Two Sets of Campaign-Building Questions

Recently the OSR Server has been posting a lot of campaign-building questions, huh? These are answers from my setting, the Dawn State, for questions from both The Slopyard and from The Mad Queen’s Court. Definitely check both blogs out – they’re both quite prolific within the OSR blogosphere.

The Mad Queen (Vayra) asks:

1) What class knows the most martial arts? Are they real martial arts like kung fu, or made up ones like krav maga?

2) Can I start out having already made a deal with the devil or do I have to do that in game?

3) Do you want me to write an 8-page backstory? Can I write an 8-page backstory, if I want to? If I write something down in it like I’m the timelost princess of the brass city and the daughter of the sun and I commanded legions in the Hell War but was betrayed by my father’s vizier but I don’t know that, or that I’m elf conan and cooler than everyone else, will that be true?

4) If I eat someone’s heart, will I gain their powers? What about their brain?

5) These classes are boring, can I be one from somewhere else? What about from a different system entirely?

6) If I make a sword, which one of us gets to name it?

7) Am I allowed to kill the other player characters? What would I have to do to be allowed to? Do I win if I kill them all? Actually, how do I win in general?

8) What language stands in for ‘Common’? Or what are we all talking to each other in? Like the party, mostly, but also everyone else?

9) How do I learn how to talk to rocks? No not once a day just, like, normally?

10) Which kinds of wizards get to serve kings and live in towers and shit and which ones are run out of town or stoned to death in the streets? Can I be both? At the same time?

1. There is no such class. The Asians Represent! podcast and YouTube channel has done a fairly deep dive into cultural stereotypes about East Asia, and one of the themes that comes up is the core idea that the “monk” class in D&D just straight-up doesn’t belong with a lot of the other character classes of D&D. I realize that “martial arts” can be extricated from the “monk” and vice versa, but the memetic weight of the D&D monk is such that I find an extrication doesn’t work without going into exacting detail about non-Asian martial arts…something I was unwilling to do for my preferred form of D&D, which is a relatively culturally light one.

DM Steve, an internet friend of mine, has expressed on multiple occasions his sadness and frustration with the monk existing, all the way through to today, a core class of D&D, despite that disconnect with the rest of the way D&D classes are characterized and presented. It is a set of emotions that I share as well.

Despite the two above facets, I did for a time try out variants of having a martial arts character, both in D&D 5th Edition with my own much-tinkered-with “Adept” class in Basic/Expert D&D, a class that practiced D&D-riffed martial arts like Path of the Flailing Kraken and Path of the Lurking Basilisk. I ended up ultimately scrapping those experiments as well.

If extrication is a daunting task, then what about cultural reclamation? In theory, it’s possible to reclaim a martial artist class from the thoroughly stereotyped concepts Gygax took from Hong Kong and Hollywood cinema, which he then pastiched with the idea of this…enlightened, disciplined caricature of the spiritual monk. The Hill Cantons campaign does it through lamp-shading – the Chaos Monk they use is explicitly coded as a confused American entrenched in 80s nostalgia, using both throwing stars and bowie knives as their “monk weapons”.

But when I look at more formally conducted reclamation work, which is what I’d rather emulate than lamp-shading, I always see the steps as starting with properly Claiming a thing as the originating culture’s, again. It would be very jarring if in my game, I interrupted the page of a martial adept with a formal claim of that nature. Then, typically, one would gather a mix of testimonies and stories from the originating culture; I’m just one Chinese American. I can’t, as a solo operation, meaningfully push back against the engrained image of the monk in D&D. Then, you would typically celebrate or honor how the original cultural artifact has survived or thrived contemporaneously¬†with the appropriated or stereotyped cultural artifact. I won’t continue in this vein, but you can see where I’m going in Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith.

Long story short, properly reclaiming a cultural artifact and contextualizing its seizure requires both more labor and page count than what it would take to write an entire game, never mind a single character class.

