Let the Players Do the Work

I have a friend who warned me after my second blog post that involving my players too much in the creation of my world was bad news. “Players will tell you what they want, but they have no idea really.” I’m delighted to report that I think this friend, great as he is, was incorrect.

Sitting down to create a campaign guide is no small feat and I couldn’t do it without the help of my friends and all you folk commenting on the blog. My players in particular have done a ton of work, helping me playtest and revise the various mechanics I’ve created. They are world builders and architects with me every step of the way. It’s thanks to suggestions and direct contributions from my players that I was able to create rules for naval combat and firearms. Not to mention my players helped create adventure sites via the Well of Heroes and suggested I create the Explorers’ Guild and The Society of Seekers.

Well I just read through a whole bunch of character backstories, some less than a page of bullet points, others 33 pages single-spaced. Now I have a lot more story material with which to play!

Encouraging Players to Create

Right now all my players have access to a rough manuscript version of the Exploration Age Campaign Guide. While I asked them to help edit the book, I also invited them to create their own cities, adventure sites, and whatever else they wanted to bring into the world. After all, the book isn’t close to being published and the earliest we may see any kind of OGL is December, and even then the launch wouldn’t be until 2015. So anything they add at this point I can actually add to the book itself. That’s pretty cool! Even if we did have a published book though, or we were playing in a setting someone else created, like Dark Sun, I would still invite my players to do this. These guys are doing the work for me and everything they create is a new and interesting story hook!

I suggest you do the same. I ask all my players for a backstory. The least I can do is let them write what they want within the themes of the setting. Writing a backstory should be fun, not homework. I don’t give them any restrictions in page count or format and I encourage them to let their imaginations run wild.

Usually, my players still clear anything major with me before they cement it into their backstories. I’m very cool with this, but it’s a courtesy, not a requirement. When they do ask about something I always use that old improv trick of saying, “Yes, and…” If you don’t know the concept, essentially when a player offers you an idea you say yes and build on the idea so it works within your setting.

I’d now like to give you a look at a few of the things my players brought to Exploration Age.

City of Autumn

My friend and frequent Round Table panelist Andrew was writing the backstory for his Archfey Pact Human Warlock, Nightshade, when he asked me if he could create a a city in the predominantly elf and halfling country of Taliana where Nightshade was raised. His thought was to create a city which spanned two sides of a major river in a forest. I thought that sounded interesting, so I said yes.

It doesn’t stop there though. Andrew also wanted to create Nightshade’s Archfey patron. He knew of the Summer and Winter courts in the Feywild, but wanted to know why it was more difficult to find information on the Autumn court. I told him I had never seen it fleshed out and so he took it upon himself to detail the Autumn Court and its queen, his patron, Messia. So not only did I get a city out of the deal, I also got a whole Feywild court detailed, which gives me plenty of adventure ideas and hooks for Nightshade as well as the rest of the party. Take a look at the description of Siannodel from the Exploration Age Campaign Guide.

For your reference.
For your reference. Note: Siannodel has not been added to the map yet!

Taliana’s City of Autumn sits on both sides of the Vumba River on Vacurion Bay. The city itself sits in an enormous maple grove and is most beautiful during the Autumn season when all the trees are changing and the river runs calmly. Twisting bridges made of orange, red, and yellow maple leaves held together by magic bring both sides of the city together. Perhaps this is the reason the city is favored by Messia, the Archfey queen of the Autumn Court. Since lumber is the city’s main trade, Messia is honored by the lumberjacks who try to make a point of planting trees each year to replace the ones they cut down, for fear of losing Messia’s favor. During the Autumn sacrifices are made and feasts are held in Messia’s honor and in exchange the city is warded to keep undead, vermin, and evil outsiders from entering Siannodel’s city limits. Giant vermin from the Arachna War are something the people of Siannodel are worried about these days, so it is important they keep Messia happy. Unfortunately, there is an indication that the city could be falling out of the Autumn queen’s good graces.

