scenario assumptions can be built off these rules. Even ignoring the complex question of special cases such as Organized Play efforts for different groups to have the same experience when running the same encounter with different GMs, a scenario may have been built assuming a specific set of rule interactions. If an encounter with fire elementals in a sewer assumes that the steam pipes running alongside the pipe can be used to easily defeat the elementals, so there are twice as many present as normal, a GM that rules those don’t hurt the elementals is altering the adventure design plans without even knowing it.

I’m not claiming their is an objectively correct answer here. I tend to lean toward defining things that are going to come up a lot, trying to give some broad general rules and guidance, and then leave it t the GM to adjudicate rarer interactions… but that’s based on my gaming preferences.

What are yours?

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Guest Blog: Darrin Drader Talks Rathorn

Heya folks!

Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. The first one is by Darrin Drader, who I have known (and occasionally worked with) for around 20 years.

If you are involved, or getting involved, in tabletop games and are interested in having me feature a guest blog of yours, let me know! You can drop me a line at owen.stephens@gmail.com.

Introduction

Owen has invited me here to his blog to talk about my new Patreon project—Rathorn: Savage Adventures. In the interest of brevity, I’ll get the link out of the way right now: https://www.patreon.com/Rathorn Also in the interest of brevity, I’ll specify that it’s pronounced Ra-thorn, not Rat-horn. The entry tier for patronage is $3 a month, and what you get for backing is a monthly novella, or episode, consisting of a minimum of 50 novel-length pages. There are higher backer tiers for those who are interested. The first payment will come out on June 1st, at which time the first two episodes will be posted. You will have access to both at that time, and then you will gain access to one new episode per month.

Origins of Barbarism

Early this year, Jason Eric Nelson of Legendary Games invited me to write a 5e compatible supplement called Battlemasters & Berserkers. It just so happened that this aligned with a fiction project I was already working on. The two went together perfectly, so of course I accepted the offer. The fiction is Rathorn: Savage Adventures, a novella consisting of six chapters and about 20,000 words, or roughly sixty novel-length pages, and it was made available as a Kickstarter add-on. It did pretty well too.

The cover of Rathorn: Savage Adventures

An alternate “collector’s” cover.

That was never intended to be a standalone piece. But let’s go back to the beginning of the story first.

One of my best friends introduced me to D&D back in 1984. I was eleven years old at the time, and to say I was absolutely blown away by the game would be an understatement (I would later work for Wizards of the Coast, and work on several titles for D&D, including the Book of Exalted Deeds, Forgotten Realms: Serpent Kingdoms, Forgotten Realms: Mysteries of the Moonsea, and more articles than I can remember). Rathorn was a barbarian character dreamed up in the fall of 1988 shortly before a gaming convention in Spokane, Washington. By that time I was already reading and being heavily influenced by D&D tie-in fiction, so I began writing stories about him and his half-elven sometimes companion named Whisperfoot. By the time I graduated from high school and moved on to other things, I had filled a three-ring binder with stories.

Now obviously, those stories weren’t publishable. I’ve worked on my fiction for my entire life, and I didn’t publish any of it until about ten years ago. It’s a skill that takes a long time to develop, and in all honesty, a lot of people who try their hand at it find it much more difficult than expected. Anyway, I’ve always rather liked the characters, and sometimes considered doing something more with them. I made a Facebook post a while back, and none other than Peter Adkison chimed in and encouraged me to lean into it and do something new with the characters (I mean, who am I to argue with the man who started Wizards of the Coast?). What I ended up deciding to do is rewrite those stories from scratch—and I really mean scratch, because that three-ring binder ended up not making a move several years ago. In truth, these aren’t going to be faithful replications of the original stories. I’m thirty years older now than I was then, so these will be reimagined from a more mature and experienced point of view.

The Barbarian Sub-Genre

The promotional blurb for the Patreon reads as follows:

He came from the northern barbarian clans to claim vengeance against those who stole from his village and killed his best friend. But once entered, leaving civilization is far from easy. A hundred years removed from the fall of the Androsan Empire, fortunes are forged on the plunder of ruin, while lords from across the lands plot to reclaim lost glories, and death is merely is one blade away. These are the tales of Rathorn (Ra-thorn). Warrior. Barbarian. Adventurer.

If the premise sounds a bit like another barbarian from the golden age of pulp, you aren’t completely off-base. Then again, there’s something timeless and universal about that character archetype, which is one of the reasons Barbarian is a class in the Player’s Handbook. Currently, that famous  mighty-thewed warrior is making a comeback via Marvel comics, and a new TV show in the works for Amazon original programming. But there are other barbarian characters in fiction, such as Skharr the Death Eater by the excellent Michael Anderle, who will soon be releasing his sixth book in the series. Others include Wulfgar by R.A. Salvatore, Cohen by Terry Pratchett, Fafhrd by Fritz Leiber, Stoick the Vast by Cressida Cowell, and of course Khal Drogo from George R.R. Martin. In other words, barbarians are a full sub-genre of fantasy literature unto themselves.

