This article is part of this month’s RPG Carnival as presented by Codex Anathema. It’s also part of what I hope will be a little series of blog posts dealing with different aspects of this month’s topic, “Locations, Locations, Locations”.
Meshing an adventure or a campaign with a setting it hasn’t originally been written for can be as easy or as complex as you’d like it to be. Homebrew or published adventure, generic or written with a specific campaign world in mind, in the end, it is your game, and you decide how much work you want to do to run it in the setting of your choice (and again, homebrew or published, it is your world, so it is your decision if you want to stay true to the setting’s lore or if you feel free to change all of it). This article will focus on the geographical part of that activity,because that’s what the RPG carnival is about, but of course, there’s also plot, time and other questions to consider, that I might deal with in another article.
Before we go into the different possibilities how to geographically mesh a campaign with a setting, I’d like to introduce my own motivation to do such a thing. First, I’ve been a big fan of the adventures published by Paizo since the time they used to publish good old Dungeon Magazine. I love the AP format, I love the stories they tell with their APs and with few exceptions, I consider their adventures better than most adventures published by other design companies. Second, I’m very much a Forgotten Realms guy, and while I do love Golarion (or the Age of Lost Omens setting, as it is called now), I find myself returning to my old love time and time again. The same goes, to a slightly lesser extent, for Eberron. So with my limited time, I had to decide for a single setting to run games in, and as long as my homebrew isn’t ready (which will probably be never), I decided to return to the Realms.
The easiest way to integrate an adventure into a setting, of course, is to just plug and play it into the campaign world. Even a setting like the Forgotten Realms with its extensive lore that has built over four decades and more still has blank areas to fill, so as long as the party doesn’t move out of that area, no one will see any inconsistencies with the setting’s original lore. That works especially good with players that have no knowledge about the setting in question. For example, if you want to run Paizo’s Ironfang Invasion AP in the Forgotten Realms (I chose that example because that’s what I’m actually doing right now), just put it in an undeveloped region in any of the frontier regions and be done with it. The AP is mostly self-contained, so it also won’t change much in the Realms if you don’t want to and even when the players decide to visit one of the nearby locations of the original setting, it won’t influence the plot of that AP too much.
Now this approach poses a simple question: if you do it this way, why even bothering with adapting the AP to another setting? Wouldn’t it be easier to just run the campaign in the setting it is originally written for? And yes, of course it would, but then, if you don’t have to put in much work and prefer to run it in another campaign world, why even care about that? Maybe you and/or your players simply prefer running the Realms, but also want to run that AP, so putting those two things together is the easiest way to have your cake and eat it too. And if you aren’t bothered too much about lore consistency, there’s simply no need to put in too much work.
Of course, a slightly more advanced approach would be to replace setting locations with the locations of the AP. That works especially well when the setting locations haven’t been dealt with extensively within the existing lore, and you can just use the campaign’s lore for that location instead. It’s a bit harder when you already have detailed write-ups for a location because then you have to decide if you want to use, let’s say, an original inn as described in the setting’s location or if you would rather use Phaendar’s Taproot inn as depicted in the AP. Still, renaming things to better fit the chosen setting’s nomenclature isn’t too hard and it automatically lends your game a bit of the new setting’s individual atmosphere, which is probably part of the reason you want to use that setting instead of the original one.
For me, the real fun starts when you want to make full use of the setting of your choice, which in my case is the Forgotten Realms; I don’t want to do a simple plug and play, I want to make the gameplay into a real Realms experience using all kinds of Realmslore to add detail to the game, but also to partly replace the Golarion-specific stuff from the AP. My approach still starts with the question where to put the AP into the Realms, but the answer to that question is heavily informed by information I find within the Realms stuff. Let’s again use the example of the Ironfang Invasion AP (and be warned, what follows contains slight spoilers, so if you are a prospective player of that campaign, think twice before you read any further).
Ironfang Invasion basically is about a hobgoblin invasion into the frontier-like region of Nirmathas, with the hobgoblin army’s leader planning to erect a new empire for her own people. For plot reasons, we’re looking for a heavily forested area, we also want the starting location to lie at a river that cannot be easily crossed. Looking through the campaign outline for Ironfang Invasion, we also want to have a nearby organisation of Rangers, we need a large town in the region, a big dwarven city (that will be kind of problem, but I’ll come back to that), and we also need a forest that is cursed by a blight that the PCs will have to cope with.
As an aside, what we don’t need is, interestingly enough, a version of Molthune for our Realms’ Nirmathas, because the conflict between these two countries, that plays such a defining role within Golarion’s lore, doesn’t factor into the AP’s narrative so we can simply ignore it. Now if you want to play on that element, there’s certainly places like the Dalelands to introduce that AP and use the Zhentarim as your opponent, but that isn’t what I was interested in. I wanted to have a place that could possibly serve to establish a new hobgoblin kingdom without stepping on too many toes, a region that was only sparsely populated and had no big power laying claims on those lands. Now I was reading up on all things Impiltur at that time and so it was more by chance that I stumbled over a region that seemed to fit my preferences pretty well: the Great Dale.
The Great Dale is one of those regions that has never gotten an in-depth treatment like other regions have, which is good because it allows me to insert a lot of stuff without having to care about creating setting inconsistencies. Meaning for example that I can take locations out of the Nesmian Plains gazetteer in the first Ironfang Invasion adventure. Or from several campaign setting books released by Paizo. But more importantly, even with the few things known about the Great Dale, I can cover most of the things mentioned before. The Great Dale is, to a large extent, sparsely populated, and similar to Nirmathas, the people who live there prefer to be left alone and don’t easily accept rulership by a foreign nation (there’s kind of a rulership I’ll need to deal with, but that isn’t a question of geography). To the north, there’s the Giantspire Mountains, and there’s a lot of hobgoblin tribes already united. There’s two big forests – mostly unexplored – that I can easily use for my needs. What’s even better, one of them is ruled by the Rotting Man who’s influence is poisoning the forest, so the blight I have need for? Already there. We also have a river, the Dalestream, running through a large part of the Dale. The Nentyar Hunter is a prestige class from the 3.5 sourcebook “Unapproachable East” that I can certainly use as a replacement for the AP’s Chernasado rangers.
The one thing I’m not sure about at this point of time is the location of Kraggodan, the dwarven city. I see basically two possibilities. Unapproachable East mentions shield dwarves living in the Giantspire mountains, so I simply could put the city there. On the other hand, I could also use Earthfast, a dwarven city already established in Realmslore located in the Earthfast mountains. Both locations have their pros and cons, but as those are mostly plot related, I’ll spare that topic for a follow-up article. For now, I’m content with the knowledge that I have this location also covered.
As you can see, I’m using a top to bottom approach here. I’ve chose the location based on some of the bigger elements of the campaign and have yet to start to fill in the little details. This time, and with this AP, that might be relatively easy, because there’s a lot of white space to fill, but if I had tried to run that AP directly in Impiltur, as I originally considered to do, I would have had a lot more work to do, because that region has been given much more love especially thanks to George Krashos, who wrote that beautiful article in Dragon #364. We might come back to that region at a later point of time (because, yes, I’ve got plans^^). Next time, I’ll try to go a bit more into detail, with the focus on “Trailof the Hunted”, the first part of the Ironfang Invasion AP.