Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The unexpected pleasures of running two campaigns in the same setting

For over a year now, I've been running two different D&D campaigns in the same setting. The first of these, a 5E game that began in 2015 as a test of the new rules and run-through of "The Lost Mine of Phandelver" (the adventure included in the Starter Kit), has seen the player-characters rise to high levels (reaching the fourth, or epic, tier of play) and assume central place in a planes-hopping struggle to prevent an unholy coalition of Drow, giants, goblinoids, extraterrestrials, and vampires from toppling the human kingdoms of the world. The second campaign is a B/X game that unfolds on a smaller scale; here, the player-characters have made their mark within a smaller area (about 60 square miles) as protectors of a threatened shrine and general solvers of problems for the local authorities. Even so, word of their deeds has reached the attention of distant figures.

The setting is Hârn, a creation that mashes up a pseudo-medieval take on the British Isles with some very Tolkienesque borrowings, the whole underpinned by a unique cosmology and history that opens the door to a much wider multiverse of sorts. From the outset, I told the players in both groups that this would not be canon Hârn: I had no intention of using or even consulting the vast amount of material produced for the setting since the 1980s. Having picked up a used copy of the second edition of Hârnworld a decade ago, I was mostly interested in adopting its geography -- the beautiful full-colour hex map of the island is a joy to behold and to use in play -- and the general cultural and political context as a convenient backdrop to whatever shenanigans the PCs got up to. As a resource, Hârnworld provides only the broad strokes of the place, and even these I have not yet fully digested. I have not, for example, read anything close to the majority of the entries in the Hârndex, the dictionary of place-names on the map and general encyclopedia of key concepts. Nor did I make much of an effort to fill in the gaps myself in the spirit of what is sometimes referred to as "worldbuilding". 

The great, and somewhat unexpected pleasure, of running these two campaigns concurrently has been that the players emerged as the principal engine by which the setting has come to life. Their questions, desires, and needs were the prompts that pushed me to transform a general sense of the setting into concrete details about the setting, to dig more deeply into the motives and agendas of NPCs, and to resolve key questions about the nature of the world and the forces at play within it. No doubt this is often the case anyway, even when a referee makes use of fully fleshed-out setting material; but having two groups of players mucking about at two different levels of play and in different places has repeatedly provided the incentive and stimulation needed to make the world come alive in my mind. This in addition, of course, to the satisfaction a referee receives from having friends that are happy to return repeatedly to a place of shared creation that I've had the privilege of convening for us. To the players: a most sincere thank you.

And now, due to the pandemic, a new possibility is raised. The 5E game has of necessity gone online, where the B/X game has always existed. A number of important NPCs have met both parties, and the actions of both groups have shaped events for the other. Might they one day cross paths in the digital spaces to which we all must resort for the time being? We shall see.

In the meantime: the exploits of the 5E group have long been available on this blog, while the chronicles of the B/Xers have been hidden away behind barriers on the Roll20 site where that game unfolds. No more! They are now compiled here.

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