The Witchtide Project: The Big Picture

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!

Core Assumptions

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.

Crossroads Conversations: Building an Empire

This week has been a little shaky in terms of recording the Crossroads podcast. Normally this column would come out after the podcast, and would be a continuation of the conversation. Due to scheduling issues, Crossroads won’t finish recording until tomorrow.

My topic for this week is going to be this blog, and the six new columns I’ve recently debuted. I spent the past week introducing these columns. Now I’ll look ahead to their potential future.

Lock It In

I didn’t do it on purpose, but the columns I’m most sure about happen on the first two days of the week. This column, of course, has already been realized as it’s own independent project, the Crossroads Podcast. Going forward, we’ll continue getting more consistent with our streaming and publishing schedule, and I’ll get the show an actual RSS feed. Plus some theme music, and album art with a logo. Stuff like that.

Real Talk is my longest-running column, which makes sense. It’s the easiest one to keep up: I literally talk about whatever is on my mind for a thousand words or so. I could see Real Talk evolving into a vlog fairly easily. The only obstacles to that are time and a better webcam. A decent webcam doesn’t cost much these days, and I could easily find ten to twenty minutes a week to rant to a camera. No promises yet, but this is definitely something I could make happen.

That leaves the question of what to do with the Real Talk column. Do I talk about the same things in each, so people can consume it either as text or video? That’s the easiest option but doesn’t really appeal to me. It could be what this column is to Crossroads, a continuation of whatever I talk about. The problem is that on Crossroads I get feedback from Alaric which gives me new thoughts to talk about here.

Most likely, I would use time to my advantage. Real Talk happens on Monday, so I’d put the vlog on Friday. Then I can share what I’m thinking about at the beginning and end of the week, and set goals on Monday then talk about how they turned out on Friday.

Barriers to Entry

Again, not intentional, but the columns spanning the last three days of the week make up another category. I have clear ideas about how I could expand them, but the obstacles are larger.

My Living Let’s Play would, ideally, be supplemented by a live stream of each game I do. That should be easy to do–I’m devoting time to playing anyway, I just have to push a button to stream it. Unfortunately, my internet isn’t capable of producing a stream of watchable quality. I’m renting a room in a shared house, so upgrading the internet isn’t a plan. I would gladly do that if I could. I’m probably not moving any time soon, either.

The Witchtide Project is all about working toward an end goal: running and recording a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. We’ll get there one day, but first I have to build the campaign itself and recruit a couple more players. I could throw together a playable campaign tomorrow if I had to, but the whole idea is to create as polished an experience as I can. In other words, the barrier isn’t a fixed amount of time, but the amount of time it takes for me to feel like it’s ready.

Uncertain Paths

Finally, we have the columns that could grow into more but probably won’t anytime soon.

Low Fantasy Adventure is one of the columns I’m most excited about. The project it could become is insanely exciting, too. While the column reflects on past adventures, I could make videos out of my adventures going forward. I would love that, but the sheer production that would go into that, not to mention the cost of travelling regularly, means it will have to remain a dream until a later stage of my life. One where this whole crazy experiment actually brings in some money, for example.

The Stained Glass Gazette is a tricky one. I am happy with the approach I’m taking toward news and do enjoy talking about current events. That said, I’m still trying to figure out what unique value I can add that you can’t already get ten-thousand other places. Most likely I’d want to find several cohosts, creating a roundtable-style show with voices from different ends of the political spectrum.

Bonus Round

There’s one other project I’d like to add in the future, though it’s not necessarily related to any of my columns. I’ve been thinking for a while that it would be a good idea to create a newsletter for Desdenada, but haven’t quite figured out what would go in it.

It would have to be something that everyone who likes the site would be interested in, which is tricky, because my columns are so eclectic. Probably should have listened when people told me to establish a clear brand. Anyway, how can I appeal to people who only read the Witchtide Project because they like dungeons and dragons as well as people who only read Low Fantasy Adventure because they like travel?

