When D&D 5th Edition came out, my gaming group launched two playtest campaigns. Obsidian Frontier was a sandbox campaign set in the early days of our homegrown city, Obsidian Bay. It was focused on trying out the new rules and running a typical D&D campaign. The second campaign was Heart of Darkness, a story-driven game with the goal to level up the players as quickly as possible so we could explore play at higher levels. We leveled up every session or two, rapidly blowing past the the low levels to reach the middle tier.
And then the DM’s wife had a baby and they plunged into the exciting world of child-rearing. The campaign shifted to online play and sessions dropped from once every two weeks to once a month. Because of this Obsidian Frontier caught up to Heart of Darkness at around 7th level. Both campaigns are ongoing, and I expect them to progress, level-wise, at more or less the same pace.
Heart of Darkness is set in the World of Greyhawk in the Common Year 650, approximately 60 years after our last Greyhawk campaign. That old campaign, which involved the misadventures of the Blackrazor Guild, unfolded over 10 real-world years. The new campaign echos elements of that campaign, but takes place on an entirely different region of the world and has taken us in directions the original campaign never went.
For example, we’re doing something we never would have done in the old days: we’re updating Greyhawk. Back when we we running our 3rd Edition playtest — called Pirates of the Vohoun the idea of an aquatic elven paladin was abhorrent because it ran contrary to the collective history of Greyhawk. The traditionalists — and I was one of them — asked what would be next … kobold paladins? Or horror of horrors dwarven magic users?
We’ve mellowed with age. For Heart of Darkness we’ve jumped the timeline ahead so it’s easier to include such variants in our campaign canon (Canon is important to Greyhawkers; there’s a reason why its Number 1 fan site is called “Canonfire“.
Want to play a dragonborn? Ok … it turns out that there have been dragons experimenting on humanoid hybrids for years. Got an idea for a tiefling? Ok … there was that huge demonic invasion during the Greyhawk Wars. Dwarven wizards? Ok … there was a dwarven empire founded far to the west that established a tradition of technology and magic, and has returned home to the east to spread their hard-won wisdom and establish a new dwarven kingdom.
Brigga Foehammer, dwarven battle wizard
I wanted to play something unlike any character I’d played before, while simultaneously pushing the system to its limits. Now I should say that I’ve played dwarves before. Wizards are my favorite class. I’ve played female characters in convention games, but never in an ongoing campaign. Brigga Foehammer pulls it all together into one radically new construct (and while it may not seem radical to some readers, I assure you a dwarven magic user is pretty darn radical for my group).
In terms of the build, I experimented with a couple of different options. I’ve known since we started talking about the campaign that I wanted to play a dwarven battle-mage — a character who wore medium armor, carried a battleaxe or warhammer, and hurled evocation spells (e.g. fireball) with abandon. Most importantly, I wanted to be able to do this starting at first level.
When I first read the Player’s Handbook I was drawn to the fighter and its eldritch knight subclass. The problem there is that the subclass doesn’t kick in until 3rd level; until then my character would be just another dwarven warrior. Now granted, low level progression in 5e is hella fast, and you get to 3rd level pretty quickly, but I wanted to be slinging spells out of the gate.
I then turned to the wizard. That gave me first level spells, but no armor and weapon proficiencies. Fortunately my character’s mountain dwarf background solved that problem, granting dwarven weapon proficiencies (axes, hammers) as well as medium and heavy armor proficiency. The real challenge became my budget: being a wizard is expensive. The various classes start with suggested equipment and weapons, but you can choose to buy gear using a pool of starting gold. The starting gold wasn’t enough to equip her with all the armor and weapons she needed. A few adventures quickly remedied the situation and soon she was a true arcane tank.
The Battle Wizard Evolved
Three years after I first rolled up Brigga, she’s become a 9th level character (Fighter 2 / Wizard 7). She’s been a blast to play — high level mages in Dungeons & Drgaons 5th Edition are as much fun as in 3rd edition, but with a little less mechanical complexity. I love how you can enhance lower-level spells by burning higher-level spell slots; this reduced the number near-duplicate spells that were added to the game just to give you a higher level version of fireball (I’m looking at you, 3rd Edition Spell Compendium).
Brigga only has two levels of fighter but it’s provided her with a great deal of flexibility on the battlefield. The “Action Surge” allows her to cast two spells in a single turn (or cast a spell and then make a physical attack), while the Second Wind ability lets her recover much needed hit points.
At lower levels, this allowed Brigga to wade into a melee, smash her opponents with a thunderwave spell and strike with her mace, often to devestating effect. At higher levels, she’s settled into the more traditional battle-mage role, unleashing fireballs and lightning bolts but also capable of once again wading into the fray with a blur or stoneskin spell up to frustrate opponents.
Story-wise, Brigga and her fellow adventurers have been caught up in an epic mystery that caused them to question their very identities. The mystery quest led us to do less world building than I’d hoped for — I haven’t delved deeply into the history of the dwarven empire’s “return east” and what that means for Oerth — but that’s ok. There’s always the next campaign, and this one’s proved to be a lot of fun.
Instead of delving into the current state of dwarven culture, Brigga’s been focused inwardly, trying to figure out if she is who she thought she was … and if she isn’t, who she was before. She’s journeyed to a demiplane infected by the Far Realm and been rewarded with the Orb of Madness (a remote scrying device that can summon tentacles to restraint and damage one’s opponents), got into a yelling match with an extradimensional oracle, nearly drowned on the Plane of Water, and generally been driven to question her sanity.
The question of gender hasn’t come up. Although the story is very much about identity, questions of gender and class haven’t come up; indeed the point of this campaign was that folks could play whatever they wanted, and in that regard, it’s pretty egalitarian. The closest we’ve come to touching on cultural identity issues has been the oppression of tieflings in a town that once sided with the demigod Iuz during Greyhawk Wars as well as their strange appreciation of the dragonborn. The world views a dwarven battle mage as an oddity, but it usually sparks conversations about the arrival of the new dwarven kingdom rather than scorn and derision. At some point I’d love to sit down and write up some notes about the the arcane dwarves’ return to eastern Greyhawk and their attempts to revive the culture and civilization of their moribund cousins.
That’ll be for another campaign though. For now, I’m enjoying playing Brigga and figuring out exactly what happened to her previous self.