When D&D is the wrong tool for the job

There are times when the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game isn’t the most effective tool for the job, even when the job is creating a backstory for a D&D adventure or campaign.

While working on a few non-player character (NPC) anecdotes to add flavor to my next D&D campaign, I was presented with something of a conundrum. I wanted to retell a story of a skirmish-level battle, but most of the participants weren’t standard D&D heroes with classes, levels and powers as explained in the rules. Instead, the protagonists were town watchmen, some militiamen, a guard captain and a fighter with a bit of ecclesiastical training, all people whose abilities are outshined by even a first level D&D character. Without wanting to reduce the combat to a meaningless tussle between minion-type monsters or to draw up a battle story from scratch, I resorted to an infrequently used weapon in my D&D arsenal: a different game system. Continue reading


World Building Week, Part V:Involving the Heroes and Tracking Growth

This screenshot from Keynote illustrates one way a DM can track information as a homebrew campaign grows.

This post is the last in a series on creating a “homebrew” setting for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part IIPart III and Part IV before continuing here.

By this point in the setting design process, the dungeon master (DM) has enough background material to portray a convincing game world to the players. The only task remaining before play can begin is to help the players find a starting place in that world.

At the start of what this series calls “the example campaign,” this task was completed by having the first game session of the campaign devoted exclusively to the task of character generation and character background. It may seem like a full session is far too much time to allocate to the task, as many games place little or no emphasis on character background, but the time invested pays grand dividends in player involvement. Continue reading

D&D World Building Week, Part IV: Culture

This post is fourth in a series on creating a “homebrew” setting for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II and Part III before continuing here.

Thus far in this series, the dungeon master (DM) has established the general concepts and scope of the campaign, developed a working map of the campaign region, designed a few major conflicts which will unfold at the start of the game and created a historical timeline, which can be used for both internal consistency and a guide for placement of settlements, ruins and adventure sites.

The next step in this process is to come up with a handful of memorable campaign cultures. Continue reading

D&D World Building Week, Part III: History

This post is third in a series on creating a “homebrew” setting for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I and Part II before continuing here.

The importance of history in a campaign setting varies with style of play. In games where the focus is on combat and powergaming, for example, players don’t typically care where abandoned ruins come from; practically speaking, the ruins only exist to provide monsters with a place to live, and heroes with an interesting background for fighting them.

For games that place greater emphasis on role-playing, however, campaign history is a vital way to connect players with the setting. A key element in helping players suspend disbelief while playing is showing them how their characters fit into an ongoing story. If the dungeon master (DM) can use hsitory to explain why the heroes are where they are, and give the impression that the heroes’ successes or failures will impact the future of the game world, the players will have an easier time playing their roles in the story.

Continue reading

D&D World Building Week, Part II: Cartography and Conflicts

The Island of Myros was the example campaign’s regional map.

Yesterday’s post described some methods for developing themes for a new D&D “homebrew” setting. With the brainstorming finished and a handful of guiding concepts at hand, it’s time to start building the framework for the campaign. In the approach discussed here, this step begins with a regional campaign map.

Creating the Campaign Map

The map could depict a small continent, a great plateau, a settled valley (like the Nentir Vale detailed in the fourth edition (4e) Dungeon Master’s Guide) or a portion of a larger continent; anything that works with the concepts you’ve generated inPart I is fine.

It’s important to remember that, at this point, this is the dungeon master’s (DM’s) map. As such, it can contain terrain or special map features related to the campaign’s theme that wouldn’t automatically be player knowledge, like lost ruins or monster lairs. The players’ map of the setting wouldn’t depict these special locations. Continue reading

D&D World Building Week, Part I: Concepts

Every D&D game world starts out as a blank sphere. What a DM places in it - or chooses not to place in it - is what makes for memorable campaigns.

One of the goals of the RPG Athenaeum is to provide useful material for readers to employ in their Dungeons & Dragons games, whether these games take place in settings modified from published material or entirely of their own creation. This blog hasn’t, however, addressed the topic of how dungeon masters (DMs) might go about creating unique settings for their players; less experienced DMs may not even know where to start. World Building Week, a five-post series on “homebrew” campaign construction beginning today, is directed toward these DMs in particular.

Throughout this series, the posts will refer to this writer’s most recent homebrew campaign setting. Continually referencing the same setting will hopefully clarify the manner in which the various topics contribute to the whole.

The first post in this series discusses campaign theme. Continue reading