D&D 5E Against the Black City (Homebrew Campaign) Post-Mortem

Retreater

Legend
Each time a campaign ends, I try to learn from it. This one is very different from my other post-mortems, because it’s a deeply personal one to me, where I get to analyze my failures as a writer, game designer, and DM. It may not be especially valuable to you if you’re wanting to run an official mega-campaign, but maybe you can glean something from how I designed it, what worked, what went wrong.

About My Design History
Like many DMs I have long dreamed of publishing my adventures. I tried to self-publish my first RPG when I was still in middle school, fresh off my experience with Palladium’s TMNT and Other Strangeness. I made a game, drew the illustrations, made a dozen copies, and put it in a three-ring binder. The local game store of course wouldn’t put it on their shelf.
Fast-forward about fifteen years later, and I got my first professional module published. It was a 3.x edition adventure for levels 1-11ish, by a reputable 3PP (“The Coils of Set” if you’d like to look it up. The PDFs are still on DriveThru).
Anyway, after that adventure got pretty good reviews and I got to interact with gamers across the world about their campaigns, I set to work on writing a huge campaign, inspired by the region I live in, a realistic karst typography cave network with a layered history and epic story: “Against the Black City.”
I got about 75% finished with it when WotC announced 4e. 3PPs put a hold on all publication of 3.5 products. I had to shelve the project for a time. When Pathfinder was announced, I could start the minor revisions to update it to the new system and try to find a new publisher.
But then real life happened. I got married. Then I had medical issues. Then I got divorced and my wife deleted my files. All that work was gone.
I tried to piece it together over the years, running bits and pieces of the campaign across 3.x, Pathfinder, 4e, Dungeon World, 5e. But then something unexpected happened: I found a backup of the lost files.
My publishing contacts nowadays are affiliated with the OSR, so I thought converting the adventure to an OSR system would take less work and be truer to the original experience. It was time to get to work, updating the text, stats, maps, etc. And then to find a group to play it.

The Basic Plot - A Tale as Old as … Well, My Life
I drew a lot from my life experience. The backstory included two dwarven brothers who disappointed their father in different ways. The eldest son left the dwarven kingdom to find glory in battle and returned home changed, addicted to a dark power while the younger son stayed behind and tried to keep everything together, but was ineffectual and weak. The weakness meant that the dwarven kingdom was atrophied. (I'll let you make any inferences you want about my family dynamics, but I can say that I'm the weaker brother. ;) )
In the earlier playtests, the younger son (Harrumah) relied on the cheap labor of orcs to bolster the dying numbers of the dwarves, but this always ended up a problem where every group (rightly) wanted to free the orcs and kill off the “good” dwarves. It probably took me 10 years to realize that you can’t make slave labor something the good guys practice. I cut this and made it so that the dwarves had eventually died off, with the exception of Harrumah, who still lives in an almost rock elemental form, extending his life.

The Adventure Itself
The Fallen Thane Ashen (the older brother) lived in his corrupted state and founded the city of Maelgrym with his loyalist dwarves, who didn’t want to live in the weakened leadership of Harrumah. The surface world, just starting to get repopulated with humans, knows nothing of the family dynamics under their feet. Ashen begins testing his weapons of war on the surface, preparing to attack the weakened kingdom of his brother (not knowing the last of them died off decades ago). This gets the surface world involved to descend into the forgotten dead city of Harrumah’s dwarves and eventually discovering Maelgrym and Ashen.

Lessons Learned
No Mystery Is Worth Motivation
I tried to hide Ashen and the Grym dwarves in many versions of this campaign, but I’ve found that it’s good to introduce the conflict early to hook the party and make them realize what’s going on. No “big reveal” is worth keeping the players in the dark. In fact, I found ways for Ashen to harass the party (from a safe distance, of course) just so he can be an ever-present villain.

Taking Advantage of Cheap Labor Is Something No Good Culture Would Do
This is a “duh” point, but it took me nearly a decade to understand why my players wouldn’t side with Harrumah.

