Monday, April 28, 2014

City Building: A New Campaign Jam

New campaign building- one of the great pleasures of the GM’s life. I enjoy it even more when I can combine that with player input and ideas. They provide the scaffolding and I do the finishing work. As I’ve mentioned several times in the past we’ve used several variations on Microscope to do this preliminary development. With the shelving of the Wushu campaign, I got the players together on Friday to assemble something new.

Of the three concepts I pitched, they settled on a fantasy game with the character acting as ‘sort of’ City Guards. The PCs will be keeping the peace in a section of the city, limiting the damage from crazed adventurers, trying to advance themselves, dealing with plots and conspiracies, building a network, and perhaps even figuring out how to line their own pockets a little. The game will have a dash of building (setting up shop, creating networks of contacts, earning promotions), some investigation (solving crimes, preventing incidents, uncovering villains), and some fighting (boots to the head). While the characters will be part of the city authorities, they will be loosely overseen and given a good deal of independence.

The metropolis itself is a rough & tumble city-state on the borderland. It has independence, though it has been conquered from time to time (actually many times). It is a port city, at the headland of a river valley of the ancients. Several rival Empires may prove to be threats. The more I look at it, the more it reminds me of Pavis. The feel and tech level should be close to Lankhmar, Elder Scrolls, Tolkien, Game of Thrones, etc, with magic. I established that basic premise for the players to build from. We plan to use our homebrew, Action Cards, for a campaign that lasts one year real time (24-26 sessions).

With that in mind we went ahead and built the city as a group exercise. I used mostly the same approach we used with Grey Reign. Players build Neighborhoods at the top level, Places/Persons/Things within those neighborhoods, and Rumors/Reports connected to those. We did seven rounds- two of them open and five with a theme determined by the Lens:
  • Round One: Past Glories
  • Round Two: Vice
  • Round Three: Faiths & Cults
  • Round Four: Under Construction
  • Round Five: The Outside World

Instead of Legacies from Microscope, players created a faction or group. We built quite a bit of the city, but there’s still plenty of room for new neighborhoods and ideas. For example I have to sit down and map out the pantheons, how magics structured, some kind of map, and what the major nations of the region are. I should also note that we used the Palette (aka Add/Ban) list more liberally than standard Microscope. Rather than simply being about adding out of genre elements or restricting genre tropes, we used it to add global elements to the world.

I haven't yet come up with a name for the city...

  • Multiple Races—but with a twist. There are “Ancient” and “New” lines for each of the races, including humans. Ancient versions are extremely long-lived, taller & strong, and clearly notable as of that blood. They’re also extremely rarer and dying out. How this split of old and new came remains up for grabs (probably with different stories for it).
  • The city is a port, but at nestled within a river delta. Upriver live and vitality cling close by the banks- with deserts and rocky terrain beyond that. It wasn’t always this way but some event transformed the area. Hence it is a rich site for explorers searching for ancient ruins and lost treasures.
  • The city experiences strange weather phenomena from time to time. These events keep people indoors. The source remains uncertain.
  • There are multiple cultural holidays in the city- representing the numbers of people who have settled here and the fragmented history of the city itself. People have to track days for kinds of events, districts affected, and what kind of business can be held then. Almanacs and posted calendars are useful.
  • There are a limited number of schools of magic. Each possesses a unique “primal” spell which is usually the first one taught, and the one most easily empowered or developed by casters of that school.
  • When travelers leave to head inland, they must leave something behind. It can be a donation, a gift, a precious object, a letter. These are collected in various places in the city.
  • Magic is taught, but it can also be innate. Some wizards are simply born with heightened gifts.

  • The level of engineering is comparable to the Roman era or early Middle Ages. There are no sophisticated non-magical machines (like mass production looms, printing presses, or crossbows).
  • Divination, prophecy, scrying, past visions, even speaking to the dead for information- none of that works in the city. Informational magics of any kind simply do not work here. They do elsewhere in the world, but not here.
  • No subtle magic casting. When you cast a spell- people know it. You might be able to create a distraction, but if observed, you cannot hide your casting- as it gives off some external signs.
  • No non-affiliated people. Everyone belongs to some kind of faith or cult- that’s simply a given. As a result that’s often taken for granted and in some cases viewed simply as membership in a club or organization rather than a statement of philosophy or belief.

