Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Silver Marches Sandbox 1A - A Revised Introduction

When I started this series of posts I began with a simple introduction that, twelve or so posts later, feels in need of an update.

As I have been putting down my ideas for this campaign in these posts, and also thinking about other ideas as I go about my daily business, I am finding that some things are taking on a more definite shape primarily in relation to background information and the identities and activities of antagonists. That said, I still want to try and keep the sandbox feel - conscious, too, that that is such a vague term - but there are antagonists and there are things going on in the background so why not give them a little bit of detail.

Behind-the-Scenes: What is this All About?

I am no fan of WotC's adventures. Generally speaking, they suck. Even WotC seems to agree as there have been public comments about the need to publish better adventures particularly with the dog's breakfast known as D&D Next (aka D&D Previous, aka D&D Fifth Edition, aka AD&D Third Edition etc...) scheduled to be published later this year. This seems to be the sink or swim edition for D&D at WotC in the face of demands from Hasbro to turn D&D into a genuine moneyspinner.

Anyway, corporate crap aside, WotC needs to produce better adventures for the new edition. It cannot afford another Keep on the Shadowfell or (the even more execrable) Pyramid of Shadows so I have been watching the few Next (pre-Next?) releases carefully.

The first one that was widely available was Murder in Baldur's Gate. It sucked. It blew chunks. It was not an adventure. And yet some people enjoyed it. Good on them. :)

But then came the second: Legacy of the Crystal Shard. Wow. This was an adventure - actually, a mini-campaign - that I could really enjoy. It got my creative juices running to the point where my largely dead blog had a burst of new life in the form of a series of posts suggesting ways to expand Legacy of the Crystal Shard with some other published adventures.

But Icewind Dale is relatively small and, as I am not a R A Salvatore fan (with the exception of The Crystal Shard), the area doesn't hold my interest. Plus, as I thought about some of my posts, I realised that the ideas would work even better in the Silver Marches. The final clincher for using the Silver Marches was, simply put, the superb map created by Mike Schley.

This is the map Mike Schley created:

It's simply superb.

And this is the shitstain, if you will pardon the language, excreted for 4E's Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide:

It's one thing to destroy the Realms with the Spellplague and the other 4E changes (frankly, I understand why these were done and the fact that I use the 4E Realms shows I can work within those changes). It's another thing to then map the world using the contents of a baby's nappy/diaper.

Focussing on the positive, I can work with Mike Schley's map and it's something I can show to new players and give them a decent overview of the region their characters will be exploring. And that's a good segue into my next major point, I am planning to run this campaign for players new to tabletop RPGs and to the Realms.

And while I plan to use either 4E or 13th Age to run the game (and I am leaning toward 4E because, despite its greater complexity, I think grid-based combat is a great way to learn tactics), I want to try and include a lot of old school influences primarily by adapting old 1E and 2E adventures. Other than the ruleset, anyone who plays this campaign should be having similar experiences to someone who started playing D&D in the 1980s like I did.

That also means I want to include a lot of the so-called clichés (aka tropes) of D&D and the Forgotten Realms. There will be dungeons and there will be dragons. There will be drow and the Underdark. There will be slavers (and Slave Lords) and the Zhentarim. There will be beholder and mind flayers and other monsters from the first Monster Manual. And, of course, there will be bugbears, goblins, hobgoblins, ogres, orcs and giants.

And these monsters will be fought in homages to, inter alia, B1 In Search of the Unknown (for which the campaign is named), B2 Keep on the Borderlands, D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, D3 Vault of the Drow, G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, G2 The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King, and Night Below.

Plot, Metaplot & Subplot

When I started thinking about ways to create a sandbox in the Silver Marches that would basically involve throwing existing adventures on to Mike Schley's map, I made a conscious choice to avoid issues of story or, as I have termed it here, plot, metaplot and subplot (a paraphrase, in the loosest sense, of the legendary Winston Churchill's comment about "rum, sodomy, and the lash"). However, as my ideas involve, inter alia, the drow, the Netherese and the Zhentarim I do need to give this some attention.

The Zhentarim

Tackling them in reverse alphabetical order, I will begin with the Zhentarim because they are the simplest.

Normally when I involve Zhentarim in my campaigns they are a major enemy and may even provide the ultimate BBEG of the campaign. At the moment, that is not my plan for this campaign. Rather, my plan is to use them as they are found in the 4E Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide: they are purely a band of mercenaries with no principles preventing them from being hired by even more evil groups. 

In this campaign, they have been hired by the Netherese to cause strife in the Silver Marches by disrupting trade between and among the three major cities of Silverymoon, Sundabar and Everlund and also along the River Rauvin by acting as river pirates. And that's it. There is, at the moment, no grand scheme for the Zhents in the Silver Marches other than fulfilling this contract for the Netherese. Even the Cyricist clerics that are part of the Zhentarim are happy simply to spread strife in accordance with the Dark Sun's dogma; being paid to do so is just a bonus.

This may change later - I still have plans for a campaign involving a new clone of Manshoon taking over the Zhentarim and turning them into what they were before the Spellplague, including making them Banite rather than Cyricist - but I don't think that will happen in this campaign. Here they are bad buys, but not as bad as other groups that the PCs will encounter.

The Netherese

As noted, the actions of the Zhentarim in the Silver Marches are due to a contract from the Netherese, also known as the Shadovar.

The Netherese are noted worshippers of Shar, the Mistress of the Night, who is fundamentally opposed to her sister Selûne, also known as the Moonmaiden. As Silverymoon and, indeed, the Silver Marches, are considered to be strongly aligned with the Moonmaiden. the Shadovar plan to bring the Silver Marches under Netherese rule have a strong religious element amongst the more diehard Shar-worshippers among them.