Dead Cultures Are Great Sources of World Building and Information
Having plaques and statues in the dead dwarven city (Zwaarhold) was a great way to pepper the setting with information about the historic conflict and give the party information about what to expect. It could be easily avoided by groups who just want to get to the action.

What’s Next?
I do have a 5e adventure at a publisher, but I can’t really talk about it right now. It’s not this one, though. I still have aspirations of cleaning up this mega-adventure. I’m currently running bits of it with my wife and a few of her friends (first time gamers) we met at a bar a couple months ago. They’re getting ready to make their first descent into Zwaardhold this weekend. I’ll see how it holds up and if I can apply anything I’ve learned from the many other times I’ve run this campaign (and all the others I’ve been writing about on these boards.)

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my homebrew campaign. I’m happy to share any information with you or take any advice.
 

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TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
A lot of personal information in this one. Thanks for sharing.

Using the abuse by one group of "bad guys" to build sympathy and encourage alliances with another group of "bad guys" is close to a D&D trope by this point. The Steading of the Hill Giant with its orc slaves and refuges is probably the most famous. I had a game where I had goblins and hobgoblins together and most likely spontaneously mentioned the hobgoblins lording over the goblins. It changed the whole dynamic and led to a long time side-kick for the party.

But clearly trying to twist the trope is tricky. (One way to go would be to have some intermediary, like hobgoblins or higher status orcs or even better evil humans or dwarves, so that the full extent of exploitation is not known by your sympathetic dwarf).

Bringing out backstory is huge and very tricky. An adventure should have one, and it should come out in very clever ways, but that obviously easier for me to write then to do.
 

Retreater

Legend
Using the abuse by one group of "bad guys" to build sympathy and encourage alliances with another group of "bad guys" is close to a D&D trope by this point.
Yes, that makes sense. One of the issues that made it even worse was that the party first encountered the dwarves of Zwaarhold (the ones who exploited the labor). The corrupt dwarves of Maelgrym were a distant threat, so deal with the evil you first encounter was the plan.
No matter how I struggled to convey it, no matter how nuanced the situation, the players would never support the idea and it derailed every playtest group until I removed it. Not to mention when I tried to explain it out of game, I just sounded like a jerk with a very problematic worldview.
But how I was able to salvage it was by moving the exploitive practices to the corrupt dwarves of Maelgrym. This was able to give the party a group of people that could be a motivation to take down Ashen but also help them if they got in over their heads when they were raiding the Iron Citadel of Ashen.
 



Voadam

Legend
The Pirate's Guide to Freeport has cheap Orc labor as an explicit part of the setting background which can introduce labor exploitation and class issues along with possible racism issues but it does not generally feel like a slavery situation where PCs seem to be set up for trying to liberate the Orcs of Freeport.

I've run the Freeport Trilogy a couple times with that as an explicit part of the known setup and the parties were not motivated to work to liberate Orcs, even when there was an Orc PC.

PGtF page 23:

"Orcs
Freeport also has a large orc population. Used as cheap labor during the construction of Milton’s Folly (the city’s lighthouse), the orcs never left once the work was finished. Brutish, crude, and violent, orcs largely live in Bloodsalt these days. Freeporters aren’t exceptionally warm to these folk but tolerate them all the same. The orcs defended Freeport during the recent barbarian invasion, earning them some goodwill from the rest of the populace."
 

Retreater

Legend
Yeah, I've played in Freeport a couple times and didn't really think of it as an issue in the day. The difference I guess was generational (I played with guys around my own age) and in the very early 2000s. By the 2010s-2020s when I was DMing mostly for players a generation younger than me, it just doesn't hit the same way.
And I'm definitely aware that having exploitative labor dynamics isn't going to be a problem for every group, but I think it's enough of an issue to pull it. I had to think of it this way: if I created an encounter that wasn't vital to the importance of the campaign which ended in a TPK about half the time, I should probably change that encounter. These are just the sorts of things that come up in playtesting.
 


