This month, we’re joined by GM Thorvaldr to talk to him about his campaign Tyellador. We know it’s April, but this campaign is the furthest thing from a joke, be sure to dive in below and read our interview with him and his group!
First off, feel free to tell us about the person behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do both aside from gaming? Wife and kids? Where can we stalk you on the internet, that sort of thing!
Originally from Chicago, came to Connecticut for college and never got out. I’m an Electrical Engineer, have a girlfriend (Meagoinc) of 8.5 years, and a bamboo plant of 4. I mainly just hang out with the same D&D crew outside of work. Keogh and I just started homebrewing beer instead of worlds, and Meagoinc and I are currently beating Halo 3 again. We’re excited for it to be warm enough in a couple of months to read out on the porch and grill some burgers.
Tyellador is a homebrew setting that Meagoinc and I have been working on. Some friends of ours wanted to get into gaming, and as at that point I had had the most gaming experience (though only as a player), I was DM by default. We looked at some of the other campaign settings out there, and they just felt too artificial. For example, if you look at the Forgotten Realms map, in every 50 square mile area you’ll find mountains, desert, lakes and plains. The placement of mountains didn’t make sense from a continental drift perspective, and dammit, if there’s one thing I’m going to have in my story of wizards and faerie and gods, it’s proper geological formation.
Meagoinc: So we started geologically. Where were the continental plates? We measured Europe. We measured Asia. We were somewhat basing the landmasses upon the Mediterranean. Once we built the geology, the ecosystems suggested themselves, and from there, cultures, etc., and the overarching world set-up. Political lines got drawn along geological features, but expansion also was limited by the usual monsters a person finds while travelling in a campaign unless the area had a lot of money and power. Because we’re in a post-Empire world, there’s a lot of political intrigue that our characters are starting to trip up on, and families of great wealth (like the Soulaxes) try to get their children set up in positions of power across political lines in order to regain clout and political might. All of the regions are self-sustaining, but there is also lack which propels trade between them all. Feldlond in the East is the breadbasket; just mad fertile land there. Bryvelendil is like Venice, and gains its power accordingly; it is a port which receives and distributes exotic goods from the Elves who live on a different continent and disdain to interact too heavily with these humans, who are always getting worked up over things (short lives and all).
Because the Dwarves and Elves are separated geographically from the humans, there’s a lot of mystery and tension and myth, and wealth goes to whoever can bridge the gap– which our heroes, the majority of which are now part-Elven, will surely have to do in the face of oncoming danger. We’re playing in a setting where, yeah, if you’re crazy rich you can do a sending to send a message, but when danger’s afoot, in most places messengers have to ride hard for a couple days or more to get to the next town and get back up. Things can go wrong and no one will notice. It’s that sort of detail that ups the suspense, and will produce big narrative payoffs in the future.
A D&D 3.5 Campaign eh? Any reason(s) you’re not playing Pathfinder?
We already owned some 3.5 books, and that’s the system I’m familiar with. However, I have stolen some things from Pathfinder, like gaining feats every other level instead of every 3rd level, and combining Spot/Listen into Perception. Also: I love that there are 18 million supplement books for 3.5. In 3.5 it’s fairly easy for me to play a ninja pixie warlock with a dragon template.
We’ll normally play at either my place or at Keogh and Starianna’s. We all live within about 30 or so miles of each other. We used to be playing every other week plus or minus, but Meagoinc recently started going abroad for schooling, so we haven’t played much in the past couple of months (though we did have a session over Skype, all five of us spent most of it catching up with each other). We’re now just starting to get back into the swing of things.
What are your favorite aspects of D&D 3.5?
I like how complex it is in its simplicity. You have power levels and classes, which makes it somewhat easy to guess what someone is capable of. It’s very easy to know what to expect from a level 3 wizard compared to a level 8 fighter. As a DM, I can very quickly whip up a few level 2 fighters for the players to fight. In many ways I like Gurps better, but, like in real life, it’s more difficult to figure out what someone is capable of.
Are you excited about 5e, not care at all, or are you somewhere in the middle?
I haven’t done much with 4, but from what I’ve heard it feels too much like an MMO for me. Too many cooldown abilities, a fighter can magically heal (and I have heard the second-wind theories and what not… but I’m apparently old and set in my ways. :P). So I’m in a “wait and see” stage with 5e. And as mentioned above, I love all of the supplemental books from 3.5, so for me, 5e’s reported streamlining doesn’t have much appeal.
I do most of the coding, Meagoinc does most of the aesthetic work. I like to think of our wiki as actually being in Tyellador. I change the background when the group changes locations. If you read the adventure logs, the background of each log is where that session happened. In terms of CSS, I have never had any classes or training in it; in fact I didn’t know what CSS was until I joined Obsidian Portal. I’ve learned everything from reading the fora and some guides that people have written up (such as Wolfhound’s beginner’s guide to CSS and ChainsawXIV’s paper/parchment), and even now will usually Google what I want to do. “CSS background position” and the like. I’m sure Meagoinc can add something on the more artistic side of the site:
Meagoinc: I’ve been attempting to get an organic, tactile feel out of the site, as though you have a bunch of leaves of parchment in your hands and you’ve got to sort through them to see what the story is. If I could have made Thorvaldr create a book that flips, I would have gone for that! Because we were going for the medieval feel, I try to use either illustrations from manuscripts (such as the “Luttrell Psalter“: the British Library has great image resources, and I list them on the “Acknowledgments” page) or to create images which have either the appearance and palette of illuminations (like Cyngordyn), or are hand illustrated (like the Character Journal). Because I’m so persnickity about sticking to the look, Thorvaldr has let me run rampant and produce most of the wiki, so I can make sure the images match their inspirations: Northern pages are illustrated with Norse and Anglo-Saxon knotwork and engravings, the Delta and Eastern Coast pages with clips of Indian and Islamic art, and “Bhenoria” with European illumination, the illustrations attempting to reflect the countries’ respective wealth and features.