I could look for one topic that encompasses everything, or I could just include everything. Like the blog itself, I could break it into segments, and include a little nugget of extra content related to each column every week.

This isn’t rhetorical; I actually haven’t decided yet. When I do, you’ll be the first to know!

The Witchtide Project: A Dungeons and Dragons Experience

On Monday, I explained the idea behind my six new columns: each of them is built so that they could become their own fully-realized project one day. Of all of them, the Witchtide project has the clearest path to get to that point (well, except Crossroads Conversations, which started past the finish line).

What is the Witchtide Project, anyway?

A New Adventure

I recently discontinued a Dungeons and Dragons campaign and podcast. Witchtide is the successor to that show. Nothing is set in stone, but I do have vague plans to launch a new campaign with a new group, which we would stream, record, and release as a podcast.

As a Dungeon Master, there’s no limit on how much time you can sink into campaign prep. You can make a perfectly fun game in an hour a week, or you can sink an ungodly amount of time into it and create an almost cinematic experience.

Since we’ll be releasing the adventure as a “product”, albeit a free one, I want it to be as polished as possible. My time investment will be closer to the “ungodly” end of the meter. I want to put a lot of work into the project but don’t want it to take away from other projects, like this blog, so I’m going to double dip and turn all that work into content.

Designing an Experience

The Witchtide Project will take you every step of the way as I build a dungeons and dragons campaign from the ground up. This includes the setting, which I already have some ideas for and which should feel at once familiar and unique. It also includes the gameplay. We’ll be using the 5th edition dungeons and dragons rule set, but I’ll be exploring alternate rules and coming up with some house rules of my own to create a very specific experience.

Even if you’ve never played dungeons and dragons and have no interest in it, you should be able to get something out of this column. Dungeons and dragons is about telling a story, but it’s a collaborative story and nobody at the table can guess how it will turn out. Designing a campaign is a bit like writing a novel and a bit like designing a video game, but with a lot of unique challenges and opportunities.

If you’re a creative, and especially if you’re a writer, planning and participating in a role-playing game can teach you a lot. As I go, I’ll talk about my thinking behind each decision, and the experience I’m trying to create for my future players.

And when we get around to actually playing the game, you’ll get to see if any of my decisions were any good!

Name of the Game

Next week we’ll jump right in to fleshing out the setting and making design decisions. For now, I’ll talk about my vision for the game–what I’m aiming for with the decisions I’ll make over the next months, whether I’m ultimately successful or not.

Witchtide is a working title. It came to me randomly and may or may not end up being relevant to anything in the campaign. It does capture the atmosphere I want to create, though: dark, ominous, and vaguely nautical.

The core of Witchtide is the idea that the point is not to “win” but to participate in a story. The gameplay will reflect this. At first glance, some of the rules I come up with may seem limiting or punishing, but only if you go in with the mindset of a gamer trying to beat a level. The best stories are about heroes who suffer and fail on their way to victory, and it can be just as fun to roleplay a character in defeat as in triumph.

The setting will draw on my personal expertise. Mexican culture and history will probably play a large role in the design of the world. Not that I’m an expert on Mexico by any means, but I know enough to create a setting distinct from the standard “Medieval France but with elves”. Beyond that, expect the setting to be on the gritty side of fantasy, influenced by a blend of real-world cultures not usually represented in fantasy, and incorporating more science than usual (I’m already fleshing out a map of how all the different fantasy races evolved from one another and migrated around the world in prehistoric times).

Bringing together setting and gameplay is the thematic element. A lot of the themes will, ideally, arise from the stories the players choose to tell with their characters, I’ll be building the experience with a few ideas in mind. The nature of death will probably be an interesting theme to explore given the setting. If you’ve had a chance to see Coco, you know that Mexican culture has a much more cheerful take on mortality compared with other Western cultures. I’ll probably also loop in an old favorite of mine (one that shows up in everything I make anyway so I might as well put it in now): the absence of good and evil, the idea that there are two–or more–sides to every story.

If any of that piques your interest, check back in a week when we start to build a world in earnest!

