Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Freehold, a D&D 5E project

In the very limited amount of tabletop gaming I've been doing (really any gaming; between work, kids, buying a house, Dawning Star, etc, I don't have a lot of free time), I've mainly been playing D&D 5E lately, so my brain has been percolating some ideas when its not focused on Dawning Star. I have a very long commute these days and while a lot of it is spent listening to history podcasts, I also spend time noodling around game design ideas. This is a result of that. If folks are interested in seeing the googledoc that is the evolving text of this project, let me know.

D&D campaign design traditionally begin on the macro-scale, detailing entire campaign nations, worlds, or planes and allowing players to select from a vast swath of races, nations, cultures, etc, when creating characters.  I prefer going the other direction; keeping settings small and intimate, where every detail, character, and resource is important.  Where every character is deeply tied to the immediate surroundings, with any outsiders being the exception rather than the norm. If no one plays the archetypal residents of a region and everyone is a strange outsider, it just feels weird to me. This worked pretty well back in the day with Dawning Star, which was a sci-fi setting focused on a single planet/stellar system rather than some massive, galactic scale setting where the actions of individuals gets lost.  Thus I’ve been working on brainstorming what is effectively a add-on D&D rule set for running a macro-scale, focused, intimate type of D&D campaign.  The type where all the PCs have never been more than fifty miles from their village unless the random character creation process (to be posted later and blatantly stolen on a conceptual level from Beyond the Wall) says so.  The campaign will grow in scope over time, but initially and for the first few levels, it’s entirely focused on one village and the characters who live there and defend it.  

This rules set would be an add-on to 5E D&D focused on running a campaign set in a small, remote village in a northern temperate coastal region similar to Germany or Britain (lots of dark forests, hard winters, important trade rivers but not a lot of roads, etc) called the Katrys Freeholds (as a reference to my favorite Dungeon magazine adventure of all time). The text will include rules for running a low-fantasy style game where the characters are heavily integrated into the village; their backgrounds tie them into the village, they can establish important NPCs and shape the village by their choices in character creation (i.e. if there is a wizard PC there is some old wizard tower on the edge of town that the owner, the PC’s master, owned before she just recently died).  There will be rules for the village growing and changing over time in response to player actions, such as retiring characters to the village or the village coming under attack.  The goal is to get the players to focus as much on the advancement of the village as the advancement of their individual characters, especially since advancing the village will help their characters and give more advantages to starting characters.  Character creation will be done via a random character generation system ala Beyond the Wall where you choose your class, background, and race, but then roll on tables determined by your race, class, and background for various events in your past to determine your ability scores, skills, etc.

The text also includes rules for running a harsher version of D&D to drive home the low fantasy feel of the setting.  These would include new rules for resting that really make you want to be back at the village, rules for long term injury and recovery that will lead to eventual PC retirement, limited starting equipment, a non-coin based economy, etc.  The goal would be to create a system where characters rarely advance to high level before being retired due to injuries, but their retirement feels valuable because they improve the village and make the group as a whole more effective.  The most basic example of this would be if you retire a wizard character because he took one too many swords to the guy and can no longer adventure (i.e. a lot of permanent Constitution damage), future new wizard characters start with a wider selection of spells drawn from the retired wizard’s spellbook or even at higher than first level representing the training they receive from the retired character.  Also this will create a network of known, beloved characters in the village the players will want to defend.   

In order to try and capture the cultural feel of the region there would be new character options like sub-classes, spells, feats, etc, to help present the fact the area is not a normal generic fantasy region.  There would also be new monsters and threats that all have folkloric defenses, such as creatures that can’t stand the sound of bells or creatures being repelled by certain herbs.  The goal is to give every monster that’s a serious threat some way for players to avoid having to fight it outright if they think ahead or are prepared to make sacrifices.

The text concludes with a series of adventures to set the tone for the campaign and notes on storylines.  These would primarily be ancient sleeping threats in the region (cities  of the dead awakening because the stars are right, ancient magitech defenses from the sunken empire, the invasion by a Rome-esque empire that looks to expand its reach, etc), short term threats like hostile tribes or dungeons, and threats to the village itself (famine, plague, etc).  


  • History of Rome podcast
  • History of Byzantium podcast
  • Spartacus television series
  • 13th Warrior

I'm working on a number of rules ideas, the first of which is below:

Divine Influence

The gods of the setting transmit their power through physical objects that are important to their faith, i.e. relics.  A cleric’s and paladin’s spells and channel divinity powers only work within a limited range of these items, usually something like fifty miles per level of the relic.  A village may only have a small level 1-2 relic that allows their local clergy to function, while the center of worship may support clergy for hundreds of miles with its higher level relics. A divine caster can’t cast spells higher level than the relic they are supported by. They retain all their spell slots so they can cast spells with higher level slots, but cannot use those slots to cast spells of higher level than the relic.  So a high level cleric still has all his slots when working under a level 1 relic, but he’ll have to use them to cast first level spells with his high level slots.  

A divine caster can work through the relic of any god in the same pantheon as his own, so a cleric or paladin is fine as long as they stay within the the territory covered by their pantheon’s relics (though some disputes among the gods may limit this; maybe a cleric of Loki couldn’t use a relic of Thor).  Some relics may grant advantages to followers of certain gods, like extra hit dice or resistance towards certain elements, or possibly benefits while casting specific types of spells (+1 hit point per die on healing spells).  

This limitation is a known thing and conflict between religions is usually around relics.  Crusaders on the march carry relics from their gods with them to ensure their magic still works, while secretly stealing the relics of an opposing religion is a good way to deprive your enemies of their own clerical support.  Relics can be harvested for Glory (Glory system is for the next post) by clerics if they are of an opposing pantheon, making them valuable on their own as well.  

