Saturday, October 10, 2009

Unwavering fixtures of all my FRPG campaigns

As I have been lately revisiting my gaming past, and especially as I have reviewed old campaign materials from various phases of my game-mastering career, I have noticed certain trends and tendencies in my world-creation preferences.  Although my refereeing experience extends across D&D, AD&D, D&D 3.5e, Tunnels and Trolls, Traveller, Shadowrun, a game of my own co-design called Crimson Blades of Ara, and no doubt a few others I am forgetting, nevertheless there are certain stock characters, key events, and recurring motifs that reappear with great regularity in nearly all my campaigns.  Since I am offering a campaign world / backdrop, I thought it might be fun to share some of the recurring features that seem to make their way into virtually every FRPG campaign I have ever run. 

A Crashed Alien Spaceship – Of course the big inspiration here is Expedition to the Barrier Peaks,  but the reason I nearly always throw a crashed spaceship somewhere into my fantasy RPG campaigns is because I have always loved that fantasy / sci-fi generic blurring found in fiction like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books and Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.  So with me, there are always aliens (or at least inter-dimensional beings) involved at some stage in nearly every FRPG campaign.  In time, I will document a few ideas I have about specific alien ship crashes and extraterrestrial incursions into the Lands of Ara, including deploying robots like this in such scenarios.

Funny Names For Places And People – I try to make my key villains and party allies fairly serious / believable in tone, but most of my smaller supporting-cast NPCs have ridiculous and/or obscene names, for example, Barnacle-Head (at least he’s a sailor!) or, in Marsh Town (called by many locals Sluggerton), there is Ork-Ork, a half-elven man with a right club foot who is a part time fishmonger, part-time fence. Also from Sluggerton is a powerful but eccentric Enchanter simply known as Old Man Fish-Penis; the best swamp guide in Sluggerton is a young fellow named Rabbit-Head.  I also love ridiculous or sexually suggestive place-names, like Snotream Harbor, Barfington (home of the popular tavern the Aroused Barracuda), and Bull-Licker Terrace (home of an important wise woman / sorceress named the Witch of Bull-Licker Terrace). 

Hokka the Sailor – No campaign of mine (certainly no Arandish campaign) would be complete without Hokka the Sailor, the fearless, hard-drinking, adventure-seeking, and seemingly indestructible Noffellian sea captain / black marketeer.  Of course, I must give credit where credit is due and state that I did not invent Hokka – he is in fact the creation of Scott Peoples, a key playtester of Crimson Blades of Ara and referee of the “Hotel Kaladarian” campaign, wherein we first met Hokka in a Noffellian seaport.  It is from that original campaign of Scott’s that my fondest memory of Hokka emerges: we were in search of a fearsome giant sea serpent, and had hired Hokka to take us out to the serpent’s known feeding area.  The sea serpent appeared and attacked the ship, and during the height of the fray, Hokka, dangling from a rope high on his own ship’s mast, was swinging his cutlass at the attacking sea serpent while simultaneously shouting curses and, using his off-hand to hold himself, taking a piss on the giant creature – that is Hokka at his best.  In my campaigns, Hokka has never been killed – for me, such a thing is unthinkable.  Hokka is a constant.  Hokka and his crew, being fearless adventure-seekers, are almost always willing to transport adventure parties for a cash fee or fair trade.  In a forthcoming post I will provide more gaming-specific details about Hokka and his crew. 

A Mad Hermit . . . or two . . . or three  -- This is a “borrow” from the first adventure I ever played or refereed, D&D Module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, wherein there is a mad hermit described simply as “a solitary hermit” who “has haunted this area of the forest, becoming progressively wilder and crazier and more dangerous.”  I love this.  Wild, mad, and dangerous recluses are about my favorite NPCs to play, so they are always lurking around in my campaigns.  My mad hermits usually know a good deal of the truth of what is going on in the area, almost to an oracular degree at times, but the way in which they reveal it is deliberately disjointed, obfuscating, and often laced with tons of obscene non-sequiturs and strange haggling.

Vampires as the ultimate Arch-Villains – I have always been quite terrified of vampires, a phobia I trace back to the 1970s TV mini-series Salems’ Lot and the very Max Schreck-ian vampire that James Mason works alongside in that program.  So when Dave and I were creating Ara, I made sure that with the possible exception of very ancient dragons, vampires would be more or less the most powerful evil creatures in Ara.  I still hold that as a cornerstone of the conception of Ara: vampires are very powerful there and should in fact be the most dreaded villains in the region.  In Ara, vampires are actually ancient magic-users who practiced evil arts and were imprisoned forever in Mount Mornlyn after the Old War (I will cover these events in greater detail in a forthcoming post about the exploits of Arlon, the best-known apprentice of creator-sorceress Awra).  Except, of course, that some of the most powerful and evil of these imprisoned wizards figured out how to make themselves undead, subsequently escaped Mornlyn, and now terrorize Ara from secret strongholds throughout the lands.  In a way, Arandish vampires are really more akin to Liches (and Demi-Liches!) from AD&D: ancient and incredibly powerful evil sorcerers gone undead.  I will give stats for a few typical Arandish vampires in a forthcoming post.

Valley of the Dinosaurs – I love dinos, though I actually think it is a bit incongruous and silly to place them in a medieval fantasy setting.  Yet I cannot resist doing so again and again. To resolve this crisis, I always put my campaign dinos in a remote valley “that time forgot” or posit them as the experiment of some bizarre wizard or summoner.  I make the appearance of dinosaurs a weird exception, NOT as creatures widely distributed throughout Ara.  But they are the “exception” that I almost always work in because I love dinosaurs so much.

The “Scumbrella” Spell – Scumbrella is a 1st-Level magic-user spell that is cast upon a single mundane umbrella.  The next time that umbrella is opened, it dumps sewage and filth all over the person(s) underneath it.  This is a “practical joke” spell with very little direct combat application – maybe I would call the person scummed by a Scumbrella surprised for one round – but it seems like the kind of spell I would certainly write if I were a magic-user and that I imagine would be quite popular amongst other spellcasters as well.  What’s a little harmless fun?


  1. If someone has open wounds when opening the Scumbrella, perhaps a save vs. poison is in order to avoid catching some nasty disease? Fecal matter being what it is, and all.

    Carry on!