Since I play my game often with Chinese people, it’s been suggested that I could have an “Adept” class ready in my back pocket, to pull out in a situation where it wouldn’t be Orientalized. But the nature of cultural appropriation is that even among Chinese Americans, our understanding of Chinese martial arts is often syncretized with movie caricatures. My friends who practice martial arts lament how little I, as a non-practitioner, understand both the process and the philosophies that surround said practices.

Given all of the above, for my personal case, I find that the benefits of removing the class outweigh the benefits of attempting its inclusion. This isn’t to say that I necessarily alienate anyone if I include it. I’m sure that I have friends who have played in campaigns with my 5e monks and with my adept class, who felt none of the tension I do. All the same, unless I’m able to mesh proper decolonizing methodologies with game design, OR if I’m able to mesh real-life martial arts experience with game design, I will refrain from exploring this area of class design again.

2. Blissfully, my answer can be short this time! The Arbiter class in my OSR games, the Warlock in my 5e games, and taking a One Unique Thing in my 13th Age games – those are the three ways to start out with a deal with the devil.

3. Truthfully, I find an active conversation to be more productive than an essay, long or short. Character creation is very dependent on the world the character is to inhabit, and so a back-and-forth is going to create more backstory elements that will actually come up in the game than you writing something yourself. For the specific backstories you listed, there are no direct analogs in the setting – how it would work is we would talk about what does exist in the setting, and you could fold your character into one of those elements, or we would workshop a new element of the setting together.

4. Eating meat is not a means of gaining magic. What you would be more likely to gain is time in the gaols. Cannibalism is a crime.

5. So, fun story! I used to say yes to this, and in fact actively encouraged this for my OSR games. Then, one of my players brought in a Wonder & Wickedness sorcerer – one that I’d helped to adapt to the power level of my game. This player triggered a Spell Catastrophe (page 6) of the spell Rockspeech, and rolled a 3 on the Spell Catastrophe table (page 42), causing an earthquake at his character’s location. After this earthquake, which downed most of the party, the casting triggered a 1 in 6 chance that an earthquake would occur – this is listed in the spell description of Rockspeech (page 14). So the party had two earthquakes centered on their location…while they were in a rocky Derro tunnel with already weakened supports – if you’re curious, the spell was cast in D4. Inner Cave of the AD&D 1E module, UK4: When a Star Falls.

Needless to say, nearly the entire party died to a literal “rocks fall, you die” scenario – the oft-parodied example of a bad, overly adversarial GM. Only one player survived both earthquakes, and he told me that his character was happy to live with the local hunter-gatherers of Therno Pass, giving up on adventuring after the horrors he’d witnessed.

Since this event, I have ceased to allow gaming content from other systems.

6. Players can’t just make a magic item out-of-game, hand me the typed work, and expect it to appear in-game. But if a character makes a sword in-game, they of course get naming rights to it.

7. PvP happens only with consent of both parties, and involves no dice rolls or mechanics of any kind. If you talk to another player about killing their character, the way you kill them is if they say yes. And if that happens, they just die – I’m not interested in playing it out. I’m primarily interested in telling games of close-knit groups of friends and family, not to adjudicate a game of interparty shenanigans. I’ve no judgment of the latter, but it’s not the sort of thing I care for.

As for how to win – that depends on where you set your sights, as both player and character. If your goal is to have social interactions through gaming, you’re already winning and you don’t even know it! If your goals involve killing a noble or laying claim to treasure, then you know the obstacles you must get through. If your goal is to save the world or something, it’s worth checking your expectations – the world may not be coming to an end, and in fact often isn’t.

8. I generally assume everybody understands one another unless we want a campaign rife with specific languages. The way this assumption works in-world is that social group has their own language – there is no in-world concept of “Common”, it’s just assumed that everyone is multilingual enough to communicate in a competent fashion.

The thing a lot of games treat as “Common” is some form of trading language between merchants…which isn’t true for me – so when you speak to a person from a different country in the game world, I imagine you are swapping to their language, which you’ve picked up bits and pieces of. I do not imagine that you are using a mercantile pidgin of weights and prices to communicate. This flavor distinction isn’t really that important…but if you’re curious, that’s how my head-canon goes.