Retreater

Legend
I have just read through the preview on DTRPG, and I must say that I know I badly want to play in that campaign or run it. Any 5e conversion available (not that I can't do the job, but if something is already existing... :) ) ?
Not officially. I ran it in 5e a couple years ago, but didn't make any notes (I did all the conversion on the fly).
Of course, I'm around here every day if you ever want to PM to ask advice about it.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Not officially. I ran it in 5e a couple years ago, but didn't make any notes (I did all the conversion on the fly).
Of course, I'm around here every day if you ever want to PM to ask advice about it.

Thanks, I'm on the way to buy it, also any idea if it's suitable for extension to lvls 1-20 (we like high levels and using the full range of the game possibilities) ?
 

Retreater

Legend
Thanks, I'm on the way to buy it, also any idea if it's suitable for extension to lvls 1-20 (we like high levels and using the full range of the game possibilities) ?
Sure. The original plan when I wrote the first draft of it for my home group was to go directly into Gary Gygax's Necropolis, which was a pretty epic Egyptian-themed adventure (at the time it had been converted to 3rd edition). However, just recently, Frog God Games/Necromancer has released a 5e update of Necropolis, so it's ready to go into right after Coils of Set.
However, the original adventure as published does not link directly to Necropolis. There are a few "continuing the adventure" sidebars provided at the end, should you not want to do Necropolis.
Coils of Set is now located in Frog God Games' Lost Lands campaign setting, if you'd like to expand it with the current world building.
 

Voadam

Legend
In the earlier playtests, the younger son (Harrumah) relied on the cheap labor of orcs to bolster the dying numbers of the dwarves, but this always ended up a problem where every group (rightly) wanted to free the orcs and kill off the “good” dwarves. It probably took me 10 years to realize that you can’t make slave labor something the good guys practice.
Can you clarify this part? Cheap labor seems qualitatively different than slave labor.

I'd expect most people would think minimum wage or low paying jobs can be pretty terrible, but not something they'd think imposed a moral duty/license to go kill the bosses and non-poor elements of the society over to free the working poor, while I can see doing that for a slave society in D&D.

Ptolus in 3.5 for instance has legal but not common slavery and I remember as a player specifically rescuing a bunch of slaves and killing some slavers when playing through The Banewarrens. The slavers were bad guys and slave owners were not portrayed as good guys though so this seemed consistent with expected good guy adventuring behavior.

When incorporating Ptolus, which I like a lot of, into my homebrew mashup campaign I have specifically chosen not to focus on legal slavery. If it were to come up I might use it to show that the evil noble Vladaam family are both evil villains and politically connected enough to block legal condemnation of their perfidity. I would not have intended good guys using slaves, particularly with the setting aspect of it not being common.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
PGtF page 23:

"Orcs
Freeport also has a large orc population. Used as cheap labor during the construction of Milton’s Folly (the city’s lighthouse), the orcs never left once the work was finished. Brutish, crude, and violent, orcs largely live in Bloodsalt these days. Freeporters aren’t exceptionally warm to these folk but tolerate them all the same. The orcs defended Freeport during the recent barbarian invasion, earning them some goodwill from the rest of the populace."
thats not slavery, its a low wage ghetto but thats not enough motivation to label their employers evil unless your PCs are marxist
 

Retreater

Legend
Can you clarify this part? Cheap labor seems qualitatively different than slave labor.
Yeah. The orcs were paid, owned their own homes (in their district), and were free to leave the city. So they were paid low wages, looked down upon by the highly stratified dwarven society (who also looked down on humans and gnomes - anyone not a dwarf). But they were given physical jobs (miners, stevedores, etc), paid poorly, etc. For every group I ran through this campaign in the past ten years, that was enough to overthrow the dwarven establishment, blow up their city, etc., while ignoring the coming threat of actual corrupted dwarves with an army of demons.
 

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