Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Running D&D in the Fall of the Roman Empire

I'm planning on running a D&D campaign based largely around the fall of the Roman Empire. I don't necessarily want my campaign to be real-world but the feel of a massive empire crumbling to barbarians will hopefully filter into the games.

My reasons for this are threefold: 1) I really love that period, 2) it's basically perfect for D&D and 3) because there's just so much stuff to run a campaign in this setting.

Fall of the Roman Empire
The fall of the Roman Empire, basically James Raggi everywhere
1. The Fall of Rome is Just Awesome

A huge, continent-spanning empire, decadent and corrupt. Entire nations of barbarians migrating across borders, fighting for their survival. An apocalyptic horde from the East - the Huns, led by the scourge of God, Attila. The collapse of the Roman Empire is like the Rome we learned about in school, but more metal, and it has fascinated historians right since Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Late Roman soldiers
Late Roman legions were similar to the early ones, except fallible and more angst
Of course, recent historians have done much to separate the myth from the reality of what happened during the time. For example, the idea that the Roman Empire collapsed from within is actually pretty untrue - it was at one of its strongest periods during the reign of Theodosius - but this just serves to make the achievements of groups such as the Goths even more amazing.

The Huns
The Huns rampaging as per
Also in lots of ways it's interesting because it mirrors contemporary events, with large numbers of migrants turning up on European borders and the strain and break up of the established order as the authorities struggle to cope. Except it's also less depressing because it's thousands of years in the past.

2. D&D was secretly built for a Late Roman setting

The archetypal D&D campaign is set in a lawless borderlands region where monsters roam free. It's fairly evocative of the Dark Ages as I understand it; a lot of the monsters came straight from germanic mythology especially as remixed by JRR Tolkien.

Yet old-school D&D also has huge cities and kings and castles and large-scale battles and sea warfare, none of which simultaneously happen right until the 1300s and onwards, by which time things in Europe were remarkably stable. I was thinking of the Italian wars as a period that I could use but even then the fighting was largely linked mainly to just a few fights by professional soldiers. There are still vassals and petty lords in that period with a bit of local control but they'd lose their title instantly if they put a foot out of line - the kings had quite a lot of power by that time.

Constantinople, the new Rome
Constantinople, the new Rome
If you really want both a high level of development and complete lawlessness where your murderhobo party can survive, look no further than Late Rome as your setting. No one did cities better than the Romans - Rome and Constantinople are both marvelous as the main cities in a campaign and there are a wealth of settlements between them that had their own unique traits and histories. But also these cities were constantly threatened by roving factions of barbarians and by rogue commanders and their legions.

The Keep on the Borderlands
The Keep on the Borderlands - a Roman settlement, besieged by barbarians
As people have pointed out it's kind of weird for a socio-economic centre like the Keep on the Borderlands to be able to exist only a few miles from the Caves of Chaos, but then if the occupants of the caves only moved in recently, it makes sense. Perhaps the surroundings of the Keep are the burnt-out remains of the farms and villages that used to exist here peacefully.

The other good thing is that a lot of the powers are mobile - they're not just static NPCs, but the barbarians were constantly on the move, searching for new sources of food, sometimes allying with Roman armies in turn for resources to fight new threats and then turning on the Romans again when the time suited. This will hopefully keep things shaken up during the campaign and give the players new things to respond to.

3. Materials I'm going to use

There are some great maps of the Roman Empire at this time. Firstly there are huge wiki commons maps like this one with all the province names, and then there's orbis which calculates the distances between cities on the roads in different seasons. Then I'll use these hex maps from the Tao of DnD for wilderness exploration.

The Colosseum
Piranesi's drawings of Rome are a great starting point
I'm planning on having the map start near Constantinople, for which I'll use Vornheim and maps of the city. I want Constantinople to be a sprawling metropolis, the centre of power, and engaged with religion. It'll also be full of the rich and those seeking to become rich by whatever means necessary. See my city post for what I'm getting at. Rome, on the other hand, will be old, crumbling, and dangerous. The old Arena of Thyatis module and Along the Road of Tombs are begging to be used.

James Young, in whose games I play as a character, wrote a great set of Cleric Subclasses to create greater differences between religions among clerics. His campaign's set around the 1550s when Protestantism and Catholicism were at violent odds, but the system also lends itself well to a late Roman setting when the church held an increasingly important position in Imperial politics, yet no one had got round to deciding on what Christian doctrine actually meant.

Barbarians will chose a starting culture - for example Huns will be great at horse riding. That kind of thing. A post to follow.

Voivodja from a Red and Pleasant Land
The ruins of Voivodja
I also really like Zak Sabbath's Red and Pleasant Land setting and plan on using the NPCs in it for some of the generals in the campaign. Again I also like the landscape it conjures - one constantly at war, saturated with ancient ruins.

