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The official blog of the Obsidian Portal.

Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month July 2024: Ars Magica, Umbra Quercus Saga

“Gather your grogs and call upon the covenant of Umbra Quercus, our new Campaign of the Month winner! At the helm, the madirishman and his mystical magi, who have collaborated for several years to produce a fascinating fable steeped in deep lore, strange sorceries, and a setting and story that reads like a great adventure novel. Wander onward to gain a glimpse of this admirable Ars Magica campaign.”

You’ve worked professionally with Atlas Games so you probably have a better understanding of Ars Magica than most. For those who don’t know the game, can you briefly describe the system and setting?

Hoo boy, you’re really in danger of putting me in full proselytize mode when asking about Ars (ArM is the semi-official shorthand I guess, but we always just call it “Ars”). I discovered the game in the mid-90s or so when it was Third Edition and immediately fell in love. It’s my favorite setting/system and our current saga is the sixth I’ve played in.

My initial draw was undoubtedly the magic system, which has rightfully been much acclaimed. It’s incredibly flexible and after five editions, remarkably internally consistent. Spells are generally in the form of “verb + direct object”: a Technique and a Form, and your magus character will have varying scores in the Techniques and Forms depending on what you choose to specialize in. Because of the setting, these are in Latin, but once you get past that, it’s remarkably easy to design spells that are consistent in power relative to one another. Your standard Fireball (more prosaically named Ball of Abysmal Flame in Ars) would be a type of Creo Ignem (‘I create fire’) spell, but if your score is high in Creo you might also use it to effectively Creo Corpus (‘I create body’) to heal someone. (Note there is no resurrection in this game, but magi typically live many years beyond those of normal men through longevity rituals.) Likewise, laboratory activities are well defined and tell you how to make new spells, magic items, etc. While you gain experience points like in other games to advance your skills, it is generally these lab activities that increase your power. Over years of game time you pursue these to achieve truly epic magical abilities.

Secondly I am a bit of a Medieval history buff and while you could use the rules to play in, say, Middle Earth, the default setting is “Mythic Europe” of 1220 AD: basically our historical Europe, but the things people believed then are literally true. Magic exists, demons corrupt the unwary, faeries perplex travelers, you encounter angels and dragons, etc. I particularly love trying to reinterpret actual history through the lens of this setting. Sure, the Mongols sacked all of Medieval Rus but spared the great city of Novgorod. Was it because the Russian ground became too swampy for them to attack the city? Did Novgorod avoid destruction by paying tribute to the invaders? Or maybe magic was used to influence the general’s mind and convinced him to spare it?

Yet slapped onto this quasi-historical Europe is a completely ahistorical political entity. All the magi are members of the secretive Order of Hermes, which governs how magi may interact with not only each other but the “Mundanes,” as people without the Gift are known. (Beats “Muggles,” IMO.) So you can also milk a lot of great stories out of these interactions, even though in our current game we decided to set our saga in the Hermetic boonies specifically to tone down this particular dimension of the game.

What is the main story, so far?

Our characters are magi fresh out of apprenticeship who have stepped into a mystery. Instead of founding their own covenant, they were invited to join an existing one founded by a trio of powerful magi. Yet not only have these founders disappeared, the wizard who recruited them was likewise nowhere to be found when they arrived at their new home.

Their covenant home is a small island on a remote lake with impressive fortifications in Livonia (modern-day Latvia), where German crusaders are fighting against native tribes to Christianize the last pagan part of Europe. The players have learned that the covenant has some connection to a prophecy about the destruction of the Order of Hermes, and the founding magi apparently were there to investigate. So finding their predecessors has taken on a new urgency.

Just recently they have unearthed the remains of one of the founding magus’ apprentices. Speaking to her shade, they have gained new insight into the last known appearance of two of the three founders. She was seemingly sacrificed by their as yet unknown enemies; what is less clear is the nature of the involvement of one of those founding wizards.

Along the way, the young magi have encountered menacing packs of wolves, a mysterious bird woman, and a faerie living in their bathhouse. They have chased an escaped pig, parlayed with mudmen, and encountered a mystical site that seems to produce doppelgängers of people under certain circumstances…

Umbra Quercus involves a good deal of collaboration, shared tasks, and organization with your gaming group, where Obsidian Portal is only one tool among many. Could you explain how your group typically uses OP, the campaign forums, Discord, Dropbox, email, and any other tools and tricks to help you play the game and coordinate all those wonderful tales that we get to read in your adventure logs?

OP has been critical for our many and varied campaigns. We’re big on Troupe play and there’s a lot of collaborative world-building. We also seem to favor somewhat Byzantine plots. :^)  OP gives us a centralized place to store character stats, discuss rules or logistics by thread, keep track of when our next game session is, and more. Considering those Byzantine plots, I think the Adventure Log is among the most useful for keeping track of just what the heck happened last week or three months ago,

We started as a face-to-face group but like many others, COVID-19 forced us to move to Discord for actual game play; we’ve only met a few times in person since. Discord, however, has its advantages: it’s easy to share maps, links to web pages, and other resources in the middle of a game session.  Like OP, there’s a paper trail as well; you can look back at the chat log and remind yourself of important details. I won’t dwell on my failed attempt to use voice modification software to simulate speaking to the dead…

Ars can get kind of complicated and so we have used numerous aids like Excel spreadsheets and files for (the now-defunct) Metacreator. Dropbox and Google Drive are great ways to let us share those files as well as PDFs for rules or character sheets. 

Google Maps has also been huge in allowing us to share a map with all of the important sites of the campaign: other covenants of the Order, towns and fortresses, mystical sites, and so forth. Useful for translating those real-world sites into saga locations, and even ballparking travel distances. Take a look at our Map of Fortifications and Mystical Sites of the Region.

What moments during the campaign stand out to you and your group as real highlights?

In “The Crossroads,” the magi and their grogs avenge a young boy and rescue a local girl from the clutches of a corrupt Sword Brother by slaying him, only to encounter him limping down the road towards them only a few hours later.

In “The Evil Medieval Weevil Upheaval” (Beta Storyguide Ted has all the best names), the magi encounter a demonic centipede with a human face that casts a dire influence upon the innocent men and women of the local village with its ugly glare.

In “Puerulus Amissa,” the magi and their grogs, using earth, fire, mental manipulation, and induced hallucinations, protect a young Russian boy with the Gift from a group of soldiers determined to take him back to his harsh uncle.

In “This Little Piggy Went to Market,” a covenant guard is suddenly and mysteriously overcome with admiration for a piglet belonging to some German soldiers, and runs away with it, to the chagrin of his companions and causing all sorts of legal problems. If your game doesn’t feature a pig chase, you’re doing something wrong!

What are the advantages and disadvantages (if any) to having more than one Storyguide in an Ars Magica campaign?

The Troupe style of play was baked into Ars from its early days, and this was something of a revelation for me. Due to time constraints imposed by schoolwork, I was used to the idea of rotating DMs all the way back to playing AD&D 2e in college, but Ars was the first game I encountered that was really pretty much designed to have people play different characters depending on the needs of the story. In fact, the characters’ covenant (where they live together and practice their magical arts, be it a castle, sailing ship, or traveling caravan) is really the central character of any saga. Instead of having to have everyone meet in a tavern and then get hired to rescue the princess, the covenant concept is a natural impetus for driving all manner of stories, and the covenant itself evolves just like the player characters do.

Each player has a Magus—the most powerful characters in the game—and a Companion: a character of note who has some reason for affiliation with the magi. (These you might think of as the other “character classes”: a knight errant, a traveling troubadour, a curious monk, etc.) If it makes more sense for your companion to participate in a story, you might play them instead of your magus. Then there are the Grogs: background characters that may be swapped between players when they’re not playing either of the above. Think foot soldiers, the blacksmith, or that book merchant who occasionally visits.

This means even the GM gets to play every once in a while, and while there’s always the dangers inherent in design by committee, I’ve found that if you have multiple creative and knowledgeable people working to build the game world, it’s often more detailed and interesting than anything one could come up with on one’s own. It’s certainly more satisfying for the players to have a voice in the bigger story. It also helps when you have a group of busy professionals that no one person is on the hook all the time for creating stories! To avoid any problems, the Storyguides typically have ownership of their own story arcs, and any story abutting one of these arcs is talked through in advance. This also keeps spoilers to a minimum.

Ars Magica has what some players consider the best (or at least the most interesting) magic system in table-top roleplaying. Would you agree with that idea and why?

It’s definitely the most flexible simulationist system I’ve run across, as I think becomes clear when you think about my description above. In fact, it gets kind of hard to give it up if you go back to another system (A brief primer worth mentioning). We played a group of wizards in our last (non-Ars) game and while it was a lot of fun, we kept saying in many situations, “well, if this were Ars, we could…” While your characters will have a set list of spells they can cast relatively effortlessly, the system allows you to spontaneously “invent” spells at a cost of Fatigue. Ars Magica Fifth Edition has a robust set of guidelines that allow you to be creative with magic in any situation, yet also tell you what your limits are. Want to dig a hole magically? You look at your Perdo (I destroy) Terram (earth) scores. Want to dig it in stone? Well, the rules tell you that’s harder. Similarly for parameters like how big the hole is or how long an illusion spell lasts. It allows players to be very imaginative in coming up with magical solutions. (“Well, I don’t think I have the scores to fling my jailer across the room, but I might be able to levitate those keys off the hook on the wall…”)

Sounds like magi can do anything, right? Well, with the right scores, they can. But they bleed just like everyone else.

