When creating a campaign for Dungeons and Dragons, where do you start?
I’m pretty old school: I crack open the Dungeon Master’s Guide and follow the steps.
Let’s dive right in!
Right away, the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide presents you with a set of core assumptions that most campaigns are built on. I’m good with most of these: the world is untamed, the world is ancient, and conflict shapes the world’s history.
The other two–gods oversee the world and the world is magical–I also accept, but with qualifiers.
The world of the Witchtide Project definitely has gods, but they’re remote and have a very limited ability to affect the world. Similarly, the world is definitely magical, but magic is not as abundant as in the typical campaign.
My philosophy is that the fantastic is only fantastic when it is grounded in reality. If divine intervention is a common occurrence and every village has a wizard who can conjure infinite food, we wouldn’t be able to recognize or relate to that world and its inhabitants. If the world is, for the most part, beholden to the same laws as ours, then the occasional wondrous occurrence will create real wonder.
To express this in game terms, I put a soft level cap on nonplayer characters. There are of course exceptions, most notably the players and their adversaries, but the vast majority of people and monsters who inhabit the world have an effective level of 6 or lower. That means the average inhabitant of the world, during their lifetime, will run into someone who can magically induce sleep or shoot fire from their fingers, but most likely will not meet someone who has traveled to other planes of existence or can teleport.
Gods of the World
I love creating religious systems, so Witchtide throws out all existing gods and starts from scratch. One of my goals with the campaign is to draw from a wide range of cultures not usually represented in Dungeons and Dragons, so I’ll be looking into mythologies from all over the world for inspiration as I create the pantheons of Witchtide.
In real life, gods tend to spread among cultures and be called by different names, and that’s something I want Witchtide to reflect. This runs counter to the typical Dungeons and Dragons setting, in which gods have very set and very clear alignments and portfolios. For example, the Satan figure in Christianity, who represents evil itself, pulls heavily from the Greek Pan, mischievous god of nature and music. Similarly, the depiction of gods in Witchtide will vary from culture to culture.
We’ll get into geography more later, but the world of Witchtide has three major continents. I figure one pantheon would originate on each continent, and there would also be an “Oceanic” pantheon from the countless islands between the continents (not to mention aquatic races like sahuagin and tritons).
The northern continent of Mångata will have the pantheon most similar to the typical setting, as I’ll be pulling from European mythologies such as Greek and Norse traditions. That said, I’ll be diving deep into the original mythologies of these cultures, drawing on stories that are still alien and shocking to those passingly familiar with figures like Zeus and Odin (hint: cannibalism and rape are horrifyingly common themes in basically all religions).
Nikte’ul, the southern continent and focal point of the campaign, has a distinct Mesoamerican flavor, so expect gods reminiscent of real-world Mexica, Maya, Olmec, and Inka beliefs. The eastern continent, Mbakulu, will draw upon African mythologies, particularly the antecedents of Haitian Vodou found in Benin and the Congo.
Finally, the Oceanic pantheon will be a collection of sea gods reminiscent of those found in island cultures like Hawai’i and Indonesia.
From there, other pantheons will break off, forming new pantheons with some of the original deities and some new ones. I’ll keep it simple by focusing on one secondary pantheon per continent. On Mångata, reptilian races will have their own “draconic” pantheon in which the gods are portrayed as dragons. Meanwhile, their reptilian counterparts on Nikte’ul will have their own pantheon pulling from Chinese and Indian myth. The elven population of Mbakulu will have a pantheon pulling from Egyptian and pre-Abrahamic Middle Eastern religions (nothing recognizably Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, in other words).
I have a lot of gods to design and I haven’t created most of them yet, but here’s a rough sketch of the Tahual, the major pantheon of Nikte’ul.
- Miqlectli, goddess of death and rebirth
- Toltlamet, god of art and the hunt
- Atzinachtli, goddess of the moon and fertility
- Tlahuicatl, god of the sun and corn
- Coacpac, god of the wilderness and medicine
- Iltepetl, god of storms and agave
- Xocoyotl, god of trickery and travel
- Tletatl, goddess of love and war
- Xelquetzli, goddess of ships and outcasts
Geography is Destiny
Now my favorite part: mapping everything.
I’ve already mentioned the three continents. To the north is Mångata, which draws from Europe and Russia in both culture and geography and is predominantly settled by dwarves, gnomes, and dragonborn. To the east is Mbakulu, reminiscent of Africa and the Middle East and home to humans, orcs, drow elves, and goblins.
Nikte’ul, where the campaign will begin and probably mostly take place (though this is of course up to the players), draws from the precolonial Americas as well as some Asian cultures, and is mainly populated by elves, halflings, lizardfolk, and kobolds.
I believe in the bottom-up method of campaign design, so I’ll be focusing first on where everything begins: Puerto Amargo, a port town of ill repute in the province of Cienbar, a coastal region of the kingdom of Mareaña on the northeastern portion of Nikte’ul.
Next week, I should have some rough maps of the campaign world and will hopefully have filled in a few more pantheons. Then we’ll move on to settlements, currency, and languages.