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31 January 2020

Expanding Your D&D Setting's Campaign Guide


Last July, we explored how to build a campaign guide for our unique Dungeons & Dragons setting. Of utmost importance was a solid description of the world, a brief timeline, a lightly-detailed map, a set of tenets that define the world, multiple race and class points of origin, and a basic pantheon. If we enjoy worldbuilding, though, we can continue to expand our guide. Sure, some players might not read all fifty pages of our world bible, but that’s why we usually write a one to three page summary of our campaigns before we start them.

This campaign guide is for us and players deeply invested in the lore of our world. We write it to further develop our world and help those who want to build characters who are connected to it.

So, without further ado, let’s learn how we can expand it with examples from my world, Eldar.

Continents


Campaign guides usually focus on a single region or continent of our world. Before diving into it, we should quickly explore the rest of it. It’s time to answer questions. How many continents are there? Which ones are inhabited? Who lives on them? How can a player character originate from them? What are their stories? Hone in on that final question, it will assist in building the others. Detailing the other continents of the world gives us a solid understanding of it, steeping it in history with a single paragraph. When we are playing, it allows us to pull relatively mundane knowledge about the world. To us, it’s just a paragraph we wrote in our campaign guide. To our players, it’s a snippet of interesting lore that immerses them more into the world.

Here is an example from my campaign guide. This passage explores Garthuun, Land of Monsters.

Eldar Example


Goblinoids, ogres, minotaurs, trolls, and aberrations are almost always seen as uncivilized monsters. Thusly, Garthuun is seen as a continent dominated by monstrous races. Goblinoid empires reigned supreme across Garthuun, commonly warring with one another and tribes of lesser races who roamed the wilds like ogres, trolls, and minotaurs, until the entire continent was thrust into a state of turmoil 3,000 years ago. A coordinated beholder invasion from the Subterrane crushed each goblinoid nation, turning the honor-bound race into a savage people as they competed for survival with the creatures they once conquered. Over time, the aberrations molded the monsters to their will, forming new factions and nations with themselves at the top. Now, Garthuun is a continent of conflict between Subterranean masters who play war with monstrous pawns. If you are a monstrous race, being a Garthuunian is a great idea! You could have escaped to Aphesus from the grasp of your militaristic beholder overlord. Going from another angle, you might be an agent of one of these overlords, searching for something on Aphesus. Think about what a Garthuuni overlord might want. It’s possible they are scouting out new territory to conquer after 3,000 years of controlling most of Garthuun...

Campaigns Set in Your World


A great way to flesh out our world and make our players’ characters’ actions matter is giving them a dedicated section in our campaign guide. This part looks over past adventures & campaigns in our world and speaks to their impact. What happened during the course of the adventure? What happened to the adventurers? What consequences did their actions have on the world? How often is this epic tale remembered?

Here is an example from my campaign guide. It explains the Dead Isles of Altarin campaign.

Eldar Example


On a tropical archipelago dominated by a trio of liches called the Dread Admirals, unlikely heroes joined forces to overthrow their cruel rule. In the process, they slayed a lesser Demon Prince, reassembled a destroyed giantish artifact, and shattered the liches’ amalgamated phylactery. The party, White Crow, Gwenavine, Primedordus, and Red Tusk passed into legend. White Crow disappeared from the globe and Gwenavine constructed a druidic citadel. Primedordus became a scholar of Azudon’s Reach and Red Tusk returned to his northern homeland. Today, the ruins of the Dread Admirals’ empire is scattered across the tumultuous Karlith Straits and the story of their fall is locked away in old tomes of lore. Read more about this epic adventure here: https://www.rjd20.com/2019/10/the-dead-isles-of-altarin.html

The Main Continent


After glancing over minor points of our world, we explore the main location where our adventure will occur. Most of the time, this will be a large continent. Other times, it might be a smaller region of our world. Whatever the case, we want to detail this place in full. Because of this, we can start with a brief explanation of the continent: a piece of fiction or a fact. Afterward, we delve deeper into each individual region and nation that calls the continent home.

Here is an example from my campaign guide. It introduces the continent of Aphesus.