Also, Ars Magica’s best days may yet be ahead: Atlas has announced the Ars Magica Definitive Edition for this fall, which will revise and consolidate the current Fifth Edition rules, but perhaps most importantly, inaugurate an open license which will allow for a host of new materials.

By way of your Obsidian Portal profile page, we discovered that you’ve done a great deal of wonderful character sheet design work over the last quarter-century or so (http://www.mad-irishman.net) and generously shared them with the gaming world. What elements make up a very good character sheet, in your opinion? Or, to put it another way, what common problems do you find on some standard character sheets that often need to be fixed?

It’s gratifying that people have found my stuff useful…and my site afforded me an appearance in Dragon magazine with a picture of me dressed as an Andorian, so there’s that. 

Designing character sheets is a bit like designing user interfaces for web pages.  You want to have the information you need at your fingertips. Typically, sheets focus on information that is unique to your character, but sometimes there are frequently-accessed rules that everyone needs to hand.

Character sheets for RPGs used to be almost an afterthought. Typically I could open an RPG book, flip to the last page, and see something that was like the last thing anyone worked on and seemingly created by someone who hadn’t actually played the game. Having desktop publishing software at hand, at first I was just using it to create copies of existing sheets that I could print rather than photocopy, but it was only natural I started making sheets for how I played the game and what information I thought I needed to record.

But people have different needs, one size does not fit all, and games have certain options players may choose to adopt or ignore. This is why some of my later sheets utilize PDF layers: by toggling these layers on or off, the same space on the page can be used for different blocks of information, or at least different styles.

As someone with gaming industry experience in writing, layout, font design, and even a bit of cartography — what do you love most about the creative process with regard to games?

I guess the problem with answering that is I love all of it. There are many games and gaming products I adore, and some of them may have had, say, a great story, but looked like they were produced on a 1940s typewriter and then Xeroxed. But when I think of some of my favorite products, many of them feature multiple impressive design dimensions.

AD&D’s Desert of Desolation series? An evocative setting replete with Jim Holloway artwork. Woodcuts by Eric Hotz define Ars Magica and Hârn. Similarly, where would the World of Greyhawk be without Darlene’s cartography? And nothing says “Gamma World” to me like that Shatter font, or anything Middle Earth and an uncial font (thanks, MERP and Ralph Bakshi).

When Victory Games’ James Bond 007 RPG came out, I was struck by the loving *design* of the products: prop handouts replete with the “For Your Eyes Only” folders, eye-catching layout, and a splash of color in the text itself…which in the mid-80s, was quite the change. This was all *on top of* innovative rules like ease factor bidding and chase scenes.

All of these areas of design are great fun as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps a more extreme example of me having that kind of fun (also outing my compulsion to compile information I guess) is my Ars Magica “Master Grimoire” that I have been compiling for the last 20 years. It contains all of the spells and spell guidelines from the official Ars Fifth Edition products, but also those from earlier editions, fanzines, web sites, and so on. Invaluable for our game play. But of course I also had to lay it out exactly like an official Atlas Games product and mimic their trade dress. It currently weighs in at 455 pages! It’s pretty awesome, if I do say so myself…I just wish I could share it with everyone, but unfortunately it uses like a million different people’s intellectual property.

Anyway, I guess this is why I’m master of none of these areas but have dabbled in them all. :^)

This question is for those among us looking for new RPGs to play and hidden gems outside of the mainstream. Out of all the RPGs that you have played or own (and I know there’s a lot), what are some of the lesser-known game systems or supplements that you might recommend and why?

Man, another toughie, where I’ll want to go on and on. You can look at my other OP campaigns or the list of games I own (over at my Mad Irishman page) and get some feel for a few of them. I do have a ridiculously large RPG collection that includes many unplayed games to go with all those unpainted miniatures. <eyeroll>

Another setting I love—maybe my second favorite—is that of Space: 1889. Victorian adventure with scientific romance elements. Like Ars, it’s great for taking real-world history and giving it a twist, just sci-fi this time. The Great Game played out on the surface of Mars, with native cloudships dueling with Earth flying gunboats. You can also probably find it in a rule system you like: it’s been through its own GDW system, Savage Worlds, Ubiquity, and most recently, the Empyrean system.

While we’ve played that, one that’s still on my bucket list is Lace & Steel by Kitsune Press. Swashbuckling fantasy a la The Three Musketeers, but in a more fantastic world with centaurs (sorry, half-horses), ogres, and pixies. I love the mechanic for conflict: there are card decks to simulate fencing, sorcery, and that most dangerous of duels, verbal repartee! 

If you like the idea of playing wizards in a quasi-historical setting, but like your rules lite, take a look at Magonomia: Renaissance wizards using the FATE system.

2300AD. Pendragon. Iron Heroes. I still want to play a straight Western game that doesn’t have steampunk, magic, or zombies. Many great games out there to try. The World of Synnibar is not on this list.

As is tradition, Obsidian Portal always loves to ask if you have any tips or sage advice to share for those of us who want to create and run games like this one?

There’s already tons of great gaming advice out there, so I’ll start with a focus on Ars and other “quasi-historical” games.

Real world history is your friend. You don’t have to be beholden to it, but it’s great to mine for ideas, since you don’t have to go to the library anymore to find out everything about Hungarian mythology or Venetian history. You can pluck many great story ideas straight from Internet resources on these topics and others. Then just think about how things might play out a little differently if magic or sci-if tech were involved…

I’d also put in a pitch for collaborative world building. If your players are game, you’ll get more buy-in from them if they’re all involved to some extent in setting the story. Lean on each player’s strengths and interests, and outsource some of that design and bookkeeping.

Pax, and may your Stress dice roll lots of ones!

Thank you to the community for making this campaign of the month possible! That’s all for now, join us on our next adventure August 1st, and don’t forget to nominate your favorite campaigns for our next Campaign of the Month!


Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month June 2024: The Planewalker’s Guild

After escaping the shattering sky, why not travel the multiverse with a group of Planewalkers as they move from Sigil to the Plane of Air in search of a notorious serial killer. Join up with previous “Campaign of the Year” winner, Dungeon_Master_Loki, and let him guide you through transitive planes, observing the “Rule of Three” and the “Unity of Rings, as part of The Planewalker’s Guild, in a pay-to-play campaign that has been in existence for a year and still has spaces for intrepid adventurers, as they travel to discover the Riven City of Bleurophil.

First off, feel free to tell us about the person behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do aside from gaming? Alter Egos? Life partners? Family? Where can we interact with you on the internet?

Well, I’m an 8th generation French Creole from New Orleans and I’ve been gaming since the late 1970s. When Hurricane Ida hit I was an idiot and rode it out (NEVER try to ride out a Cat 4. Period). I relocated to Cincinnati, a city I had lived in for a few years about a decade ago when my ex wife was in school.

Professionally I work as a freelance game designer and copywriter, I run paid games online and at conventions, and I teach Introduction to Game Design at the University of Cincinnati. I also spent many years prior to that working in music and in online PR. I even worked through the pipe bombing at the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta.

When not gaming I am a huge media buff – music, books, film, etc – with a long standing love of science fiction, satire, and what my friends refer to as “the weird shit”. I have a huge love of alternate histories and time travel stories (I have every surviving episode of Doctor Who for instance). This obviously shines through in my game design work as well, much of it being planar strangeness. I also love to cook, although I must admit I rarely do so when it is just me.

Alter egos? Well, I got the nickname Loki about 25 years ago while working at the House of Blues and have used it as my byline since if that counts. I do have a long suffering girlfriend, who plays Lenata the cleric in The Spelljoined campaign. The vast majority of my family is in the New Orleans area back home, except for Puck and Gremlin, my atrocious felines and editorial assistants.

Find me online? While often in need of updates, Planejammer.com is my main home on the web. My most used channel is Discord (DungeonMasterLoki). If you want me to run a game for you or join one of my paid games / campaigns you can find me through my profile on Start Playing Games and on GRIPNR. I’m on Facebook, but don’t often friend people I have not met in person or had extensive interactions with. (This is especially true with the combination of election season and use of AI rising as the year progresses.) 36 of my titles, books I’ve authored or contributed to, are here on DriveThruRPG and I am deeply thankful for every sale and review!

Please explain the basic concept of your game plan for The Planewalker’s Guild. The game seems to have been running for a year. Give us a few hints about the Planescape scenario.

Most of the games I run take place in a shared multiverse, usually centered around Spelljammer and Planescape. The Guild game is one of those. Massive changes are afoot across the planes, extremely destructive (one might even say apocalyptic) changes.

The past year of play started our heroes out as new initiates of the Guild in the wake of Planescape’s Faction War. One of their early missions had them become eyewitnesses to an interplanar incursions that “shattered the sky”. They are currently in the city of Bluerophil on the Plane of Air tracking down a serial killer during the equivalent of Maridi Gras. They have to stop him from completing a cycle of ritualistic murders that will call down the Planebreaker. Future adventures will vary thematically as the [lot of this game and the overall metaplot evolve. I predict between two and four more years for the campaign if we maintain a twice a month schedule bringing any PCs that make it to a solid 20th level.

