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How Does This Campaign Setting Sit With You?

Big J Money

Adventurer
So it looks like lots of individual adventures. Are the portals always/regularly up and to the same places, or is where to go next out fo the character's hands?

As this well, you have a really in-game reason to allow any races/classes/etc. Heck, two players of the same race could be from different material planes and have different cultures and such. Lots of freedom. And the flip side to play with their expectations - you referenced Sliders and that did it some times. I remember one about the men being shirtless as a big crime.

The idea that they aren't allowed to own anything in the Well - does this mean that they need to keep separate equipment cache's for each realm, and anytime they go someplace new it's weaponless, armorless, material-component-less?

Question - is it just wealth, or do the patrons also gain fame and bragging rights? You could have a whole thing about betting on various expeditions by patrons, rival expedition teams that you can meet up with in other realms and may help you or may steal the idol from you, that sort of thing. And another layer.

Portals: How the portals exist, when they came to be and why they are is not something anyone knows, although the citizens of The Well believe the Kumpali is responsible for some part of it, since He has control over them. The records of the city itself are so old as to be impractical to study or teach past a certain era, and the Realm itself is unknowably old. Any anyway, knowledge is the purview of the Kumpali and the wealthiest citizens only.

Races/Realms: Yes, the players have full control over the people they come from. One of the rules of the game is that each time you level an aptitude, you write down one fact about either your character's history or about the Realm they come from. Thus PCs that survive longer will develop more information. And even when a PC dies, the facts recorded about their Realm can live on in a new PC.

Property: They are allowed to own possessions, just not landed property inside the boundaries of The Well itself. If the players can manage to find it, they can rent property for storing possessions. The city is incalculably large and dense, so even just navigating it is a challenge. It is so bustling and dynamic that a bevy of shops can appear practically overnight blocking an alley or street that was open before. They city itself takes on a life that can't be controlled, but still the profit runs in and through and keeps it from complete chaos. Also the fear of the Kumpali's power.

Patrons: Wealth is the primary goal of any citizen of The Well, including the Szesci (Patrons). Nobody would be mad enough to want to reside there (or do any business for that matter) unless they were primarily focused on acquiring wealth. Of course there are those born there who are part of the great system of cogs that make the lower economies churn. That being said, any given Patron may have secondary motivations, or their presence in The Well could be a front for something more sinister.
 

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Big J Money

Adventurer
I am hesitant over the idea of PCs being labeled servants (my guys would loathe that) and the heavy hand of debt laid upon them. Again, my guys would hit the ground looking for a way to welsh on the obligation.

When the players start out resisting the setting, I believe you will not get the outcome you desire.

pming makes an excellent point: you get more flies with honey.
Yes, I guess this really is my main hesitation. I think to make this work I need to present a clear vision and be able to sell the most fun parts and then back that up when we play.

My motivation behind this setup isn't to have a thread of bleakness through it (all PCs start out as ostensibly hopeless profit fodder for someone more powerful) just for the sake of being "dark", but to balance against more typical dungeon crawl settings which seem to guarantee heroic stories and wins for the protagonists.

Note that I said "balance". I might not have yet achieved that balance and am leaning a little too hard into the bleakness. I'm wondering how I can retain what I've got yet add a little more "honey" to the table to balance the other way a tad bit more. It might just be a matter of adding some humor to the situation to lighten it up, so that leaning into the bleakness is more like a dark comedy than simple hopelessness. Paranoia being an example game setting that does that. I don't want the level of slapstick of Paranoia though.
 

Shroompunk Warlord

Archdruid of the Warp Zones
Supporter
When you say it's a nope, do you mean that it just doesn't sound fun, or specifically that the indentured treasure hunter aspect to the theme is the part you find distasteful?

It sounds about as fun to me as any other setting, but yeah, I don't have any moral objection to your setting operating that way. I just have a visceral hatred of the idea of playing a slave for longer than the first session-- with that first session being spent breaking my chains, cutting my master's throat, and burning his house down.