The Patreon Model

The Patreon model of fiction challenges both readers and writers to reimagine fiction as being more like a TV show than a movie. Traditional novel publishers used to restrict authors to one book per year, even if the authors are more prolific than that. In that way, novels are sort of like movies. They have high production values, they come out at a slow pace, and they tend to do things you can’t do in TV (though due to higher budgets and more affordable special effects, this is becoming less and less the case all the time).

By comparison, the short story can best be described as a tempest in a teacup. They’re so short that they’re meant to be read in one sitting. They are often published in magazines or anthologies, which means they don’t get their own covers. Also, due to the fact that they’re submitted to multiple outlets, the same author’s stories often have little to no continuity. In other words, while they’re their own art form, short stories aren’t the best type of vehicle for telling a continuing story. They aren’t like a TV show or a movie. Maybe they’re best likened to a short film.

The novella is a bit of a hybrid between the two, and it’s what an episode of Rathorn is. At 20,000 words, most people aren’t going to read the whole thing in one sitting. In fact, each novella is about a quarter the length of your average novel. Each one tells its own story, but it’s easy to string them together to tell a larger story over time. They can have unique covers, but like traditional TV shows with reliably consistent opening credits, they might all share one cover, each only differing in the title of that episode.

I first experimented with the continuing six chapter novella when I started writing Star Trek fanfic (yes, professional writers do sometimes write fanfic. Sometimes they even do it under their own names). The idea was to imitate a single episode of Star Trek in terms of scope and content in prose fiction. I ended up being very pleased with the final result, as were my readers, who found it to be long and meaty enough to be a satisfying read, while not being so long that they might give up on it because it’s too long or something new catches their attention.

As it turns out, the novella is the perfect length for Patreon because unlike a novel, it’s entirely possible to do the writing, get it through editing, and release one on a monthly schedule. Don’t get me wrong. It’s also possible to write a novel in a month—I wrote Nuclear Sunset: Legacy of Ruin in three weeks—but doing that consistently every month is very difficult. In fact, the only person I know who managed a schedule like that is Matt Forbeck, who ran a Kickstarter, earned enough to take a year off of his day job, and released one novel each month.

The World

Rathorn doesn’t exist in your typical Howard inspired sword and sorcery setting where civilization is almost always wicked and magic is inherently evil. Rathorn is very much a part of The Cobalt Kingdoms, which is a 5e setting I’ve been slowly developing over the past several years. While it does draw on some ancient world motifs, it’s closer to your baseline D&D setting. In fact, the setting itself is one of the important features here.

This is a sneak peak of the current unfinished map of the northwest corner of the Cobalt Kingdoms

As someone who used to greatly enjoy Forgotten Realms fiction, I was pretty disappointed when Wizards of the Coast decided to mostly stop publishing tie-in fiction. My goal with Cobalt Kingdoms is to create a new shared world. In other words, once the campaign setting is out, it will be open. Other writers and publishers will be able to create their own gaming products and fiction royalty free. If they follow the content guidelines and it’s of professional quality, their works can become recognized as canon.

The Puppy Dog Close

For those of you who have never done sales, the puppy dog close is where you basically beg the customer to buy the product you’ve been demoing. You say things like, “Hey, I really need this sale because I’m under my sales goal for the month, my boss is threatening to fire me, I have a kid at home and I really need to pay the rent. Whether that was actually true varied from salesperson to salesperson, but it is a remarkably effective closing technique.

So here’s my story. Three years ago I started my own small business in my hometown which happens to be seasonal. Covid has completely shut it down. In fact, there’s a very good chance it’s not going to reopen at this point. Our finances are not looking good. I have a wife and kids at home, including a five-year –old daughter, and an autistic stepson who is extremely low on the spectrum. Right now, writing is the only source of income I have, and because I’m a freelancer, it varies from month to month. This Patreon is my attempt to achieve a steady, regular income from the one thing I’m good at—writing. If you’re reading this and you can spare the cost of one cheeseburger a month in exchange for a regular dose of fantasy fiction, I would be forever grateful to you.

Patreons!

You can support Darrin Drader’s Rathorn Patreon here!

And, as always, you can support Owen K.C. Stephens’s Patreon here!

Off-The-Cuff Campaign Ideas, Part 3

Just like my two previous entries, these are off-the-cuff campaign ideas I have done no prep or pre-planning for. They may all suck… or might spark a good idea for other people.

Surveyors: Ecealhstede is a god, but not a sapient or humanoid one. Ecealhstede is the Eternal City, the Home Before All, and the Foundation of Divinity. It is literally an eternal divinity in the form of a city, which has a center, and an outer wall, but no limit to how big it is, or how many denizens it can support. It is a mix of all architecture styles, all cultural influences, and all building types. It has a sea port, and a river port, and a desert caravan gate, and a forested merchant’s gate, and one long wall of nothing but sharpened stakes that keep out something living just beyond, in the eternally fog-shrouded bog beyond.

