|A draft cover for a potential|
Crystal Frontier adventure
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|
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!
In the 1975 interview Gygax describes alternative settings almost exclusively in terms of influences from fantasy novels. For him setting building seems to start with media review. It's a solid beginning as RPG settings almost always derive from or are influenced by other media. Finding sources and inspiration isn’t just convenient for a designer looking to flesh out a setting quickly, but can also be helpful because they provide references to players allowing them to more easily visualize or understand the setting.
For the Crystal Frontier the influences are largely revisionist Westerns with very few fantasy elements, early Sword & Planet stories that are the inspiration for the Empyreans, a couple of books about early San Francisco and California, and a collection of short stories about the Russian civil war which focuses on the corrosive effects of moral certainty and the small brutalities of revolutionary war. Finally and perhaps most important, Moebius' Western and Science-Western comics influence both the look (though I'm obviously a far, far worse artist) and setting.
|A likely future adventure|
Edgar Rice Burroughs: Barsoom novels
Aleksey Tolstoy: Aelita or The Decline of Mars
Patrick DeWitt: The Sisters Brothers
Issac Babel: Red Cavalry
Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West
Larry McMurtry: Lonesome Dove
Cervantes: Don Quixote
Elmore Leonard: The Bounty Hunters
Herbert Ashbury: The Barbary Coast
Isabel Allende: Daughter of Fortune
For me this doesn't really solidify the themes of the setting in my mind, and while it might be more useful if I were trying to make a setting from scratch, my project this next few weeks is to flesh out and solidify an existing setting - instead of teasing out the implications of my literature I'll start with a few core themes.
The Crystal Frontier is an already existing setting, so I won’t be newly constructing it, but then I’m a few weeks behind on Gygax ‘75, and I don’t really want to focus on the same issues -- instead I’ll remain broadly faithful to it and lay out what I know about my setting, ideas for generalizing it, and how I use it in my home campaign. Perhaps in the end I'll have the material for a short source book that can help people expand from the existing published materials, more likely there will be some blog posts.
The first Gygax ‘75 Challenge is “The overall setting of your campaign” per the Europa interview.
For the Crystal Frontier, and in light of my general distrust of “world building” I am going to take this prompt in a slightly different direction than many might. I’ll focus on two specific things that are consistent throughout the adventures I write for Crystal Frontier: The aesthetic or basic ”rules” of the setting and the large-scale conflicts that support it.
Rules of Setting Creation
The basic aesthetic and design rules of the Crystal Frontier were created back in 2016. It’s part of my attempt at a “Vanilla” setting, that is one that’s largely compatible with the implied setting of early D&D, but deviates slightly and I think has a very different feel than Gygax’s own world building. I believe it's still recognizable as early Dungeons & Dragons and compatible, but I hope it's also a step off from the implied setting of the early editions, almost as if it were the product of a parallel evolution.
This setting has five aesthetic rules:
1) No Untrodden Land: There is no space in the setting that hasn’t been previously part of a civilization, specifically the Successor Empire, their dependencies Resurgent Kingdoms, or their distant rivals - the world is old, and it contains no “savage frontiers” or “virgin wilderness”.
Yes, many regions are in decline or abandoned, but the same sorts of ruins and signs of past domestication exist everywhere. The Crystal Frontier was once a dependent principality and theme of the Successor Empire. At the time the Empire was a arcane global superpower, but it has long been falling into decadence, the Emperor a doddering cannibal (stats as ghast) poisoned by his own divine blood. The Frontier is at the edge of a hinterlands former client state of the Empire, Kosse Sildar, recently reconquered by its citizens in a brutal civil war two generations ago, but now uniquely afflicted with plummeting ruins from beyond the terrestrial sphere. This allows for a wide variety of locations to explore: barrows of its bronze age inhabitants, the remnants of an decayed Imperial client state (an ancestor worshiping, chivalric matriarchy of palaces, and knights paladin who were very fond of feathered headdresses/helmets), the detritus of the civil war (including monumental war machines) and of course the fallen crystal tomb fortresses of the not exactly human Empyreans.
