DovahQueen: Bend the Knee
Since 2015, the DovahQueen has been taking your questions and giving advice to improve your games. Now the tables are turned in this DovahQueen series; Loren is asking the questions and a panel of three guests—an RPG-industry veteran, a Know Direction network staff member, and a fan—answers. It’s time to Bend the Knee!
First, let’s meet today’s guests.
RPG-Industry Veteran: David Barnhart (Basics4Gamers YouTube Channel)
Hi everyone! I’ve been an avid tabletop RPG player since I started playing D&D in 1984 (yeah, I’m basically a real-life Stranger Things kid). In my day job I design online interactive training materials for preschool teachers, and in 2018 I decided to bring my two passions together. The result is Basics4Gamers, a YouTube series where I teach players the mechanics of games like Pathfinder, Starfinder and D&D Fifth Edition. Check us out at https://www.youtube.com/c/Basics4Gamers!
Know Direction Network Staff Member: Owen K.C. Stephens
I first got involved in RPGs, and RPG design, when staying with my uncle in the summer of 1982. He had the 1st edition D&D DMG… and nothing else. I made up the rules we were missing so we could play the game. Since then I have come to be a professional RPG designer and developer, working for companies from Wizards of the Coast and Paizo to Steve Jackson Games, and I am currently the Fantasy AGE developer for Green Ronin Publishing.
After 6 moves in 6 years, I’m back in my hometown of Norman, OK, living in a house with two cats that have the rooms neatly divided between them.
Fan: Logan McGuire (he/him) – Zietieflr (zee tee flur)
Logan has been playing Pathfinder for the last five years. After his first campaign as a player fell apart after two sessions, he pulled the players back together as the GM. Shortly thereafter, he realized just how much it takes to GM a custom world in Pathfinder. At that point, he turned to podcasts to learn at an accelerated pace. He actively plays in War for the Crown and Carrion Crown. Currently, his life has pivoted into the world of software development after years building escape rooms and theatrical sets.
“You’ve been playing with these people—your best friends—for many years now, but it’s an established fact that they are a hard group to satisfy. Each player has a very different personality with very different interests. The GM could never figure out how to make sure that each player got what they were looking for from the game, and as such, has politely asked you to GM the next game because they need a break. And now, you have 4 players’ eyes on you looking for a story that appeals to each of their interests. Not looking to be chasing ghosts in the dark, you ask them each to tell you what they would like to see in the next setting and in the next story.”
Homebrew a unique setting based off the interests of each player. Roll a d6 for each friend and consult the table to determine what each would like to see in the next game. Tell us what your rolled and give us the elevator pitch for your campaign based on their input.
|2||Undead||No Magic||Solving Mysteries||Blue Collar Workers|
|3||Demons or Devils||Steampunk or Dieselpunk||Love and Family||Plucky Kids|
|4||Fey||Modern||The Grim Darkness of Life During Wartimes||Robots or Constructs|
|5||Sea Monsters||Stone Age||Horror||Cultists|
|6||A United Empire of Goblins and Orcs||Sci-Fi||Very High Speeds||Nobles|
David: Will: 3 (demons/devils/fiends)
Amelie: 5 (stone age)
Modestina: 6 (very high speeds)
Shaun: 1 (pirates)
Stone age… pirates? Who travel at very high speeds?? Did they even have boats in the stone age??? As weird as this sounds, “demons and devils” is the most accommodating part of their demands.
Also, I hate my friends.
They’ve done me no favors with their selections, but I’ll see if I can weave these ideas into something with a semblance of coherence. My setting takes place in fantasy-influenced prehistoric world. Think more Far Cry: Primal and less Quest for Fire.
Atalas is a realm of magically floating islands that rest above a thick, impenetrable layer of blood-red clouds… the “Crimson Sea”, as it is known. Mankind survives in seemingly primitive tribes atop these broad, sometimes sprawling, masses of land. Humans wield stone-tipped spears while mounted atop pterodactyls. And magic in the form of witchcraft and shamanism is very, very real.
The Crimson Sea may be formed of rolling clouds, but tribal shamans and sages have learned that elemental magics may be used in the construction of “Cloud Cutters”; small, nimble and incredibly swift ships that ride atop this cloud layer as if it was water, but with one very important difference — the further a cutter travels from the elemental stability of one of the floating islands, the faster it must maintain speed to avoid losing buoyancy and falling through the clouds to certain death far below.
