Tuesday, February 22, 2022


A draft cover for a potential
Crystal Frontier adventure
A purchaser of Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier recently asked me how the adventure might fit into a larger setting. Specifically they inquired about the "Warlock King", ruler of the Bull Kingdom - who claims sovereignty over the Frontier but doesn’t seem to project much power into it. The Warlock King and Bull Kingdom have been mentioned in a couple of Crystal Frontier adventures, notably Marble Eye, the Bruja in The Bruja, The Beast and The Barrow is a refugee from the King’s court, hiding in exile from the his demonic assassins. Other then that we know of the King and his nation only through Jolly Diamond, the Bull Kingdom’s agent in Scarlet Town, a bad gambler and sore loser whose loyalty is enforced by a “demon mark” on his chest. There’s a few other tidbits of information about the Bull Kingdom and Warlock King scattered around Tomb Robbers, but nothing much, it’s largely a Swords & Sorcery cypher ruled by a powerful wizard who has a sinister reputation.

This is as it’s meant to be. Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier is a stand alone product, a dungeon with a minimal amount of setting to supplement it and maintain a Fantasy Western aesthetic. Hints and implications rather than a gazetteer with detailed descriptions.

Yet, The Crystal Frontier has been my home campaign for over a year, getting on to 25 sessions, with a 3rd and 4th level party. I’ve also written or at least written up notes on several more adventures for the setting, including the two large projects I’m working on currently covering the Frontier’s North Eastern coast, where fewer crystals fall, but the old history of the land is closer to the surface. So, while there’s only minimal published information on the Bull Kingdom and its Warlock King, The Successor Empire and its Syndicates, or the environs of the Crystal Frontier at large, I have a great deal of knowledge about it. For example I currently have enough notes and rough maps to quickly prepare, or run the following Crystal Frontier locations: The Tower of Musk (A manticore lair), Old Argento (Ruined former provincial capital), The Palace of War (A crashed yet mostly intact Empyrean invasion fortress/megadungeon), Cold Manse (ghoul infested haunted mansion), the Tower of Flints (pirates, owls, and a shrine to an Imperial sea god), Cold Water Hamlet, Stone Quay (a port ruled by cattle drovers), The Palace of Reflections (an extradimensional Empyrean villa accessible via a magic scroll and infested with a blue wyrm of unreason), The Bone Fields (ancient barrows being dug up to obtain ancient magic infused bones for fertilizer) and The Dead Colossus (a walking castle destroyed by the Warlock King himself during his ascent to power). Some draft art for these location illustrates this post.

I won’t reveal much detail about these locations or the factions and histories underlying them unless I get to publishing them as adventure locations (which is honestly unlikely in most cases), but I’m quite happy with this situation. These locations have evolved through my home game, and emerged from play because they make sense based on player interest and actions as part of what has been a largely emergent setting. Other people don’t need many details of the entire setting region, let alone the world its part of to run my adventures, and it’s likely best if they take the time to do their own world building as needed, taking or discarding the hints and vague outlines that my adventures provide.


Worldbuilding & Gygax ‘75
Setting is one of those popular aspects of RPG design that I enjoy immensely, but also don’t really find much use for. Like me, it seems that many referees and designers enjoy building their world, filling it with detailed minutia, histories, locations, and people. I’ve always found this both inevitable and secondary to, or worse inhibiting of play. There’s a great deal of advice on “world building” offered on blog posts and published in guides. Even most editions of the Dungeon Master’s Guide seem to contain a huge amount of suggestions about it. I don’t want to do that and I don't for my home games. At least not in the ways that it’s popularly suggested. I want the world of the setting to weigh lightly on my campaigns, to come through during play, but not demand a great deal of fidelity to some sort of “setting bible”. Instead my settings, especially anything I offer to others, should have big holes and unexplored spaces for me or another referee to add whatever they like. Most world building advice rejects this goal, and is often very “top down”: starting with the world, it’s cosmology, gods, and continents. This seems wrong to me.

I even made a little logo for
this nonsense!

Instead I like to approach things on a "just in time" basis, build from the ground up, design with the goal of creating what’s needful for play for the first session and building up from their. Back in 2013 I wrote a long post about this sort of setting design, but there’s a fine antecedent, the “Gygax ‘75” process, derived from a 1975 interview that Gary Gygax gave to a fan magazine, “Europa” titled “HOW TO SET UP YOUR DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS CAMPAIGN - AND BE STUCK REFEREEING SEVEN DAYS PER WEEK UNTIL THE WEE HOURS OF THE MORNING!

I am usually not especially charitable to Gygax, I find his rules fussy, his ideas about refereeing antagonistic, his public behavior fairly odious (the litigiousness alone!), his writing frustrating, and the cultish fawning over him that still persists in parts of the hobby disgusting. However, Gygax also produced excellent adventures and championed the hobby of fantasy RPGs to great success and with obviously sincere love and conviction. I may not share his weird fixation on polearm variety, but I do appreciate that from the very dawn of a hobby he was one of the its primary inventors who got many things right in ways that have sometimes been too casually discarded. One such thing that Gygax did better then more contemporary sources (such as the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, which starts with a section titled “A Master of Worlds” and immediately leaps into designing a multiverse or entire world as a setting, cosmology first) was give setting design advice.The Gygax Dungeon Master’s Guide has a section about mid way through, “The Campaign” that begins with:

“What lies ahead will require the use of all of your skill, put a strain on your imagination, bring your creativity to the fore, test your patience, and exhaust your free time …Your campaign requires the above from you, and participation by your players. To belabor an old saw, Rome wasn't built in a day. You are probably lust learning, so take small steps at first. The milieu for initial adventures should be kept to a size commensurate with the needs of campaign participants … This will typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby.”

Excellent and still trenchant advice which is better laid out and elaborated in the 1975 interview a few years prior. The “Gygax ‘75” process has become a bit of a regular challenge among designers who work with older editions of D&D, and it’s well explained here at DIY & Dragons. It’s also starting up again among several bloggers I enjoy, and spurred by the question regarding the Warlock King I’ve decided to apply it to the Crystal Frontier!

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...