1
Apr

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!

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'


Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
Petrified Articles
Categories
© Copyright 2010-2024 Words In The Dark. All rights reserved. Created by Dream-Theme — premium wordpress themes. Proudly powered by WordPress.