As much as I love themed fantasy worlds, I haven’t had a lot of luck running longer campaigns in them – they seem to fizzle out before the group can really get into the theme and discover all the interesting quirks about the world.
As a GM, running an adventure set in a themed fantasy world adds an extra challenge on those first few adventures. You need to sell the world. If you’re going to run a game in set in Athas (TSR’s old campaign world of Dark Sun), it really needs to feel different from a standard fantasy world. Capturing that feel usually requires a lot of research and reading into the setting, and experimentation to get it just right. If you go too far into the lore of the setting, your players won’t have any idea what’s going on (“the alien race of four-armed bug creatures are friends?”) . But if you don’t make things exotic, it won’t feel any different from your regular fantasy game, and I bet things will soon revert back to the standard tropes your group enjoys.
This weekend I made another attempt at a themed fantasy game, figuring that because it was a one-shot adventure, it would be easier to get right. I picked one of my favorite old-school settings: al-Qadim, the Land of Fate.
Before I began writing The Third Hall of Uzrah, I established some ground rules to this Arabian Nights-themed adventure:
- Put Everything on the Table – One tendency I’ve noticed in GMs that is that we tend to “save cool stuff for later”. Perhaps this is the reason that dragons appeared in almost none of the original D&D adventures, or that I’ve started many a Star Wars game on a remote planet far from the Empire. I decided for this adventure, I was going to ensure my players saw the flare of the setting, and I was going to include as many of the settings tropes as I could. That meant my adventure was going to have genies, ancient artifacts hidden in old ruins, riddles, flying carpets (okay, pillows, actually), and a faraway desert setting. I swore my players would never not remember they were playing in an al-Qadim game! My daughter joked that the only thing I didn’t include was a bazaar.
- Capture the Heart – Although my adventure was going to have all of the set decoration of an Arabian Nights adventure, I also felt it was important to capture the heart of the setting and genre. I’ve read a ton of Arabian Nights stories, and the one thing they all had was a sense of wonder and surprise. The Genie in the Lamp was first and foremost a surprise to our hero Aladdin. And when Ali Baba saw the thieves open a hidden door in a mountain, he was dumbfounded! With that, I started adding some wonder and weirdness to the adventure, such as a house-sized metallic cube in the middle of the desert, an hourglass that held death and riches, and more.
- Start with Lore, Finish with Lore – Most themed fantasy settings have important histories to them. But unless your players are already familiar with the setting, it’s too heavy-handed to dole out lots of lore in a single adventure. To solve this problem, I started the adventure with a single piece of history that drove their quest (the story of Uzrah the Hunchback, who who hid seven great halls laden with treasure after each of his seven conquests), seeded the rest of the adventure with hints as to what happened to Uzrah, and then concluded with a great unveiling at the end. Uzrah is important at the beginning, disappears (mostly) in the middle, and then comes back for the finale. Engaging with the world history history was a breeze with this method – not too heavy-handed, and also giving an opportunity to the players who liked story to discover more on their own.
I only got through about half of the adventure when I played it with my group. But I believe my above rules worked great. The group especially appreciated the twists and surprises leading up to the discovery of the Third Hall, and found themselves inventing clever plans to overcome al-Qadim’s wondrous dangers – Ali Baba would be proud!
- The Third Hall of Uzrah (al-Qadim D&D 5E)
- The Third Hall of Uzrah (al-Qadim D&D 5E) – Printer Friendly
- The Third Hall of Uzrah (GURPS Arabian Nights – with pregenerated characters)
- The Third Hall of Uzrah (GURPS Arabian Nights – with pregenerated characters) – Printer Friendly
So what would I do different next time? Not much, actually, although I have the suspicion that it’s likely a 2-session adventure (I played it with a younger crowd and they only got about halfway to Uzrah’s hall). I think the adventure was a tad too difficult, especially for parties that like to charge and kill things (2nd or 3rd level characters are best!), although I think that fits with the Arabian Nights theme. Also, I think my creativity for generating the wondrous was running a little thin by the time I started writing the second half of the Third Hall, likely limited by the constraints of a ruined palace.
I’d love from GMs who figured out how to capture the essence of other themed settings. What’s worked, what’s failed?