While there are missions for the Guild I essentially run sandbox style player driven games. RPGs are collaborative storytelling when at their best, so the contributions of my players not only determine the overall direction but also create lasting effects on the in-game universe.

The opening page of your campaign says “Contact Dungeon Master Loki to book your game today,” with the link leading to a professional Game Master page under the “StartPlaying” banner. Please share with us how all of this works.

Well, like many freelancers, income is sparse and times are more often tight than not. Running paid games for companies at Cons and online games through Start Playing Games and GRIPNR helps keep the list on in the design mines. Since the game takes place in my ongoing shared multiverse that means I have hundreds of pages of background info, NPCs, etc available instantly on Obsidian Portal when I need them. All my players share the trait of zigging when I expect them to zag, so being able to pull up everything when they do is invaluable.

As to how it works, I post games online as I create them and those people looking for DMs contact me directly through the site. Cost per session is up front as are reviews of the DM by former players and a capsule review of what the game or campaign is. I run a safe table – LGBTQIA friendly and accepting of all and I require my players to abide by that. Both of the online platforms mentioned above also take care of billing and payment, allowing me to focus on creating something worthy of said payment.

When a new player joins the game I start with the player’s concept, and I encourage people to go big with ideas, which I then help them translate into an effective build. I then get them to write of a background which I then tweak in order to root them more firmly in my setting and provide hooks for personalized subplots down the line. Using Obsidian Portal we have a central place for character sheets and a wiki for the “in use” house rules.

I know there are some that find the idea of paying for a DM to be anathema, but there are a LOT of folks out there who cannot find one, have no one nearby, or other valid reasons. Besides when paying they can demand a certain level of expertise on the DM side of the screen.

Presumably, your games are all run ONLINE. You mention that you primarily use a “Theatre of the Mind” approach, but that you also use battle maps and tokens. You have listed platforms like Discord, Skype and Zoom. You also have “Owlbear Rodeo” listed. How much do you use a platform like Owlbear Rodeo, and how useful is it to your team?

I started playing in the late 70s and Theater of the Mind is the old school way. If you do it right it makes for fantastic immersion. I usually only pull out battle maps on Owlbear Radio when it is an extremely complex combat or a massive narrative moment. I personally find it to be my favorite of the online table top options due to its simplicity. While it has none of the bells and whistles of things like Roll20 it also does not require extensive learning to use. Players can log into your map from a link that you generate and immediately have control of their token. I find that with online games it is especially important to minimize dead time, even more so when being paid for the session. What you lose in bells and whistles you get back in the speed of play that you gain.

Your current player list comprises 6 players. Did they all start at the same time? I note on your StartPlaying page, you still have space for 2 players. Would 2 new players just slot in to the current game, or how would you go about that sort of integration?

Most started at the same time, two started later, and one left due to health issues and has just returned to the table. At the time I’m writing this I do still have two slots open.

When a prospective player contacts me I help them to develop their character concept and bring them in at an equivalent level. (That is why the guild membership is the baseline, it makes it more logical as faces come and go.) I use a good bit of third party material so I can usually find acceptable rules for implementing most ideas.

Your campaign “Planejammer: The Spelljoined” won Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Year in 2011, and it is still running. How busy are you with your various campaigns? Do you have any player crossover between the campaigns? In what ways does the new campaign differ from the old one?

The Spelljoined is my main personal game and the baseline of the shared multiverse all my games inhabit.. It’s on its 8th generation of players and has been running almost non stop since 1979 (there was a gap of about three years in the early 90s). That is the umbrella setting I mentioned before. While the Planewalker’s Guild are facing one aspect of the great multiversal disasters, the Spelljoined are currently in an alternate universe (Gamma World) trying to stop a massive mind flayer plot. Characters cross over between games fairly frequently, and events in one game do influence the others. I’ve also had the distinct pleasure of having a number of guests from the industry sit in on sessions. For instance in one game I not only had X-Crawl creator Brendan LaSalle join us for a session set in X-Crawl, but also M. Nystul joined us playing his Nystul the wizard character (which he played at Gary Gygax’s table) for an epic evening on Greyhawk.

The Spelljoined are 16th level characters with Mythic Ranks doing the crazy, gonzo, multiverse hopping stuff. Bouncing through the alternate realities when not in Sigil or the Rock of Bral. The Planewalker’s Guild is 6th level and operating in the Planescape/Spelljammer setting where evidence of the big battles of the Spelljoined are starting to manifest. The Dept 7 game is set in a variant of Dark Matter where the effects of these conflicts are bleeding through the multiversal barrier, etc. Each group is seeing and fighting different aspects of the Really Big Picture(™).

One of your Player Reviews in “StartPlaying” says that you often reward players for work “outside of the game”. Is this reward given in Experience Points, or do you have other rewards? How much “outside of the game” stuff does the current group engage in?

Work outside of the game includes things like journals and art, in character stuff that contributes to the world. These rewards are usually in the form of bonus Mythic Points or story driven rewards. It is NOT required. If I used XP that would also be on the table as reward, but I use milestone levelling. I find that removing combat xp from the equation encourages non-combat solutions. I don’t get much in the way of submissions from the paid gamers, but in my home game there are a number of players who keep journals and contribute art. We even have a full tarot deck that uses PCs and NPCs from throughout the years that one player made over Covid lockdown.

You have been with Obsidian Portal for some time now, so how would you say it has changed over the years, and why is it still a useful site for someone like yourself?

Over the past decade plus I have seen it evolve a good bit. The Reforge was an exciting time that ended with dashed hopes as things deteriorated for quite some time. When the current team took over and things became more responsive to the community and its needs I was thrilled. I had stopped using it and when I checked back looking at an old wiki I discovered my favorite organizational tool had been resurrected. The current team has my thanks for making my favorite organizational tool viable once more!

Most mission critical parts of Op? The wiki, the ability to keep secrets between players and DM, and the Adventure Logs are all endlessly useful to me as a DM. Especially juggling notes and details, not to mention conversions, that have accumulated over the decades of play.

After all these years of being a member, If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal currently helps you with the most?

The Wiki and privacy controls, hands down.

I note from your Adventure Logs, that your group has currently entered “The Riven City of Bleurophil”. Tell us something about that. How did they get there, and what do you think lies in store for them.

This adventure is a follow up to one I ran for a prior group. It came from Tales from the Infinite Staircase and presented the Riven City and the original serial killer. The Guild players are operating 25 years later when a new killer is trying to complete the ritual slayings, and the history of the prior crimes was established by the prior group’s actions. It is my own follow up and recontextualizing of the original adventure.

The players were sent there by the Master of the Docks in the City of 7 Seraphs (one of my creations in that book) and their Planewalker’s Guild superiors to do recon. As some of the only eyewitnesses to the Planebreaker’s transition through Elysium they are considered the closest thing to experts available. Now they’re discovering some of the bigger picture. As for what awaits them? That depends on their actions. Will they stop the Gasping Strangler’s successor from completing the dark ritual? Will they see the Planebreaker shatter the sky again? Will Geeta ever stop complaining? A lot can happen, and the stakes are rising rapidly. Let’s just say that there is potential to gain Mythic Ranks in their not too distant future.

The whole “Planescape” scenario was created in Dungeons and Dragons, and yet you are using Pathfinder for your campaign. What were your motivations for this, and did that mean you had to do a whole lot of stat converting?

I’m used to it. I’ve written professionally doing work in Pathfinder 1e, Starfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Cypher System. I also grew up hacking my RPGs in order to do crossovers back in the 80s. The meta campaign began in the late 70s and has evolved with the times. It started in White Box D&D, quickly shifted to AD&D as the hardcovers were published. The 3.x era was the sweet spot for us in many ways. When 4e hit it did not fit our playstyle so we bounced over to Pathfinder 1e which is what I run them under currently. I’m seriously considering using Rob Schwalb’s fantastic Shadow of the Demon Lord rules for the next generation.

I have an entire wiki of conversions I keep private since it is a lot of IP from various source materials that I do not own (i.e. Greyhawk, Spelljammer, etc.)

Okay, as a last question, we always ask for the GM’s “pearls of wisdom”. What GM insights can you offer the community this month?

Don’t be afraid to improvise, just take notes as you do because you’ll probably need them later. Yes, even the throwaway NPCs. Don’t say no, say “you may try”. Give everybody spotlight time. Be kind to your players and an evil bastard to their PCs. Most importantly: KEEP IT FUN!

May your 20s be both frequent and natural. Loki out.

Thank you to the community for making this campaign of the month possible! That’s all for now, join us on our next adventure July 1st, and don’t forget to nominate your favorite campaigns for our next Campaign of the Month!


Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month May 2024: The World of Elurah

Flickering candlelight illuminated the sage’s page as he worked his quill furiously over the parchment’s surface. He squinted with the effort of finding the right words to put to page and illustrate his thoughts.

“Hope here is not yet extinguished. While civilization is taking its first tentative steps towards recovery, danger lurks around every corner. The monsters of the Dark Tide have not disappeared and even in the reclaimed land nature’s wrath and magical anomalies pose formidable challenges.”

His hand paused as the dinner bell rang, and sighed.

More of his thoughts would have to come later. He signed the page, “LucasValenti”.

And more writings would soon come… join us as we talk to LucasValenti about The World of Elurah and read on further into his scrolls of knowledge!