Real Talk 20/08/18: Let’s Talk about Real Talk

Since this crazy experiment began, I’ve “rebooted” Desdenada a handful of times. My goal has been to blog every day, and I’ve been toying with different columns to generate daily content. Through it all, Real Talk alone has remained consistent.

That’s probably because it’s the column where I can pretty much talk about anything.

Real Talk will remain home to all my ramblings that don’t fit anywhere else, but I’ll try to narrow it down to a few categories that should be relevant or useful to at least a few readers.

Are You Not Entertained?

Real Talk will be a place for me to share thoughts on entertainment. Books, movies, television, podcasts, video games, you name it. I already dive deep into specific books and video games on the Crossroads podcast, and am bringing back a whole column devoted to gaming, but Real Talk is where I’ll give my take on everything else I’m reading and playing.

I’ve toyed with doing a dedicated movie column, but while I love talking about movies, I rarely have enough to say to fill a whole post. As much as I want to share my take on the Meg (it’s simultaneously better and worse than you think), that’s something that would go better in a segment than a full post.

Since this is an introductory post and I’m almost out of room in this subheading already, I’ll go ahead and list the entertainment I’m currently enjoying and might discuss in later weeks. Besides For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Code of the Extraordinary Mind which I’m reading for Crossroads, I’ve also been reading The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán and Ray Dalio’s Principles. I’m finally catching up on the second season of Westworld, my favorite show on TV and possibly my favorite of all time, and just started watching The Sinner, which is bizarre, dark, and captivating. I just jumped into the first Assassin’s Creed (the subject of the aforementioned gaming column) but am still sinking most of my gaming time into World of Warcraft and Hearthstone.

If any of that sounds interesting, I’ll almost probably be talking about one of them right here next week!

Working Day and Night

I’ve been thinking of this as the career segment, although most of what I’ll talk about here is stuff that doesn’t currently pay any bills. Sometimes I’ll share insights from my writing and social media marketing jobs, but will focus more on projects like my yet-unpublished novels. It will also be a meta segment where I can talk about my plans for this blog, the Crossroads podcast, and Desdenada in general.

Today we’ll be talking meta stuff. When I came up with columns before, I was looking for ways I could fill seven days of content each week. This time I thought bigger.

Tomorrow’s column, Crossroads, is of course a tie-in to the Crossroads podcast, a whole other project. I’ve created the other five columns (one of which will post two days a week to brings us to daily content) with the idea that each could spin off into its own independent, fully-realized project. Not to say that they will, but I’ve used the idea that they could to refine the ideas.

Real Talk, for example, could become a daily blog, or even a vlog. The Stained Glass Gazette, which will cover the news of each week, could similarly expand to a daily column or podcast. Later this week I’ll launch a column about creating a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, which may or may not culminate with a show in which I play through the campaign with some friends.

Again, none of this is certain, but the possibilities are exciting!

Now It’s Personal

Finally, I reserve some space for the original function of a blog: a personal journal that you share with strangers on the internet for some reason. I don’t think my life is that interesting, so I’ll take care to focus on things that have some value or takeaway. For example, how I apply or, more likely, fail to apply principles like mindfulness or stoicism in my day-to-day life. That way you can learn from my triumphs and failures.

This week I’ve mostly been thinking about what I’ve already discussed in this post: rebooting the blog side of Desdenada. At the risk of being redundant, I’ll reflect a little more on the new columns.

While Desdenada is still decidedly a hobby, it is something that shapes my whole life. It takes about an hour to write each post, which average around a thousand words. Some columns, like Real Talk, I can just fill with whatever’s on my mind, but others require an hour or more of researching or outlining. This hobby amounts to the time commitment of a part-time job, so my choice of columns has a surprisingly large impact on what I spend my life doing, reading, and thinking about.

We are what we repeatedly do. Be mindful of what you devote your time and energy to. Even if you go into a temporary project to achieve some unrelated goal, the time spent on that project will shape who you are and how you think.