The Black Orifice

Tabletop gaming resources and events from grumpy old games designers, Ben Redmond and Nigel McClelland

Homebrewing for D&D

Eiocha Map, click to enlarge

For my Birthday in January I got the latest version of Dungeons and Dragons – the game that started my life in gaming thirty years ago. I’d already been running a game of it for the student gaming group at school using the freebie basic rules you can download from the website, and had been thinking it would be a great game for my regular group. We’d just started a game of Dark Heresy (trying out the second edition, which is great btw!) so there would be a couple of months before we’d be able to play D&D. I’d already (for my school group) been thinking I’d like to spend a bit of time developing a homebrewed fantasy setting for the new edition. I struck upon the idea of creating the setting together. Inspired by boardgames such as History of the World, Civilisation and Small World, I put together a simple narrative system for developing the history of a fantasy world in a series of “Ages” (very Tolkienesque, I know) and we began to send around emails to start to create our setting.

Here’s a quick overview of the system:

The process began with the creation. I randomly determined an order, and then let the players come up with the concept for a god and the role that they took in the creation process. I also gave them instructions that I didn’t want any overtly evil or whiter-than-white god guys, everything should be in shades of grey. To make sure that there was a good balance and range of gods without overlap I created a list of areas of interest and descriptions of the outer plane that each god would call home. In turn players would pick out from these options and come up with the concept for their god. The list was finite, so when an aspect was chosen, no other god was allowed to take it. Each god also had to choose a race that they would populate the world with, and had some other choices to define their culture, economy and organisation. Again, the list was restricted to create a range of different races with different and interesting cultures.

This then gave us the starting point for the first age. We had established that the world was created by Lym, a nature goddess interested in the life-death cycle. She populated the world with the plants and animals, and created a celestial race to guard over it. Then along came the other gods as they looked upon the world and created their own child-race to explore and tame it. First was Kadir, a god of justice and fear who created the humans. Next was Telethal who created the Elves and was a highly ordered military and trade god; Shiawen god of dragons, magic and civilisation; and a the Great Spirits, a pantheon of minor gods who were tied to the ravages of nature and created the Orcs as the apex predator. Finally Meirion, the lonely god came along. Meirion was a bit of an unusual case – he was the god of dwarves, but also a god of freedom, but who lived in a lonely isolated, prison-like outer plane. We struck upon the idea that rather than him creating the dwarves, he freed them. Dwarves and elves are natural enemies in many fantasy worlds and it just fit together that the dwarves were the elves’ slave race, created by Teletal as servants, and that Meirion would free them from bondage. The whole process was a narrative endeavour, discussing ideas as to how bring the different ideas together into an overarching story.

Next we had to decide what happened during the first age. During this process I asked the players to look upon the other gods and civilisations and come up with a list of which ones they think their race would like to ally with, which they would like to make an enemy of, and which they thought would probably be a tense rival. They had to choose at least one of each, but they could make some other civilisations neutral if they wanted. Once they had made these choices in secret I tabulated them all together to work out what wars were likely in the age. This gave us wars between the Elves and Dwarves (inevitably), that the Dragons would impose civilisation on the Orcs and that the Elves, Humans and Orcs would be at odds with the Celestials.

However, I also wanted a running theme of a great darkness rising at the end of each age, and the rest of the world having to rally to thwart them or plunge the world into an age of destruction and despair. (I have an idea for a secret darkness that’s behind it all, but don’t want to go into that in too much detail publically so that it doesn’t spoil things for my players.) So, I randomly selected one of the races that would be corrupted to evil and worked out whether the rest of the world could stop them. I rolled the Celestials, and struck upon the idea that, as the servants of a life-death cycle god, they wouldn’t appreciate the other gods creating immortal beings (we had decided that in this first age, all the races would be immortal, except possibly the dwarves). Given that the Humans, Elves and Orcs had selected Celestials as their enemy, it was clear that their nefarious plans had been thwarted in some way. I also created a table to decide what happened at the end of each age, with a range of punishments and cataclysms that I could choose with a dice roll. The celestials were defeated and hence banished. We talked through some ideas about what could happen in the aftermath (Tam, a new evil murder/betrayal god and Kadir splitting into twin gods were particular highlights), and then wrote it all up and began on the next age.

Now we were into the Ages proper I was able to start to think about a standard system that could keep us going for age after age if we wanted. I came up with a scaling system of development, so that as the ages progress the civilisations can get more and more advanced, but if the evil empire wins, they get plunged back to a violent dark age. Secondly, to emphasise the passage of time I started each age with the players making decisions about what happened to the previous civilisations. Again there was a limited range of options and only one of them allowed the civilisation to continue in its current form, hence creating new space to allow new races to evolve and expand the setting. Then each player needed to choose a new race to develop a civilisation for, and choose the economy, government, religion and so forth. Again choices were limited so that to make sure a spread of different civilisations were created.

The second age had a really up-beat and classical feeling to it, with the humans spreading out into hundreds of minor civilisations, the elves developing a glorious trading empire and the dwarves become raiding steppe nomads. In addition new civilisations arose for the Lizardmen (seafaring traders), Goblins (miners) and Gnomes (pranksters who evolved out of the dwarves and kicked their grumpy cousins out of their mountain home). However, when it came to the reckoning at the end of the age, no one spotted that the Goblins were decidedly dodgy and their leader, an avatar of the Great Spirit of Passion, sought to ascend to full godhood at the expense of the rest of the world. A devastation was unleashed an a new evil god formed, and the Third Age would be the Age of Ash and Fire.

Shortly after we’d begun the process for the Third Age (merchant dwarves in ascendancy, elves scattered to the forests, Telethal sponsoring hobgoblins as the elves let him down and a new genocidal human magocracy), real life intervened. I was struggling to organise it all and one of the players dropped out. But then I got to thinking that this Age of Ash and Fire would actually be a really interesting time to play the game, so we settled to round off the process there and begin our game in this dark epoch. I added the final major civilisation – a mixed human and elven civilisation inspired by Sigmar’s origin story in Warhammer which is in itself inspired by Charlemagne – and then I asked the players to come up with ideas for new minor kingdoms that we could put in to fill out the map and flesh out the setting.

For the results, have a look at this PDF.