Q. Congratulations on The World of Elurah’s selection as the Campaign of the Month for May!

We’d like to get to know more about the icon behind the GM Section! Tell us a bit about LucasValenti… Where are you from? What do you do aside from gaming? Alter Egos? Life partners? Family? Where can we interact with you on the internet?

A. Thank you! I wish I had some sort of fascinating story to tell but at the end of the day‒surprise, surprise‒I’m just a huge nerd. I live in the Seattle-area of the US with my girlfriend. She and I have been together for the past 8 years. We spend our days playing TTRPGs, making geeky stuff and annoying our cat, Ashamane. My day job is in construction, where I model out plumbing systems for commercial buildings and hospitals. Exciting, I know. I partake in the SCA (Historical re-enactment, check them out!) and do a bit of cosplay. Outside of that, I just love making anything and everything. We’ve got an array of laser engravers, 3d printers and other funs toys. Drawing, painting, sewing, sculpting, resin casting, leatherworking; we do a bit of everything. She has recently relaunched her business and we’re starting to set up booths at conventions and are working on setting up an online store where she sells dice bags, gaming accessories, hand-made dice and art. Check out Celestial Peryton on various social media to see her stuff!

Here’s a small portion of her dice collection that has gradually taken over our hallway over the years. Many of the sets here are various experiments we’d made over the past few years learning how to mold and cast resin. Not featured are few large cookie jar-sized containers filled the brim with more dice and a few bags scattered around. She’s recently been upgraded from Dice Goblin to Dice Dragon on account of her horde.

We just spent 4 days at a local convention called Norwescon. I don’t tend to meet a lot of players outside of my game group and social media, so it was a great experience. It was a ton of fun to spend a few days chatting with a bunch of other gamers and talking about character creation and world building with everyone that stopped by our table. Everyone was super friendly and really excited to just spend some time geeking out about shared interests. It was also really promising to see so many newer players that are just getting into gaming! I got to feel like some kind of wise old sage dispensing out advice, haha. The event went really well and we’re looking forward to doing more soon!

Q. The World of Elurah is a Dungeons & Dragons 5E campaign. For those in the community who have not yet seen your site, and reveled in its glories, tell us a little bit about the setting you have created for the game, and what sets it apart. How did you create that awesome map? Where did you use Inspiration most during your campaign’s creation? Was it gained through Bardic Inspiration, or did you earn it through your pursuit of an Ideal?

A. Right, so on to the real reason I’m here. Elurah, as a setting, is something of a life’s work. I’ve been playing TTRPGs for the past 20 years or so and started GMing shortly after starting. Even before that, I’ve always been a huge fan of fantasy literature and D&D, in particular. I remember reading Brian Jacque’s incredible Redwall novels in elementary school and later moving on to the Shannara books, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms. So, when I started actually playing D&D in my early 20s I had plenty of inspiration to draw upon. The first game I ever ran was in a small kingdom I created called Hairen. As I went on to run other campaigns I started sprinkling in NPCs and small nods to the games I had run before, which eventually led to everything naturally interconnecting. Finally I just sat down and officially tied all these disparate stories and locations together and Elurah officially was created. It all happened rather organically. But I can only take proper credit for the structure. So much of the world and its background owes to all of my players over the years that have added to and “lived” in it.

And then there’s the stealing. We’ll call it inspiration. There are entire swathes of the world that reflect what my current interests were back when I was making those parts of the setting for a campaign. Names and locations based on a game or a book series I was into. Character that were tweaked slightly and dropped into the world, etc. I used to try really hard to make everything new and unique and different. Eventually I realized that I didn’t need to try so hard. Tropes aren’t strictly a bad thing. When my players catch on to references to Monster Hunter or Warhammer 40k or other things, they aren’t upset or call me lazy. They see them as fun easter eggs. Heck, a lot of the original lore was just directly ripped from the Forgotten Realms. Kailea is just Netheril with a new coat of paint slapped on it, amongst many others. But all of those things are what me and my friends enjoy, so I want to bring those things in and have fun with them.

The gist of the setting, in the current timeline, is that it’s set after the Dark Tide, a massive magical apocalypse that unleashed hordes of monsters across the world. For the past few centuries, civilization has been relegated to living in massive walled cities (there’s that “borrowing”, again). However, the current period sees the world beginning to reclaim what was lost. Trade routes, while dangerous, have been re-established. New towns are being built and old ones reclaimed. There’s something of a tension to the setting, a precipice where they’re on the edge of either reclaiming what was lost or losing it all again. The through-line of this setting is this delicate thread of hope the world managed to weave, and whether the players are able to preserve and strengthen it. I didn’t want a setting that is full of grim chaos and despair. That period happened in the skip of the old version of the world to the current time and the effects of it can still be seen, but I wanted to provide my players with a setting that can grow alongside their actions.

The current main party is trying to piece together sparse information from the lost period of time and figure out the origin of the Dark Tide. This was the first game I started in the current timeline after the setting jumped ahead a few hundred years. I was stagnating on stories to tell, so I wanted to shake things up and create an opportunity for a bunch of new mysteries and plotlines. The appearance of the monsters that swept over the continent and how the world got to the point it’s found itself in are two of the biggest mysteries.

Meanwhile Hairen, due it its isolation, was spared the brunt of the Dark Tide and is even somewhat prosperous. Currently the party there is working to unravel an ominous prophecy with grave implications. This was my original setting I made years ago. Back then the campaign was called the Sundered Kingdoms. But due to the players in those original campaigns unifying the fractioned nations and re-founding the kingdom, well….it wasn’t very sundered any more, haha. This part of the setting is a little more advanced after the skip, with a strong budding aetherpunk vibe that I’m really into.

Lastly, the disparate shipwrecked crew on Haven have uncovered a secret that could change the course of the world. The mysterious vanishing island is, in fact, one of the lost floating cities of Kailea. With the help of an Archmage they woke from a magical stasis, they’re working to restore the arcane engines that power it. However, the Archmage guiding them may not be quite what he seems. This game has been fantastic. It’s the newest one I’ve started and we’ve only been player for 5 or 6 months. My players are all my GF’s family, from be brother and sister-in-law to a cousin and her nephew. Aside from myself running and Skylar playing, everyone else is basically a brand new player. So it was a lot of fun to create a game and really focus on building an experience tailored for teaching and slowly introducing them to mechanics and concepts of the game. Everyone really seems to be having a great time so far, and the setting itself is a lot of fun. The island is designed to be something of a…limited sandbox. I wanted to give them the ability to explore and hunt around without overwhelming them with too much content. But, as with the other two games, everything here ties into the overarching plot of the setting. In fact, this game will probably have the most immediate impact on the world depending on how it resolves.

As for the map, you can thank Inkarnate. Huge shoutout to them and their tools. I was able to take years of hand-drawn maps and notes and combine them all into the current version on the site! I’m really good with character illustrations and creature design. I have come to realize over the years that I am…not a cartographer, haha. I was able to find a map on Inkarnate that was pretty close in overall design to the world and was then able to import and modify it to reach the version you see now. Though, the way things are going in-game, it may be due for yet another redraw soon. Here’s one of my older maps from when I was first trying to transition over to digital and attempted to update the map of the Sundered Kingdoms. It’s not…the worst, but the new version of Hairen is clearly much, much better, haha.

Q. How did your group meet up? How often do you play? What are your sessions like? I would be very interested in seeing some Adventure Log posts in the future about your group’s trials and triumphs – does anyone in your group plan to take on a role as Chronicler?

A. Currently, I have 3 groups all playing in different parts of Elurah, with a total of around 13 players spread across the different games. Some of my players are friends I’ve known since I was in school, used to be co-workers at previous jobs, or were just friends of friends. We play in-person, weekly, which means I’m currently running 3 nights a week. It’s a ton of work, but I genuinely love DMing so I don’t have any plans on slowing down. Our average session is about 3-4 hours. We’re all quite tight-knit, so our sessions tend to be quite relaxed and most of us have been playing together long enough that we just sort of have a groove we fall into. Lots of jokes, teasing, goofing off and we play some D&D in-between. We skew more towards roleplaying, so there are many nights where we don’t even throw all that many dice and just enjoy interacting with the characters and world.

As for and Adventure Log…I have plans! Before anything else, I have to give the biggest shoutout to one of my players, Seoc. She’s been playing with us for well over a decade now, and she takes the most meticulous notes. We’re talking stacks of binders over the years, hundreds of pages for each game. Check one of these things out!

There have been times where I’ve been struggling to remember the name of some random NPC from a single session 5 or 6 years ago. She snags a binder from the shelf, spends a couple of minutes flipping through some pages and BAM, there it is! I seriously cannot throw enough praise her way for all the work she puts into it. The only downside is, well, they are all handwritten. I’m planning on writing up some synopses for each game in order to have a starting point for visitors to the site to see how the setting is actually being used and the current adventures that are taking place. Look forward to it!

Q. Your site has quite a lot of interesting features that I have noticed you update very frequently. From the navigation banners’ design, to the linked banners on each page, to the way you have set your backgrounds to match the color of the corresponding navigation banner. There are so many interesting tidbits that it is difficult to list them all! Do you have a background in design? How did you piece together all of these ideas to use these features and put them together to create your site?