Eldar Example


Safety. A concept simple to understand but unattainable to so many folk across our realm for countless decades. And after centuries of seeking it, I can confidently say that we will never achieve it. Nonetheless, we can stay true and strong to our own. We are not weak. We are not lesser. We are powerful and we can stand in defiance of the forces that yearn to destroy or dominate us.

The Kothian Empire stirs once again in the east, stretching its claws across our lands. The terrifying dictator Achai the Red moves in the Enoach, an army of burning dead at his command. High up in the Scythian Reaches, shifters and lone rangers speak of more giants moving south from Isen. And in the heart of our civilization, a sorceress-queen plots to shatter her nation’s shackles, refuting all extensions of peace. In the face of these threats, I ask: what will you do for the good folk of the Brynland Nations? I can confidently say I will do all I can to achieve the impossible: safety.

— Handil ce’Iliun, high elf archmage of the Dwiergus Council of Galen, City of Magic

Who lives in the frigid Scythian Reaches? What remains in the Thayan Desolation? How do the folk of the Caeldrim Forests interact with their surroundings? Do the orcs of the Greenlands of Bryntoril have a tangible society? What is it like to live in the Kothian Empire? How broad is the Aphid Alliance? What is the Dwiergus Council? Where are you most likely to find drow? Do the Garthuuni affect Aphesus in any way?

The next part of the Eldar Campaign Guide explores the continent of Aphesus in-depth, poring over its regions, nations, and important factions. First, it details wide regions like the Enoach Desert and the Caeldrim Forests. Afterward, it delves into Aphesusian nations, from the Algravoth Kingdom to the Ungart Holds. Finally, it explores the prominent factions on Aphesus like the Aphid Alliance, Forgotten Kings, and Dwarven Defenders. You can use any of these to grow your backstory or background, and determine your future goals — or even build adventures set in this realm.

Regions


With our continent set up, let’s delve into the regions of it. Ideally, these are the largest parts of the continent: sprawling deserts, dense jungles, massive mountain ranges, and limitless plains. For each region, we want to write around a paragraph of interesting lore. When we do so, we must focus on the present and refrain from lingering in the past for too long. What does the region look like? Why is it important? Who lives there? Are there any points of interest? What’s going on right now? Once we’ve answered all of these questions in a single paragraph to the best of our ability, we move on.

Here is an example from my campaign guide. It introduces the Zinaen Jungles.

Eldar Example


A roaring waterfall spouts from the mouth of a massive serpent’s mouth carved from a stone mountain face. Snakeheaded humanoids emerge from a grand golden temple, ornate blades at their sides, as they prepare to assassinate intruders to their holy land. A balor demon lounges on a throne of wood and bone, surveying her prisoners captured upon entrance to the cursed Zinaen Jungles. These tropical thickets and fetid swamps are the territory of accursed races like yuan-ti and tieflings, fiendish creatures who guard the forbidden secrets of the Age of Blood. When fiends ruled Eldar, the seat of demonic power sat in the heart of the jungle and its abyssal taint remains. Three years ago, the Loreseekers built a settlement on the edge of the jungles, a stronghold named Meeko’s Bastion. Named after one of the assassinated leaders of the adventurer organization, Meeko’s Bastion serves as a point of entrance into the near impenetrable thickets of Zinae.

Nations


After all of our regions are created, we move on to the nations of our continent. We know what it looks like, but who are the primary powers there? We want to paint a picture of each nation, what drives it, and why it is important to note. Who makes up the population? Who leads the nation? How was the nation founded? How recently did it rise up? What recent event caused it to prosper or fall? Mix and match these questions nation-by-nation so no two pieces of lore are alike. In addition, include a section about the nation’s culture. What are its people like? What would a player character from the nation be? Are there any key factions that stem from it?
 
Here is an example from my campaign guide. It introduces the nation of Aralia.
 

Eldar Example


Massive arches of pale marble curve over a radiant temple, a joyous chorus pouring from its stained and open windows. A beautiful, silver-haired woman in gleaming plate armor holds a sun-tipped sceptre high as a praying crowd reach their hands to the sky. Locked away in the Vaults of Light, the Hand of Vecna struggles to break free, restrained by divine magic, steel shackles, and an avatar of Pelor himself. Welcome to Aralia, a theocratic nation lead by Archdiviner Eliza Tyrdaughter, the demigod child of Tyr. Currently, it is experiencing a golden age. Aralia was untouched by the War of Vecna’s Hand, managed to spread their laws across Aphesus, and secure multiple outposts from the Scythian Reaches to the Zinaen Jungles. Their only real threat is the Kothian Empire.

