Q’Rith Season 3 Intentions

20:35 Sun 07 Apr 2013. Updated: 21:51 25 Jul 2014
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The third season of my D&D campaign starts Monday, and I’m going to discuss some of what I’m trying to do in it—without, naturally, giving anything away to my players.

Season One and Season Two were good, and I really liked doing them, but the environment for the third season is where I had intended the whole thing to be set when I first came up with the idea for the world: a continent that had been cut off to everyone for a very long time, a place where I could do a kind of cross between Joe Abercrombie and Deadwood[1].

When I started working on it, I realized that starting on the new continent wouldn’t be as effective if the characters didn’t have a sense of their home environment, and so I dropped them into the middle of a complex, established nation at war and had them swim in its currents for a while. I didn’t force them to go to the new continent, but tried to provide a number of paths by which it would make sense for them to end up there. They could have arrived earlier or later, or even not at all, but the path they took meant it made sense for them to do it now.

They will arrive there as part of a colonization process, taking place during a war against the nation that had kept the continent interdicted for so long. They’re agents of their home nation’s military, with a remit encompassing scouting, exploring, and spying—and violence, because frankly nobody would hire this bunch if that wasn’t going to be part of the job[2].

I intend the season (and the campaign in general) to have the following hallmarks.

Political Realism

The world isn’t magically divided into “good” and “evil”—nor into a handy nine-segment table. The struggle for power is dominated by strategic and economic concerns, with morality limited in its influence over the powerful. Heroism and villainy are subjective descriptions applied after the fact, and differently by different parties. Political situations are complex enough that discerning who’s “right” is difficult, and at times even determining which side of a given conflict is pursuing what goals can be challenging. “Sides” are themselves merely groups, and within these groups are struggles that will often hinder the supposed goals of the containing entity. Large forces and trends are at work, and while individuals can influence them, it’s more likely that they will be swept along by them.

This is mostly achieved through background, rather than in-game, work: creating and filling out the setting, setting up the various plots and currents that affect the player characters, and determining the motivations and goals of interested parties.

Psychological Realism—NPCs

I try to make non-player characters into real people with their own motivations and dispositions. This is easier on the preparation side—during the game itself, it’s difficult to get across individual NPC personalities. The background work is like writing, but the performance aspect is quite challenging[3]. Character development isn’t necessarily a strength of my writing, but I feel confident about character setup, and that’s the critical part for roleplaying games since the character development focus should be on the PCs. By setup here I mean that the characters have backgrounds and ambitions integrated into the setting, and that the actions they make sense in terms of their surroundings[4].

This plays back into the political realism, in that I hope to have consequences for how the PCs treat NPCs—and the biggest challenge there might be simply getting the players to see that NPCs are distinguishable. This season I’m going to try to help them do this using art, mainly in the form of Paizo Face Cards, decks of fantasy-themed small portraits made just for this purpose.

As for the background side, I’ve done plenty of work on the goals and plans of the various NPCs the players will encounter, and I hope that’ll ensure they come across as realistic individuals

Psychological Realism—PCs

This is really under the control of the player characters, but the GM has plenty of influence. I gave each of the players a background that integrated them into the setting, and provided good starting points for the players to work from. I’ve also pushed my players to do character-related homework, often asking them to open a session with character details.

Prior to this season, I’ve done a lot of work on religion in the setting, and as part of that I’ve provided a religion for each of the players. I’m hoping that this will encourage good roleplaying—and I’m backing that up by tying some game mechanics to it, making it possible to gain divine favor if they act in certain ways[5].

I’m also hoping that the religions will cause a certain kind of cognitive discomfort: the characters should not simply have the same attitudes as the players, otherwise it’s a much shallower form of roleplaying and simply less interesting. Learning to make decisions consistent with an alien framework of reality is part of the challenge for the players.

This is tied to other kinds of realism: it’s much easier for PCs to act realistically towards NPCs if those NPCs seem real and if there are consequences for doing otherwise, and I’m hoping that those aspects of the setting all reinforce each other.

Detailed Setting

Without detail and complexity, not only is the setting probably unrealistic, but it’s probably not interesting. Much of the background work I’ve done is intended to provide a high level of detail and complexity that’s visible only when necessary. I don’t want to bury the players in history, or the details of governance, or currency, or legalities, but I want all of that to be there in case it becomes relevant. Having that in place goes a long way towards making the setting seem real (and, hopefully, interesting). One downside is that it’s not always possible to use it and the players never get exposed to it[6], but you have to accept that as a GM (and I don’t regard it as a waste because I enjoy the world-building anyway). So what I aim for here is for the world to be deep whenever the players scratch at its surface—or are forcibly submerged below it.

As part of this, I want the setting to convey a sense of “history”. This is a common aspect of fantasy settings, in which protagonists are pointedly reminded of their youth in comparison to various elder forces[7], and my world is no different. This season will deal with significantly more of that than either of the first two, and I’m curious to see if that has much effect on how the players perceive it.

