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5e Campaign Settings the Easy Way (Sorcerers & Speakeasies)

As is so often the case for me, as I specifically set myself up for a massive workload (I am currently sitting at 223 different project deadlines due sometime in 2020), my muse is hammering me hard with ideas for a project that ISN’T on that list.

That, combined with the fact I’m still in Seattle having been flown out for some meetings at OrcaCon, means I am going to punt the next d20 Class Design Diary post (which has had Part 2 and Part 3 in recent weeks) by another week.

But we are going to tackle a related topic! I take a look at some campaign building/class expansion ideas to match new campaign options for 5e, based on the ideas that have been Muse-shoved into my brain recently. So, what project does my muse have me thinking about, that so far is NOT on my list of things to get to anytime soon?

Sorcerers & Speakeasies

“It’s the Raging 20s. Magic elixirs and booze are illegal. Monsters are rampant. Adventure is everywhere!”

There are lots of ways I could proceed about making a magic-and-machine-guns setting based on Prohibition era America, ranging from making a brand new RPG ruleset, to a full game system hack (such as I have been working on for Really Wild West). But its also possible to design it as just a set of bolted-on extras for an existing game system that does most of what we need. The current edition of 5e is flexible and open-ended enough that it could cover a lot of what a Sorcerers & Speakeasies game would need. Some worldbuilding would be necessary of course, and 1920s equipment would have to be designed and added, but that’s easy compared to reskinning a whole game or creating one from scratch.

Since the main way players interact with a game world is through character classes, that’s a great place to start when looking at creating a campaign setting for a new ruleset. When discussing using 5e classes in a Paladins-And-Prohibition game, there are two routes we could take. We could create new 5e classes whole cloth to fill all the roles we need, or we could just add new specializations to each class to give them a 1920s moonshiners and monsters feel. That’s a good deal less work, and in some ways more flexible since it means any other material designed for those classes can be easily added to our Sorcerers & Speakeasies (S&S) game.

Of course some people might not consider all the 5e classes to be good matches for a 1920s-era setting, even one that adds dwarves, gnomes, and spellcasting. For example, players with visions of barbarians exclusively as nordic vikings, Conan-like Hyperboreans, and savage jungle princesses may have trouble seeing how the class works in a game that runs from Uptown Citadels and Theater Street all the way down to the Undertown and Gearling Park.

But that’s why our new specializations need to be flavorful and thematically appropriate both to the core of the class, and to some 1920s hero/villain trope. For example, if I was going to do S&S as a simple 5e bolt-on, I’d start with something like this.

Barbarian: Three new Primal Paths
Boondock – You grew up in a remote rural location, commonly mountain country or midwestern farmland, in an area with extensive and extreme poverty. You may have learned to survive just on woodcraft and farming, or you might have gotten a hard manual labor job such as miner, oil field worker, or logger. You might fit the stereotype of being an uneducated overall-wearing moonshiner and pistol-popper… or you might have depths city-slickers neither expect nor appreciate. You may or may not not be quick to anger, but your hillfolk roots give you access to a pool of simple, potent wrath you can tap when you have had enough.
Grinder – When there is dirty, hard, unpleasant work to be done, people look at you. Your best prospects are often acting as a second-tier knee-breaker, not trusted to plan anything complicated but an expert at mayhem when the the plan falls part. Some grinders make an honest living, as boxers, wrestlers, pig-chuckers, or circus strongmen, but your strength and durability often draw the attention of people who think they have more violent uses for your talents.
Jitney – People are shocked at how big you are, and how much hardship you can shrug off. They may call you “built like a cement truck,” a “brickhouse,” or a “palooka,” but the sentiment is the same regardless of the term — you are made of shoeleather and axehandles, and your durability seems unearthly. It’s fairly common for those who don’t know you to assume your mass and density mean you are dim-witted as well, though being underestimated in that way can play in your favor.

Yes, I’d need game mechanics to make those paths complete, but my starting point for adding specialties to 5e to give a 1920s magic adventure feel is very much conceptual. Taking this exploration of ideas a bit further, here are some other potential directions to take 5e classes that might otherwise feel very disconnected from the modern world of a 1920s campaign. These are just sketches of ideas, starting points I’d build out from if I was spending more time on this.