CULTURE: All Aralians are religious and a sizable amount are zealous. Mostly human, they hold just ideals and unbreakable opinions about the world around them. Aralians were the power responsible for defeating the greatest threat in recent history, Tarset, and they know it. As a result, they’re confident that their way of life is the correct — and only — way to live. Strangely, they managed to spread their laws, taught to them by the high clerics of Mount Celestia’s deities, across the civilized nations of Aphesus. Now the culture of Aralia spans from the north to the south, a culture of upholding righteousness and reinforcing the tenets of the good gods. How do you worship the deities? How zealous are you?

In Summary


If you’d like a complete version of my campaign guide as an example, here’s a link to it: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Sxxf0MPx1uGkFiGfvYrxA5cJTnKlcybZtum-41kVMzQ/edit?usp=sharing
  • Campaign guides can always be expanded.
  • These campaign guides are for us and the players who are invested in our world.
  • Add information on other continents to the guide.
  • Explore the previous campaigns set in the world.
  • Delve into the main continent of the world, from the regions to the nations. 
Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

24 January 2020

Don't Be Afraid of Using Powerful Foes in D&D



Our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns are littered with creatures. Some are weak: crafty kobolds, gibbering goblins, or wailing harpies. Others challenge our parties: militaristic barbed devils, zealotus drow, or angry froghemoths. A select few, in the grand scheme, stand above the rest: ancient dragons, sinister pit fiends, or megalomaniacal liches. As Dungeon Masters, we shouldn’t be afraid of using the latter, powerful foes in our D&D campaigns. As players, we should understand the role these powerful foes take.

DMs can use powerful foes in a variety of ways. They can be the big bad villain of a campaign, a backdrop in the campaign, or a message that the world is dangerous, unpredictable, and real.

A crazed ancient gold dragon could be the campaign’s primary antagonist, interfering with the party using divination spells such as scrying. Despite the party not being anywhere near strong enough to battle the gold dragon, it can still play a role in the story.

A cult of worshipers of the world below could awaken a tarrasque from its deep slumber, causing the lands surrounding the party to become apocalyptic. The party isn’t directly opposing the tarrasque (yet), but it’s still affecting the campaign as a whole.


An inexperienced party could be blazing a trail through a dense, tropical jungle when a tyrannosaurus rex charges through the woods, terrifying the party. The party cannot handle a dinosaur of that size and strength at their current experience level, but encountering it is still a meaningful story beat.

We don’t need to be scared to drop these extremely powerful creatures into our worlds — they make them feel alive! If our parties battle them, so be it; they should know better. Not every encounter is meant to be fought and won.

I used this strategy in my last session. As my party was moving across the Feywild, from Unseelie Lands to Seelie Lands, they met a civilization of centaurs who built towns atop the backs of tamed tarrasques (yes, the Feywild in my world is insane). These mostly peaceful fey beings told the group of a great Tower of Thorns in their Golden Sea. A silver dragonborn lived there, leading dragonborn warriors to battle in the nearby Grove of Laughing Goats. He’d slaughtered many of their tribes and young — the centaurs wanted him dead. The party, thinking this a simple “side quest” en route to the main objective, decided to scope out this Tower of Thorns and slaughter the silver dragonborn.

Across the Golden Sea they flew, riding invisible on the back of their gold dragon ally, Marzius. Eventually, they found the tower and the silver dragonborn was there, meditating atop the huge spire. They devised a plan and attacked the silver dragonborn, swooping past the tower on dragonback. To their surprise, he leaped off the tower to follow them, transforming into a massive, purple-eyed ancient silver dragon.

Their surprise was palpable; the battle is still ongoing.

Will they win? Possibly. Do I think they will? No. The question is: what will they do in defeat? Will they fight to the death? Will they retreat? Will they surrender to the mercy of this ancient silver dragon? Or will my expectations be shattered and the powerful foe be defeated?