More importantly for a growing empire like that of the Netherese, the Silver Marches is rich with natural resources, the same resources that have attracted dwarves - and, indeed, dwarven kingdoms - for many millennia. Similar, the Silver Marches is rich in magical resources which attracted the original Netherese to this region two or so thousand years ago.

The use of the Zhentarim to disrupt trade and cause strife is merely an opening gambit by the Netherese. They also plan to stir up the giants and the orcs while simultaneously preparing their own forces to invade once their catspaws have done their jobs. And any prospective Netherese invasion will not come by land: the Shadovar plan to send a flying city when the time is right. (And perhaps one of things they are searching for in the Nether Mountains is a ruined flying city that can be repaired....)

I don't think the invasion will form part of the campaign: that's really just backstory to justify or explain Netherese actions in the Silver Marches in case the players become interested in that part of the story.

The Drow

Right now, I am planning to use the Rise of the Underdark storyline as the major metaplot of the campaign. A large part of this is because I want to run homages to D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3 Vault of the Drow - with Menzoberranzan taking the place of Greyhawk's Erelhei-Cinlu - but also because they are a threat powerful enough to justify the Netherese losing interest in the Silver Marches.

The guts of the Rise of the Underdark story is this: Lolth wants to become the new deity of magic, taking the place of the now-dead Mystra (bear in mind that I am setting this game in 1479 DR before Ed Greenwood [apparently] brings back Mystra in one of the Elminster books) and creating something called the Demon Weave which is a replacement for the former Weave and which, I suspect, draws some of its power from the Abyss and/or Lolth's Demonweb Pits.

This Demon Weave is to be created and/or fuelled by sacrificing powerful magic to Lolth and by draining off the power of imprisoned primordials and other creatures of power. I like this basic idea because it explains the reasons for the drow being involved anywhere and in almost anything. It also means that if the PCs obtain powerful magic for themselves, they might find drow assassins on their tail sent to recover said magic from them.

My plan with the drow is to focus on House Xorlarrin, largely because they are noted as being the most powerful arcanists in Menzoberranzan and their motivation for being away from Menzoberranzan is easy to understand (and, at the appropriate time, to explain to the players). The nature of the Demon Weave also means I have a good excuse for revisiting the demonic eladrin known as the fey'ri and the demonic orcs - or tanarukka - of the Scourged Legion.

TL; DR: Over the course of the campaign, the PCs will encounter drow doing things necessary for the creation of the Demon Weave and one possible logical conclusion of the campaign will be to have the PCs adventure through a 4E homage to D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3 Vault of the Drow with a goal of ending the threat of the Demon Weave. That may take the campaign beyond my plan to focus on the Heroic Tier into early Paragon Tier but I will only do it if the enthusiasm from the players is there.

4E vs 13th Age

Firstly, I should make it really plain that I am writing these posts with a plan to run this game in beginning in 1479 DR, the Year of the Ageless One, which is the default start year for the 4E Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide.

Secondly, I am writing these posts from the perspective of running the game using D&D 4E. That said, I may end up using 13th Age instead - in many ways it would be better for new players - but for the moment I am focussing on 4E. I may, however, post some ideas for a 13th Age version as time goes by.

Thirdly, I custom build almost all of my 4E monsters primarily because I want to run a game aimed at the Heroic Tier and I basically believe that 1E got the hit dice of most monsters right. As a result, my monsters are basically the same level as their number of hit dice in 1E which may help to explain why I think, for example, that a conversion of D3 Vault of the Drow can be used with PCs at the end of the Heroic Tier/beginning of the Paragon Tier.

So, if 13th Age is easier for new players why am I planning to run 4E?

My plan for this game is to use it to introduce my wife and her family and our friends here in the Philippines to tabletop RPGs. They're familiar with a clone or add-on to World of Warcraft called Dawn of the Ancients but have no concept of a pen and paper game. Actually, with the exception of cards, they have no working knowledge of any non-computer games. It's a different culture, particularly here in one of the more Third World parts of a Third World country.

For some reason, I think the visuals offered by miniatures and map tiles are going to be key to "converting" my prospective new players into actual tabletop roleplayers. Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong; I suppose I will find out soon enough.

One thing I am concerned about with 4E, though, is the sheer number of choices available to a player, particularly a new player. Hopefully I can design a decent cheat sheet for the players that will make that easier but, the simple fact is, I am going to doing a lot of hand-holding. Even something like the use of action points is an issue: I'll probably drop them for the first few sessions and give the PCs a +10 damage bonus to their first significant attack each encounter to make up for the lack of action points.

Of course, another option is simply to use miniatures and 13th Age together but that just doesn't seem right

Wrapping This Up

I am excited by the prospect of a campaign in the Silver Marches. It's a nearly perfect setting for adventures due to its history of dwarven, elven and Netherese empires which ensures that even the existence of traditional dungeons makes sense. Couple that with a landscape almost designed for dragons, giants and orcs and you have a classic setting for D&D in whatever form you prefer.

I also want to write more this year and I find that blog posts are a good discipline for me even though this is completely unrelated to my real life. It's a creative outlet and it's good writing practice. Also, having the basic framework of the location shown on Mike Schley's map and simply finding things to write about locations on that map makes it a lot easier to come up with an idea for a blog post. After all, there are over 100 named features and locations which means I can easily find at least 100 things to post about. 

No comments:

Post a Comment