OwenPulpFantasy-ElfSinger-01

Bard: Three Circuits
There’s a good chance your S&S bard has a bit more experience singing for his dinner, and a little less formal training, than a bard with a “college.” In place of colleges, an S&S bard can select a Circuit, reflecting the types of places where they are most likely to have gotten paying gigs.
Busker’s Circuit – You might not still mostly be performing on the streets hoping for spare change to make a living, but you’ve done it enough to know the ins and outs, and how life on the street works.
Club Circuit – There are a lot of houses of entertainment these days, and you’ve learned to get booked, make a living on the gigs, and work contacts bot for your career, and to arrange for anything else you might need.
Vaudeville Circuit – You’ve done a little of a lot of different things to fit in to the vaudevillian life, and may be able to sing a bit, dance a bit, do a few card tricks, throw your voice, tell some jokes, throw your voice, or a dozen other little performances.

Druid: Three Habitats
There isn’t any one universal druid circle in the 1920s. There are numerous groups and religions that work with or include druids along with many other characters, but what most distinguishes one druid from another in Sorcery & Speakeasies is the habitat of creatures they focus on and feel a connection with.
Alley Habitat – You are closely connected to the creatures that share urban living spaces, from pigeons and rats, to feral cats and dogs, and sometimes even roaches.
Domestic Habitat – Civilization has been working with animals, as guards, allies, mounts, producers, and just food, for thousands of years. You are most strongly connected to animals that share citizens lives, be those cattle, horses, guard dogs, housecats, hunting birds, or circus elephants.
Wilds Habitat – There’s still a lot of wilderness out there, from back roads to mountain hollows and unspoiled woodlands. You prefer to connect with the creatures of these

Step 0 – A Feel for the World

This project didn’t begin as a thought experiment into how to adapt 5e classes. It began with a wild notion for what kind of slang might exist in a Fantasy Roaring 20s campaign, and how such slang might help define a world and inspire adventures within it. I’ve posted all this to my Facebook page at random times over the past couple of months, but it seems worthwhile to offer it all in one compiled for here.