A section of the city built vertically during the Sheten Inquisition. It is connected by rop bridges and walkways to the Verdant Stairs. The Vertices reach close to two hundred feet in the area- a mammoth structure much wider at the base. The interior is a hive and constantly under repair. Travelers heading inland from the city must pass through at least the lower sections of the Vertices.
  • Sharvasdar the Minder: An “Ancient” Elf who haunts the Vertices. He fought against the Sheten Inquisition. Sharvasdar usually remains hidden, but he pops out from time to time with lunatic frenzies.
  • Blood Oath Veranda: A covered alleyway known for sanctifying with divine favor all covenants and contracts agreed upon therein.
  • Prefect Bilious Marblespeck: Lord Judge and Assayer for the Office of Relinquishment for Safe Passage.
  • Dorada Ni’Alique: Exiled Noble of the Volosha appears to live a decadent life off the riches her family was able to abscond with. The astute eye notes the circle of bodyguards move with military precision, her salons favor tacticians & strategists, and her lovers are very rich.
  • Wheels of Eternity: A group of buildings in the Vertices shaped like wagon wheels. They house the city’s lawmakers and bureaucrats. Petitioners are said to usually have to wait forever. For judgment, the wheels of justice turn slowly.

Terraced Gardens rising from the flood plains to the top of the city’s riverside palisade.
  • Dusthroat of Gales: A lizardman gardener of note. He maintains several patches on the stairs. Dusthroat raises various herbs, roots, and sacred woods used in the rituals of cults and worship. His secret methods result in an amazing potency for these products.
  • Harbingers of the Golden Lily, Lady of Scents: A cult in the verdant Stairs. They cultivate flowers and plants in order to make the perfect aroma of which one breath will send you to heaven.
  • House of Briars: The embassy of the Elves and creatures of the Fey. It is a tangled place high on the apex of the Verdant Stairs.
  • The Parade of Beasts: The High Time of the Cult of Beasts. Once a season during a full moon, all of the city’s animals gather in the gardens and move in a grand procession through the city until they disperse at daybreak.

The buildings surrounding the remaining three towers of the Archons who rule the city. Once there were a dozen such masters and towers, but time has worn both down.
  • Reckoners Temple: One of the oldest structures in the city, where founders and city namers must appear to “establish” their legitimacy. At least eighteen foundings have been recorded. The temple also tracks the relative strength and influence of cults and gods in the city- with an eye to preventing any one god from gaining supremacy.
  • Lyriel Savant: The great grand-mother of Lucias Savant, the heroic element mage who was part of the group who most recently founded the city. The Savant Monks care for the poor in her honor.
  • Oduan’s Sort: A massive labyrinth library/reliquary of curated treasures given by travelers throughout history. Oduan’s cult’s great work is maintaining, cataloging, navigating, researching, and guiding those with need to the right item./knowledge for a price.
  • Boulevard of the Faithful Ones: A wide streets with the oldest (and richest) cults and religions have their main temples and cathedrals.
  • Dragon Fire Temple: A great golden dragon-shaped temple where both many pray for elder magics in worship of an ancient dragon and thieves ask his blessing to build their own treasure hoards.
  • The Blackened Day: Every year there is an extended solar eclipse and the full day is darkened almost like night. It is celebrated by some in this neighborhood and feared by others.
  • Shadow-Well: The name of the wells within this area. Each neighborhood has a unique name for their water supply. The city’s prime magic consists of the fresh water cisterns and fountains of lovely cool water everywhere. The city desalinates the coastal waters and distributes the water by any available channel.

A jet-black area of the city blasted by a mad wizards, home to the poor. Those who live there long enough find themselves slowly transformed into onyx.
  • Palace of the Beggar King: Ancient ruined manor house, now onyx where the family that claims ties to the hero who ended the mad wizard live. At the center, the wizards & hero remain- locked in stone and battle.
  • Truth in Secrets: A group who tracks and collects rumors & secrets- trading their knowledge only among their own or in trade for other secrets.
  • Cult of Wizardry: Followers of Kahleen Stillwater who claims to be a descendant of the mad wizard. She believes he sacrificed his mind to save the world and resents the Palace of the Beggar King. There has been an ongoing feud between these groups.

A disciplined area of the city deemed of great importance to its livelihood.
  • Fishmonger Square: Plaza inland from the docks where one can purchase any of the day’s catch.
  • Hawk’s Song Plaza: A featureless square transformed daily into shop tents and stalls where the merchants great and small sell their wares. At night it is taken over by moving parties gathered around entertainers, food & drink purveyors, and minor spectacles.
  • Rumor/Report: Every few weeks someone hears that the Archons plan to tear up the plaza for noble born townhouses, a great temple, or the new Moneychangers’ Guild Hall, but so far these plans have not come to fruition.
  • Dace Forewave: The most talented protégé of the legendary shipbuilder Last Timber! One of the few remaining shipwrights here, dale’s ships are magically imbued. They have a sentient figurehead that can navigate and predict the weather.
  • The Yards: Once a place for building fleets from the Woods of Zantyr upriver. Now the Yards serve mostly for the repair, descaling, and refitting of ‘free’ vessels and ships. A mafia of folk from the conquered island nation of Volosha run the area and excludes rival workers.
  • The All Seeing Eye: A tall and massive lighthouse being built from the Cult of Lathos, Lord of Flame, to watch over the harbor.
  • Dead Queen’s Hail: When new settlers or exiles arrive in the city they make their way here to his massive inn/tavern hall. There the Fellows of the Dead Queen direct them to the neighborhoods and enclaves of their fellow natives. The Fellows have perhaps the best sense of the ethnic diversity of the city.