There are entire classes in D&D and D&D-adjacent games that I won't play because of this reaction. I have a problem with authority, and I have an even bigger problem with D&D religion.
 

Ulfgeir

Adventurer
I am sceptical of the premise for the following reasons:

  • Being essentially slaves tends to rub people the wrong way. It is one thing to start a campaign as slaves, and then quite quickly manage to break free. It is a totally different thing having a whole campaign based on it.
  • Likewise the covenant mark. For some players I think this might be much more of a dealbreaker than you think. Not only is it a mark that clearly marks them as lesser beings (It does give vibes off WWII Nazi Germany, and how they forced certain groups of people to wear such identifying badges), but also that it is a a combined Geasa and Surveillance-tool in one.

That said, you need to have a VERY careful talk with your players before you start, and make sure that everyone is ok with the premise.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Yes, I guess this really is my main hesitation. I think to make this work I need to present a clear vision and be able to sell the most fun parts and then back that up when we play.

My motivation behind this setup isn't to have a thread of bleakness through it (all PCs start out as ostensibly hopeless profit fodder for someone more powerful) just for the sake of being "dark", but to balance against more typical dungeon crawl settings which seem to guarantee heroic stories and wins for the protagonists.

Note that I said "balance". I might not have yet achieved that balance and am leaning a little too hard into the bleakness. I'm wondering how I can retain what I've got yet add a little more "honey" to the table to balance the other way a tad bit more. It might just be a matter of adding some humor to the situation to lighten it up, so that leaning into the bleakness is more like a dark comedy than simple hopelessness. Paranoia being an example game setting that does that. I don't want the level of slapstick of Paranoia though.

So assuming the PCs have chosen the indentured Treasure Hunter deal, I’d go with the debt angle and just have Gari translate to Debtor rather than Servant. The culture of the Well is already set up as purely merchantile, so play it up, make the citizens of the Well be a Machivellian people who take Contracts and Oaths seriously and see every relationship and action in life as ‘two parties making a deal’ - the phrase “I wish to conduct a most-favorable transaction” is how these people say “Hello”.

I’d make it clear that the Patrons don’t think of the Gari as servants but rather that saving the PCs from the Overlord has created a debt that naturally needs to be repaid, which is done via the Patrons- thats not a hardship on the PCs, its the ‘right and good’ thing to do, so why would the PCs refuse to do their duty?
 

Yes, I guess this really is my main hesitation. I think to make this work I need to present a clear vision and be able to sell the most fun parts and then back that up when we play.

My motivation behind this setup isn't to have a thread of bleakness through it (all PCs start out as ostensibly hopeless profit fodder for someone more powerful) just for the sake of being "dark", but to balance against more typical dungeon crawl settings which seem to guarantee heroic stories and wins for the protagonists.

Note that I said "balance". I might not have yet achieved that balance and am leaning a little too hard into the bleakness. I'm wondering how I can retain what I've got yet add a little more "honey" to the table to balance the other way a tad bit more. It might just be a matter of adding some humor to the situation to lighten it up, so that leaning into the bleakness is more like a dark comedy than simple hopelessness. Paranoia being an example game setting that does that. I don't want the level of slapstick of Paranoia though.

I understand what you are going for. I ran Darwin's World (Post-apoc) with the twist that 9 was considered a very unlucky number, and that people born in September often died in unusual manners.

Every PC had been born on 9-9, around 9am or pm.

The undercurrent of the campaign was: what's the story behind 9? Are people trying to kill us, or are we just paranoid? Which made them paranoid. And so forth.

So good luck with your campaign; you've very close to your goal.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
One of my (many) setting ideas that I haven't gotten to run has a number of similarities, but also flips the servant issue into a hero issue which may be a lot more palatable to the players and the characters. I've cut and pasted from my personal campaign ideas document, but the general gist is that while all of the PCs are refuges or descended from them, so is everyone else and where they live isn't self-sufficient - but it's still better than the places they can go. With so few resources to send people out, being picked is an honor that is fiercely competed for.

