I suspected that I wouldn't really get started on this blog until I finally launched a campaign, and now I have. So here is a post. After discarding several ideas (drafts for future work, perhaps), I finally settled on a nice old D&D 3.0 campaign. But I've subverted the mechanics in a few ways.
The setting is "the swamp." It is mostly based on my memories of doing social anthropology, in particular Levi-Strauss' Structural Anthropology and a film we watched called Onka's Big Moka, about the amassing of social capital, commodified mostly in the form of pigs and yams. These ideas were bubbling in my brain back when I ran the Green Isles and I had a little gang of native folks that I drew some genealogy charts for, but that was about it. It was mostly about mercantilism, in retrospect.
This one is totally about a different mindset. Alliances and obligations are all structured by clan relations. There are about a dozen clans, each with multiple villages, organised into five tribes (for which I'm using 5 D&D races). I've thrown out D&D's steady old equipment creep based on set treasure rewards and spending money in appropriate market places in favour of a gift economy. Gift economies are not unstructured, however. Far from it. Rather, by gathering prestige and doing favours for other groups, the players will wrack up a lot of credit around the swamp. Eventually that credit will be received both with support (places to rest, food, healing, all free of the normal cash charge you pay in D&D towns), as well as a few more major items in return for great services.
The first adventure went quite well. A minor ecological catastrophe has disrupted fish stocks for Mannanan, one of the oldest crocodiles in the swamp. He went in search of greener pastures... er, waters. This involved a rampage through the Bullfrog clan's territory, right at the end of the monsoon season when they were starting to lay eggs (is this ecologically correct? I'm not sure I care...). Many in the Bullfrog clan (Nixies) blamed Crocodile clan's (Lizardfolk, go figure) witchcraft, and gathered under a young turk named Gwair to demand vengeance.
They set out on their canoes to the Crocodile clan's village, where the party, consisting of a Crocodile Barbarian, a Birch (Wild Elf) Bard, and a Sorcerer (Grig, but exiled from the Wasp clan as all Sorcerers in my setting are regarded as contacts with the spirit world) were involved in a ritual exchange of gifts (quite an important part of the setting, and I gave the players the mantra "Who gives must receive" to structure their thinking in this way). The Bullfrog warriors demanded Crocodile Clan's eggs as payment for their young killed, under the same reciprocal logic of "Who gives must receive." The PCs drove them off without much trouble, taking several captives in the process.
I explained to them that warfare in the swamp was viewed as disequilibrium and the goal of violence was to restore equilibrium. The Barbarian took up the chant, again, of "Who gives must receive" and sent out the call to other Crocodile villages to gather up a warband to return the attack on the Bullfrogs. The warband paddled across the swamp, stumbling through a Wasp village. They failed to make the proper introductory rituals when entering Wasp territory, and the malicious Grigs (impervious to the attackers, as they were all invisible and their home was up in the trees), responded by giving them bad directions. This led them to a small lake, full of fish who had been swept in there by the monsoons (this is good wetland ecology, I did SOME research before designing the setting). The warband settled down to gather provisions and were attacked by a Tendriculous. This was, in a way, revenge on my GM who had sent one after us, nearly eating my character, in a previous campaign. Except that had been a level five party of three characters, this was a mob of level 1 and 2 weaklings, so it took a bit longer to break and managed to munch a few of the Crocodile clan in the process.
They eventually found the Bullfrog territory, to find it had indeed been ravaged by a horrid beast, as the rather aggressive "emissaries" had implied. With the help of allies they stumbled upon by "pure luck" (I asked all of my players to give me an ally, an enemy, and a goal or belief for their character before the game), they located a surviving Bullfrog village. A druid came forth to see them, receive the prisoners, and explain what had happened to them, and how the attack had NOT been sanctioned by the elders of the clan. He gave the party a ring of speak-with-animals. Equipped with this, they went to meet the crocodile.
Mannanan explained to them how hungry he was, how his home waters had been poisoned... He nearly made a meal out of the whole canoe full of the party (except the sorcerer, who, being insectile, was prepared to fly away) until they dumped a basket of fish. The party returned to the Crocodile village to rest and recuperate, and to prepare to investigate Mannanan's old hunting grounds and locate the source of the infection. We ended there, on a decent cliffhanger.
Overall, a good first session:
1. The players all had a few chances to shine in one light or another.
2. They got a vague sense of the different clans, abolished this concept of "wilderness" and instead realised that the swamp is actually teeming with different groups, with densely packed territories consisting of fishing and hunting grounds, water sources, and safe places to rest.
3. Except at a few odd moments, I managed to keep the story moving, with a good pace of action. I indulged in a few long dialogues (especially the sin of two NPCs talking: when that happened in the opening scene of the Bullfrog attack I had the NPC Crocodile representative suffer a seizure and prophetic visions to get her out of the way, and also add a bit to the story).
4. As indicated in the previous point, I improvised my head off in terms of game mechanics, tweaks to my (limited) adventure notes, and just about everything. And it worked pretty well, when I could remember it.
A few problems:
1. The players haven't really got a grasp of the kinship system. They learn pretty quickly by participating in things, so I'll need them to go to a wedding or something to show how that works, and how it affect politics... if only so they can have the opportunity to exploit it.
2. As one player points out, there were few tangible rewards. While, to some extent, it was my intention to throw away the whole D&D gold-piece counting, I was a bit vague in my replacement system to the point of devaluing it. Baskets of fish were flying right and left across the ceremonial gift mats, and the party was never in any real danger of hunger. I need to figure out a concrete system for tracking rations, determining roughly how much food a village might be able to give to friendly visitors, and polish up the starvation rules a bit so it actually matters to the party that some allies gave them ANOTHER basket of freakin' fish. But in the long run, as they get more involved in the setting, I will have allies come by from time to time to present them with the odd magic item or truly rare piece of equipment. I haven't quite figured out what's scarce yet. They're basically trading in social capital, which is cool, but doesn't give them much to write on their character sheet.
3. I need to draw up a decent map of the swamp with clan territories: I have a tiny speck of it mapped out now, and I re-arranged a few elements to suit the story. On the one hand this is fine, on the other hand I only did it because my notes were sketchy to begin with. I'd also like some diagrams of how each clan is relating to others, to show ongoing grudges, rivalries, and enmities. It gave me a pretty good adventure in this one, and I can see a lot of good ones in the future.
I'm actually stunned how quickly the players are taking to my setting. The biggest problem they're having is an ingrained ruthlessness from our group's other campaign which doesn't serve them well in a society based on mutual co-operation. I've had a few elders show up to chastise them a bit from time to time, including making up a lot of "wise sayings" on the spot. I think my favourite was "Small canoes and long journeys make strained friendships." But my dream for the campaign is to reach a scenario where the players are carefully weighing up their obligations and rivalries with half a dozen different powers, judging what gifts they might have to make to sway the neutrals, and really trying to establish themselves as the Big Men of the swamp, using all of the invented lingo and logic I've imagined. It's definitely an achievable goal, and it's going to be fun.