A. I don’t have any real experience with web design, per se, however I do have a background in art and print design. I also have a fascination with color. That said, if there was one overarching design philosophy it would probably be “readability.” At the end of the day, the Elurah wiki is intended to be a repository of information, and that information being presented is always the focus. Everything is aimed towards helping the reader, I don’t want the site itself to be a distraction. So I use color to break things up and divide information in an unobtrusive way. I’m a simple man, but simple doesn’t have to be boring. The color-coded backgrounds, for example. The wiki currently has sections for Elurah – the primary continent, Hairen – a smaller isolated kingdom, and Haven – a mysterious lost island in the Thirhe Strait. When viewing a page related to information on one of those three, the background changes color to match, as well as the color of the various badges and buttons. Since there’s quite a lot of information available it helps keep the reader from getting too lost, you always have a sense of where you are. It’s all tied into the site Tag system with a bit of CSS I cobbled together from the forums. Using a [class*=”arilon”] or whichever campaign before my line of code, as long as I tag the page with the name of the campaign it belongs to, the backgrounds and set dressing are automatically applied. That said, it’s a bit of a shotgun approach because it’s not *just* looking for the tag, but really anything to do with the page information, haha. So if the page name happens to have the word in it, it’ll apply the effects regardless. Thankfully for me, I don’t really have any pages with the campaign names that aren’t for those campaigns.

The Nav bar is another good example. If you take a closer look, you’ll see that the 3 bars for those sections are primary colors, and are of a higher saturation than the others. It’s just a subtle way to naturally draw the eyes towards them, since those pages are the primary focus. Aside from that, the page layouts have a consistent formatting intended to present information and guide readers towards related pages. I like to break up larger blocks of text with buttons and images to add some visual interest and make them feel a bit less daunting. Walls of text can be scary! The consistent and somewhat understated design is something I’m most proud of. I recently decided to add some fun little deocartive corners to the page…and subsequently had to reformat basically every wiki page, haha. They were cutting off the text in the upper left of every wiki page, so I had to go through and add page titles to every wiki page. I’m actually really happy with the end result. I forgot how helpful something as simple as a page title can be, haha.

All of the various assets around the site like the buttons, icons and mouse cursor are either designs I created or ones that I found and edited to suit my needs. I do all of my editing in ClipStudio, since that’s the program I use for my Illustration work. I like everything to match and co-ordinate, so I reuse and modify a lot of my assets in different ways. For example, the NavBar icon is actually the same as the main decorative title buttons. I just lopped off one side, added a decorative caret and compressed the height into more of a banner shape. Like a nice rug, it really helps “tie the room together”, haha. As for actually coming up with ideas for what to add, really I just shamelessly steal from all over the web. Sometimes I’ll be on a random website and see something neat that catches my attention. Then off to google and down the rabbit hole I go. Not everything works, but it’s fun to just test out new things and see what I like and come up with interesting ways to implement them.

At its core, the site is mostly just the original layout with a handful of tweaks and a shiny coat of paint on it. I added in a few additional Nav bars for each of the current campaigns so they could live on the side. I hid a few elements for a more streamlined look and used my illustration and art experience to build a unified aesthetic. Most of the CSS invested isn’t for any flash or spectacle but, rather, to make using the site easier and more natural. I try to make sure that everything works equally well on both Desktop and Mobile, since often my players are looking up information on their phones or a tablet.

If anyone is interested in the code for any part of the site, I’m more than happy to share! I can’t promise it’s the most efficient, though, haha. I’m available on the OP Discord server or just via a PM.

Q. Your Timeline for The World of Elurah is a fantastic feature! I feel certain that a lot of GMs would be interested in knowing your process for building that page. Tell us a bit more about your thoughts behind its design, and how you went about putting it all together!

A. The Timeline! So this was literally the first major CSS tasks I undertook, because apparently I hate myself. I do not have any background in coding or web design, so naturally I decided to tackle the hardest thing right away. The base code for the timeline was provided by Keryth987 on the forums from his Phoenix Rising campaign, and from there I spent probably a week smashing my head against it to get it to work properly on my site. His version has some really slick animation to it and is really just incredible. It didn’t quite fit what I wanted, however, so I spent a lot of time teaching myself the basics of CSS and HTML in order to understand how it worked. So much trial and error and I constantly kept breaking it. But I finally figured it out enough to make it work, and I’m really very happy with the end result. One thing I do need to figure out is a way to indicate that the timeline entries are actually links! A lot of people viewing it don’t realize you can click on each entry for a full writeup. In the end, I gave up on the animation because I just had too much information I wanted to fit in, so I kept the timeline entries to short descriptions and linked them to full wiki pages, instead. It was honestly such a great learning experience. It’s really uses quite a few different aspects of CSS and so I was able to learn the difference between the different elements.

The anchors to set the dates, in particular, were a major pain. Every time I would try and tweak something they’d just randomly move around, misalign or just disappear entirely. Thankfully with the original code as a reference and a couple online guides, I was able to figure things out and get them working. I think the best thing I came away with was an understanding that it’s fine to just try thing out and test stuff. Sure, I might end up breaking things, but the code can always be removed or edited without any permanent damage. Once I realized that, it’s really helped me moving forward with just testing out random stuff and seeing what works! Also big shout out to Keryth987, Abersade, Nuadaria and the rest on the Discord server, they’ve been awesome and have helped me out with various random bits of code and other ideas since I started working on this.

It was sort of a trial by fire that I unintentionally set for myself. I’ll usually just sit there with a ew different pages open so I can just tweak the CSS, adjust the HTML on the page and then refresh to live page. Just…changing things and seeing what happens. “What happens if I add a span element here?” “Oh, a line break would be good here…annnnd everything exploded all over the page. Let’s take that out.” It’s definitely a bit tedious, but I’m feeling much more confidant now and have been trying a bunch of new things recently. I actually just added a second timeline for Hairen that I’m working on, and it’s a night and day difference in how I understand everything now. I duplicated the code so I could have a color variation on it and just…the speed at which I can parse what originally felt like some kind of alien language is so much better. Changes that would have taken me 10 or more minutes just to figure out how to swap out a color…now only take a moment. It was daunting, initially, but I was able to find so much information and help from the Forums to the Discord server. Honestly, if I can figure this stuff out anyone can. Just maybe start with easier things, first, haha.

Q. As we follow along with The World of Elurah and watch it grow, do you have any particular additions planned that you’d like to tease us with?

A. I think I’ve already teased a few, haha. There’s still a lot left to add in. I have pages and pages of notes and descriptions to still be added. Hairen and Haven were added recently, so their wiki pages are going to need quite a bit of fleshing out. I also want to go through and do a better job of hyperlinking between pages so that if something is mentioned, you can just go straight there instead of having to dig around for it. I feel like the overall design could also use some more touching up. I recently added some nice decorative borders to the content pages. Extra flourishes. Lots and lots of little things. I would say the next big thing to tackle is the Adventure Log. I’ve already got some CSS in place the spruce it up, and I’m figuring out my plans on how to best make use of it so I everyone can keep abreast of our adventures!

Oh, right! The main page. With the current design, the Main Page was quite unused. I’m starting in on repurposing it into shining a spotlight on our current Adventurers and showcasing them…hopefully it’s finished by the time you’re reading this. I’ve got some really fun code using a mixture of scaling, opacity and hover effects to give it a sort of fighting game Character Selection look. I’m so happy with how it’s coming out so far. Also, there are a few more sections of the world to add in addition to the current 3. But I want to finish fleshing the current ones out, first, since they’re being actively played in at the moment. I’ve also found out some really neat examples for CSS to add a bit of visual interest and fun, so I’m still deciding exactly how I want to implement those. You’ll just have to check in periodically to see!

Q. How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?

A. I first joined back in 2014. I really wanted a way to provide my players with access to all of my notes and information. You had various sites around, including tons of fan wikis for all kinds of various properties, so I figured I’d find some sort of free wiki site and just make something like that but for my D&D setting. A bit of poking around later and I what did I stumble across, but a site designed for the exact thing I needed! Seriously, I was really excited. I think for the first year or so I mostly just used it to keep track of NPCs and a handful of pages with basic information. Not exactly what I had planned. It wasn’t until I created the wiki for my Nexus campaign after a few years or using OP sporadically that I really started making full use of the site. Since it was for an entirely new setting and I was getting into it from ground-level, I really invested into building it out. I learned a ton from that and finally committed myself to doing it properly. It only took me nearly a decade.

Where was I? Oh, right. I really love that you can get as much or as little as you want out of the site. Whether that’s just keeping track of some NPCs or an entire world. Everything is easy to use and I got used to the basics in a day or two. I’ve also been really happy to see all the new features and updates that have been added recently. The Character and Item page update that was put out a bit ago was huge for me. There is such a massive roster for Elurah (seriously, there’s currently around 150) that the ability to break things up and organize them was a lifesaver. I’m really looking forward to seeing what else is in store.

Q. If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal helps you with the most?

A. My players. It really helps so much at the table. A lot of the smaller questions that we’d have to take small pauses for “Who was the wizard we met in that one town?” or “Where was that place, again?” have slowly began to lessen. They can just pop onto the wiki and look it up without having to stop game. It also means they have access to all of the information away from the game table. It’s been a huge help. Also, personally, just the act of building the site and creating everything is very…therapeutic, is the word, I suppose. I just get to sort of zone out for a while and create.