It still has the majority of what you bring back being taken away, but in a heroic sacrifice way to keep everyone else alive, not in a you-have-debt way.

The Tower With Five Walls​

Basically there is an interdimensional haven called The Tower with Five Walls. It's a huge non-euclidian "tower" not made to human - or any consistent - scale. The room have five walls, each with a 90 degree corner. It goes down further than is currently occupied, but the top is known. It's a post-apocalyptic sanctuary with window portal that open with bizarre logic and timings to various dimensions under siege, and is populated by the people who have escaped into it. While there is jockeying for limited resources, escape has brought disparate people together and they know how to add more. But it is not self-sufficient by any means, and as windows open there are needs for people to go to these various troubled dimensions to bring back necessities. Some windows open regularly, others never have. The catechisms speak of when a window will open on a world not in trouble, but that never happens. Some wonder what draws the tower to such places, while others think the tower may be the cause itself.

Much of this would be explorations of various dimensions, time limited before the window closes. These would be a few that would be opened to fairly regularly that the people can cultivate plants, others would be rarer or occasionally new.

Each world has something. Perhaps one is overrun by spawning undead, another a playground of demons, a third something has killed everything but the beasts while another has once-recognizable who are now abominations.

There's a lot of prestige to go through a window, it's the most dangerous thing you can do and the only way to get some resources. But you know if you miss it it might be a while before it opens again, and if you bring trouble to the window it might get into the tower.

Depending on the players goals could go towards eventually exploring down the tower itself to figure out how to "pilot" it's windows to get to someplace safe, which would probably end up meeting the creators or their inheritors. Alternately it could involve cataloging the various dimensions until they figure out one where they can carve out a niche and recolonize it. Can include various factions within the Tower that can "sponsor" a character or the character can align with if I want to add that intrigue part.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Coerced under duress might have been a bit of an exaggerated way for me to put it.

No, I don't think it is exaggerated at all. Look:
  • Once the PC arrived in the new Realm, they were taken to refugee processing and given 3 choices to pick from: Become an indentured servant to bring service to the Kumpali's City, become an indentured treasure hunter to bring profit to the Kumpali's City, or be banished from the Endless City back to where they came from.

THINK about this for a moment. You are a refugee. You have lost everything. War and destruction are behind you along with the Overlord that took your world and life. In front of you is a someone that says that you must swear yourself into servitude or go back to the destruction.

That is totally coerced and under duress. Which is totally realistic - in our real world, refugees get treated this way too.

But... you realize that this entire setup is incredibly unstable. All these Gari... every one of them should be earning XP adventuring, becoming powerful. "Hey, let us give our slave class a route to significant power, but make them grovel and live in hovels around us! That'll be great!"

I suggest, with this scenario, the idea that the Overlord is not aware of, and not actively seeking, The Well is not realistic. For one thing, "secret trade hub" isn't plausible except in the short term. Every time the Overlord takes a world, there are people who will use the knowledge of that hub as a bargaining chip for better treatment under the Overlord. Similarly the Gari - some of them will eventually decide that making their enslavers and the Overlord fight is a good idea. "If I tell the Overlord about this, surely they'll have a way to break this bond and then reward me handsomely for telling all I know!" Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, and all that.

I daresay, since The Well is sending out people they've forced into servitude to adventure - that makes them ideal candidates for recruitment by the Overlord. The Overlord offers them wine, women, and song if they will only work for him instead of them! Double agents should abound!

And, I guess I have to ask - you said that this (kinda baroque) setup exists to make sure the PCs have a reason to hunt for treasure? Has that really been a problem for you - getting players to seek treasure is a problem that needs a solution?