No one knows. I can say one thing: using this powerful foe is exciting and we shouldn’t be afraid to do it more often.

Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

17 January 2020

Examining Rise of Tiamat


The pre-written modules and adventures for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons aren’t for everyone. Some people love, play, and swear by them. They use them because they enjoy them, don’t have enough time to create a story of their own, or they don’t want to. And that’s okay. For those of us who do enjoy weaving tales of our own, in our free time or on slow days at work, these modules are fountains of lore, plot hooks, characters, monsters, twists, and fantastic locations. They can be used by us for the betterment of our hand-crafted stories. However, they can be long and some folks might not want to read them if they’re not running the adventure. Well, that’s where Best Bits comes in.

Welcome to the second Best Bits article, a series in which we pick through the pre-written adventures of Dungeons & Dragons, mining the coolest pieces of them for use in our own games and worlds. Previously, we went over Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the first hardcover module for fifth edition. This time, we’re continuing with its second part: Rise of Tiamat.

Rise of Tiamat continues the Tyranny of Dragons saga as heroes of the Sword Coast race to stop the Cult of the Dragon from summoning Tiamat onto the Material Plane. They bolster their forces with allies, battle dragon cultists and dragons, fly across Faerun’s favorite region, and finally confront the leaders of the draconic cult and, maybe, Tiamat herself at the Well of Dragons. If this sounds interesting to you, I recommend you buy Rise of Tiamat or just Tyranny of Dragons and run the actual modules. However, if you like to build your own campaigns, go ahead and proceed.

So, without further ado, let’s look at the four best bits of Rise of Tiamat to steal for our own D&D campaigns and adventures!

Number One: A Council of Possibilities


Rise of Tiamat is a massive step in the right direction when compared to its predecessor, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, because of its freeform nature. Much of this stems from the narrative mechanic that is the Council of Waterdeep. The party participates in a gathering of the Sword Coast’s greatest organizations, each of them keen on preventing the Cult of the Dragon from bringing Tiamat onto the face of Faerun. However, although they all share that common interest, each of them brings different ideas and opposing views on the region’s politics to the table and the group is charged with navigating this slippery political landscape. They gain allies, forge enemies, and prepare for the assault on the Cult of the Dragon’s headquarters: the Well of Dragons.

This can easily be inserted into any high-stakes campaign. A council of influential players in the region makes an excellent site for resting between adventures, gathering more magic items, and receiving more quests. In addition, it can help build up to a massive encounter that involves all of the various factions. By that time, the characters will be emotionally invested in the council members — and some of them might be enemies, too!

Number Two: Snake Horrors


Reskinning monsters is a lot of fun. In this adventure, the designers decided to create a spectacular monstrosity in the depths of a yuan-ti inhabited tomb. When the characters see lifeless husks of armor standing before them and snakes slithering along the ground, their mind won’t immediately jump to the two teaming up. However, this combination proves lethal and haunting. The snakes ascend into the armor, bring it to life, and even create a sword of venom! The designers show us, for the first time in 5E, how to successfully reskin one of their monsters — a helmed horror — to become a terrifying abomination. This monster is one we can steal and reskin over and over again for ourselves. Is your group delving into aquatic ruins? Maybe that school of piranha brings a massive statue to life. Are the characters about to storm a cloud giant’s keep? Their raven flocks take flight and bring the hollow statues around to life!

Number Three: The Dragon Masks


Scattered throughout the module are five dragon masks, powerful magic items that give their wearer the ability to commune — and even command — some of the mightiest creatures of the multiverse. In Rise of Tiamat, they’re worn or being searched for by the leaders of the Cult of the Dragon: the wyrmspeakers. Each dragon mask represents one of the core chromatic dragons: red, blue, green, black, and white. With a little bit of tweaking, these artifacts can be dropped in our own world. In addition, we can easily create more of them, perhaps for the scarcer yellow, purple, and brown dragons — maybe even dragon masks for metallics as well. They make great campaign cruxes, with the adventure revolving around finding them or stopping those who are using them. And if the party does get their hands on them...who doesn’t think it’s badass to control a dragon?