Sorcerers & Speakeasies Slang

Adventure, Inc.: Adventure, Inc. is a semi-formal network of taxi drivers, trash collectors, diners, phone operators, street workers, milkmen, bus drivers, mechanics ,and similar folk who work to get information about “grendles” to people who might do something about them.
Babylon Phonebook: Spellbook, especially one focusing on summoning things.
Button Troll: Any monster paid to act as a guard, thug, or legbreaker, normally by organized crime figures.
Calico: A woman who has rural hedge-wizard, witchcraft or shamanistic powers, but also acts as an urban employee, guide, or even boss.
Cement Cloak: A magic item designed to get the user killed. Sometimes used to refer to any method of assassination.
Cleaver Squad: Group willing and able to engage in violence using primarily melee weapons, especially those adapted from tools. “The merchants of Unstreet, from the Gutters to Old Fane, can call up a pretty big Cleaver Squad.”
Copper Shield: A system protecting police and other government enforcers *and* their agents and informers from the consequences of their own actions as long as they remain useful to the government higher-ups. “He’s crooked, but he’s behind the copper shield.”
Corpse Doctor: A necromancer. Or necrothurge. Or flesh automaton maker. Basically anyone who mucks with bodies for mystic purposes.
Dama: A woman with the skills and confidence of a knight. May be literal for a warrior-woman, or may be a term of respect for the woman’s expertise and dominance within her field, be that accounting, politics, or just being family matriarch.
Drowned Man: Functioning drunk. Often barely-functioning, like a disgraced doctor who now works out of a back ally, or a corrupt police detective who does private investigations now.
Eveic: The secret language of Eve, used in the Garden of Eden, which neither Adam nor God understood. Therefor, any secret known and used by a group of women.
Hexer: Anyone with magic that is of an evil source, or they use to specifically evil ends.
Hexhunter: An expert at tracking down, understanding, and undoing the evil caused by hexers.
Glint: Someone who has one, and likely only one, truly noteworthy magic item (often a weapon or one-use spell-tosser).
Go Dwarven: Get simple, heavy, primitive, and generally violent. “If you don’t pay your loan back, we’ll have to go dwarven on you.” But also a mechanical philosophy. “The radiator doesn’t work unless you go a bit dwarven on the pipes.”
Grendle: Any monstrous or supernatural problem that, for whatever reason, the local authorities won’t do anything about.
Guillotine Cure: Fixing social problems by getting rid of politicians in charge. Not always by killing them, but that’s often the implication.
GumSword: A hired monster-killer or adventurer. Often a low-rent one, who can’t afford high-end steel weapons, but may depend on a baseball bat or crowbar.
Lotus Fiend: Drug addict, especially addicted to drugs that grant magic visions and maybe real eldritch powers, at least briefly.
LuckLubber: Someone who is cursed, or has such bad luck they seem to be cursed.
Medusa: A woman who is believed to have power, generally magical or political, and the will to use it.
Morlock: Any intelligence, roughly humanoid thing that most lives below ground and doesn’t abide by the rules of civilization and society, not even Undertown society. May include trogs, derro, mongrelmen, skulks, tommyknockers, and, you know, morlocks.
Noirmancer: A secret spellcaster, who only does their wok in the dark or at night, or in the metaphysical shadows.
Paper Troll: Someone who talks big and makes trouble, but only in newspaper editorials or letters to the paper, or in town meetings and such.
Pargeter: An artificer skilled in the creation of automatons and homonculi.
Parthian: An enchanted firearm. “No one wants to cross Gurhtu One-Tusk. His violin case supposedly is where he carries a Parthian.”
Precious: Any important item, often referred to by the obsessive owner; such as “Jimmy the Glint’s ‘Precious’.”
Psara Cat: An unusually large, fluffy, calm breed of feline who supposedly pick people to adopt and turn into spellcasters. Also, anyone who appears to be the power behind the scenes. “Little Ezri may just look like the bartender, but he’s the real Psara Cat south of 114th street.”
Raven: An informer who knows things about the world of magic and monsters. Sometimes, may be an actual corvid.
Spelleasy: A neighborhood bar when you drink coffee or tea and discuss magic. You might discuss elixirs, but don’t actually make them. Like alcohol elixirs are, after all, illegal now.
Spider-Friendly: Willing to deal with creatures from the Undertown, like drow and driders and ropers. “The ground floor of the Drake Drink Club is upscale, but the basement levels are spider-friendly.” Also a suggestion of a person who might be sexually attracted to subterranean races.
Stormer: A powerful, primal spellcaster. often one who has to be angry to create magic effects, or who creates uncontrolled magi effects when angry.
Talk to a Mirror: Any form of divination. “Okay, I’m stumped on this case. but I know a guy who’ll talk to a mirror for us.”
Taxi Hero: An adventurer who deals with things on a case-by-case, for-pay basis. “They may not deal with the whole cult, but the neighborhood gathered some money to hire a taxi hero to clear out that Set temple on in the abandoned Monarch Hotel.” Taxi heroes often literally work for a local branch of the Delver’s Union, which sells tickets to people they can give a Taxi Hero to deal with a problem. An “A Ticket” is a minor nuisance, such a a giant rat in your basement, or soot-sprites. The letter-codes go all the way up to the E Ticket, which is your trolls under an overpass, chimera nest in the church’s bell tower, hauntings, and so on.
The Taxi Hero takes the ticket back to the local Delver’s Union, and gets paid for the work. Of course, it seems like the A and B tickets pay out less and less every season…
“Three C’s”: Chokers, Cloakers, and Crypt Things — stand in for anything you may run into in an urban alley or sewer that’s common enough to recognize and know how to deal with, but dangerous enough to kill in an unheroic manner you anyway. “Lots of people gone missing in the Battery recently. Probably just the Three C’s.”
Threadman: An undead created intentionally as a servant. Comes from the fact they often have lips, eyes, or both sewn shut.
Wand Wiggler: A spellcaster-for hire, often a pretty weak one.
WarWolf (or Loup de Guerre): A civilian vehicle converted for paramilitary or military purposes. “The Starshiners have an old WarWolf they use to make deliveries.”