2)No Apocalypse too Big: Yes, Crystal Frontier is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting. Oddly it’s also a grimly hopeful sort of place, there should be space for the characters to carve out some sort of pocket realm of reasonable peace and prosperity (its unlikely though), and even if they don't it’s a land where despite the awful conditions cause by magical pollution, wealth is extracted, fortunes are made and order is coalescing out of nothing. The rest of the setting is still doomed and blindly stumbling towards total collapse, but the Frontier has allowed civilization of a sort to rise with a fevered vitality. In a way this is my attempt to create a of modern version of the prototypical Dungeons & Dragons as Western, but with the "Anti-Western" genre as a basis rather then the "Classic Western" of Keep on the Borderlands. The Crystal Frontier hopes to creates stories about the conflict between modernity/civilization and the primal chaos of the wilderness. However, I refuse to include stand-ins for Native Americans, who have provided the embodiment of the wilderness half of this struggle in most Western literature (even revisionist Westerns) and in Dungeons & Dragons are arguably reflected by tribal humanoids. As an alternative the PCs, various nations of the terrestrial sphere serve this role -- thier land despoiled by the funerary practices and early attempts at invasion by the Empyreans. This potential conflict is of course a deep part of the setting that I haven’t managed to reduce to adventure yet, and maybe shouldn’t. However, even with the boom town optimism of the Crystal Frontier, it provides mostly the delights of a overfed scavenger, sweating in the sun with a reckoning is roaring over the horizon.
3) Magic is Technology: Not a hard one, the Crystal Tombs and the ruined imperial remnants are examples of far greater arcanotech then the characters will ever be able to understand. This provides the justification for the setting -- plundering wreckage for artifacts that the setting’s inhabitants can't fully use, but which they can misuse, repurpose, or cobble together for power. Treasures are gold and jewels, but the best are the are remnants of an high arcanotech past or distant and alien arcanotech culture (secretly the same one, Emperyans are also human - shhh). Slightly less directly the theme of magic as technology exists in the pollution left by high magic. The land itself is dyed and desolated by flesh warping tomb crystal, and distinct “sinks” of curdled Imperial magic surround many potential adventure sites. Even the ecology is poisoned by old sorceries, with arcanovore “bearowls”, manticores (originally a product of unsavory sorcerers’ attempts at immortality), and packs of tomb crystal infested lith wights or shard back hogs providing the major wilderness dangers.
4) A Parliament of Owlbears and a Surfeit of Men: Finding the signature monsters for a setting goes a long way to define it, and my fantasy settings have long focused on two monsters: owlbears (aka bearowls, urso-strixaform arcanovores, beakbears or growlhoots) and people. I like owlbears both because they have such a classic pedigree, being one of the “plastic toy monsters” original to early Dungeons & Dragons, meaning they are iconic, but also because they are largely without interesting lore or history in D&D. Dark Elves (which arguably, unless they are Grey Elves, provide the Crystal Frontiers other signature creature - the Empyreans) by contrast carry around a lot of fictional weight in Dungeons & Dragons. Owlbears though remain little more then a furious and threatening bit of nonsense -- one that I feel I’ve nicely lodged in my setting as a sort of dangerous magic eating vermin, adapted to every ecology. This fiction allows variety: peacockbears, seagullbears, arborial beakbears, parrot bright beakbears, and burrowing beakbears (of both the giant naked molerat and fast 2HD burrowing owl variety). Plus, because of Owlbears' diet and nature, they are drawn to eating your magic-users, but can be distracted by feeding them spellbooks, scrolls, and other magic items, giving them both good tactics and a costly but logical way to distract.
|If I ever need a general settign sourcebook...|
From a gameplay angle, this literary theory nonsense means that a lack of easy choices or hints about what factions players should support allows player decisions to have unexpected long-term effects on the setting. The Crystal Frontier is a snakepit of competing claims and powers (some of which I known about and will reveal below, despite not having written adventures about them yet.) The party takes the role of fortune’s wayward bastard, who will need to judge the claims, morality, and goals of others and decide how to proceed. Will the adventurers workonly for themselves, taking the easiest path and watch things fall apart? Will they support the cruel but stable status quo and try to maintain uneasy equilibrium? Will they encourage the ambitions of a known power, or release something dangerous and powerful? With humans (or I suppose space elves) filling the roles of almost all the factions, and with most having a sensible (if not always charitable or prosocial) ideology and goals there’s no alignment (literally I don't use it, neither shoudl anyone who wants a sandbox game) or identification of some parties as “monsters” to fall back on when making decisions.
5) Ineffable Sadness, Not Evil: In keeping with the place of humans as the major setting antagonist, the overall ethical or perhaps narrative (Given that it’s a sandbox so loose I’m uncomfortable even finishing a map for it) theme is at most anti-heroic, it’s not a world of good and evil, but one of decline and scared people making selfish, but comprehensible decisions whose secondary effects are devastating.