Relics come in power levels that are increased by clerics and paladins of that faith investing Glory in that relic.  If the relics of two opposing gods are brought into close proximity, the higher level relic will overpower the lower one, decreasing its effective level by the difference between them (so if you have a level 5 and a level 3 relic overlapping the level 3 relic becomes a level 1 relic).  If the relic level is reduced to 0 it no longer grants any power to its followers.  

At the beginning of the game the player’s village has a level 1 relic at its heart, but this makes it a target of agents of other pantheons (such as the Roman-esque to the south who wants to bring their brand of monotheism to the pagans of the north).  The goal of this is to make religious warfare more of a tangible thing in the setting and to make going into the lands of foreign gods actually something really scary.  

Druids draw power from the natural world around them; they must choose a number of terrain types as they go up in level (probably one at first, fifth, and thirteenth level).  Outside of those terrains they have reduced casting capacity.  This works using the layout below.  In a terrain you have power in, you cast spells normally.  For each step removed from one of your terrains, swamp from coast being one step, the maximum level spell you can cast decreases by one level in the same fashion that clerics are limited by relics.  Thus a 9th level coast druid in the mountains could only cast up to 2nd level spells instead of 5th, but could use his 3rd-5th level slots to cast 1st and 2nd level spells.  You can only select a terrain next to one you already have, so if your first choice is Coast your second must be swamp and your third Forest.  





Also there are places of power that are tied to a terrain, such as high mountain peak surrounded by standing stones, that can grant advantages if the druid visits them at the correct time and carries out the proper rituals.  These also act as relics, allowing druid of the terrain type that the place of power is tied to to cast spells as if they were standing in their chosen terrain within 10 miles per level of the place of power. A level 1 place of power will be near the player village initially with a terrain type appropriate for druids in the party.
The goal of this is to both mirror the limitations on clerics and to really drive home the druid’s tie to their home terrain.  This hopefully would not come up terribly often as the campaign is not meant to be one of world travel, but at the same time the druid should get a little nervous going into the setting stand-in for Rome or Constantinople.  

Arcane Interference

The relics of some gods, particularly opposed to to arcane magic as a matter of faith, will interfere with divine magic in the same fashion as relics of gods from opposing pantheons.  These gods are usually from civilizations where one dominant religion has taken control of the culture and preaches against arcane magic in all its forms.  Overall these should be pretty rare and a mjor plot point in the campaign.  Some areas may also experience arcane interference without relics due to magical disturbances in the area, such as places long ago ravaged by magic or that have somehow become magic dead, limiting what level spells may be cast there.  For both relics that interfere with arcane magic and interference locations, the rating of the relic or the location is subtracted from the highest level spells an arcane spellcaster can cast to figure out what level of spell they may use in the affected area.  For example, a level 2 relic of a god hostile to arcane magic would limit a 5th level wizard (who can cast third level spells) to only casting first level spells.  Note that arcane casters so affected still have all their spell slots, but they can only use their higher level slots to cast lower level spells.  The above 5th level wizard would only be able to use 1st level spells he has prepared, but he could use his 2nd and 3rd level spells slots with them.

Wizards and warlocks can construct arcane foci that counteract these effects, but they are expensive, difficult to make, and hard to transport.  These arcane foci count as relics for reducing the effectiveness of relics or areas that would negatively affect the abilities of arcane spellcasters.  


  1. It won't come as any shock to you that I'm very interested in this ongoing project, especially the Glory and retirement mechanics.

    My concern about village-building based on the characters comes entirely out of the unconventional way that Aurikesh runs, and the fact that my campaigns have always had a lot of player churn. Does a player starting in the third session contribute less to village-building than one who started in the first session? Can you unify this system with the retirement/new character system in a way that doesn't break the fiction?

    Do sorcerers, bards, eldritch knights, and arcane tricksters all rely on arcane relics? I'm interested in the conflicts you're framing here!

  2. My thoughts currently are that:

    *New characters get to take advantage of any aspects of the village already established in play. According to their background they can be locals who have just come of age/decided to become more active in the community, outsiders who just arrived, or if the gameplay allows the opportunity you can bust out the old chestnut of they are found in game (like rescuing a captive). With the first option, I'd work with the player to figure out why what they bring to the village just came online, like their family smithy just got their forge rebuilt (which if it could be tied in to an adventure, like the new character joins the party on a quest to get supplies to rebuild the forge, all the better). In the second and third options I would want to work with the player to explain how they add to the village, like an outsider leading refugees to the village or a captive being held along with his wagon of trade goods. I would say though if a person makes a second or third character while their first is not retired, they would probably get some sort of reduced resource add to the village to avoid incentivizing fifty kabillion first level characters. Over time the settlement would grow to something more than a village, but the hope would be that the choices players make would always remain interesting.

    *My initial thoughts on the arcane relics was that all arcane casters would rely on them to some extent, but that does seem odd for sorcerers and warlocks particularly (though I think this is as much a sacred cow of D&D needing all magic to fit in the boxes labeled arcane and divine as much as anything). I added the arcane relics bit to make it so it wasn't just clerics getting an extra screw applied to them, but I'm not sure its strictly needed. I'm tempted to have sorcerers and warlocks ignore the arcane relics system entirely, which is what makes others see them as particularly dangerous and makes them hunted/feared. So sure the relics of the Flayed God suppress arcane magic because he says it is the tool of the wicked, but it doesn't work against warlocks and sorcerers, so they must be extra terrible and burnt at the stake.