Q. What you say has been the biggest highlight of your game so far (and please provide images and links if possible)?

A. While it’s not a single specific event, exactly, it would have to be bringing my players back to Hairen. It was the first game I ran. And, as established, I clearly am a glutton for punishment so I made this entire setting and storyline for it. We played games in Hairen for 3 or 4 years before moving on. A couple of years ago, after about a decade, I found my old Sundered Kingdoms campaign notebook and decided I’d start a new game there, with a significant time skip for the world, revamping the entire setting of that kingdom.

3 of the 5 players were in those original games. It’s truly been so much fun being able to let them explore that world again and see all the changes they brought about and how it shaped everything. Towns named after NPCs they fondly remember, bards singing tales of their previous characters and adventures. Some old foes reappearing…It’s really been a delight.

Q. As a grand finale, we always ask for the GM’s “pearls of wisdom”. What insights on how your GM style impacts play within your group to best facilitate a great time at the table with your gaming group that you’d like to share with the community?

A. Be flexible. An issue I dealt with when I was a newer DM and that I’ve seen others struggle with is learning to adapt and change their ideas. It can be very easy to pour tons of time and effort into creating a world and a story only to inadvertently lock yourself into how something ‘should be’. Nothing is sacred. I’ve been talking a lot about my world and how I built it, but that’s really rather disingenuous. So much of my world was made together with other people. Players, friends, internet strangers. Whenever one of my players makes a character in my games, it’s a co-operative affair. There are tons of locations, organizations and peoples in my world that came about as a direct result of my players want to play something I hadn’t prepared for, or potentially even directly contradicted established lore. Instead of forcing them to fit, I let the world adapt around them. Orc samurai? Sure, why not. Hell, why not an entire NATION of orc samurais? That sounds awesome. Tiefling Viking barbarian? Love it. There’s some icy tundra up north, why don’t we drop some reclusive tribes up there?

“Let your players build you world.” Noble houses to add in, new races to include and flesh out, entire cities and cultures to incorporate. Brainstorm, discuss and weave them into the history and lore. Let them see the effects those things have on the world. Take them there. Show them. I genuinely believe it’s the reason I have players 20 years later that are still excited to come back to a setting that they have been to a dozen times already. We’re all invested in it and have each left our mark. Plus, it’s just a ton of fun. Share what you’ve made and be proud of it, while staying open to new suggestions and ideas.

Thank you to the community for making this campaign of the month possible! That’s all for now, join us on our next adventure June 1st, and don’t forget to nominate your favorite campaigns for our next Campaign of the Month!


Update Post – April 20, 2024

Hail, Portal People!

The season clock has chimed again, so it’s time for another reckoning. See below for all of the new features and bug fixes that were added to OP since the previous Update Post.

If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, feel free to post them in the Community Forums, or email support directly at [email protected].


Creator Spotlight | An Interview with Hankerin Ferinale of Runehammer about Crown and Skull

Fantasy RPGs are a dime a dozen, but Crown and Skull promises a refreshing experience. In this interview with Hankerin Ferinale, creator of the system from Runehammer, we delve into the unique mechanics, world-building, and design philosophy that sets Crown and Skull apart.

Ferinale sheds light on the inspiration behind the game, how it challenges player interaction with the world, and the exciting future planned for this evolving system. So, grab your dice, and prepare to be enthralled by the evocative world of The North Holds!

Crown and Skull feels like a fresh take on fantasy RPGs. What inspired you to create this unique system?

I played Fantasy Hero (1st Edition) for years in high school. The system didn’t age terribly well, but its foundational thinking was great. After 8 years of RPG publishing, I wanted to both look back to my origins and forward to a few current inspirations like Cairn and Into the Odd. That’s just the mechanics. The WORLD and TONE are where I’m the most excited. I’ve been working as a writer and artist for over three decades now, and I started to feel real, emotional, moody, evocative stirrings in this setting. I hope all the readers feel as deeply connected to THE NORTH HOLDS as I do. That humanist connection is teh core inspiration of the book(s).

The “skill as tool” approach sounds intriguing. Can you elaborate on how this changes player character interaction with the world?

For ages now, we’ve been taught that our stats/attributes can solve any problem with a die roll in role playing. Removing stats from the mechanics and being strict above the use of skills only, forbidding attempts by the unskilled altogether, is the biggest step toward substantive character differentiation I have seen. So different, in fact, I find many players and GMs a bit dazed at first, then very excited. As for interaction with the world, there’s far more think-before-act. The player can’t simply roll a stat to get out of a bind or overcome a challenge.

The phase-based combat seems like a strategic twist. How did you develop this system and what are its advantages for players and GMs?

I didn’t! I reduced Fantasy Hero’s 12-phase system into a 5 phase setup. The advantage is almost entirely offered to the GM. These 5 phases allow room to build truly challenging foes against even large parties of heroes. A single foe might take action(s) on up to 3 phases, while heroes are always limited to one. This lets the monsters expand into vastly larger realms of challenge and variety, compared to traditional initiative systems.

Crown and Skull is known for its emphasis on player skill over character stats. Can you talk about the design philosophy behind this approach?

As mentioned above, stats blend all characters together. By removing them entirely, and forbidding attempts by the unskilled, the differences between heroes becomes extreme. MUSCLE is a skill, not a stat. No muscle skill? You can;t even ATTEMPT to move the boulder. This differentiation enhances one of the key visions of the hobby’s framers: that characters need each other to thrive.

We’ve seen some discussions about the lack of traditional “gold” mechanics. How does Crown and Skull handle character progression and rewards?

In CROWN, you earn hero points. Gold is seen as banal and uninteresting, though present if your table wishes. Hero points replace gold, and adjudicate the finding of usable loot. They come in all kinds of reard packages, from deeds of renown, to the dire and unavoidable choice of THE CROWN, OR THE SKULL?

Crown and Skull is still evolving. What are some exciting things you have planned for the future of the system?

There are 4 more volumes of CROWN and SKULL coming. These volumes introduce new mechanics, world material, and tables. The coolest part of the forthcoming volumes, though, is portraying ongoing epochs of the world, influenced and shaped by the actions of all of CROWN’s players and GMs. It is a 6 year experiment in a truly living world… another core dream of our hobby’s mighty originators. Achieving a truly living world is not easy! It requires a DAILY interaction habit with the player community.

Do you have any advice for GMs and players who are new to Crown and Skull?

Join the Runehammer Discord! This isn’t a sales pitch at all, but a call to engage with a living, breathing community that is building a world brick by brick. It’s also a great resource for those odd questions or sticking points as many 5E players seek new horizons.

Thanks for the interview, Obsidian! FOR THE CROWN!

-Hankerin Ferinale

Crown and Skull is produced and published by Runehammer. Visit them on social media:
Patreon, Youtube, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), Facebook


Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month April 2024: Season of Strife

Twenty years after the fall of Utugash’s kingdom, a group of adventurers sail into Celestine and into their new destiny. Villains and allies of every faction eagerly await to use the newcomers for their own purposes, while even more sinister forces lurk in the shadows… Join us in talking with GM EdgarS as we explore the Season of Strife!

First off, feel free to tell us about the person behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do aside from gaming? Alter Egos? Life partners? Family? Where can we interact with you on the internet?

Heya, I’m Edgar, I’m from the Netherlands, and I’ve been playing D&D for about 15 years now since I was invited to join a campaign for the first time. I really got into Critical Role around 2018 and watching it helped elevate my gaming and give me a way bigger sense of the possibilities the medium held to tell a story beyond ‘there’s a monster in the next room of the dungeon, go hit it.’ I also started DMing in 2018 and have or are running a couple of campaigns at the same time.

Before D&D I came from the world of tabletop gaming: building, painting and playing Warhammer Fantasy and 40K mostly, which really helped me get out of my shell as a teen (you gotta play with/against other people physically present on the other side of the table after all). From there it was a hop and a skip to D&D. I’ve been lucky to have had a pretty stable and dull life. The most I have in terms of baggage is experiencing bullying in high school because, well, huge giant nerd, but it’s precisely due to things like tabletop gaming and DMing I’ve gotten over that and grew to be a version of myself I enjoy, and being way more extrovert and bringing the sorely needed levity at office meetings. But yeah aside from that, I grew up in a fairly affluent household with loving parents, went to college (studied history and international relations), and after maybe a couple of years in the wilderness got a proper job recently working for the government. I even bought my first apartment a few months ago, which gave me the opportunity to set up a purposely-built storage room for all of my D&D terrain!

As for online, I used to be more active in various places such as tabletop gaming forums, but now I mostly lurk in peace and quiet, stay in my lane, and occasionally tweet out some art or dnd pics on my twitter (no I’m not calling it X) at @DCabbagefarm. That refers to Emperor Diocletian’s cabbages by the way. I’m a historian. Hi.

Tell us about “Season of Strife” in a nutshell. How did you design the world? What was your inspiration?

So the Season of Strife was born when one of the players put out a ‘looking for group’ call on Tumblr for an online d&d campaign, and I decided to take the plunge and offered to DM, back in late 2020. Not quite knowing whether this’d end up being a massive campaign or would bleed out early I decided to use the same homebrew setting I was using for my weekly campaign, the Twilight of the Spheres (and by the way, that one’s got its own Obsidian wiki too, probably even more expansive than the Strife one), but simply designing a new area for the world like it was some kind of Warcraft expansion. Exactly how many hidden continents are there?!