Step 0+1: Microfiction

Even after I saw how easily gamified the concepts for Sorcerers & Speakeasies could be, I didn’t leap to game rules. Instead, I began wondering if there was a way to present a setting that had magic melee weapons and firearms both be fairly common, but magic firearms be rare. I especially liked the idea of enchanted clubs and sling rocks being even more common than enchanted swords.

That lead to this super-short story.

Runes and Remmingtons
“Sarge, why do the Torchers carry breakbats?”

“Are you asking, cadet, why an officer in the Undertown street patrol might be equipped by the city with an Type IV Enruned Peacekeeping Cudgel?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Because cadet–Macklin, is it?–there are things in Undertown that need kinetic encouragement to be good citizens.”

“Well sure, Sarge. We all get that. But why not use a .38?”

“While our Police Standard Issue is a fine choice for many duties, son, there are things in Undertown that don’t pay attention until you tap their should with something that has runes on it.”

“Okay, Sarge, but why not just put runes on a .38? I mean I’ve seen an Ogre Squad carrying more boarspears than shotguns! Shouldn’t we just put some runes on modern weapons?”

“First, Cadet Macklin, a shotgun lacks the lugs needed to keep a wounded globster from crawling up onto and over you while you and your squad hit it with the wrath of Good St. Alaina the dozen or more times it takes to bring it down.
“Second, runecasters have been putting the roxie on pigstickers and crossbows for centuries. They’ve gotten right good at it. But a nice Remmie pump 17? Been out less time than you’ve been alive. Turns out, until the Longbeards and Calicos in armaments have been perfecting the runes for a kind of weapon for a good dozen decades, the cost of enruing one is… prohibitive.”

“But Captain Auburn has that cherry Springfield with a bunch of runes on it!”

“She does indeed. Brought it back from the war. And she earned it. Got that for killing a dragon, Macklin.”

“A draaaagon, Sarge? Really?”

“Feel free to ask her your own self, cadet. If you want to lose your eyebrows for insolence. But until then, let’s train with the Peacekeeping Cudgels, shall we?”

PATREON
Enjoying Sorcerers & Speakeasies?
Right now the ONLY way I am going to have time to work on this is if my Patreon pays for the time. And this is my longest blog post in months! Which means it took a lot more of my effort away from other paying projects.

So if you want to see more of this setting, sign up for a few bucks a month, and let me know you want more S&S!

Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 3)

Last month we began a line of Design Diary entries discussing how to create a character class from scratch for a d20 class/level based game. We’ve gone over concept, and discussed the class progression tools various games give you to fill out the mechanical roles your class might fill. Now, it’s time to begin discussing the heart of what makes a class fun and unique–special abilities.

Of course there are lots of elements to good special abilities. Balanced numerical considerations. Well-worded rules. But also, matching (or intentionally breaking from) the game system’s class organization etiquette.

Yep. Etiquette.

Each d20-based game system has an etiquette on how classes are presented, which you need to understand on order to build a set of class features players will find satisfying and relatable. Yes, you can challenge it, but you need to know why it’s there and understand how GMs and players may react to a class that doesn’t follow the system’s rules of class presentation etiquette.

Since we haven’t talked much about special abilities yet, let me use a progression bonus example to explain what i mean/

If you were making a Chaos Adept class for Starfinder, you could perfectly well decide it has a +2 base Will bonus at 1st level, +0 at 2nd level, +3 at 3rd and 4th, +1 at 5th, and +4 at 6th. Done properly, that can be balanced, and match the class’s theme. None of those numbers are out of whack for balance purposes at the levels they are presented, so the class is not in that regard unbalanced.

But it breaks etiquette in a big way. A lot of GMs will flip out. It LOOKS wrong, since every other class in Starfinder uses one of just two progressions, which all march slowly upward at a regular pace. It also makes it really hard to a player to know if the class is one that in general is “good” at Will saves. If they want to be more mentally resilient than ususal should they invest in Iron Will or similar save-boosting options? Most players won;t have a clue.