9. You can always talk to rocks. After the catastrophe I described in Answer 5 though, I’ve decided that rocks do not talk back.

10. The influence of wizards over kings requires either political savvy or heroic reputation, and most likely both. Being stoned is quite easy – just be a nuisance to enough people. Being stoned to death, however, is nearly impossible. If you are enough of a nuisance for that to occur, I’m most likely going to stop the game and ask what you think you’re doing. In either case – whether you’re trying to affect a king or a street, the endeavor will most likely be a party effort – so make sure your party is on board.

The Slopyard (Filth Pig) asks:

  1. Is there Blood Magic? Necromancy? Can I start off with these powers or do I have to get them d-d-d-diegetically? Will these things get me hanged/drawn, quartered and burned over water/tortured/burned at the stake? Is your Necromancer working off the “divination from the dead” definition or is it cool?
  2. Will my limbs get hacked off? Can I get new limbs? Do they have to be human or can I have monster parts? Is there a class that does all this or is it just an NPC?
  3. When was the last plague in the setting and how soon can we expect the next one? Can we swindle people by selling fake plague cures?
  4. Cannibalism gives you: A) Kuru, B) Magical Powers, C) Full stomach, D) Yet Another Unexpected Twist ?
  5. What’s can’t I do that isn’t super obvious?

1. Yes to both, though necromancy is explicitly a type of magic, while blood magic isn’t a formal thing – some spells just require blood, and others don’t. Players have to get these spells diegetically though – very few such spells can be gotten simply by leveling up.

Necromancy isn’t really seen as evil in most circles – the only reason necromancy doesn’t feature more heavily in the default spell list is so as to not accidentally handicap a player. A lot of necromantic spells require base materials that are not easy to get in all the campaigns I run. For instance, if a necromantic spell requires a lab and I’m running a borderlands campaign, you would not be able to cast it. If a spell requires a humanoid and I’m running a gauntlet of non-humanoid monsters, I would not want a player to pick that spell and then be disappointed. As such, necromancy is better as a diegetic element – in campaigns where it matters, the campaign world will provide it, not the core rules.

2. My basic answer is that “anything can happen, but these aren’t likely to”. You shouldn’t expect your limbs to be hacked off, you shouldn’t expect prosthetics, and there is no class that does this. I will comment that permanent maiming of player character bodies (such as limb loss or eye loss) at my table warrants a discussion with all players, and requires unanimous consent – not everybody is comfortable with this sort of thing.

3. Since I run the same setting, but at different time periods, the answer varies. The Dawn State is a biopunk setting, though, so peddling false treatments tends to be less effective than in other settings – though you are always free to try!

4. What is it with GLoG designers and vore? You get jail time, that’s what you get. What an Unexpected Twist. Go to vore jail.

In all seriousness, don’t just try to eat people unless you know every player is okay with it, and even then wait until you’ve gotten some indication that there’s a culturo-mechanical reason to do so. Randomly eating people (or asking about the same) is the sort of behavior that makes well-meaning, curious tabletop newbies spring in the other direction from the OSR.

5. I actually tried to search up other people’s answers to this to understand what you meant. It’s really open-ended. Since that didn’t help, though, I guess I’ll just list out what players have been surprised by in my games.

  • In my Heroes of Eldolan campaign, one of the players thought he had to use class abilities to solve problems. Some large, chinchilla-sized moths landed on him, and one of them crawled into his pockets and started to eat his spellbook. He promptly cast fireball on himself and then jumped into a river to reduce the damage. So, the moths were meant to be a sort of…pastoral, cuddly, worldbuilding sort of encounter. He would have been able to just say “I pluck them off before they get to eat any pages.” You can’t like, just do things like that and expect to survive – he nearly died.
  • In my Heroes of Eldolan campaign, one player wanted to see an NPC from 10 sessions ago, and was surprised to learn that he couldn’t, because I didn’t remember that NPC at all. I do often have even random NPCs be recurring, but sometimes I don’t have notes or memory of a person. It happens.
  • One thing you can do, though lots of my players think they can’t. In my At the Foot of the Colossus campaign, a player thought that since I’d prepared a dungeon, it would be unsporting to not go into the dungeon. This is complicated – it sort of depends on the campaign. But in most cases, if you don’t want to go into a dungeon, ask me before assuming that you have to.