Fighters are desperately dull in the rules in my opinion. Great in terms of stats but there aren't as many cool rules as other classes which is why people always pick barbarians. I really want there to be a bit more stuff for them to do so I'm going to make some rules based around the Roman army and its ranking system.

Roman ruins at Leptis Magna
Roman ruins at Leptis Magna
A bunch of old modules for dungeons - Caverns of Thracia, the Lost City, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Tomb of the Bull King, Maze of the Blue Medusa. A lot of these have a nice Greek feel which should mirror the classical past of ancient greece and the better days of the Empire before it fell. What I like about all these is they share narratives of a fallen (or falling) empire, often decadent, now infested with danger and violence. It shouldn't take much work to fit these narratives together.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The City

Thorp, Barovia, Jade, Praag, Pheonix, Vornheim, Grimheim. The city has gone by many names through history, for it is not one city but hundreds, built atop of each other over millennia of building and razing.

From afar the city resembles a lone, man-made mountain, its foothills ancient, moss-cloaked ruins from ages past and at its peak the spires and towers of today.

Around the Crumbling Gate, a city of shanties fills the ruins of an ancient palace. Rickety constructions of wood and rope perch atop colossal columns. Laundry lines span huge bulwarks of concrete blackened by the flames of some ancient sacking.
Watch your bags here, for thieves are known to hang from the boardwalk above to snatch possessions.

Above the stinking streets of the human city tower the forbidding shards and spires of the vampire palaces, each competing to be the most awe- or vertigo-inspiring. At their bases they open onto the streets with parlours, brothels and dance halls.

In the centre of the city, atop a volcanic acropolis, sits the Castle. Its construction predates the earliest records, and it is from here that the Pale King rules. At its base stand the old palace and cathedral, claw shaped constructions from the last iteration of the city, now rusting and overgrown.

Sometimes there are gaps between the buildings, and you can peer down into the crevasse of civilisations past. Strata of styles are built and burnt on top of each other, layers of soot and rubble interlaced with beautiful pillars and the remnants of ancient houses, a vertical map of the city's timeline. The city's declines, dark ages and rebirths pile one atop the other endlessly down into the abyss.

Many of the most recent strata of city are still accessible from the surface: houses have basements and second basements, old temples and squares repurposed for storing wine or foodstuffs. Some are interconnected; many link to the sewage system that was once the city's streets. This underworld is an important place of refuge for criminals and non-vampires, who traverse the old streets and blocks to evade their inhuman oppressors above.

Some believe, if you closely read the oldest maps of the city, it is possible to find ways down into older, deeper levels. Few venture more than two or three levels down; it becomes ever more difficult and unpractical, and only the basest, most desperate tiers of society occupy these deep places. But the Pale King sometimes sends expeditions to descend to the lowest levels, seeking the underworld's secrets and forgotten treasures. It is then that reports of primordial beings filter into public knowledge; men with the heads of snakes, fungal colonies and their thralls, gargantuan cultic temples to a baboon-headed god.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Rocket Pyramid

So I ran this as DM for my group of DnD people one time. I'm usually a player but it seemed to go down well with James, our usual DM.

It's a fairly goofy dungeon, a weird lovecraftian / alien-style sci-fi that I placed in a fairly standard medieval fantasy land setting. But such goofiness is acceptable in our group I think seeing as we just killed Nigel Farage and Donald Trump in our main campaign.

Dungeons and Dragons DnD Trump
Trump has also merged slowly into the bad guy from Death Frost Doom

Without further ado, my dungeon! The ROCKET PYRAMID!!!!!!

Only the most daring and desperate will brave the Warping Wastes. Distance distorts, time shifts. Traversing the Wastes always takes twice as long as you'd expect, and food is scarce, save for the tiny berries of the poisonous Toothed Rose and the carcasses of the Stork Men - who themselves feed on human blood.
In the distance, looming, watching, is the Black Pyramid. No one knows its purpose, though many speculate - a cultic temple, an ancient tomb for a dead God, the vanity project of a mad architect. All are wrong, and none could even conceive that this is a spacecraft, grounded here millennia ago, before the world entered a darker age...


  • Ages and Ages ago: Interstellar travellers land on planet to escape cosmic war. Enter cryosleep and wait for all this to blow over.
  • Ages ago: Hibernating Void Horror awakens from hidden onboard nest and turns every crew member to ooze from the inside out.
  • Last few millenia: Human(oid) civilisation develops, enters medieval period.
  • Last week: Cryosleep reaches its scheduled end, causing engines to firetriggering earthquakes.
  • Now: You enter.

A Map

dungeons and dragons rocket pyramid map


The map is initially oriented upwards and works as a cross-section, but enabling artificial gravity turns it into a top-down plan. To make this easier to work out in game, initially prop up the map so the bridge (8) is at the top; then, when the players enable artificial gravity, lay the map flat on the table.