After this I expanded the map further, filling it out as I went until it reached its current state of completion, with enough space for a few more fresh campaigns. Here’s the full map, and be warned it’s a big boy

The first Twilight of the Spheres campaign (2019-2022) took place in the north-eastern region of the world, Eos, dominated by the Coalition (a pretty standard late-medieval European fantasy society consisting of a union of city states) and the Kyshtar Dominion (a majority dragonborn proto-industrial semi-Babylonian hodgepodge). That quarter of the map was all that existed of the setting, with no more than vague allusions to other stuff being beyond the boundaries. The new area I added specially for the Season of Strife was far to the south of it, an island chain called the Teylu Archipelago, inhabited by the Teylu eladrin & water genasi people who mix inspiration from both Polynesian culture and aesthetic, and Scandinavian and celtic. Two of the players are Scandinavian so that’s how that got included into the mix, plus the traditional celtic influences of the Feywild re: the eladrin. As a historian I like to draw heavily on history as inspiration for my worldbuilding, and regions in my setting often have some kind of ethnic or socio-political conflict. In this case it’s the colonial settlers who arrived from the Coalition and Kyshtar Dominion (collectively called ‘the Elyzians’) in the wake of a devastating flood that hit the Archipelago, and whose presence is pushing the Teylu to the margins. This conflict operates as a backdrop to everything going on in the campaign and it’s been very fortuitous that the players themselves chose to have a party consisting of two Elyzian characters and one from the Teylu, so that they could RP through these clashing perspectives and get a multifaceted view of the situation. Settler politics. Fun!

Welcome to the colony of Celestine, our version of Pallet Town but a lot smellier

As for the outline of the campaign’s plot, in ancient times the Spring Court of the Feywild was cursed by the other season courts to slumber, and left behind buried in the material plane. However now a radical Teylu cult, the Teyhua, are seeking to awaken Spring and use its power to expel the settlers from the Archipelago. To do this a number of seals first need to be removed, which can each only be done by the Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring knight (mortals in the employ of the courts as their champion, because they’re able to break Fey rules such as crossing running water and being able to lie), and the player characters find themselves entangled within this storied web and – mostly by accident – becoming knights for the fey courts.

The players discover a magical tree in some hidden Spring Court ruins

I’m an avid worldbuilder, drawing heavily on historical minutiae, so in order to scratch that itch and build up a corpus of material I also write a “worldbuilder gazette” article every few months, dealing with info about the world that might not naturally pop up during sessions, such as how the different regional calendars work, lunar orbits, holidays, the economy, and nations the players haven’t visited yet. For every other worldbuilding-obsessed DM out there: I see you, I hear you.

How regularly do you play, and where do you play? Tell us about your current group of players.

The campaign is played online, using roll20 and Zoom, and we play about once every two to three weeks. With me included we’re a group of four from across the UK and west-central Europe. I’m gonna refrain from telling you too many personal details, but I’ll just say they’re some of the goshdarndamndest best RP’ers – nay, actors! – I’ve ever seen at any D&D table. They’re so insanely good. Sometimes I just shut up and listen for 30 minutes while they RP amongst themselves.

You put a lot of emphasis on the factions in your game, enough to place them on the front page. Can you tell us how important they are in your game?

As mentioned previously, I draw a great deal from history when worldbuilding, and if anything history is a revolving door of peoples, polities and cultures clashing with each other. The factions on the wiki’s home page are for the most part the main cultural groupings; what background an npc is from can inform a massive amount about their character, customs and perspective on things, especially how they relate to the local background conflict and what that means for their relationship with the player characters. I don’t want to have my game world populated by unattached caricatures, I want the npcs to have allegiances of their own – be they culture, country, ethnicity, etcetera. In my opinion they make characters richer and more vibrant, and give the players an additional set of approaches to relate to them (are they from a rival faction? Are they both foreigners away from home? Do they have certain proclivities or interests relating to their culture that might be used to sway them?)

I don’t want every country to be contained in its own cordoned-off little box either, like they’re in their own stasis bubble: People move! Countries do war, trade, diplomacy, propaganda, cultural exchanges, religious exchanges, espionage, migration and more! Interactions between the different factions are the building blocks of my world, and the quest design flows organically from that. Part of having a reusable setting is having background conflicts that continue to passively generate animosity that can be leveraged into new quests. In the season of strife campaign the main plot is almost entirely motivated and impacted by the background conflict of the indigenous Teylu being squeezed by the Elyzian settlers, and most quests and npcs are at the very least tangentially related to that. Most recently the players were sent on a little sidequest to solve a dispute on some Teylu islands where wealthy Elyzian settlers had built… well… the Hamptons, basically, and their mayor was secretly throwing meat into the bay to lure sharkfolk to the local Teylu water genasi village’s spiritual site to disrupt their traditional links to the land.

I’ve also been working with a couple of artists whom I have commissioned many times. One of them is designing the factions icons for me. Those icons are all unique and purpose-made for my setting, not just plucked from the web! The faction icons there are the ones that are currently done, but in the end there will be two to three times as many! I’ve currently got a plan in the works to start a project with these artists, in order to make an illustration of one or two “average joe”’s from each main culture, to create a kind of setting sourcebook and give an idea of what the regular person in the street of each nation would look like.

Your WIKI section is very detailed and quite comprehensive. Who is responsible for adding the information and organizing it? How much time do you spend updating it as the campaign progresses?

A work in progress icon for the setting’s Imperial Rome equivalent

Your WIKI section is very detailed and quite comprehensive. Who is responsible for adding the information and organizing it? How much time do you spend updating it as the campaign progresses?

L’wiki, c’est moi. It’s all done by me and I’ll conservatively estimate “a metric ton of time”. It’s a good thing I enjoy wiki-building (I read aloud from my hostage note) and I’m a glutton for punishment if nothing else. My players do help me out every so often with writing sections of the summaries if I don’t have enough time to finish them, and one of my players performs vitally important recording wizardry, making video recordings of the session and uploading them to a private youtube playlist so we can watch them back and use them to make summaries. And she also makes thumbnails for each session! Recently we also redistributed some tasks so that another player would help me out with writing the short synopses.

Your campaign has many items and makes great use of Obsidian Portal’s Items section. How do you feel the extra work it takes to implement this benefits you and/or your players?

It’s always good to have a central place to store data as a master reference. Handing out item cards or putting them into word documents or reading out the item descriptions is all well and good but you can almost guarantee that stuff’s gonna get lost or misplaced at some point. Much better to have somewhere you can always refer back to. We also have a few items that have become real staples of the characters’ iconic look, such as the sword Spring’s Edge, one of the first items the group acquired in the first ten sessions, and it’s nice to be able to give these items an image to represent them.

What made you choose D&D 5e as your gaming system? Have you played other gaming systems, or earlier editions? How do you feel it compares?

I played 3.5th edition in the first campaign I joined (playing for a good 13-14 years) and DM’ed it for a while, and gods above and below in hindsight I found it so cumbersome and bloated, with hundreds of sourcebooks and a level of stat block number crunching I was simply never going to be able to get a proper grip on; After a while you get monsters on the field with modifiers of +20 to hit, and if you overshot the challenge rating you were supposed to give the players by a bit you could quickly end up with foes the characters could literally do barely more than single digit damage to. And worse, I disliked how lower level spells became exponentially useless as time wore on, because both the DCs and effects of those spells remained as low as a low level character casting them, encouraging you to only throw your highest level stuff. I could probably go on for a while but I’ll save the internet the byte space.

In comparison the 5th edition rules are easy enough to follow that I learned them simply through watching/listening to Critical Role, picking up most of the game (and learning answers to some of the baked-in rules conflicts or less commonly understood features) before ever even opening the Player’s Handbook. The familiarity I now have with the system appeals to me, the basics are pretty easy to follow, flexible enough to homebrew off of, and combat can be balanced quite decently on sheer ‘vibes’ alone, while fixing a lot of the annoyances I had with 3.5 (I don’t think any annoyed me more than being unable to move more than 5ft and make more than one melee attack, turning most battles into stationary ones because it was actively detrimental to move). The system is also robust enough that you can overshoot and make monsters too strong, without instantly signing the players’ death warrant.

How much time is usually spent preparing your game sessions? Describe a typical session.

Most sessions take me a couple hours of prep, often about equal or slightly less than total playtime… except when I need to build a battlemap in Roll20, which can eat up hours of my time while I finetune tiny details. Regardless, my prep can often be described as “leapfrogging.” Whenever I prep a session I will inevitably have enough material that we end up covering (nearly) two sessions with it. Plus if I need to buy time, I’ll just let the player characters talk to one another. Bam, there’s half an hour filled, easy peasy. In our very latest session the players started right after having been portalled to the gates of a Feywild city. They were right in front of the gates! It took 30 minutes before they even walked up to the guards! It’s a miracle we get anywhere at all.

Can you please explain the difference between your session summaries and your miniature session summaries? What is the difference between the two types of sessions?