Number Four: Tiamat as a Villain


Tiamat is done dirty in Rise of Tiamat and the Tyranny of Dragons storyline as a whole. Although she’s the mastermind behind the Cult of the Dragon finding the various Wyrmspeaker Masks, she appears to play the role of the enraged beast at the only moment she appears in the module: the end. Of course, the party finds idols, minions, and worshipers of her, but the Dragon Queen never actually manifests in front of the group. She’s a great villain to steal, though. Her stats are laid out in Rise of Tiamat, as are a few of her motivations. Plus, there’s incredible art of her and a variety of inferiors who can serve her.

We can steal all the aspects laid out above but completely change how she’s viewed as a villain in our own campaign. Why have Tiamat be a vicious beast when she’s obviously as crafty as an ancient red dragon? Why not let her assail the party with visions from her prison on Avernus? Or, if we’re feeling particularly crazy, we can place her someone else, free of the infernal chains keeping her in the Nine Hells. Unbound, she becomes a far more threatening villain with the ability to make a real, lasting mark on our campaign.

In Summary


After my reading, these are the best bits of Rise of Tiamat:

  1. A council of influential people. They can become allies or enemies and serve as a base of operations between adventures. In addition, they can serve alongside the group in the final conflict.
  2. Snake horrors or reskinned helmed horrors in general are fantastic. Reskinning is powerful!
  3. The dragon masks make for unique artifacts. Our players will love them.
  4. Tiamat is a grand, frightening villain. Rise of Tiamat wasted her. We won't.

Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

10 January 2020

Interview With a Dungeon Master: RJ



From the beautiful country of America to the wondrous deserts of Egypt, Dungeon Masters help spread the joy of Dungeons & Dragons to folks young and old. D&D doesn’t care about our age or occupation, where we live or where we went to school; it only requires a mind that’s open to imagination, creativity, and collaboration. These types of minds are becoming more common as D&D continues to grow in popularity, mostly thanks to those who create worlds and host epic games: Dungeon Masters.

There are tens of thousands of Dungeon Masters in our world, each with a distinct style of play. Some enjoy pitting their players against impossible trials of combat. Others take on a hundred different roles in one campaign, from a biting jester to a maniacal balor demon. However, none of these styles trump the others. Instead, they give others ideas on how to improve or spice up their unique Dungeon Master mind. By learning how others Dungeon Master, how they began, and how they’ve become better over the years can only help us better our own game.

So, that’s what this new series intends to do: interview Dungeon Masters from all walks and life and pore over their histories to better ourselves.

Today’s interview is of myself, RJ, with more to come in the future of Dungeon Masters who started in the 1970s and those who began just last year.

Let’s roll.

Question: When did you begin playing Dungeons & Dragons?

I started back in 2008 when I was ten years old. Me and my brother found some of my father’s old Dungeons & Dragons books hidden away and really wanted to use them. It was summertime and my father was at work, so I searched for a free module on the internet and ran it for my brother. I remember very little but goblins were definitely the villains and we definitely didn’t play correctly. Regardless, I remember having a great time.

When my dad came home from work that day, he was surprised we’d discovered his stash and happy that we enjoyed playing. However, he thought he’d teach us how to play using the actual rules. So, my brother and me made characters and my father took on the mantle of Dungeon Master. He decided to use third edition rules and print a short adventure he found online: the Burning Plague. My character, a kobold sorcerer named Meeko the Outcast, and my brother’s character, a wood elf ranger named Graver, braved the poisoned mines and killed the orc causing the terrible plague. Ever since, I’ve been hooked.

Question: Did you begin as a player or Dungeon Master?

Technically, my first session I took the role of Dungeon Master. However, days later I became a player for a few years until I matured and was able to tell a cohesive story. Despite beginning as a player, I always pined for the Dungeon Master mantle.

Question: When did you Dungeon Master your first session? How did it go?

Again, I technically was the Dungeon Master when I first played at ten years old. However, I didn’t officially pick up the mantle again for a few years around the age of 12. Unfortunately, my memory is foggy so my recounting of my first session might be inaccurate. I remember it being with my close friends and brother. My father had run the Isle of Dread for us around a year before but we’d never finished; I decided to remedy that. The party started out shipwrecked on one of the islands surrounding the dreadful place, fighting cannibals and beasts of the sea. From what I remember, we had a great time, probably did a lot of stuff wrong, and I don’t think I spoke as an NPC a single time. Back then, I simply described conversations. Looking back, much has changed — for the better.

