I’ve played lots of different D&D games. By different, I mean different styles, rules sets and…sub-genres if you will. You may not know that there are subgenres but indeed there are. You can play high magic or low magic. You can play Forgotten Realms or Dark Sun campaign settings. Etcetera. The game I’m running now I am getting a lot of enjoyment out of as a DUNGEON MASTER and I’ll tell you why.
Point by point.
We’re playing the Green Ronin setting “Freeport: The City of Adventure.” Pirates are as huge as greys were ten years ago, and though I am not a pirate fanatic, it makes a good setting for D&D (minus the gunpowder). Freeport is a city founded by pirates and it’s a backdrop that everyone understands and has fun with.
Apart from the pirate theme of Freeport, the setting is steeped in certain aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos, which appeal to me for obvious reasons. If anything I find the normal D&D rules and approach of monsters and secret knowledge pretty tame, so I inject a little more deadly danger into these aspects.
Magic is a bit of a paradox in my setting. Arcane magic, which is that used by wizards, is rare. I think that realistically if there was magic, the people with control of the magic would rule the world, and I didn’t want that so I decided to go the medieval route where witches are persecuted. In my setting, much like in R.E. Howard’s Conan series, all arcane magic is dark magic – the Black Arts – and people in Freeport caught using it have their hands and tongue cut off so they can’t use their spells to summon demons, set buildings on fire and take over the minds of city officials. (And yet, it is not unheard of that kings and other powerful people in the world may employ such wizards as can gaze into crystal balls and eliminate their enemies subtly and from afar)
The other side of the coin is Divine magic, which is the kind used by priests and holy men. In my campaign almost everyone believes in the gods in the same way that the characters in the TV series ROME do, and the people who represent those gods are given the greatest respect. In the D&D rules divine magic is all about defense and healing, so this works out handily.
Do orcs even exist? Pirates have tales, but none of the player characters have ever seen one. Sure everyone believes in the supernatural – if you believe in gods then you gotta believe in ghosts and demons, right? But surely bugbears and manticores are just fancies made up to keep children in line! That said, most pirates have accounts of sea monsters, and more than a few animals of unusual size have been spotted by those frontiersmen who cull lumber from the tropical island jungles north of the town. It took until the fifth session for the PCs to go up against any adversaries who weren’t human!
In the official Freeport setting, the city is a haven for all sorts of peoples – dwarves and elves and halflings and even orcs and other monstrous humanoids walk the streets freely and in numbers. That’s a cool setting to play in, but it’s not mine. In my setting, non-humans are unusual. So far we haven’t seen any dwarves or halflings. One of the player characters wanted to play an elf, so I let her, on the understanding that this choice would be a handicap. In my Freeport, elves are valued as slaves and persecuted as sub-human by 80% of the population. Others may think that elves are magical kin to the faeries, perhaps revering and superstitiously fearing elves, but these people are rare and don’t announce their feelings.
NOT A PC WORLD
No, in my Freeport, I play the race card in the traditional non-fantasy sense. I’ve divided the citizens of the city into the Northmen (white), the Orientals, the Persians (dusky skin) and the Nubians (blacks), with equally broad languages to match. The group came across a bar that only catered to Orientals (the nerds among you will know the Kara-Tur setting), for example. There is plenty of prejudice and racial stereotyping in my version of Freeport, and I am not afraid to play it up to add in some interesting historical accuracy and character stereotyping (read: overt racism) – but it’s a game and I’m okay with that, in the same way that I can watch a Western movie and not get outraged that the women are doing the dishes.
Freeport is also full of some of my favourite aspects of history that are largely ignored by Dungeons and Dragons: drugs, prostitution, and slavery. I made a point of telling all my players that I play a very non-politically correct game world before we started. The world of pirates is about raping, pillaging and general heresy, after all.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
I like my D&D a little more gritty and realistic than typical D&D. I don’t do critical hits the rulebook way. Crits do normal damage, but they come with a bonus. I mean come on, do you think that pirates START their career with eye patches, hooks and peg legs? The fun part about the critical hit chart is that all the players make it up collectively as we play, in this manner:
a) Someone confirms a critical hit
b) That person rolls a d20 and consults the chart
c) If the number they rolled doesn’t have an entry, they make it up.
Of course “hit in the junk” was among the first to be added to the chart. The hilariously ironical thing is that the players’ choices for critical hits are way meaner and permanent than my additions. They also chose ‘put eye out’ while a couple of my entries are ‘knocked down’ and ‘gut injury – pain.’
MADNESS IN FREEPORT
Also in the gritty category, let’s revisit what I said about the Cthulhu mythos. I have incorporated Rob Shwalb’s “Insanity Points” system into the game, but we are still tailoring it to our satisfaction. Basically this introduces insanity into the rules, similar to what’s done in the Call of Cthulhu RPG, but hopefully a little simpler. This means that every time a character sees a real monster or reads a book of forbidden lore or even has his mind affected by arcane magic, his mental health takes a blow. I joyfully got to put this into effect when the PCs saw skeletons animate and attack them! I MEAN THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE ISN’T IT?!?
I’ve always used a Fumbles/Critical Failure chart of some sort when I GM, generally only for combat. If you roll a 1, roll a d20 again and if it’s 10 or less, something bad happens, such as:
You damage an ally or innocent bystander (not making any friends here); You drop something important – all your potions or valuables spill out onto the ground; Your weapon, armor or gear breaks; An old wound acts up painfully; Low flying seagull!; You stumble or fall, provoking an A.O.O and/or becoming prone; Lose your weapon – it becomes stuck/tangled up into your opponents shield or armor; or you lose your grip on it and it flies away; You hit yourself.
Recently I made up another stat for the characters: a POSITIONING score. This is almost a saving throw – it’s kind of like a cross between luck and streetwise. When everyone’s bunched up in a group, who does the assassin attack? When everyone’s going through a trapped tunnel, who steps on the wrong stone? This is determined by making a Positioning check. Positioning at the very least is equal to your Wisdom bonus (or penalty). If your Survival score is better, use that. If your Knowledge: Dungeoneering score is better, use that. And so forth. A Positioning roll is 1d20 plus your Positioning score. The person with the highest roll chooses where he stands in the group, though the DM may coax him away from a danger zone. The person with the lowest roll is positioned by the DM in the worst possible place.
This came into effect most recently when the group was ambushed by enemies who rushed them through a secret door.
Now that I’ve screwed over my players in a myriad of ways, here’s where they get something to undo all my plans: FATE POINTS. These are much like Hero Points from Mutants & Masterminds or Zero Dice in Spaceship Zero. These can be used to reroll crappy dice results or act outside of initiative or generally bend the rules in your favour. If the players have done well during a session I’ll reward a Fate Point to each player, which are cumulative. The bad guys generally don’t have Fate Points but if I decide I need to break the rules to bend the story in the opponents‘ favour, I’ll hand out more Fate Points to the players as compensation.
So that’s where we’re at and from a DM perspective, this is one of my more successful D&D grooves. I hope the players are finding it as rewarding.
Comments, feedback, critiques welcome.