Those both relate to the same sessions. The ‘session summaries’ are the long versions – which are probably a little too long at times, sometimes reaching more than 10 pages and rarely less than 4 – and the ‘miniature session summaries’ are brief synopses about one paragraph long. It’s a practice I picked up in the first campaign that I ran, where I noticed players had difficulty recalling the basic outline of the few sessions before it (especially because that campaign only played once every 6-7 weeks or so), so the mini summary contains a very basic outline of the main events/facts of the session, just so you can more easily search back for when something happened and so you can recall the basics at a single glance, rather than walls and walls of text. The mini summary section on our wiki then links to the long-form summary of that particular session.

I’m a bit of a fanatic about chronicling everything in massive detail because:
A) I’m a historian and work with archival departments at a government ministry. It’s kinda in my blood at this point.
B) The first campaign I ever joined as a player ran for like 12-13 years and we had basically zero documentation, so halfway through there were just complete year-long arcs of the campaign I had no recollection of or where I didn’t know the order of events anymore, so a lot of plot stuff inadvertently flew over our heads half the time because we didn’t remember anything.
C) I just can’t stop myself. Help.

How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?

I had an account before then but I’ve actively used Obsidian Portal since about 2018, when I first started DM’ing my own campaigns. There might be shinier things out there, with widgets and gadgets and holograms, but I like the easy legibility Obsidian Portal’s format provides if you wanna put up big blocks of text. With some pretty basic coding you can do a fair amount to make it look nice, formatting it like it’s a Wikipedia article. And of course being able to hyperlink back and forth between different pages makes navigating through the wiki a breeze.

If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal helps you with the most?

I put up stupid amounts of text, and like I said above I like the legibility Obsidian provides. As a history enthusiast my favored terrain is wikipedia pages (I get a +2 to hit modifier against other historians), so that’s the model I like to copy. I’m also happy with the pre-defined sections for characters, game logs and items, rather than needing to build custom wiki pages for each of them and it becoming a right old mess. If there’s anything else I might want to see from Obsidian Portal it’s one or two more sections like that, such as a bestiary section for common creatures/creature types found in your setting.

What would you say is the biggest highlight of your game so far?

Oh gosh, oh golly, oh jeepers, I had such a tough time answering this question!! We’ve played 74 sessions up to this point, and so many exciting things have happened! Should I pick the time the cleric held an impassioned speech before the church to denounce the bigoted high priestess? Or the victory in the Autumn Tournament when the rogue defeated the other candidates to become the new Autumn Knight? Perhaps I ought to pick that time the party were surrounded by enemies on all sides and opened up the Iron Flask they’d carried with them for nearly 30 sessions without knowing what was inside, summoning a succubus to their aid? That time the ranger/druid had a romantic ride across the meadows of the Feywild on the back of a stag with one of the main villains (he’s hot so it’s okay), or simply when two players were wasted drunk and trying to escape across the rooftops from some bandits, with the air genasi rogue floating away from danger like a balloon?

This artist has done a huge series of illustrations for our campaign, all of which can be found here

I guess if there is one moment I had to pick it would be in the earlier stages of the campaign when the players were at a fancy gala, and the rogue suddenly ran into the crime boss (and secret weretiger) on the dancefloor whom she’d been romancing at the start of the campaign before getting cold feet and breaking it off. I cannot describe the utter mic drop moment when that French accent suddenly returned and I showed off the art I had commissioned for the occasion:

As an aside I also want to add that for me the personal highlight of any game is when the ranger/druid communicates with any flora or fauna. I never know what voice will come out of my mouth but let’s just say the interactions don’t really live up to the wise, sage druid image. Pigeons hate her, seagulls have died for her, trees want to practice their stand-up comedy routines on her.

Okay, as a last question, we always ask for the GM’s “pearls of wisdom”. What GM insights can you offer the community this month?

I mean you’re gonna hear this one repeated ad nauseam, but communication really is key in playing a game like this. You gotta have some people at your table you can trust you can talk with like adults, make sure you’re on the same wavelength as to what kind of game you’d like to play, and make the players feel you’re playing with them not against them. Though as a DM I feel you should always reserve the right to not acquiesce to every single thing the players might ask for; sometimes mother knows best.

However, apart from slam-dunking that low-hanging fruit into Tantalus’ head, there’s a couple more things I’d like to add: First off, the success or failure of your campaign can lean very heavily on what the players are like, irrespective of your quality as a DM. There’s something Brennan Lee Mulligan said at a DM roundtable a couple years back that’s always stuck with me, namely “there’s nothing you can do if the players don’t care.” You can be the best DM in the world with the coolest party tricks and goblin voices but if there are sacks of potatoes sitting opposite your screen it’s gonna be a bad time (and I don’t mean people who are simply shy or withdrawn, I mean people actively unwilling to engage or care). And conversely if you’ve got some people who come to the table with a good attitude, are willing to engage and have a good time, you can elevate any game to beyond what it is on paper. I’ve had about half a dozen campaigns in my DMing career and I’ll earnestly admit some are running better than others (but on the whole I’m very happy with them all), but there’s one that thankfully bled to death where I was straight-up not having a fun time, because of a complete unwillingness from half of the table to engage, like they were forced to participate against their wishes. I didn’t DM that game any differently from my other campaigns, but it was a rotten experience while my other campaigns give me a surge of energy at the end of the night. You’re playing a collaborative game and that collaboration is what makes or breaks a campaign.

Secondly, being behind the DM screen gives you certain insights into how the game functions, and you can try to transfer some of that wisdom to your players to help them get better/get more out of the game. If you have players at your table who are DMs themselves you’ll often quickly notice they play a little bit differently that other players, and in my experience they tend to be a bit better with spotting plot hooks, unearthing crucial info buried in a piece of dialogue, and jumping on opportunities to give the scenario a different twist. With a little encouragement and advice I’ve seen the folks in one long-running campaign in particular transform from ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ into model players. If you wanna give your players any insights to help their play, I’ll offer you this one: “If you don’t do anything, nothing happens.” This applies to every aspect of the game. If you don’t respond (promptly) when the DM asks you about scheduling, the game doesn’t happen. If you don’t go talk to that npc who seems to hold a potential plot hook, then that quest doesn’t occur and you don’t do anything during the session. If the rest of the party is chasing the undead who just attacked the village and kidnapped someone but your character doesn’t want to leave their bed (this happened once), you won’t be able to do anything in the game for the next hour or more. If your character is getting distorted visions about their personal quest but is informed they first need to consume the waters of life to see them more clearly but you make no move to acquire said waters of life, nothing happens. If you never take the initiative to turn to your fellow players and go “hey I think we should plan a heist to steal the plot item”, then no fun shenanigans-filled heist happens. If you play the game super safely and cautiously, none of the fun stuff happens. D&D is an immensely malleable game, where your efforts as a player can and will shape the contours of what the session is gonna be like: Make your players aware they have that power and co-opt them into making the game more fun and to try and get them to engage with what you’re putting out for them.

Thirdly, based on my own campaigns so far and the ones I’ve participated in as a player I’ve picked up a way to structure my campaigns that I’m quite happy with, and that I’m using for the second Twilight campaign. If I could do Strife again from the start I’d have liked to use this approach there too. I like to start by taking my time with the lower levels – giving players enough time to fully explore all their spells and class features and ways to use them creatively, and making them appreciate their new abilities more when they finally get to level 5 and beyond – and giving them a pure sandbox game. They’re set loose in the world and allowed to do generic low-level quests: Root out the goblins blocking the local road, escort the archeologists to the nearby excavation site, find out who’s stealing from the warehouse, etcetera. They get the sense of fulfillment of completing quests (rather than just subsections of a long-running main plot), get to explore your world and setting, get to build a network of NPC contacts, and have complete freedom to pick and choose for themselves what to do. This also puts them at liberty to fail or abandon quests without the stakes being too high and introduces the players to the idea that “if you mess up, you make a mess”, because at a certain point in a high-level plot the party can’t really be allowed to fail that much anymore without endangering the entire setting… and DMs put a lot of work in their settings! They don’t wanna toss it out on a whim! So this early sandbox stage both gives the party freedom and gives the DM freedom not to have to plot-armor the party. In the Season of Strife the party spent their first ten sessions in the starter-town, Celestine, engaging with a local crime boss (slash love interest), and then hitching a ride on an archeological expedition to another part of the island for a while and doing a bit of dungeon delving, before they got involved in the bigger plotlines. You can also start throwing in subtle foreshadowing to the campaign’s eventual BBEG… A namedrop here and there, a whispered rumor, mysterious graffiti appearing in the cities, and so forth. After the sandbox stage you’ll start reaching levels 6, 7, 8 or so, which in my opinion is the game’s sweetspot. This is the part where the format becomes more plot-driven, your players may encounter recurring villains (possibly lieutenants to the campaign’s BBEG), and the stakes start increasing. Perhaps this stage results in a kind of mid-campaign climax. A big victory for the players to revel in at the end of the second act. Maybe you’ll even return them to the sandbox stage for a while to do sidequests or loose ends, before the plot and stakes start dramatically ramping up again as the BBEG starts coming to the fore and you get to the big, epic, dramatic battles as you work your way to the final confrontation. Players generally don’t like losing more than once (in a row), so my recommendation is to always split up your plot into separate portions which can be won piecemeal.

Also, get theater kids to join your game. They are good at roleplay and drama. It’s… it’s in the name.

Thank you to the community for making this campaign of the month possible! That’s all for now, join us on our next adventure May 1st, and don’t forget to nominate your favorite campaigns for our next Campaign of the Month!

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