The one exception to this rule are the leviathans. Majestically large creatures that live within the Crimson Sea seemingly move as they please, even coming to full rests within the crest of the clouds. The peaceful tribes of Atalas revere these creatures, but the warlike tribes have recently made a terrifying discovery — the blood sacrifice of a leviathan results in the birth of foul, demonic abominations that can be unleashed upon the peaceful tribes.
And that’s where the players come in. The party is made of a team of pirates — stone spear and bow wielding guardians who sail cloud cutters out to the “deepest” reaches of the Crimson Sea to safeguard leviathans, prevent their enemies from spawning a demonic hordes from the death of one of the beasts, and in times of great emergency slaying the largest, kaiju-like of those spawns before they can reach their home.
They must sail through the clouds at breakneck speeds to avoid falling through; narrowly darting and weaving around small clusters of islands and “rapids” as they chase or battle their enemies. Never allowed to slow or stop, they rely on arrows, harpoons, ropes with hooks to grapple themselves to their mountanous demonic foes, or even using elemental magic to launch themselves to enemy cutters and living demon-ships.
I imagine I would run a game like this using a more flexible system than my beloved Pathfinder. Fate, perhaps? Or maybe GURPS or even Mutants and Masterminds 3rd Edition. I also would host a world-building session to have the players flesh the setting out. I would randomly select players to answer specific questions to fill in the blanks of the world and give them a sense of ownership in it. “What is your tribe called?” “What is your tribe’s emblem?” “Who is the spirit that watches over your tribe?” “What is the evil tribe called?” “What is their goal? Why are they choosing to slaughter leviathans to raise a demon armada?” And so on.
That’s my idea in a nutshell. Stone age pirates who must travel at very fast speeds to fight demons. And, seriously, I do hate these players. Because now I actually want to play this.
Owen: Building a custom campaign setting for veteran, picky players is always a challenge, and this group of friends isn’t making it any easier. According to the die rolls I got, Will wants to make sure the game has dragons. Amelie wants sci-fi. Modestina insists it be a horror game. Shaun wants the PCs to all be nobles. Without Modestina, this would be easy—I could just run a Starfinder game focusing on dragons and nobles and everyone would be happy.
But the addition of horror as a key element throws things for a loop. Still, time to gamely roll up my sleeves and set up a campaign. I’m going to stick with Starfinder, because (no shock) I know it well and have a great deal of experience creating campaign hacks with that rulesystem to emulate other genres (such as my Really Wild West setting-in-progress). It also leaves me free to borrow from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Horror Adventures for elements if I need to—they aren’t perfectly compatible with Starfinder, but I can easily handle any tweaks needed.
When building a campaign I often like to start with a hook or elevator pitch – a super-short description of the game and what its tropes, themes, and goals focus on summed up in no more than 3-4 sentences. This is useful both as a guiding principle as I design it, and to check my players for their interest level. So, here’s my initial campaign pitch:
“Void and Fire” The interstellar Dragonfyre Hegemon is built on the raw personal power of its dragon overlords, with thousands of Vassal Worlds allowed extensive self-rule as long as they pay their taxes and do nothing to threaten the status quo. When problems arise, members of the humanoid Eminent Houses—loyal agents of the Hegemon who form the ruling class below true dragons—are sent to handle them. The greatest of these threats are the Drakul—beings who enslave spirits of dead dragons to gain vast powers at the cost of vile appetites and which can infect and consume entire star-systems.
It’s Dune meets Dracula by way of Star Wars.”
The players will all take the roles of up-and-coming members of the Eminent Houses, the nobility of the Dragonfyre Hegemon (or, if desired, their servants). Lords and ladies of nearly unfettered authority on their homeworlds, each is now traveling beyond the safety of the Eminent Worlds for the first time to serve their time as agents of the dragon masters. They are out in the Periphery Systems, where the Hegemons power is much weaker. A major uprising would bring in warships and dragons, of course, but minor issues just don’t pose enough threat to justify the cost of more than a few young Eminents to investigate.
While some of what they are expected to deal with are just political machinations and local rebels or monsters causing problems, the Periphery Systems is also where the Drakul can move nearly unfettered. Part undead, part necromancer, these foes can be any species or profession, linked only by having found an ancient planerrery orb—a device from the Unknown Empire (that the Hegemony defeated thousands of years ago, and about which all knowledge is forbidden by the dragons). A planerrery orb can be used to move between planes, but also to steal the spirits of dead dragons, granting a powerful form of life-consumption and other bizarre powers, and to make lesser versions of Drakul.