Question: Do you enjoy being a player or a Dungeon Master more? Why?

There’s no comparison to me, I love being a Dungeon Master. As for the reasons, there are many: the thrill of planning an exciting encounter; the joy of portraying a flamboyant and hilarious NPC; the sight of agony on my players’ faces as I scheme against them as maniacal villain; the feeling of absolute calm when a session ends and I’m the only one left at the table; everything here coalesces and makes me love being a Dungeon Master. It’s the best role, but it’s not for the faint of heart or mind.

Question: What’s your favorite part of being a player?

Honestly, when I’m feeling down, lazy, or creatively dry, I love being a player. All I have to do is show up to the session, contribute to the story the Dungeon Master is telling, and remember how to portray a single character. For the most part, it’s a stress free environment.

Question: What’s your favorite part of being a Dungeon Master?


Probably the toughest question here. There’s much I enjoy about being the Dungeon Master, but my favorite is definitely portraying nonplayer characters. More than exploration or combat, social interactions are where I shine and where my players seem to have the greatest joy. Whether they’re trying to decipher what the intentions of an insane myconid who just ate his brother are or speaking at the feet of a 1,200 pound, grubby, conniving human mage lord, my players best times are when I’m a different person than myself; therefore, those are my best times. A close second is worldbuilding. There’s nothing quite like forging a world of your own. The freedom is limitless.

Question: What is your worst D&D memory?

Primarily being a Dungeon Master, I’ve committed many crimes against my players. I’ve messed up, misspoken, and refused to let my players’ characters shine. Of course, I’ve greatly improved over time, but there are still blemishes throughout my past. My worst memory, though, occurred when I was a player. Our group was playing through the Shackled City adventure path and we were the depths below the City of Cauldron. Unfortunately, one of our players was constantly knocked down by no fault of his own. His character was instantly shot full of arrows, not allowed to speak, stuffed into a barrel filled with excrement, and turned into a thrall of the enemy...without little or no say in the matter. Some of us were young, others weren’t — I’m glad the incident didn’t turn the player off D&D forever.

Question: What is your best D&D memory?

Perhaps it’s because the memory is so recent but one clearly stands out in my mind. The party was working alongside a crafty lord they planned on betraying, and one of the party members requested that the lord seek out one of his friends inside the City of Merlint. The lord obliged but was suspicious of the group. He found the party member’s friend, a dwarf alchemist named Wargen Mudbeard, and brought on one of his changeling spies to impersonate him. A fantastic mini-arc unfolded, with me dropping plenty of hints that Wargen wasn’t actually Wargen. When the party did discover the changeling a few sessions later, an aura of awe and shock washed over the table. I was proud of myself for being able to pull that move off. A few sessions later, they saved the real Wargen from the lord’s dungeon, too — a great end to the story.

Question: What’s the hardest thing to prep for as a Dungeon Master?

Battles. They are many different variables at play in D&D battles and I’m not too tactically minded. Give me a random NPC, a goal they have in mind, and an interesting location, and I’ll be able to work with it well. The same doesn’t go with battles. From the abilities of the monsters to the easy, necessary math, I just seem to struggle preparing for combat encounters.

Question: What’s your current D&D schedule like?

I’m running three campaigns at the moment: the Karlith Straits, the Enoach Desert, and the Frozen Expanses of Iskryn. I run the Karlith Straits campaign weekly; we’re currently on session 35 and looking to end around June of this year. The group is heading into the Feywild after a stint against an empire of dragons in the mortal world that involved saving two gold dragons integral to a legendary
prophecy. Every month or so I play the Enoach Desert campaign, wherein the party is moving toward the lair of a massive, sedentary red dragon called Lazarus the Glutton. As for the Frozen Expanses of
Iskryn, that’s played every three months and consists of me and two other players (who are both in the Enoach Desert campaign). That group just killed Yeenoghu on the mortal world after a sacrificial summoning ritual that involved thousands of dead mortals. As far as playing as a player, I’m in a single campaign: Descent Into Madness. My kobold monk, Meeko Azura, is battling against a powerful cult and discovering the secrets of a dragon trapped in a mysterious artifact. They’re all great fun!