Ecealhstede has at least one door to every other city in existence, and it’s aqueducts, and sewers, and culverts, and roads, and alleys are similarly linked.

Many more creatures pass through Ecealhstede without noticing than ever realize they are within, and many more glimpse it briefly than spend any notable time within its walls, moats, barricades, and squares.

But Ecealhstede has chosen you, and your allies, to fulfill the role of surveyors. Because every settlement and structure everywhere is part of Ecealhstede, any threat to any of them can, in rare circumstances, become a threat to Ecealhstede. If a warehouse fire is going to spread through reality-spanning streets into the Eternal City’s thatched quarter, or siege engineers are going to breach a fortified wall that is harmonically linked to one of Ecealhstede’s walls, or if a flood is going to poor through dimensional cracks to flood Ecealhstede’s cisterns, the god-city draws you in to the base of operations it provides you and your allies, and then all doors out lead to the problem.

Of course, being a god’s champion, even one made of boulevards and bridges, has its advantages. With each threat to Ecealhstede you solve, your wealth, prestige, and personal power grow. Though there is also a god of ransacking, and soon you may draw ITS attention…

Brand New Season: Probably, no one should have exposed the Aelder Things to the concept of television. But they did, and now the Apocalypse Prevention Bureau (APB) has to come up with exciting entertainment for those nameless, formless entities to enjoy. You are an expert from a modern, technologically-advanced world. And you have been recruited for the Brand New Season.

The APB puts you in a group of diverse, often edgy allies. Then they send you to go deal with some specific moment, in some fantasy world. Those threats are always discrete, focused, and generally can be solved with properly applied violence. And they are always JUST within your ability to overcome them. You certainly CAN take guns instead of crossbows, and jeeps, and CB headsets… but if any of those things makes the adventure significantly easier, SOMETHING always comes along to even the odds.

And if you make it back, you get to rest, make some merchandizing deals, heal up, train… and then go back out for a new adventure that’s just a bit tougher than the last one.

Otherwise, it wouldn’t be entertaining enough…

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Two More Off-The-Cuff Campaign Ideas

I didn’t expect to write more of these… but I guess that’s what makes them off-the-cuff. I envision both of these as likely Starfinder campaigns, but you could mold them to work however you like.

Armageddon Helix: While there are numerous theories about its creation, no one is sure what caused the Armageddon Helix, a 525-mile wide strip of alternate reality running in a spiral from pole to pole of the Earth. Within the Helix, technology became unpredictable, magic and psychic powers bloomed, monsters arose, aline ruins and mythic buildings burst up from the land itself, and destruction was wrought. Magic does not function outside the Helix, but many strange technologies do. However, those technologies require materials that only exist within the Helix.
Those within the Helix changed as well, becoming unable to survive outside of it, and becoming ill if the come within a few miles of its edge. Similarly, those from outside the Helix cannot live near or survive within the Helix. Of course, this makes travel much more difficult–going from Seattle to Boise is simple enough, as they are within the same Safeland strip, but the center of the country is within the Helix, and travel to the East coast requires travel up to the north pole, around the end of the Helix, and back down toward North America.
The exception to this are extremely rare Apocalypse Riders, 0.01% of the population who can move freely between the Safeland and the Apocalypse Helix. Apocalypse Riders are heavily recruited, to take emergency supplies and news into the Helix, to bring valuable HelixTech materials out, to hunt down criminal riders who operate on the borer where few can seek them out, and to explore ever-changing Helix Ruins in the hopes of understanding what brought about the Helix, and if it can be reversed or controlled. Between missions, Apocalypse Riders can live in relative comfort in the Safelands, going to restaurants, seeing movies, and sleeping in soft beds. But within the Helix, danger lurks around every corner.

Gjallarbrú Guard: There are many names for the river that separates the lands of the living from the lands of the dead. Regardless of its name, that river is crossed by an infinite number of massive bridges, each bridge a city wherein the work of the afterlife is carried out. One of these is Gjallarbrú, the Golden Hall.
Souls dwell here. Mostly those who expect to reach a Norse afterlife, but others two. Some know how they got here. Many don’t. A few don’t even believe they are dead.
In most cases, those souls eventually move on. Once they pay their obolgild, or finish their limbo-punishment, or clear up some paperwork. Some don’t ever go on to the afterlife. Others can’t. And a lot just need to work to earn the obolgild to do so… or steal it.
There are rules, too. Cosmic, immutable laws. And fiends and elder alien reality-warpers and astrally projected living necromancers and sleepwalking psychics and Miskatonic university professors keep stirring up trouble. And sometimes, a dead soul even gets killed.
You are one of the souls that can’t, or won’t, move on. And you are part of the city Guard. It’s your job to keep the peace. The Peace of the Already Dead.
Sometimes Guards come from Chinvat, the bridge-city upstream from Gjallarbrú, chasing escapees who floated down the Infinite River. Less often someone must go downriver to Hardos, the broken bridge city, for similar reasons. Rumors claim that Guards are sometimes sent more than one bridge away up or down the river, but if that’s true, you’ve never spoken to such people.

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