Further, the class if going to give different end result feels at different levels. Sometimes it’ll feel very mentally resilient, while on other occasions it will seem weak for entire levels of gameplay at a time. That can be chaotic, of course, but it puts a lot of mystery into how the class is going to act, forcing the player to guess or do a fair amount of analysis before discovering what to expect from the class.

Is that worth the chaos-themed-feel? You can’t answer that questions until and unless you understand why the etiquette existed to begin with.

Different games handle how the class gains bonuses to basic tasks and game functions differently. Proficiency values are fixed in 5e, it’s what you apply them to that varies. Proficiency tiers are given as specific levels in PF2 and have set values. No one ever gets a d11 hit die in any of these games, even though d11s are easily available.

Using a specific set of tools and presentation makes it much clearer to players and GMs what a class is good at and should be able to do. Breaking those norms has consequences, and you need to grasp what those are before you can decide if your off-the-wall design is worth it.

There’s also some Picasso at work here.

If your choices appear entirely random and disconnected from how the game you are designing for builds a class, players and GMs have little reason to trust you know what you are doing as a designer. Suspicion and confusion can very quickly lead to gamers spending more time picking about the game design than playing the game, and that is unlikely to lead them to feel they got good value out of what your spend so much time and hard work creating.

On the other hand, if your class design is familiar in how most of it is presented, the places you do deviate from the norm are more likely to be accepted as mindful, intentional efforts to make something new and innovative. Like a work of Picasso, at least some people are going to evaluate something that breaks the normal conventions in the context of knowing the creator has proven to have mastered the normal rules of that art form first. Picasso mastered the conventional styles of art in his field, and was then able to change the rules from a place of understanding what they were and how to use them.

So, analyze how the existing classes in the game present everything from bonuses to proficiencies to class features. In Starfinder, every class has beginning armor and weapon proficiencies, class skilsl and skill points/level (and in general twice as many class skills as the number of skill points it gets per level), Weapon Specialization at exactly third level, and most have a few set core abilities every few levels and one or two different sets of tiered ability choices with level prerequisites.

By contract, 5e classes all have a proficiency bonus that increases by level (at exactly the same rate for every class), fixed abilities at most levels (generally with one kind of choice at 1st or 2nd), and one or two points where the player picks a specialization. Classes don’t have special class abilities that are picked every few levels in 5e, though things like feats and spell selection still have an element of that.

So if you want to introduce a whole new mechanic of player (say, a system of runes that don’t work like any existing class feature as I have in the runecaster class now available through the 52-in-52 program), you want for everything else in the class presentation to follow the normal class etiquette. Not only does that show you knew what you were doing, it lets gamers who look at your design focus on learning the new rules you are presenting, without having to also grasp a totally different presentation of information.

You CAN change anything you want as a designer. Just make sure you only do so when the result is worth the cognitive load on your customers.

Next week, for sure, we’ll talk about fixed abilities versus customizable abilities. 🙂

PATREON

These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.

Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 2)

Last week we began a line of Design Diary entries discussing how to create a character class from scratch for a d20 class/level based game. We tackled a number of questions about the concept for you class then, and now it’s time to look at taking that concept and turning it into playable game mechanics.

And that starts with the tools d20 games give you to define the base competencies of your class, and how quickly they progress.

Class Progression Tools

The heart of a good character class is its special abilities, but you don’t have to start with those. In fact, beyond a general idea of what you want its special abilities to be able to do, as part of settling on a class concept, I prefer not to focus on special abilities until I have more of the class’s framework in place. That framework is made up of various progressions — health, skill points, class skills, beginning proficiency, base attack bonus, base saving throws, and spell progression.

In most d20 games, there are only a few progressions available for these, and they are often interconnected in non-obvious ways. For example, in 1st edition Pathfinder, a class that gets a “full” base attack bonus progression (+1 to bab per level gained) always has at least a d10 Hit Points per level (the sole non d10 full-bab class is the Barbarian, who gets the slightly-larger d12), and no one gets a d10 or higher Hit Die unless they have a full bab progression.