Where do you draw inspiration from when preparing your game? How much time do you usually take to prepare for a session?
My inspiration for how to run a campaign has mostly come from “Order of the Stick” where Rich Burlew is a master of NPC creation, story telling and having a good mix of antagonists. My inspiration for the world came mostly from Lord of the Rings, where I liked the idea of travelling between places taking weeks. When you set off on a journey, you will set off on a journey. The cultural worldbuilding has been from my own research on medieval towns and Meagoinc’s insistence on drawing on Icelandic Sagas, Late Antique and Medieval trade patterns across Europe and the Early Medieval world in general. Politically, most of the inspiration has been from Game of Thrones (with help from Meagoinc’s knowledge of history to fill in minor things), although I still have lots of work to do in fleshing that out.
In terms of preparing a gaming session, anywhere from an hour to 6 hours. Although that doesn’t count the probably 100 hours I’ve easily put into just creating Tyellador, and the who knows how many hours Meagoinc has put in. Part of my theory is that if you have a good setting, the story will help tell itself.
l’ve played some Gurps, and had a fantastic time doing it. I remember my character was Clint Brown. He could dual-wield revolvers, engineer and upgrade all sorts of tech, and had a sonic screwdriver. That’s the fantastic thing about a system like Gurps: I can do that! I don’t know of any other system where I can combine Clint Eastwood, Doc Brown and The Doctor.
How do you know your players, how long have you been gaming with them?
I’ve probably known those guys/gals for… 4-5 years now? Although we’ve only been really gaming together for the last half a year. Our players are also our best friends, which is one of the reasons that we game on a rather sporadic schedule. We met in 2010 by being all in the same apartment building, hanging out on the front stoop, and became fast friends since, though we’ve all moved out of the area. Our newest member we’ve also known since 2010 through work, and when he expressed interest in D&D we pulled him in.
How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?
I joined up in September of 2012 and just explored the site a bit… around when Keogh mentioned we should play some D&D. We really started using the site intensively when the Kickstarter started. It’s nice to have forums, calendars, and the wiki all in one place, and to be able to theme it to our campaign. What’s unique about Obsidian Portal, as a utility, is that rather than just having a plethora of notes on paper or in one’s mind, OP allows you to make your world in an immersible way that you otherwise would be able to achieve only through storytelling. And storytelling takes a very long time.
With Tyellador online, all members of the group can help immediately with world building, explore what would be common knowledge instantly, and use it to start running mini campaigns– which, for instance, Keogh has. It can all be kept track of. And the real thing which boosts OP over all others is the invaluable community. The people on the forums get one through the tough spots, whether it’s the worldbuilding, plot making, or coding that’s tripping one up. There are simply too many people to mention and I fear leaving anyone out, but the community here is really what’s drawn me in, keeps me here and has made us strive to better our site and better our campaign.
Now that the Reforging has been live for a little while now, what are your favorite parts?
Just before the reforge I downloaded a few pages of our site so that I could refer to them later. In many ways the Reforge does look cleaner, gone are the black boxes to the right for example. And although I’m still getting used to it, I also like the new search features. I can just type in “healwud”, and see the wiki page for Healwud, all of the NPCs from Healwud, and the forum post on Healwud instantly. That is pretty cool.
What would you say the single biggest highlight from Tyellador has been so far?
Our resident bard has taken to approaching any unsavory person on the road and calling out “Songs for two coppers!” …which throws a DM off when he knows that she knows that she’s walking into an ambush. It didn’t take long for the group to use this to their advantage. As the men folk too up flanking positions on a known ambush, the bard and a priestess of Ehlonna walked down the road, calling out “Song and Dance for two coppers”, and proceeding to sing and dance for the roadside bandits. Needless to say, they were quickly dispatched.
I don’t want to discourage new DMs, as I’m one myself, but I think the most helpful thing is to know the rules. Before I started, I made myself a DM screen, as none of the ones I found online had all of the information I wanted. I probably spent 40 hours on that screen. But by the end of it, I knew the rules pretty well. And I know exactly where to look up the rules if I don’t, everything on my screen has a reference page number. It’s not hard for any pen&paper system to get bogged down, so whatever the DM can do to speed things up, the better. And feel free to slightly fudge some numbers! I don’t need fully fleshed out guards for my PCs to fight. On average, a level 1 guard will have a +4 to hit, a sword that does 1d8 damage, about 14 AC, and probably around 5 HP. A level 2 guard will just have slightly more HP. You don’t need everything perfect it, you just need it close enough, the most important thing is to keep the momentum going!
That’s it for this month folks, in the meantime keep those suggestions coming to my inbox, and game on!