Siannodel used to always have a guardian, a champion warlock of Messia who would watch over the city and surrounding forest. However, it has been more than a century since Messia made a pact and the folk of the city whisper their corrupt ruling council is causing them to fall out of Messia’s favor. Heian Zeïtan, a longstanding council member, has recently begun throwing more gold around than it seems he takes in. He claims it is the inheritance of a distant relative, but others are not so sure. Siannodel did not participate as much as it could have during The Fourth Great War, and some whisper he was paid by enemy forces to keep Siannodel out of the fight as much as possible.

Because of its position on the on Vacurion Bay, Siannodel is a usually a stop for merchants and adventurers on their way to other parts of Findalay or Verda. As such, the city has thriving local blacksmiths, shipwrights, carpenters, artisans, and hospitality establishments.

Just Sign Here

Sometimes players create a magic item in their backgrounds. It might be a lost family sword or a rumored suit of armor which can resist the breath weapon of the dragon which destroyed a PC’s hometown. There are some players who think way outside the box and give you a unique artifact to put into your setting. My friend John gave me the background for Oruk, the half-orc wizard, and included in his history was an (evil) artifact called The Death Note Scroll (and yep, it’s that on the nose). Essentially, this artifact allows a user to write the name of any living creature on the scroll, the creature then dies, and the scroll teleports away to a new unknown location. This note plays a huge part in Oruk’s history, though I didn’t get more specifics than this, so I’d have to create the mechanics myself. Now, I’d like to present to you the story and game mechanics for The Death Note Scroll.

The Death Note Scroll

Wondrous item, artifact

Made from the skin of a long-forgotten, dead archdevil, by a victorious demon prince in the Blood War, The Death Note Scroll still hungers for souls. Every time a new name is written on the scroll, a tiny black diamond appears next to it, holding the name bearer’s soul inside. The scroll never runs out of space, for every time a name is added it stretches and grows a little. The Death Note Scroll is constantly hungry and those who bear it feel a strong urge to add to it the name of their closest foe, annoyance, or even friendly rival. In the black of midnight each night the scroll whispers aloud the names on the scroll in a voice as dry as forgotten paper. It often appears in an unremarkable black case, but when heated by flame, red Abyssal script appears on the outside, telling of a powerful gift within.

Once a name is written on The Death Note Scroll, the creature who’s name is written dies if they have less than 200 hit points. Their soul is trapped in the diamond which appears next to their name and they cannot be revived or brought back in anyway, unless The Death Note Scroll is destroyed. Once a name is added to the scroll, it teleports away to a random location (DM’s choice).

The Death Note Scroll is forged by powerful demonic magic and can only be destroyed by an archdevil or demon prince. Courting the favor of these beings is nigh impossible and those who do, must be prepared to give up much.

I Can’t Sleep

Sometimes players get a little more complicated than creating a city or magic item for your campaign world. My player Ray has a sorcerer PC, Ezra, who at times cannot sleep (he’s rather troubled). Ray took his PC and tied his background into that of Andrew’s Nightshade. Both have the favor of Messia, the queen of the Autumn Court. So sometimes Ezra is able to sleep soundly, for Messia takes pity on him and comforts him in his sleep.

Ray wanted to create an insomnia system which would put him at a disadvantage on the nights he did not sleep, but give him a slight edge on the night’s Messia, a powerful Archfey, showed up to help him sleep. I told him I would check it out to make sure it wasn’t giving him a huge advantage, and if it all looked kosher, we’d playtest the mechanic. Here’s what Ray created. Nice work!

Rules Module: Spellcaster Insomnia

You have trouble sleeping. Every time you take an extended rest, roll on the chart for the results below.

d10 Effect
1 You cannot sleep. You gain no healing benefits from an extended rest, though for the purposes of spell casting, you have taken an extended rest.
2 You have a half night of very troubled sleep. Others can hear you cry out at terrible dreams. You only regain half of the hit dice and HP that you would normally recover.
3 – 4 You have a poor night’s sleep. You recover one fewer hit die and two fewer HP (this increases to 2 and 5, respectively, at 10th level) than you would otherwise recover.
5 – 9 Messia (or a different other-worldly force) sends a projection of herself to comfort you until you are asleep. You gain all the benefits of your extended rest.
10 Messia (or different other-worldly force) comes in person to comfort you as you sleep (often only for a moment and after you have already passed into a shaky slumber). You gain all the benefits of an extended rest and wake up with 5 temp HP (this increases to 10 at 10th level).

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