In general, you want to have a balance of good, moderate, and bad progressions. In some cases those progressions already come in those quality levels–in most d20 games your base attack bonus progression can be good (+1/class level, like the barbarian, cavalier, fighter, soldier, and so on, also known as a “full” bab progression), moderate (+2/3 levels, like the bard, cleric, envoy, mechanic, and so on), or poor (+1/2 class levels, such as the sorcerer, witch, and wizard–interestingly Starfinder has no classes with this progression). In these systems it’s easy to see that if you give a class a good attack progression the focus of that class is combat, if you give moderate bab progression it is going to have numerous combat options but will either need abilities to make it more effective, or must accept that combat is a secondary function, and if you give it a poor progression it’s never going to be good at combat without special abilities.

There are some built in potential problems with those progressions that show up over 20 levels of play (the gap between a fighter’s chance to hit and a wizards goes from as little as 5% at 1st level to 50% or more at 20th), which several newer d20 games have tried to solve by having very different ways of rating who is combat. pathfinder 2nd edition has a flat progression of everything from level (+1 to attacks per level for all classes), and uses five ranks of proficiency (untrained, trained, expert, master, and legendary, or U/T/E/M/L) and class features to differentiate which classes are combat-focused. Most classes are at-best trained in various weapon categories, while the fighter begins play  expert in some attack options. Similarly 5e has a flat “proficiency bonus) (ranging from +2 to +6) which classes can add to various attacks, defenses, skills, and ability score checks, and class features (the barbarian’s rage, the fighter’s fighting style) determine who is good at the raw math of combat.

The best way to begin a character class is to see how many good, moderate, and poor progressions (or whatever similar mechanics the game in question uses) a typical class gets and which classes have which progressions. Normally a class that is strong in combat has weaker skill options but more HP, and characters with strong spell abilities have weaker saving throws. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but you want to make sure every class both has strengths and weaknesses, and that it’s bonuses and game mechanics support what the description and flavor tell players the class is good at.

That last element can be tricky, of course. If you have a Combatant class (not a great name, but fine for example purposes) which you describe as the best class at combat, and a Big Boxer class which you describe as the best at unarmed combat, it’s going to be frustrating for Big Boxer players of the Combatant is better even at unarmed combat than Big Boxers are. On the other hand, you don’t want all the flavor and mechanics of a class to just be a difference on where they get their bonuses. You could have an Archer class and a Smasher class and have their only different be the Archer gets big bonuses to ranged weapons and the Smasher gets them to hammer attacks, but that gets boring and tightly locks those classes into narrow character concepts.

Spellcasting deserves a special note here, because not every class gets it, and it has a huge impact on character effectiveness. The most obvious variable in levels of spellcasting is what level spell a character gains access to–in early d20 games it’s often a question of 4-level spellcasting (such as the paladin and ranger), 6-level (such as the bard and all official Starfinder spellcasting classes), and 9-level (such as clerics, druids, and wizards). But even within that there are important distinctions such as how effective a spell list is at specific things (the wizard spell list has more and better offensive options than the cleric, for example).

Again, not every d20 game keeps this set of progressions (5e has 5-level and 9-level casting, PF2 has 10-level casting and access to specific focus spells), but each game generally has a few standards you can borrow when building the superstructure of your character class. If you don’t feel like you know what the progressions and proficiencies of the core classes of the game you are designing for are, you need to do some study and analysis before you try to write a character class for that game.

You don’t have to get all this right in your first pass–if a class initially feels like it’s going to be strong at skills and spellcasting and weak on everything else, and then analysis or playtesting reveals that limits its options too much, you can go back and beef up some other progression to give it more core competency. But handling your initial idea of progressions, proficiencies, skills, and spells up front also helps define where things like special abilities should go. If a class doesn’t gain any spellcasting (or mutations, psionics, superpowers, miracles, or whatever) in a game where such powers exist, it’s worth thinking about how that class is going to deal with things that DO have supernatural powers when writing the class’s special abilities.

Because special abilities are the heart and soul of most classes. And we’ll look at them, especially fixed abilities versus customizable abilities, next week!

PATREON

These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.