The PCs will have access to the best tools they can pay for, shipped at their own expense from the Eminent Worlds, and have draconic themes, archetypes, feats, and equipment to represent their ties to the ruling dragon class. These will include special Dragonfyre weapons, with advantages against specific kinds of foes. But they are far from the security of civilization, and while what is lurking behind the corner may just be a sniper, or a politico hoping to earn a favor, it could also be a marrowwraith waiting to crack their bones open to briefly slake its unholy hunger.
Be alert. Learn much. Stay loyal. Keep your flamer handy.
Logan: United Empire of Goblins and Orcs | No Magic | Horror | Plucky Kids
Dream now. Open not thine eyes, little one. Your mind need not see through the fog…
Fall spirit hung heavily in the air when the mist started to appear. Odd for the mist to get thicker as the days went on.
A thin fog caresses anyone walking through its clutches. Wisps dragging at the souls of everyone passing through. Dreary skies setting the stage for a spooky Halloween.
The cloying moisture hides what happened Halloween night, when the hangman’s tree received new decorations. Not the silly, big-headed ghosts either. Tendrils of fog undulating across the streets, clinging like rotting flesh to the corpse of a town. Going outside means feeling the slithering tentacles oozing across exposed skin, hearing the world with the volume turned down, tasting despair, seeing—
In lakes of air, those of age shan’t fair. We embrace you, come into our night.
Adults do not go into the fog. Adults do not go outside. The boughs of the tree groan with their indiscretion. The windows cloud with the fog’s jealousy. Hiding within, they have intent. In the night their presence swells, transcending waking and sleeping hours. Bottles rattle, sheets rustle, and the walls provide only bodily protection. Adults only have these physical manifestations of mischief to keep them up at night. They cannot hear the nightmares form.
Of each ironclad link of law, we honor. Tell of what it is, why bother?
We hear them each and every night. We hear the peels of unhinged laughter, as they toil. Ringing of hammer on metal, the bellow of steam, and clomping of feet. They stand together in their purpose. We can feel their malevolence, their attention as claws caressing our spines. As we watch, the fog begins to move with purpose, an orchestrated dance across the streets. Only our minds can warp to our new reality. Only we can venture into the fog to find answers.
Violate our truths and we shan’t be gentle as with the youths.
We’ll be using the Kids on Bikes RPG system. Rules flexibility and a focus on story lend itself to building suspense, and it includes resources for handling player safety (hello horror). Additionally, with no health mechanic, there is room for narrative with complete control over any harm that could befall them. This campaign focuses on the kids of the town, any adult never returns from the fog. Only kids able to focus through their fear will be able to work toward unraveling the secrets cloaking their town.
This will be a horror campaign, we will be discussing in more depth what this means before session zero. Currently the focus is on the imagination of children, mixed with the manifestation of the spiritual world. With nothing but guile, wit, and their own two hands they must face the dangers of an unknown foe. While dreaming, kids have a chance to gain insight and motivations of the ephemeral enemy. This can be both a boon and a curse for the kids.
We’ll start the campaign around Halloween. You do not need to be of the same family, or even know each other well. You will need to be young (how young TBD), and have reason to be out and about during the trick or treat time. For this story we’ll work together to design the town. One notable feature is the founding day around Halloween and subsequent growth into a town festival. You will not be receiving a ‘powered’ character in the party. Your struggles will be your own, even in the face of paranormal activity.
As/for the GM:
The following explains some of the assumptions made by working with Amelie and Will.
Amelie desired an X-Files approach to unexplained phenomena. From the perspective of the PC’s there shouldn’t be magic, but strange things can still happen.
For the United Empire, I chose to focus on a culture lost to time. Will is interested in the culture and lore, rather than a military campaign. I started with fairy tale goblins, blended with some of the industry and hierarchy of Tolkien orcs. Much of the plot will revolve around discovering more about their history and place in the world. They will begin shrouded in mystery, but will be a pivotal part of the story. The presence of the goblins and orcs will be felt more than encountered, with dreams providing a direct influence.
I’ve heard from my guests; now I want to hear from you. What does your campaign look like? Leave a comment below, on our Discord, or on Know Direction’s Facebook page.
Each Bend the Knee features three guests. One is from the RPG industry. Another is from the Know Direction network. The third guest could be you! Leave a comment on Know Direction’s Facebook, Discord, or Twitter, or you can send an email to DearDovahQueen@gmail.com for your chance to be featured on the next Bend the Knee or Dear DovahQueen.