Question: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a veteran Dungeon Master?

Prepare to improvise. It’s a trap I see many Dungeon Masters fall into, unfortunately. Especially if you’re building your own world, you need to generally know what’s in it so you can improvise other elements. What’s the naming convention of humans in this region of the world? Goblins? Halflings? Devils? Where’s the nearest town? How are wizards received in society? Sorcerers? My general rule is that if it appears during a session, it becomes canon; I don’t want goblins running around called Bloobloo — that’s reserved for spirits from the Feywild. This style isn’t for everyone, of course, but it’s the number one piece of advice I think veterans need to hear. I struggled with it for a long time before I finally gave in and greatly improved my sessions.

Question: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a new Dungeon Master?

No matter what, aim to have fun. The story can be dark and dreary, the party can be near death every other session, or they might be collecting unimaginable wealth; as long as everyone is having fun, you’re succeeding. After that, it’s just a matter of honing your craft, your unique style of play. If people aren’t having a great time at the table, something is awry. Take action. Fix it.

Question: Last question and it’s not related to D&D! What do you enjoy outside of D&D?


Spending time with my wife, playing video games like Path of Exile, working out at the gym, writing, and reading — in that order. I have an amazing life and am incredibly lucky. I've found that I'm never bored when I'm at home, there's always something I can do. Whether it's going for a run, watching a show with my wife, or beating the latest boss in Path of Exile, I'm having a good time.

That's it for this week, I'll be back with another Interview With a Dungeon Master shortly.

Next week, we're returning to the Best Bits series with a look at one of D&D 5E's first adventures: Rise of Tiamat.

Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

03 January 2020

How to Build a Unique Culture for D&D



Atop the harrowing heights of the Isen’s Maw, frost giants peer over the vast sea of grinding ice floes, whaling ships, and winter wolves on the hunt. They know an invasion from the depths is coming, they saw the future — a blessed boon handed to them by their mysterious oracle. In the nightmarish Usanni Fissure, battalions of sahuagin ready their chilled tridents, dragonscale armor, and trained narwhals. The frost giants’ grip over them is already strained — this assault will be their undoing. A clash between these two distinct cultures is moments away.

Who will emerge victorious? Being unique cultures, each has their own set of strengths and weaknesses developed over many years of growth and destruction. Whether we know it or not, we all strive to create unique cultures for our Dungeons and Dragons world. Rarely do we directly tear a group or people from Earth or another setting and toss it into our games. Instead, we subconsciously take what we like and mesh it with aspects of different things we love.

In the end, we end up with a unique culture.

In this article, we are going to do just that: create a unique culture for D&D and outline a process for easily doing it in the future.

Let’s roll.

An Initial Concept


We need an initial concept. What are we trying to create? A clan of tabaxi who roam the desert? Multiple tribes of halflings who rule the jungle? A dragonborn city-state built in the Seven Heavens of Mount Celestia? As we can see, we need a creature and a region. These two building blocks are the foundation of our culture. Of course, we could create a culture that contains a plethora of creatures or spans across multiple regions; however, we are going to start simple.

Here is a table we can use to match a creature to a region. Feel free to make new ones, pick from the table, or roll randomly! For our unique culture, I am going to roll two d12. What I get is what we will create. 


Nine and nine! We will be creating a unique culture of goblins who live on the tundra. This is going to be interesting; ideas are already forming. With our creature and region duo decided, let us continue to the next section; it is time to add interesting aspects to our goblinoids.

Three Aspects


Let our minds roam freely, without boundaries or inhibitions. We need to add three interesting, flavorful, or crazy ideas to our culture. Our ideas can come from anywhere: our own minds, real-world cultures we have read about or been a part of, and cultures from books, video games, or movies.

For example, we might want to draw on the Egyptian’s construction of pyramids, the Mongol’s mastery of mounted combat, or the Native American’s rich nature-inspired mythology for a culture in our world. Or, if we want to stray from using history, we could lift the industrialism of Saruman and his uruk-hai, the mysterious elegance of the Others or White Walkers, or the regimented society of Baldur’s Gate and use any of them in our world. The possibilities are endless; and remember, we do not necessarily need to rip ideas from our sources and use them as is — we can alter them as we see fit.