Have you considered removing the servitude? Replace it with, "Look, you can live here, but it is expensive as heck to maintain this safe place. Rent, food, and water costs are through the roof. Some of our people choose to pay the rent by being treasure hunters. Here's your tattoo that lets you come and go through our portals, but won't let the Overlord's people through..." and what happens?
 

Big J Money

Adventurer
I suggest, with this scenario, the idea that the Overlord is not aware of, and not actively seeking, The Well is not realistic. For one thing, "secret trade hub" isn't plausible except in the short term. Every time the Overlord takes a world, there are people who will use the knowledge of that hub as a bargaining chip for better treatment under the Overlord. Similarly the Gari - some of them will eventually decide that making their enslavers and the Overlord fight is a good idea. "If I tell the Overlord about this, surely they'll have a way to break this bond and then reward me handsomely for telling all I know!" Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, and all that.

I have a lot to think abut based on several replies, and even more to think about based on your last point, but I wanted to reply to this sooner to explain a bit more of the setting:

What you're saying makes perfect sense, however: the magic that keeps The Well a secret from all beings is more powerful than the Overlord himself (at least, for now). You might think of it as the Platonic manifestation of "a hidden space". How the Kumpali (or one of his ancestors? nobody knows) managed to found the city in this hidden realm is a mystery but there is something uniquely special about this realms above all realms. And how he (or someone) was able to wield powerful enough magic to create the tattoos that allow people to find their way back once they leave is also a mystery. That is possibly also older than the Overlord. You might think of this as mind control but that's not even quite right; this power is innate to the realm's existence and is older than sentient minds. It's simply a property of The Well: its knowledge cannot travel from one person to another (not without the exception of the Kumpali's magic).

So the answer to that is that truly nobody speaks of The Well outside of it in any other Realm to anyone who is not also a resident. It's as impossible as walking on the sky. Even the thought to try it makes the place remove itself from their very memory before they can act. That isn't to say that someone couldn't make it their goal to investigate and understand more about this ancient cosmic power one day when they are powerful enough. You might think of this as a Deus Ex Machina, but it's not because it's not a part of any plot. It's simply a fact that is baked into the setting. Your feedback has pointed out to me though that I need to make this much clearer in the initial introduction to the game. I have to be careful not to make things be secrets from the players that are vital to their understanding out how the game will play out.

To head off a question: how do the PCs return to The Well from another Realm? They return to the general location where they arrived upon their portal travel, and they are able to will themselves back. There is no visible return portal on this side. To any onlookers they will simply disappear. They could be ambushed on a return trip, however any torture would prove futile and the best answers anyone would receive from them about what they did would be things like, "I don't know", "I departed", or "I wanted to go home" (if they truly believe The Well to be their home).

I am partial to this kind of cosmic magic in the setting because it's not the kind of thing we see much in D&D or other fantasy RPGs anymore. Almost everything considerd "magic" is broken down into a system of stats and spells and items and left for the players to wield as a weapon or tool. This is far beyond them (until it isn't, but that would be a campaign-ended deal if it even happened ;) )

Edit: Think of The Well like "the Room of Requirement" except much larger, older and unimaginably more powerful (and of course functions a bit dfifferently). The RoR was creted by someone. The Well was not. To even say it's "magic" is a bit of an insult. Its cosmic power comes from a form of lawful proto-magic that swirled and churned long before magic even existed. I obviously don't need to go into this much detail for the players though. "It just is the way things are" is good enough to begin with; they don't need to know the history of the cosmos (but the implications are and how it works in gameplay do need to be crystal clear).
 
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Big J Money

Adventurer
A fair enough number of people are getting "slave" vibes rather than the intended "treasure hunters in debt" premise. Out of the folks following this thread still, what do you think about this change to perspective?