The title of the Crystal Frontier is taken form two sources, a 1995 book of nine linked short stories about the relationship and fortified borders between the US and Mexico by Carlos Fuentes, and a song by Calexico, an aughts indie rock/Tejano band out of the Southwest. Both the song and novel The Crystal Frontier” have some elements that have made it into the setting - the song offers imagery of haunted deserts and omens, while the stories are largely focused on misperceptions and the way interrelations and histories (between nations and people) are denied or rewritten to reinforce status and simpler understanding of the world. This is obviously not going to make it into a D&D setting. At least not in an explicit way (well the haunted desert will), but it still impacts the setting.
These sources are useful, because they suggest complexity, and ruin rather than heroism. Complexity and ruin help build the core “feel” of setting, the elegaic and ieffable sadness mentioned above. The world of the Crystal Frontier is in a long, slow decline. No fast looming apocalypse offers the catharsis of destruction with the promise that those who endure will rise again and rebuild a better world. The Crystal Frontier as a setting aims to provoke an eerie sense of deja vu instead by poking around in the American mythos of the Western more directly then Gygaxian D&D (which does the same, though more often with the Classic Western), reflecting the present’s tragedies, and applying the fearsome possibility that entropy is ascendent after an age of progress and stability to dungeon fantasy. As fantasy of course things are exaggerated, and the Frontier’s magical sinks and wastelands of poisonous extraterrestrial crystal may be commentary on the industrial, military and agricultural pollution that threatens us, but despite some similarities to California, the Frontier is not newly afflicted with a catastrophic yearly fire season worsened by its citizens’ inability to regulate powerful industries.
Just as it’s not a story of apocalyptic revells and post-apocalyptic rebuilding, the setting is not a dreary exploration of hopelessness -- it is not a “Death Crawl” or series of “Negadungeons”. As explained below, the goal of Crystal Frontier (and this Gygax ‘75 exercise) is to create a faction rich sandbox setting, something where players feel like part of a living regions where things happen in the background, conspiracy is everywhere, and their actions and decisions have an effect. Obviously this level of player agency can offer hope (if one’s players are hopeful types) even if the overall trajectory of the setting is one of decline.
|Another potential adventure.|
Another ruined War Machine
As published work I also don’t want the Crystal Frontier to depend on playing its dungeons within the setting, or given that it’s a one (lazy and busy) person hobby project, to require (or even imply) that multiple products are necessary to use any of it at the table. One of my critiques of large published settings like The Forgotten Realms is that they fill in so much space. A setting shouldn’t overwhelm or force the referee’s creativity, and while even the Realms have a few spaces that are more or less blank, I prefer settings with a lot of blank space, even in the starting region or adventures. Voids in the text can allow for referee creativity, or even prompt it, and Crystal Frontier should be more void and inspiration then facts and setting fiction. As a referee running a dungeon crawl through the guts of one of its colossi, you don't need to know if the Successor Empire is 3,000 or 300 years old (though that's an interesting questions), and your players certainly don't either. If they become interested in the hostory of the Empire though, I'd like to provide a few hints that are easy for the referee to create thier own setting fiction around. I don’t want a definitive Crystal Frontier setting to explore via a fantasy Baedeker's Guide, I want each table to have their own Crystal Frontier that emerges from play with only as much detail as that table needs to enjoy it.
To this end, instead of thinking about maps, I’m going to focus on the overall “plot” of the Crystal Frontier.
Sacrilege! I speak of Gygax’s ideals and methods of campaign design and Plot in the same post!
The combination of plot and sandbox setting is a blasphemy to some, but give me a moment. “DON’T PREP PLOTS” is a maxim of OSR era design, and like most OSR maxims it stands on a foundation of good ideas. Yet, like all maxims, the reality of design is a bit more complicated. I don’t think one has to completely eschew any possibility of overarching story to write classic style campaigns, only make sure that any story is dependent on player action and can be molded by player choice. This is of course in keeping with another oft referenced but inprecise OSR era design idea "EMERGENT NARRATIVE". For Crystal Frontier I think I can design the setting in a way so plot in a broad sense will support better emergent narrative.
Above I’ve mentioned how infested with factions the Frontier is, and this is the core of its narrative.
The Crystal Frontier is a wasteland region, acting as a buffer zone between a Resurgent Kingdom and the hinterlands of the Successor Empire. It’s currently free from control by any polity or power, but it’s also rich in specialized magical resources - the magically charged occuliths that can be found within ruins of Emperyean sky fortresses and tombs.
