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Campaign notebook: What I borrowed for the NaGs

While the Not-a-Gnolls campaign idea was spun out of some pretty minimal excerpts of published setting material, I borrowed a lot in the course of running it: the “file off the serial numbers, change the names, and make it yours” school of GMing.

Here’s what I remember, from flipping through my campaign binder:

  • Immediately after the attack on the village, while chasing gnolls through the forest and into the foothills beyond, the party discovers hostages being sacrificed and turned into undead beings. They follow a side trail to discover a shrine built into the side of a mountain, where they discover, amongst much ick and gross, the connection from the gnolls to Malar. For this shrine, I used the latter part of the adventure Mad God’s Key from Dungeon magazine, the lovely-named “Tomb of Blood Overflowing”. I believe I used a lot of the encounters from the printed dungeon mostly as written, but redrew the map with some changes to add some things I needed.
  • Back on the trail of the main group of gnoll raiders, the party arrived at their encampment deep in the forest.  I used part of The Distraction, a capture-the-flag style module also from Dungeon magazine, for this adventure, though changed some things to accommodate the objective of hostage rescue.
  • The party returned to town to find a trade cartel had “just happened to be sailing by” and noticed the devastation, stopping to provide aid.  Oh, and, just happening to set themselves up as the martial law in the town. One character knew this group to be bad news bears from his pre-campaign background, but there wasn’t time to address that before the party ventured into a cavern complex that had been opened by the sinkhole, in search of some lost kids.  This used Crown of the Kobold King, a very good D&D3.5 adventure by Paizo. This I used largely as written, with some difficulty boosts to reflect the 6-player group.
  • Having saved the children from the caverns, the party had now established themselves as town heroes, and the cartel wanted to get them out of sight for a while, telling them–accurately–that the key to Nobanion’s rebirth may lie in the city of Westgate.  They also had a fallen comrade from the kobolds’ dungeons, so made  a side trip to have the dead monk’s order reincarnate her.
  • Westgate, a wretched hive of scum and villainy in the Forgotten Realms, of course had to use material from Westcrown, a wretched hive of scum and villainy in Golarion (the world of Pathfinder). The Sixfold Trialfrom Pathfinder’s Council of Thieves, is a fantastic caper story–the party stars in a play in order to be invited to an after-party at the Mayor’s house, so that they can sneak into an extra-dimensional space hidden within the house. I used some suggestions from the Paizo messageboards to expand the play from 4 roles to 6, using lines from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Sorcerer for one of the added characters.  Otherwise, most of the adventure was run as written, with the artifact at the end of course replaced with a phylactery containing the soul of the recently-killed Nobanion.
  • On opening the phylactery, the party was teleported to the top of a stepped pyramid inside a giant, hemispherical underground cavern, which, of course, contained the tomb of Nobanion’s original, pre-deification body. But this was all homebrew, so not the point of this post.  Moving on.
  • After the party successfully applied Nobanion’s phylactery to his tomb, and were surprised that the god in fact returned to life as an infant, rather than, you know, a god, they had to find their way back to the surface. Here I used The Chasm Bridge, another Dungeon magazine adventure, as the major encounter on their journey to the surface.

From that point, much more of the campaign became original content–I had accumulated lots of loose ends in the overarching plot to start tying up, and by this point we knew we were on track to becoming parents of twins, so I was on the clock to get the campaign into a parking space.   My external source borrowing from that point became more piecemeal: an NPC here, a map of a keep there. I also had a lot of bits and pieces of material I’d prepped over time, but which the party hadn’t encountered, so was able to borrow from my six-months-or-so-ago self, tweaking to fit the party’s current power level and the current state of the plot.

In fact, my best borrow was perhaps the character I managed to work in who had been one of my own characters…nearly 20 years ago.  But save that for later.

Campaign notebook: the origins of the Not-a-Gnolls

For about the two years before parenting started, my major D&D game (used in the generic sense for a game using Pathfinder, in this case) was the “Not-a-Gnolls”, a band thrown together by circumstance to restore the minor god Nobanion.  The ultimate session was a somewhat rushed climax which, as a result, didn’t work terribly well and was sadly anti-climactic–but there were a lot of good parts along the way.

The campaign map: a section of the Forgotten Realms, photocopied at 400%, traced over and hand-colored, with some names changed to suit.

The campaign map: a section of the Forgotten Realms, photocopied at 400%, traced over and hand-colored, with some names changed to suit. Just like middle school!

Where’d this campaign come from? I’d been playing D&D in the Forgotten Realms setting for over 20 years at that point, and basically just picked a spot on the map to say, “I’ve never really done anything over here.  Wonder what’s going on there.”  Browsing the campaign setting book (3rd Edition), I found,

Gulthmere Forest: The lion-god Nobanion ceaselessly roams the wood to protect it. All the tribes of Gulthmere venerate Nobanion and call on the deity to halt invasions by greedy northerners.

Et voila, a campaign is born: Who is Nobanion (not an actor I’d come across in my use of the setting), and what would happen if he did cease his ceaseless roamings?

Other sources suggested a feud with Malar, The Beastlord–both being gods of the hunt, but Nobanion in the way of giving thanks to a creature that gave its life so that one may eat, while Malar in the bloodsport, most-dangerous-game sense of the hunt. Nobanion, a regional power, had cast Malar and his followers out of his turf in a previous conflict, and now Malar wants back in–and wants revenge.  In the Realms canon, a god’s powers are linked to the number and faith of his or her followers: having been bested in direct combat, Malar would thus take his revenge by cutting off Nobanion’s source of power.

I renamed the town of “Nathlekh”, near the aforementioned Gulthmere Forest, to “Nob’s Lake”, deciding it would be the center of Nobanion’s human worshippers–the poor souls.

The opening of the campaign was set in Nob’s Lake, in the midst of Nobanion’s high holy festival, during which the faithful from around the region would gather in town. In the midst of the festival, the town was struck by a massive earthquake, destroying much of the temple in a huge sinkhole, followed with an assault by gnolls. The PCs all managed to survive the onslaught, making their way to the woods to hide: one, catching sight of another, whispered, “Hey, over here–I’m not a gnoll!” and the group’s name was determined.

I enjoyed the start of the campaign: the somewhat in medias res opening worked well, even if via action the PCs were not able to effect, to set the stage, to push the characters together, and to provide them some clear hooks for adventure. It was also fun to flip the trope of PCs meeting via saving the town’s festival (spoilers) from danger, and instead totally demolish the town. And, while I had planned for some next steps of the party going after the hostages, and trying to determine where the gnolls came from, I had a lot I hadn’t bothered to figure out yet: what happens when a god suffers a catastrophic loss of his fanbase? What could the PCs do to repair that? What was under the town to cause / enable the sinkhole?

As a side note, it looks like the Forgotten Realms are the “default”/base setting for the new Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. I’ve seen a fair amount of kvetching that the Realms are “done”, that 35+ years of publishing game material and fiction set in that world has left nothing gamers to explore or experience anew or define their own role in. Hopefully it’s obvious that I disagree with this sentiment: while I have at points had 4 editions worth of the campaign setting spread across a table while coming up with ideas, at no point have I felt limited by canon–it’s a pile of ideas: take a few, leave what doesn’t fit.  And even after a couple of decades of playing in the Realms, there are still a lot of good ideas on the pile to choose from.