A sense of consequences is also important here. Individuals and events need to be interconnected sufficiently for decisions to have effects that ripple through the setting rather than being isolated.

Evolution of Agency

Although political realism suggests that individuals are swept up by trends more often than directing them, the journey of the player characters—just like the journeys of most fictional protagonists—will involve a slow shift from lack of agency (and comprehension) over what’s controlling their lives to greater ability to affect what happens, to them and to others.

Agency and freedom of action are not quite the same in this context: the PCs have always had reasonable freedom of action in that they weren’t on tracks, but their understanding and abilities meant that this freedom wouldn’t necessarily result in achieving their goals, and that those goals were unclear. The first two seasons pushed the PCs around, and they only grasped snippets of what was going on around them.

They’ll start this season the same way, but I want there to be more opportunity for them to understand and to be the movers rather than the moved. They’re not suddenly going to become all-powerful, and they will still be shoved by greater forces, but I want to slowly increase their sense of being able to alter the world[8] to some extent—if they earn it, of course.

Moral Compromise

The PCs have already had to struggle with the morality of their actions, and to overcome internal conflict over them. Some of them are already uneasy about the ethics of what they’re doing. I want to push on that this season, and ideally match a development in their understanding of their characters’ motivations with realizations about what that means for achieving their goals. I want the slow increase in agency to be coupled with successes regarding those goals—but also with concerns about the prices paid, by them or others. The ends, the means, the right thing, and the expedient thing rarely line up together, and they won’t do so too often in this setting.

Heroism may still be possible, but very difficult, and not merely in the ways that it’s traditionally supposed to be difficult.


I originally had this as “senses of drama and wonder”, but that wasn’t quite right (although I want to convey those, too). Events and decisions should matter to the players. Their characters should matter to them, and they should make decisions on that basis; the world should matter to them, and they should also make decisions on that basis (this is clearly also connected to moral compromise). Like all storytellers, I want my world to matter to my audience, and I want that audience to care enough that even making a small difference to that world is important to them.

Interesting Combat

To be compelling, combat needs to be challenging, interesting, and important—but in a violent world, especially given the trouble players tend to get themselves into, violence is sometimes relatively meaningless, so the other two factors need to make up for this. It should also be stressful. There’s a tension between the enjoyment of playing the sub-game of combat and the stress that players are (hopefully) feeling at the prospect of their character dying, and it makes sense to add some stress factors. One that I’ve been very happy with is the “shot clock”, i.e. timing each player in a combat round and giving them a limited amount of time to make decisions[9].

I generally try to make the terrain interesting, but that’s not always going to be possible. We use a combat grid, and this season I’m departing from simply drawing on a plain grid. I’ve bought maps and tiles and am going to use those in addition to the grid, and I think this will make it easier to produce varied terrain quickly. I’m hoping it will also make setup easier.

I’ve been reasonably happy with the levels of challenge the players have faced so far. They have faced only combatants whose capabilities are broadly similar to their own—they’ve only faced intelligent humanoids, those being humans, orcs (in a practice scenario), and the equivalent of half-elves. These enemies have all been player-character classes, which has worked well, as the sheer variety of possible character builds means that they’re not at all uniform. It helps that the base ruleset we’re using, Iron Heroes, is designed to make combat full of interesting choices, and we’re all still learning its intricacies, so even basic combat in bland terrain wouldn’t be too bad—there are still plenty of things to try.

[1] Abercrombie arguably did this himself in Red Country, but that came out well after I’d had the idea for the setting, and covers only some of the same ground.

[2] Which isn’t to say that they’re sociopaths in the typical RPG mold—they’re not, but they’ve escalated some situations quickly and they have a reputation.

[3] The portrayal of NPCs in a tabletop roleplaying game is different enough from other kinds of performance, and difficult enough, that it’s worth a post of its own.

[4] Psychological realism in any narrative is tightly coupled to the environment; I don’t think that the tirelessly noble and selfless authority figures toiling in any number of television shows are necessarily psychologically unrealistic because nobody is that good a person, but more often because their environment is politically unrealistic and doesn’t capture the pressures and incentives present in the real world.

[5] While I came up with the deities, the specific ways in which their characters can gain favor is determined by negotiation between me and the player.

[6] For example, the outline of the criminal justice system in Anaq’rest I wrote never became relevant in Season One.

[7] It’s rarely a totally new evil that’s arising in distant lands, right? Perhaps this is primarily because describing the rise of a new evil raises all kinds of tricky political questions, but it’s also due to the “ancientness” of fantasy realms.

[8] On purpose; things that they’ve done have already altered the world in some important ways, but the characters don’t really know that and they certainly didn’t do it intentionally.

[9] I’m currently using 90 seconds plus 15 seconds for every point of Intelligence and/or Wisdom bonuses their character has. I might cut that base to 60 seconds at some point. This system works extremely well, and also helps keep the players engaged by not having an interminable time elapse between each of their rounds.

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