An area full of the best of brothels, theaters, baths, and places to dine.
  • House of Roaring Thunder: A natural amphitheater that magnifies sound coming from the stage. However it steals the sound from the audience in turn. Many illicit deals happen here using a silent hand language known only to a few.
  • Lucinda Totalmeasure’s Spice Emporium: A shop that collects and sells all manner of spices, essential oils, herbs, and ointments.
  • Three Sips Aqueduct: One of the oldest features of the city, this aqueduct transports and purifies water from the river into a cistern in the midst of a square of brewers. It is always attributed to the most powerful brewing cult- but markings tie it to a long-ago struck down cult of prophesiers.
  • The Newest Trend: A fancy little shop featuring all imported items from across the world. Brought in by ships in the harbor. Only the wealthiest can afford the select and unique items sold here, but it has also become a target for thieves and black marketeers.
  • Tae Mann-Bonn: Claiming to be immortal, she is a powerful alchemist who states that the first principle of transformation is a cozy workshop. Her shop is supernatural comfortable and charming.
  • The Carnival of Ghosts: On the night of the High Holy Feast Day, this macabre parade wanders the streets and alleys searching for something…or someone…and will not leave until it is found.
  • The Bronze Players: A richly hued faction from the desert. They’re a travelling group of actors and musicians who came into the city and have an unexplainable fear of roped bridges. Unable to leave, they settled into the city become a permanent part of the Plaza’s features.

A literal undercity, formed during a mad rush for rumored mineral and ancient relics. The illegal excavations unearthed segments of elder dungeons from the past city and collapsed portions of the streets. It is now part topside fragmentary neighborhoods, part sinkhole, and part underground rooms and caverns. It is a ready place for marginal non-human groups and adventurers caught in a pinch.
  • Cavern of Mysterious Vices: A large cave riddled with mouth-like cracks that open and close like a vise. Sometimes things are crushed and sometimes they are turned into other exotic materials…sometimes dangerous…
  • As Above: A tavern located in the deepest sinkhole. The ale is dark and the back booths hide an entrance to a series of tunnels being excavated that run below the streets above and provide navigable, familiar ways to pop up to the city above.
  • Rumor/Report: The owner(s) of “As Above” are identical triplet Dwarves who seek an ancient treasure of their people.
  • Bracemar: A stone giant sorcerer who has established the major school of Crystal Thought, one of the eight forms of non-divine magic. Bracemar is said to craft items for those willing to undertake one of his bizarre quests.

Formed just on the outskirts of the city, one of the local blacksmiths has created a new sandstone material with heat and desert sand to make everything from beads to bricks.
  • Sons and Daughters of the Desert: Overland Scout Guild with ancient survival wisdom and knowledge of the upper river provinces.
  • The Vext: A band of desert exiles who arrived here a dozen years ago mounted on massive insects. While they normally keep to themselves, they do engage in trade. Secretive and said to possess lost magics, they forge their armor and weapons from the carapace of their insects and inject strange elixirs from their venoms.

  • Cultivators of the Bountiful Harvest: Guild which tends to the food plants on the Verdant Stairs.
  • The Grim Pallbearers: A group who ritualistically bear the city’s dead to the Onyx Graveyard. They wear masks and heavy cloaks to conceal their identities so they won’t suffer a social stigma.
  • The Unmarked: One of the oldest remaining Thieves Guilds in the city. They work to blend in and infiltrate their targets. Each member must find a “double” in the city who they work to copy and emulate. This is said to give them a ready patsy.
  • Expansion Scouts: Often made up of random adventurer parties who leave the city, going out into the desert wilds, expanding trade routes to other cities and reporting possible coming threats to the city guard.
  • Tarsand Stalkers: Once nomadic cultists of a sky god, they can never be more than an inch from the sky. They live mainly in tents on rooftops and travel across them as well- using a network of ropes, lines, and bridges.
  • Observers of the Celestial Spheres: A loose group of astronomers and astrologers who claim to find knowledge and fortunes in the study of the night sky.


  1. I thought this was a really great post so I added it to my Best Reads of the Week post. I hope you don't mind.

  2. This is awesome. I love the idea of working with the players to generate the campaign setting. I assume it makes them way more invested in the world. I really need to try this with my next game.

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