"Gari" translates to "debtor" rather than "servant" (idea courtesy of Tonquez). Little changes gameplay-wise, but I can recolor several facts. Repayment of Life-Debt to the Patron who took on the refugee PC is still the Kumpali's law. However, I will change "Covenants" that must be recited every day into "Venture Bylaws" which must only be learned once during the official initiation of their Contract. I will probably kill any Bylaws that feel overtly "social class related", like the one that says "form no relationships with natives of The Well". Of course there are still implications of social class dynamics based on wealth and success in business Ventures. The general idea here is to recolor any traces of ritual for ritual's sake with a more mercantile / finacial influenced mysticism.

Rather than restricting Gari to their tanka (essentially tent) when they spend time in The Well, they are free to go where they wish, but initially only the most meager of lodgings will be afforable. Making The Well a home for anything considered higher than the lowest class lifestyles is an exhorbitabtly expensive endeavor (idea courtesy of Umbran). There are plenty more ideas I can run with here.

There is still one place of possible contention though, based on some things a few of you have said. The premise behind the setting is designed for players to buy in to the theme that they will be treasure hunting to pay off a huge debt. It doesn't mean that they can't change their mind eventually, when they have become powerful enough to consider going against "the system", but at least for quite a while the expectation is that if they try to skip paying their debt, it will go very badly for them. They'll lose access to the portals which are tightly controlled by the authorities. With no source of income and their treasure hunter contracts being broken, they would likely starve in the city once they run out of food while on the run as criminals. The tipping point for a party that wishes to break this system of life-debt would be for them to discover a way to take control of the portals, or even to be able to create their own (bypass them). This would be very high powered stuff, I haven't even thought that far ahead about how they might accomplish that and what all the consequences would be.

In other words, it's not intended that PCs will act to avoid paying their debt. That isn't the purpose of the campaign. It can be a player's goal to find a way to do so, but this kind of goal would be akin to defeating a god or demi-god in a traditional fantasy campaign. Possibly achievable, but not for a very long time.

Of course another option is for them to pick a Realm and stay there, never returning to The Well. I don't see a party wanting to do that because it defeats the purpose of playing in a campaign based on realm traversal, but it's certainly less of a feat than trying to make it inside The Well as a criminal.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
So the answer to that is that truly nobody speaks of The Well outside of it in any other Realm to anyone who is not also a resident. It's as impossible as walking on the sky.
Just to point out - there are spells and items that let you walk on the sky. :)

Even if you say that magic is too powerful for anything to pierce (including more powerful magic), there are still ways around it. Can your mind be read, your dreams invaded, a deity respond to a question, a corpse that is explicitly not you anymore answers a question, can the history of an object that was once in the Well be read, can a symbiote, mind flayer tadpole, or implanted slaad eggs travel back with you? A possessing ghost? A sentient magic item? Can you tell while under the effects of an anti-magic sphere or under a beholder's eye beam. Can you lie that it doesn't exist and have someone determine you are lying though mundane or magical means? Could someone with a tattoo find another magical way back, and be tracked while doing so?

I say this not to be negative to the idea, but to give a chance to come up with counter-strategies.
 

Big J Money

Adventurer
Just to point out - there are spells and items that let you walk on the sky. :)

I say this not to be negative to the idea, but to give a chance to come up with counter-strategies.
Yes, this exactly. My point was that the initial condition is that of impossibility. Now what are the players going to do about it? Keeping in mind that the level of power is so high here that their solution needs to be pretty clever, given that over aeons of this place's existence nobody else (including the Overlord) having cracked its shell yet. I'm completely fine with them making attempts and failing. There is no guarantee. Since this is considered an optional goal (there is no need for them to do it to complete an adventure) there is nothing lost if they never figure it out. I can all but guarantee that they won't be able to formulate a working plan until they at least have the resources of a very high level party.

Another way to think about this is that trying to discover The Well or break through its innate secrecy would be like a character in Star Wars trying to "turn off" the force across the galaxy; to wipe it completely out of existence so that nobody can use it anymore. That kind of scenario would usually not be a part of any Star Wars stoy because it goes against the point of having the force in the first place and its role in the setting. That being said, maybe there could be a character who makes it their goal to do so: they hate the force, or the jedi or the sith so much that they spend years trying to hatch a plan to eradicate the force. That would not be an adventure for low level Star Wars characters, however!

