I started a new D&D4e campaign with my sunday group. It’s the third time I’ve tried running a fourth edition campaign for that group. I’m having trouble hitting the right tone – the first game’s setting was too restrictive, the second was my attempt to run Old School play with a ruleset that’s not suited for it. 4e needs a looser, more varied setting than I’m used to running.
So, the new campaign pitch:
“The sun glitters on the water by the docks, reflecting off the iron-clad hull of the dwarven fireships and the shimmering aura of the towers. The docks are crowded at this hour. There is a clamour of tongues to be heard here. There are traders in Vancere from every nation and plane of existence, these days. Ever since the Gatekeeper’s Guild tamed the Rift and turned the legacy of the Hellkin into a portal to the multiverse…”
Right. Paragon-level 4e campaign, as I’ve been muttering about for a while. Centuries ago, a portal to Hell opened just outside the city of Vancere, and horrors crawled out and conquered much of the world before heroes drove them back and sealed the rift. Long afterwards, an ambitious wizard developed a method of controlling the interplanar rift. Vancere became a trade hub for all reality. It’s a cosmopolitan city, with all sorts of weird denizens. Think Renaissance Venice mixed with baroque fantasy. There are living gargoyles on the cathedrals, golems on the docks, and golden-eyed elven exiles trade in dreams and enchantments in the shady cafes.
Your characters are champions of their faction/race in the city. We’ll determine the exact makeup of the city and its geography collaboratively. There’ll be some interfaction politics, but a surprising percentage of the city’s problems can be solved with swords and sorcery.
One of main inspirations was Judd’s Make Your Own New Crobuzon post, coupled with some ideas I’ve been toying with about city design. The city’s demographic breakdown is determined partially by the players’ choice of PC races. Each player also gets to pick a race from the Monster Manual that would be a common sight in the city.
I wanted the process to create a map of the city. Each race therefore gets their own neighbourhood in the city, and each neighbourhood has at least one distinctive feature. I didn’t bother with a detailed map, just a sketch map of nodes. We’ll fill it in as play progresses. I pre-seeded it with a few locations – the Obsidian Citadel, the docks, a gladiatorial arena, the Gatekeeper’s Guild, and the portal itself out in the harbour.
So, how did it turn out?
The players came up with:
- Delrakhones, a Human Warlock
- Tarak, a Half-Orc Fighter
- Alaric, a Longtooth Shifter Ranger
- Medrano, a Deva Cleric
Humans live in the Old City, along the cliffs. The richer families have houses atop the cliffs, with private docks or even caves below. The Old City is basically a gated community – it’s almost exclusively humans (or things that look human, anyway). Warlocks are part of the Diabolist’s Guild, who are responsible for diplomatic relations with Hell and ensuring that the devilish presence in Vancere doesn’t go beyond agreed-upon quotas.
Half-Orcs live in an enclave that’s basically one huge tenement, and Tarak is the boss. He’s a greedy, criminal thug, who hires his orcs out as ettercap hunters and bruisers. He’s also rumoured to have breeding pits in the depths of the city.
Shifters have their own small district near the arena. Many of them are former veterans of the arena; Alaric’s a champion pit fighter. Rising up from the heart of this district is the Red Tower, the sealed fortress of the mad wizard who made the shifters.
The Deva dwell in a monastery by the shore. They are followers of a deity of trade and fellowship, and came to the city to guide the human merchants as they explored the planes. Watching over the harbour is a huge statue of a lost Deva hero, who it is prophesied will be reborn one day.
The added races were trolls (living under a huge bridge), ettercaps (spinning webs across alleyways and infesting attics), gargoyles (clerics who perch on their own massive cathedral) and, er, beholders. There’s a giant floating stone orb hanging over the city, and the beholders have their own faction in Parliament (everyone’s terrified of them, so much so that everyone’s very polite about the new citizens with just the right number of eyes, why, everyone else is quite deficient in terms of ocular capacity’).
The presence of trolls as citizens raised a bit of a problem – I’d grabbed a generic Paragon-tier dungeon crawl off the WotC site that was full of trolls. I’d already established that the PCs are Lictors, exalted citizens with voting rights who are also champions/spokesmen/investigators, so I just gave them a license to kill and made sure the trolls attacked first.
I was especially pleased that all the player backgrounds have at least one solid adventure hook built in – at some point, we’ll find that Deva hero, explore the secrets of the Red Tower, have mafia hijinks with Torak, and visit Hell courtesy of the Diabolist’s Guild. The trick will be keeping the creative stew going while also keeping the setting internally consistent.