As it stands the Bull Kingdom (which is the closest power and has colorable claim to the Frontier) fears annexing it by force because while the Successor Empire is in decline, decadent, and rotten, it still has an arcane military supremacy in the form of its fleet and war machines that the Warlock King can’t hope to match should the Empire actively commit to the region. The Empire in turn is somnolent, with the ruling the priestly hierarchy who wrangles its cursed imbecilic Emperor distant from international affairs. Unfortunately for the Warlock King, the dynamic mercantile interests of at least one Imperial Province are active on the Frontier in the form of Syndicators from Green Hive, and no one knows how deep their influence in the Capitol runs. Lesser powers also threaten stability: Wyrms, the Maritime Provence’s Sea Kings, the surviving loyalists of the Silver Princesses who the Warlock King Overthrew, an ancient ghoul cult, the Frontier’s lawless citizens, and of course the Empyreans whose internal conflicts have encouraged them to see the Frontier as a resource rich potential target for invasion. The Frontier is brimming with geopolitical tension, and the basic plot structure it provides is that at some point the players will do something or fail to do something and trigger occupation by one or more parties and resistance by the others. The Crystal Frontier is destined to become a war zone, which will make being an wandering, heavily armed treasure hunter very difficult.
Any sort of war or invasion (from terrestrial powers, awakened horrors, or an empyrean war moon) will disrupt the existing setting, forcing the players to pick a side for or against the Frontier’s local inhabitants. I’d guess trying to protect the Frontier from invaders is more likely if they’ve made alliances, bought businesses in Scarlet Town, or feel responsible for the crisis, but the setting won't make a judgement. Some invaders, such as Wyrms (dragons - horrible dragons who embody different sorts of apocalyptic destruction: disease, unreason, or war in this case), will be a fairly easy choice to resist, but the more human factions aren’t good or evil exactly, and can offer plenty of reasons to work with them.
I don’t want to just leave this plot as a vague set of instructions or inspirations for when the referee gets bored. Instead, for my own game (and potentially others) I want to offer tools that help referees decide when and how the crisis will come. The main issue with the plotted campaign structure (also known as the adventure path) is that it moves along predictably and forces the players to follow. Even with the branching structure that more involved versions of the path campaign style produce, player choice is limited.
The design question here is:
How to prepare plots without creating a predetermined narrative? How can a designer influence story without setting its possibilities down into the tracks of a Choose Your Own Adventure style path?
This isn’t just a question of play style, sandbox v. railroad, but also one of space and energy. Writing up the variety of possibilities for an adventure path and creating a narrative tree of choices fills a lot of space and requires a lot of writing. I suspect part of the reason adventure paths tend towards simplistic options and linear narrative is the sheer amount of physical space that writing alternate scenes and accounting for varied player choices requires. This in turn means reducing writing in other areas, such as longer location keys with more rooms.
The alternative often seems to be vague nebulousness. In the same way some adventure paths describe locations in a paragraph or two without detail navigating the rooms or area it contains, a sandbox designer can throw up their hands and give a general description of the influences and possible intrigues of the region -- something like the description I provided above. For the Crystal Frontier, I don’t want to do this, I like experimenting with adventure design, and by intentionally avoiding a hex map I can focus my time on the possibility of better creating a sandbox plot. I also prefer procedure to rules, finding a recipe for the players and referee (here just the referee) to follow instead of offering a set of laws that address specific situations in play and their exceptions. Underlaying procedure and rules though are built up from mechanics, the individual tools that help the referee make decisions or track the course of play. For dungeon crawling these procedures are well known, I’ve posted about them as have many others.
What are the procedures for structuring open ended plots that encourage player involvement and respond to player choice?
There are many existing tools or mechanics for faction design and event management in sandbox campaigns. Looking at what already exists my impulse is to create procedure that follow from writing “character sheets” for important factions, that not only include their resources (something like this is already available in the Scarlet Town section of Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier), but their goals, and most importantly "clocks" or timelines that track faction plots to obtain their goals, but which often list a trigger or triggers to start the clock. Beyond goals specific tactics or actions (such as “attack enemy headquarters” or “flee into the wilderness”) will be listed, sometimes triggered by clocks, sometimes by player action, and sometimes by events on a larger scale regional “Chaos Index”. How well this all comes together is a question for the next post, as is a closer examination of the specific factions and their individual plots within the Crystal Frontier.