All the being said... there is something to admit about the fact that when I presented this setting, some peoples' minds immediately went to "how can I break it?" So I either need to present the campaign in a way that the players understand and are ok with how The Well operates, or I need to rethink this piece.
 
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A fair enough number of people are getting "slave" vibes rather than the intended "treasure hunters in debt" premise. Out of the folks following this thread still, what do you think about this change to perspective?

"Gari" translates to "debtor" rather than "servant" (idea courtesy of Tonquez). Little changes gameplay-wise, but I can recolor several facts. Repayment of Life-Debt to the Patron who took on the refugee PC is still the Kumpali's law. However, I will change "Covenants" that must be recited every day into "Venture Bylaws" which must only be learned once during the official initiation of their Contract. I will probably kill any Bylaws that feel overtly "social class related", like the one that says "form no relationships with natives of The Well". Of course there are still implications of social class dynamics based on wealth and success in business Ventures. The general idea here is to recolor any traces of ritual for ritual's sake with a more mercantile / finacial influenced mysticism.

Just because some people here are put off by "slave vibes" doesn't necessarily mean you need to change it for your group. I'd talk it over with the players and see how they feel before you change too much. The fact that most of the changes you're making only effect the language and not the plot shows that the baseline premise is strong. IMNSHO, the fact that some people are more comfortable playing a capitalist wage slave rather than conscripted soldier is really just a case of modern cultural norms leaking into your time travel fantasy game.

If I were playing, I would actually prefer the straight and up front rules you presented in the oath/covenant system in the OP. It sets much clearer guidelines for how the world works and what actions are allowed within the Well. Making it a more capitalist world with bylaws and social classes sounds like a lot more gray areas and complicated politics. That's all well and good if you want them to play social challenges in the Well, but it's just a big distraction if the real goal of the game is to be treasure hunting in the Realms. The best episodes of are Stargate SG1 are when they go through the gate, not when they have budget discussions with the Pentagon.

In other words, it's not intended that PCs will act to avoid paying their debt. That isn't the purpose of the campaign. It can be a player's goal to find a way to do so, but this kind of goal would be akin to defeating a god or demi-god in a traditional fantasy campaign. Possibly achievable, but not for a very long time.

Of course another option is for them to pick a Realm and stay there, never returning to The Well. I don't see a party wanting to do that because it defeats the purpose of playing in a campaign based on realm traversal, but it's certainly less of a feat than trying to make it inside The Well as a criminal.

That's exactly the summary you should give to the players to see if they like it.
 

aco175

Legend
When reading this, I thought it sounded a lot like most PCs background when players come up with it.

My dwarf is from a mountain village where an evil warlord came in and killed everything I cared for and only I managed to flee. I was taken in by a group who trained me to fight and I owe them a life-debt. I hope to one day avenge my family and reclaim my homeland.

There is nothing wrong with it, but it forces everyone into the same boat. I do like that you can sliders the PCs to other places. This allows one night to play in a desert ruled by gnolls and the next week you are in a jungle that floats in the sky.
 


GungHo

Explorer
If your group finds the set up problematic:

  • If these folks are in debt rather than enthralled, what happens when they earn out of it? (Can they realistically earn out of it?)
  • Can the debt assignment/recruitment process appear a little less predatory? (Maybe rather than being sent back into certain death they're put into a segregated colony/ghetto.)
  • Can the debtors ultimately be raised in societal status or will they always be "othered"? Can they be provided "one of the good others" status?
I like the theme, though. A lot of this seems like the set up to Shogun. Guy shipwrecks coast of a xenophobic land and is thrust into a political drama not unlike the ones in his homeland. The only way forward is trying to figure out who the enemy of his enemy is, but it turns out that that guy he hooked his fortunes to and who raised him to political power will never let him go home because he's such a valuable pet.
 

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