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D&D General Setting a campaign on a river

Yora

Legend
I got a vague idea for a campaign that is set entirely around a single great river in an ancient forest. Something on the scale of the Volga, Mekong, or Columbia. The setting is a great wilderness that was home to civilizations of giants, high elves, yuan-ti, and even much older beings, but since the yuan-ti kingdom disappeared, the land had been basically uninhabited over a thousand years except for some tribes of ogres, aaracockra, and bullywugs. Human tribes slowly moved into the area and created new homes in the ruins of the great ancient cities at the lower river. From there a new human Bronze Age civilization began that over the centuries learned new technologies from the ruins and discovered many magic items.
The lower river is pretty uninteresting for the campaign, as there are a couple of small city states that are pretty well established and secure. But the upper branches of the river are still largely unknown, and there are still countless ancient ruins that have never been explored by humans. There's of course gold and other riches to be found, but the greatest treasures are magic items and arcane texts. With any ancient roads being completely overgrown for centuries, going up and down the rivers is the main way to get anywhere.

The idea is that parties of explorers go up the river and its side branches to look for old ruins that might have valuables in them. With the population being concentrated at the lower river, settlements there are not far apart and often quite large, but the further up the river you go, the less frequent and smaller they become. It also means the monsters are getting more dangerous, but there's also a lot more treasure still to be found. My idea is that the individual dungeons won't be overly big, and that a large part of the adventures will consists of traveling on the rivers or marching along their banks, and many encounters happening along the way.

I've never done anything like this before, so I am looking for any kinds of suggestions, pointers, or ideas to make this work as a fun campaign.

I think in a way, this could actually be approached like a single megadungeon that has secure settlements scattered throughout it. While there are no walls to confine the party to corridors, the trackless nature of the forests means that the party still pretty much has to travel along the rivers. Though I guess you can go and hide in the trees if you see something approaching from ahead before it notices you. With the river branching out as you get higher, settlements becoming smaller and more rare can serve as an indicator for players how dangerous the encounters on the river and in the ruins will be.
Another neat feature is that it should be enough to make a map of the river and set the settlements where the party can rest and resupply, and there might be some markers that show that there is "a ruin" on some of the river branches, but actual ruin sites can be created as needed and put on whatever branch the players have decided to take. Navigating up the river might get challenging as their maps get less precise, but to make it back to civilization, all you have to do is follow the current until eventually reach a town or city.
 

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Stormonu

Legend
I’d been recently putting together an Egyptian-stlye campaign, with the fantasy Nile as the hub for civilization. The farther “upstream” one goes, the older the civilization, with several non-human and lost civilizations in the upriver jungle areas.

Also, I’ve been watching/reading about China’s life along the Yangtze, and the extensive dam works one of the early emperors undertook to mitigate floods and help the local communities stabilize so they could grow. Extensive damming or other manipulation of the river can also have some serious side effects on communities downstream - imagine an upriver kingdom that has created an extensive series of lochs to force downstream regions to pay tribute to get the vital waters, silt and wildlife they need to survive from the upriver kingdoms.

Then there are also the river monsters and the question where they spawn from. :)
 

Yora

Legend
While my setting idea has a fairly small scale human civilization, ancient dams sound like a really cool landscape feature to add to the environment. The ancient builders were magic, so their dams could last a thousand years.
Until they don't, threatening huge disasters downstream. Great alternative adventure to the regular treasure hunting.

Someone also suggested to me dire beaver damns. Carrying some canoes past them could be a neat little side adventure to gain access to completely unmapped and unexplored waterways.

I'm also quite giddy about the idea of having hippos being an iconic river terror like bulletes or owlbears.

Instead of merchant caravans, there would be river merchants. And equally river pirates, hiding their lairs in small side branches just big enough for their dhows, but too large for big cargo junks.

I did a little bit of research on the speeds of traveling by kayak or canoe. And it seems like you get something reasonably plausible by going downstream at 4 or 5 miles per hour, and upstream by 2 or 1 miles per hour, depending on the current. (Rowing at 3 mph with 1 or 2 mph current.) Of course you can have even faster currents that make going downstream even faster, but you'd not be able to row upstream by much more than a snail's pace.
Based on this, the river map could be done in three colors, indicating slow current (2/4), fast current (1/5), and currents too fast to go against (0/6+).

As the party becomes wealthier, they could upgrade to a dhow or a junk, and basically have a mobile base with unlimited capacity to haul treasure.
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
I don't know if you have been following the stuff for Level Up - but it has a robust exploration and travel system, that this seems to be a perfect fit for. I'm thinking of stealing you idea just for that.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
Sounds like an excellent campaign. Some ideas spring to mind that might interest you for the game:
1 Natural hazards such as waterfalls that force players to portage their craft overland, making themselves vulnerable.
2 In sections of the river cut off by waterfalls, marine dinosaurs exist and are hungry...
3 There is a section of the Yangtze with very high cliffs, where local tribes used to lower themselves by rope to bury their dead in caves overlooking the river. An undead version of this would be cool.
4 Marshy areas = bog mummies, black dragons and possibly even Temple of the Frog.
5 The lake, created by the aforementioned dire beaver dam, has swallowed an ancient temple, in which “something” sleeps. Aboleth?
6 In one section, trees and vines have overgrown the river, forming a green tunnel through which the PCs must paddle. Girallons lurk in the trees, or similar.

Hope this helps.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
You had me at "Campaign on a River".

Seriously. That sounds magnificent. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

You can have it be story-driven, you can have it be episodic, you can have it revolve around relationships, you can do SO MUCH.
 

Yora

Legend
3 There is a section of the Yangtze with very high cliffs, where local tribes used to lower themselves by rope to bury their dead in caves overlooking the river. An undead version of this would be cool.
This is so awesome. This is just the kind of things I'm looking for!