    Sometimes, I genuinely am not ready for non-dungeon adventuring, so I may end the session early to prep that other content. Sometimes…yeah, I need your buy-in to the idea that this is the dungeon you’re doing. We’re not doing anything else, sorry, go into the dungeon. In some situations, I’m totally fine with you crawling around the map looking for other things to do. Whatever the case, please do feel comfortable asking! I won’t bite.
  • A thing players absolutely cannot do, is to no-show sessions without telling me why. I’m fine if people miss sessions even for a last-minute reason, so long as they let me know. But if you don’t show up to a session and I have to seek you out to figure out why, I will kick you. Period. I usually don’t even bother giving a freebie or a warning. This is a social event, and you are disrespecting every single person here. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances, but I’m pretty harsh on this point.
  • In my When a Star Falls campaign, players gravitated toward “interesting” NPCs and were turned off by “uninteresting” NPCs. This is an oversimplification (sorry if you were in my WaSF campaign, I know there were other aspects to the situation), but in general, you can’t assume that “interesting” means “worthwhile” and “uninteresting” means “not worthwhile”. Frankly, as a player I’m happy to have any hireling or allied faction opportunities at all. If you only approve hirelings and allies who pass a high bar…well, you can’t do that. You’ll die.
  • In my Woodfall campaign, this also happened. Again, there are extenuating circumstances, but my players turned down multiple “uninteresting” NPCs as allies and hirelings in pursuit of someone “interesting” – and that “interesting” person ended up having her own motives, and as such abandoned the party. So you can’t let those “lesser” NPCs go. Or rather, you can, but doing so is going to make the campaign much harder for you – I design campaigns with finite resources in mind, including human resources. If you neglect your human resources, that can lead to a loss condition down the road.
  • In my Woodfall campaign, a TPK occurred and part of the party defined their new identities as players as “players who are going to avenge the first party of characters”. I’m not going to say you can’t do this, but I will say that I don’t think it’s very fulfilling. I don’t really glorify the vengeance narrative, and most monsters who kill players don’t grandstand over doing so – to them, the last players they killed were likely just prey, or deaths due to self-defense.

    As such, revenge ends up creating a sort of hollow “objective”, both for characters and for players. The vengeance doesn’t lead anywhere, doesn’t unlock new elements of drama or new information. It’s not like a Souls game either, where vengeance at least gets you something valuable back. Usually if somebody is killed, I narrate it as their armor being crumpled or otherwise ruined, and a lot of their usable items will either go bad or get used in the interim. It’s just not very satisfying I think to try to “resolve” the last TPK that happened, as players. Better to find loftier goals.
  • In my Woodfall campaign, players turned away from available treasure, thinking that it would be theft. Just like with the “ignoring lesser NPCs” thing, this is understandable but can have more dire consequences than players realize. The players managed to pass up around 4 lore items (one of which could have convinced an opposing NPC to their side and one of which would have made an adventuring location a lot safer), 5 magic items (one of which could have turned a fight they lost into a victory), and around 800 gp (which would have been enough for at least one player to level up once more). I’m not saying that looting everything is the way to go either. But just…keep a balance in mind. That same comment about “finite resources” from before comes to mind. A campaign only has so much EXP to offer you, and so many magic items or lore items to offer you.
  • In my Woodfall campaign, at least one player (possibly two) kept waiting for an “ideal” situation to get rid of a major enemy NPC. They were waiting for a boss fight setup, or waiting for him to put himself at greater risk than he did.

    I won’t call this a can’t, because it’s good to assess risks. But in general, if you think I’m running a competent villain, trust your gut. If the villain is incompetent, that will be apparent usually from their introduction (I’ll have them being stupid from square 1). If an enemy is coded as competent and players wait for them to make an “unforced error” before acting, I find that the players often wait too long, and the villain’s plans thrive unimpeded, generating loss condition after loss condition for various player objectives and desires.

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