Bright Lights, Dark City

My gaming group is contemplating our first new Greyhawk campaign in about two and a half years. It’s going to be a first-level campaign, set in our homegrown city of Obsidian Bay, and I’m going to be the primary DM. The game is still in its planning stages, but I’ve already identified a few themes.

With this blog entry, I’m going to identify some of these themes, partly to clarify them in my mind, and partly to give my players a heads-up on what I’m thinking.

Urban Arcana

First and foremost, this is going to be an urban, city-based campaign. The city in question is Obsidian Bay, an independent city-state located with on the savage, humanoid-infested peninsula known as the Pomarj, in the World of Greyhawk. The campaign will be set in CY 592 and will unfold against the backdrop of a war between Obsidian Bay, its allies in the Ulek state, and the Orcish Empire of Turrosh Mak.

Unlike our previous campaigns, which spanned the Flanaess, and which spent more time away from Obsidian Bay than in it, this one will rarely leave the city limits. There may be the occasional foray to the nearby city of Blue, and certainly dungeon delves into the UnderOerth beneath the city, but almost all of the action will take place within the confines of Obsidian Bay.

As a DM, this presents a hell of a challenge. Many of the standard adventure hooks simply won’t work any more. Caravan duty? Out. Generic dungeon delve? Out. Border town threatened by some wandering monster pulled randomly from the Monster Manual? Out. Dragon slaying? Not unless it’s a polymorphed dragon running around in the city somewhere.

Many of the creatures in the various monster books also suddenly become useless — none of the standard or more exotic humanoid races can be used, except perhaps as oddities discovered in the city. Extraplanar creatures will be much rarer, perhaps encountered only at the culmination of an adventure hook, if then. Plane-jaunting itself is largely out, since that requires forays out of the city, albeit to an entirely different kind of outdoors.

An urban campaign forces you to take a second look at your premises, and figure out ways to add more intrigue and social issues the campaign. It also compels you to think about new ways to use old monsters, or perhaps new monsters that could only exist in an urban campaign.

Down and Out in Obsidian Bay

Another theme that arose from the players is the idea of 1st level adventurers are starting at the very bottom of society’s ladder. They may be new immigrants, exiles cast out by their families, or from poor families without any hope of advancement, but they’ll share a common outsider status. And they’ll have to fight and struggle to integrate into the society, to start to accumulate some sort of wealth and perhaps one day rise to notoriety within the city. But perhaps never true fame.

There’s some debate over how far to go — should players really be reduced to counting coppers in order to pay for room and board? I don’t think I want to go that far, but using a Living Greyhawk-like standard of living strikes me as being a good idea, particularly for a city-based campaign. It establishes that there is a cost to living in the city, but doesn’t make players track every beer … but could cause them to count ever GP spent on arrows.

Moreover, I see the characters in this campaign as struggling with survival in a city that ignores their existence. They’ll be scrapping for every gold, struggling with the human equivalent of rats for every job. In doing so, they’ll be fighting the sort of battles that the Blackrazors would never stoop to. I expect this sort of existence to last until perhaps around 5th level or so, when the campaign will take some sort of a turn out of the gutter … but to where, I can’t say (though I have some ideas…)

The Return of Wonder?

We’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition for over three years now, and while I’ve enjoyed it greatly, and consider it to be a significant improvement over the hodgepodge that was 2nd edition, I’ve been growing somewhat disenchanted with its approach to magic items.

When 3E first game out, I was thrilled with its approach to magic. At the time, some of my players had been pestering me about creating powerful magic items for their characters, which is something that high-level PCs are inclined to do. Under 2E though, there weren’t a lot of rules to guide the creation of such items, particularly for divine casters. 3E solved that by specifying everything.

This was good, but it’s taken some of the wonder out of the game. Most of the time I’m ok with that, but other times it grates me when players see a magic item, say a suit of armor with some enhancements, and immediately start doing the “Cha-ching” dance, calculating up how much its worth per the DMG, and then eagerly looking towards Obsidian Bay’s marketplace. But more importantly, it’s turned every magic item in the game into just another cookie-cutter variation on a theme. Oh, the DMG still has throwbacks to some of the legendary magic items of old, like the Sword of the Planes or the Frostbrand, but you don’t see much in the way of new legendary items … nor any guidelines for creating them.

One of the things I’d like to do with this first level campaign is return some of the wonder to the adventure. Back when the campaign started, I’d thrown in quite a few unique magic items. Like the “Bag of Almost Anything”, that would produce any mundane magic item you asked for, but had a 15% chance of producing something else … usually something very dangerous. And then there was the Ring of Partial Invisibility, which would only cover half your character. Or the Ring of X-Ray vision that caused to become translucent as you focused your X-Ray power. Yes, some of these were silly, but they were also unique, and are still remembered to this day. I want more of that in the campaign. Most of the magic items the party finds will adhere to the standard 3E rules (well, actually 3.5, since we’re converting with this campaign) but a few will be unique.

In the Shadow of Giants

One potential problem with this campaign is the fact that the players’ previous characters are such giants within the city. Not necessarily respected giants, but certainly feared ones, and ones that have their hands dug deep into city affairs. It will be a challenge, for example, to introduce new criminal organizations in the city when certain player characters already have extensive underworld contacts of their own … and would most certainly move to take over any new group that arose.

The easiest solution to this particular problem is to ignore it. Or rather, to have the high level characters ignore it. As the OB campaign opens, a massive war has just begun on the Pomarj. We can easily say that the high-level characters are diverting all their attention to that, and as a result, wouldn’t notice new gangs breaking out in the city, or perhaps the arrival of a new religious group. These sort of small potatoes aren’t worth the attention of a 16th level rouge or 18th level cleric.

Freedom of Movement

One of the ideas I’d like to explore in this campaign is a sort of Grand Theft Auto approach to DMing. By this I don’t mean a game based around senseless violence and random street massacres, but rather the sense of freedom that GTA incorporates. Although in truth you are constricted by the overall storyline, in GTA it feels like you can go anywhere and do anything in the city. I’d like to capture that sense of freedom, and in the process, but more onus on the players to drive the campaign. In other words, they will have to find the stories — the stories won’t come to them.

The City

Another important element of this campaign is that it will force us to finally flesh out and detail Obsidian Bay. For example, we’re creating our first-ever formal map of the city, from which I intend to create a more detailed Campaign Cartographer 2 map. Elsewhere, it will compel us to detail the aspects of the city we’ve never concerned ourselves much with before, including the specifics of law enforcement and taxation. I don’t want the campaign to get bogged down in details, but I do want to bring Obsidian Bay to life in a way we’ve never seen before.

Looking Forward

Overall, I’m excited about this campaign. It’s something I’ve never tried before, and after 20+ years of D&D, that’s something I don’t get to say very often.

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