I have more than a few ideas for our tundra-roaming goblins.

Instead of keeping ogres or bugbears around as stronger bodies or meat-shields, our goblins trick and train yetis of the icy steppe. They use them to hunt, guard their lair, haul large objects, and even to ride them into battle. However, they are only allowed to do this if they continue to appease the abominable yeti that lurks in the hills nearby; if she becomes upset, it will be the end of the goblins. They bring her sacrificial animals and humanoids and she allows her spawn to serve the goblins. That’s our first aspect.

Our second aspect delves into the structure of our goblins’ society. In the majority of goblin cultures, the strongest goblinoid rules: a bulky gobbo, a hefty bugbear, a domineering ogre. Our goblins are different — their leader must be dexterous, crafty, and strong, powerful enough to overcome a trial their ancestors constructed decades ago. They must survive Glacial End, a twisting labyrinth carved from the inside of a nearby glacier. Whoever survives Glacial End leads the Tundra Teeth goblin tribe.

This goblin culture only needs one more aspect to finish it off; why not bless them with psionics? Their ancestors were capable of constructing a labyrinthine dungeon and striking a bargain with an ancient yeti...how? Psionics. These old goblins were originally tormented by mindflayers — but they escaped! With them, they took powerful psionic abilities, remnants of the torture. They used these powers to dominate the land around them and carve out a culture. As all goblin cultures do, they succumbed to infighting and though their psionic abilities remained, their unity shattered and their strength faltered. They lost their ability to construct great structures, dominate the landscape, and roll over other creatures.

With all of this knowledge in our minds, now we must write a brief history.

A Brief History


With everything else in place, it’s time to write a quick background for our culture. We don’t want to create a history book or encyclopedia on all aspects of it, just a blurb we can use to remind ourselves what it has gone through. Here’s our goblin’s brief history:

The Gorfneki goblins were forced into the Subterrane many thousands of years ago by barbaric tribes of shifters roaming the icy tundra of Iskryn. They continued to delve further into the foreboding darkness of the world below. Alas, their descent was abruptly halted when they entered the domain of an illithid colony and the Subterranean denizens quickly enslaved the Gorfneki. For hundreds of years, the illithids tore apart, stitched together, and breeded the Gorfneki with other monsters — and themselves. Thanks to the illithids, some of the goblins strangely gained psionic powers. Using this newfound strength, an elder goblin named Northank forged a rebellion against the illithids as they waged war against an invading dark elf force. Barely, Northank lead his goblins out of the illithid’s domain, slowly ascending to the icy tundra of Iskryn — their original homeland. Upon their return, the goblins showed no mercy for the shifters who drove them to darkness, murdering entire tribes of the barbarians and using their bones for terrible idols. The Gorfneki carved out an entire region of Iskryn as their own — Gorthenk. At their leader’s behest, the goblins built a test of skill in a massive glacier called Glacial End. Using this trial of ascendancy, the Gorfneki would choose their next leader when Northank passed on. Eventually, Northank died and a new leader took control of the Gorfneki and Gorthenk. Then another and another and another. However, with each leader’s death, the unity of the Gorfneki broke a bit more, until it broke irrevocably. What was now a collaborative and powerful pseudo goblin nation is now a broken order, roaming the tundra of Iskryn in the shadow of the past.

There we have it: our goblin’s history. With that in place, we have a culture ready to introduce to our players in our D&D game. Over time, it will surely develop further. Who leads the Gorfneki now? Do the illithids wish to enact vengeance upon their escaped experiments? Could the goblins be reunited? What’s their role in the region’s current politics?

In Summary


We all strive to build unique cultures for our D&D world and games. Using this quick but thorough strategy, we can accomplish that with ease. Remember the steps:
  1. Form an initial concept.
  2. Think up three aspects.
  3. Develop a brief history.
As our game and world progresses, the culture will develop further, perhaps until it represents a full-fledged culture like the ones we find in our own world!

Good luck building a unique culture, farewell!

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