I plan to run the campaign with Worlds Without Number, which has a very cool system for thirst, hunger, and cold, which also works great for poison and disease. It doesn't cause hit point damage, but instead limits how much hit point healing you can receive. Your healers might have effectively unlimited healing, but if your body is too weak it won't do any good until you recovered some more strength.
Also got a neat rule for foraging that actually seems useful.

Since others have already expressed their excitement about the idea, here's a few resources which I think are really valuable reads for a campaign like this:
Pointcrawls
The Long Haul
Cold, tired, scared, hungry, thirsty, and in pain
 
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Stormonu

Legend
I did a little bit of research on the speeds of traveling by kayak or canoe. And it seems like you get something reasonably plausible by going downstream at 4 or 5 miles per hour, and upstream by 2 or 1 miles per hour, depending on the current. (Rowing at 3 mph with 1 or 2 mph current.) Of course you can have even faster currents that make going downstream even faster, but you'd not be able to row upstream by much more than a snail's pace.
Based on this, the river map could be done in three colors, indicating slow current (2/4), fast current (1/5), and currents too fast to go against (0/6+).

As the party becomes wealthier, they could upgrade to a dhow or a junk, and basically have a mobile base with unlimited capacity to haul treasure.

Older cultures would often use oxen, donkeys or other beasts of burden on the shore to tow vessels back upstream. There’s also the possibilities of paddle wheels, either foot-powered, powered by beasts on treadmil—like wheels or if you want to get advanced, steam or magic-powered.
 

Yora

Legend
To pull your barges from the shore, you need to have a straight, well supported and maintained road right next to the water. It works well for canals in developed areas, but not possible for exploring the wilderness.
But it could be an interesting sight to show that you've returned to civilization after your expedition and getting close to home.

It is also possible to sail on rivers against the current and doesn't require perfect wind if you have something slightly more sophisticated and a basic square sail.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
These are the Hanging Coffins of Shennang Stream, which is a tributary of the Yangtze (it’s pretty big, and not a stream in the English sense). I travelled a fair bit in China about a decade ago, and this was one of the most fascinating things. They’re around 4 centuries old.

A759B169-D5CA-4AC8-8AAD-71E6F225FE50.jpeg
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
Throat leeches appeared in an early White Dwarf. Basically choked you if you drank river water they were in. Another cheerful little denizen.
 

Yora

Legend
Great suggestion. Water parasites are great fun, if you don't have them.

A river system can basically be thought of as being fractal. For game purposes, we don't need to worry about terrain elevation when making a waterway map, and we also don't need to be very specific about the depth and width of rivers and the amount of water that is flowing through any given point. And in an explorer campaign, not knowing how far the river goes is part of the whole premise.
So we basically can just keep adding more branches as the players reach the end of any branch they are currently on. And if it starts to look too unrealistic on the map, you can always tell the players that this is the end of this branch, and go back downstream for 50 miles and start exploring another branch.

One neat little side effect is that you can have extremely polluted side branches as an environment hazards, but as more and more branches merge together, it becomes so diluted that it's no longer a threat.
 



Yora

Legend
Some more ideas:

  • A giant ancient bridge spanning the river at a wide point. It's so big that is has a network of tunnels running under the road, which have become home to all kinds of things. That might by praying on boats passing underneath.
  • Giant spider monsters have made huge nets that span between trees on both sides of the river to hunt birds. And could be a problem to boats getting stuck as well, or larger ships getting swarmed with spiders as they try to push through.
  • Old port on the riverbank that has mostly sunken into the rising river.
  • Old port on the riverbank that sits now very high above the lowered river.
  • An abandoned merchant ship that has been overgrown with vines, but can be plugged up to float downriver to a port.
  • A wrecked merchant ship that needs someone to help them rescue their passengers and as much of the cargo as possible.
  • A ship floats down the river without a crew and in perfect shape.
  • Sailors float down the river without a ship. And they are dead.
  • River maidens. Flesh eating river maidens.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
Were-otters (of the giant Amazonian variety), probably good aligned and helpful.
An old, but still working, watermill; it can be a lair of some type, with the prospect of a swashbuckling fight on the turning slats of the wheel.
 

Yora

Legend
I love otters and seals (and weasels). There's actually seals in the Caspian Sea and Lake Baikal, however they might have gotten there.
And it never hurts to have an ancient dugong oracle.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
What I like about the idea is that it contains within itself a great narrative cycle. As a player I could expect my character to go up the river, find adventure, go back down the river. Then go further up the river, find adventure, go back down the river. I like too how the trip back down the river will be faster - after delving a dungeon you want to get home fast!

One fun thing you could have is ways to upgrade the group's boat. They could start with a raft, then over time invest in larger boats, a crew, some weapons, magic sails, etc.
 

Yora

Legend
Or establish a trade post as your own supply depot, where merchants come to bring you new supplies and take the treasures you recovered.

I am taking influences from base-building survival games for this.
 

Yora

Legend
I want to go really fantastical with my campaign, so

"Why paddle, when you can ride?"

latest

My initial idea was to do mostly ruin scavenging. But the more I think of it, I feel having a strong trade element would also fit in really well. Those river merchants keep grabbing my attention as a major component of the campaign.
And with the explorers being treasure hunters and scavengers, they are also in the business of selling stuff that is scarce and fetches a high price. So I am thinking players having a side gig going as traders could also be a lot of fun. In addition to trade posts, there could also be various mining towns and the like further up the river. If there's still room on their boats on the return trip, they could load up on a valuable resource and sell it in one of the larger ports.

Which I guess means I have to look into Ultraviolet Grasslands now.
 

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