Monsters & NPCS

Void Horror

Feeds on emptiness and destruction. Can grow to the size of planets and consume entire worlds. Luckily, this Horror, stuck aboard the confined space of the ship, has been unable to fulfil its potential for wanton, mindless destruction.

HD 5, AC 16, Att: bite +5 2d6, Ooze sting +3 see below

  • Any damage it deals heals it or increases its size if at max HP.
  • Seeing it results in an instant sanity check.
  • Its scorpion tail can birth oozes within players, dealing d4, d6, d8 etc over time, unless cut out via Caesarian.

Space Ooze

Terrestrial oozes, nurtured by the most, warm climate of Earth and its prevalence of prey, are docile grazers compared to the Space Ooze. The infinite distances of space, where no prey may exist for thousands of light years, have caused Space Oozes to develop terrifying telepathic abilities, warping the minds of those they seek to digest.

HD 4, AC 5, Att: digest d6 + d6 acid, Suggest see below

  • Suggest: Save v magic or throw yourself into the Ooze, seeking glorious communion with the void


Horrible centipedes. Broods of eggs litter the ship.

Crespex HD 2 AC 10 newborn & underside 17 carapace Att: bite +2 (ignores armour), d6
Crespexipede HD 2 AC 10 underside, 17 carapace Att: bite +2 (ignores armour), d6

  • Ravenous for flesh.
  • Shuns bright light.
  • Metal carapace takes 2 rounds to form when newly hatched.

From “lovecraftian monsters in the city” in Santicore (anon)

Dark Matter

Used as fuel by the Rocket Pyramid, this mysterious energy warps gravity. Invisible to the eye, with light appearing to “lens” around it.

  • Jumping into a concentrated field of Dark Matter such as that in the fuel tank will cause d4 mutations and 2d8 damage per turn as the victim is pulled and warped by extradimensional forces.

Droids (Janitor, Surgeon)

HD 4 AC 15 Att scissorhands +3 d8. Constructs. Take double damage from lightning or water-based attacks.

Space Hamster

Sentient Hamster, travels space. Incredibly proud, views itself as the future conqueror of the galaxy, but also desperate to escape and will aid anyone who it thinks can help it return to its homeworld.

HD 2 AC 13 Att bite 1 dmg

  • Eating it will cause the consumer to enter a catatonic state for 3 days.

Room descriptions

1 Airlock

Two doors in succession:
  • A circular door, 6ft thick and without a handle. Can be pulled shut from inside
  • A pair of double doors that will open automatically after the outer door is shut. Alternatively they can be opened manually but are very heavy and will spring back shut afterwards.

2. Airlock dressing room / Chasm
  • All doors in this room are open.
  • On first entry, this room is a chasm 80ft deep. The tunnel from the airlock and to the fuel tank enter 30ft from the bottom, with the ceiling 30ft above.
  • A suit of Astromail (as chainmail but sealed and with four arms) lies at the bottom. A Space Ooze will seep from it if tampered with.
  • 6 Crespex eggs cluster on a wall.

3. Stabiliser
  • Both doors are closed.
  • When first entered this is a chasm 100ft deep.
  • 50’ down is a Stabiliser which is a huge screen made up of thousands of little glyphs and an array of sophisticated machinery (astrolabes, spinning globes and pipes) on the back. It displays a map of the ship and in a corner a large red button. The entire screen reacts to touch.
o Touching any of the doors on this map opens and closes them.
o Touching the big red button in the corner engages or disengages artificial gravity throughout the ship. See Gravity.

4. Med bay / Torture chamber
  • The door is closed.
  • A haywire Surgeon droid lurks amongst piles of unused syringes and spoiled medical supplies, waiting to perform unwanted surgery on anything that moves.
    • It unquestioningly obeys the Space Hamster.
  • Littered amongst the trash are d4 syringes that give d6 hp when injected
5. Living quarters / Tomb
  • All doors are closed.
  • A Void Horror lurks on the ceiling above the piping, waiting to strike.
  • Eight coffin-like cryopods on the walls contain Space Oozes. When activity starts happening in the room, once per turn, d3 pods will open. You can also sleep in the cryopods which counts as a good night's sleep. If party members sleep in the cryopods whilst the Void Horror lives, they are doomed to an oozy afterlife.
  • There is a bathroom here and a kitchenette with 20 iron rations in a cryofreezer.
6 Claw control

  • Putting your arm into the huge device in this room controls the exterior claw. Designed to mimic the actions of an arm, roll to attack, sleight of hand, grapple etc as you usually would.
  • Two Crespex eggs are stuck to a wall.
7 Harpoon / Ballista
  • A complicated seat with two joysticks and a bunch of scopes controls the exterior harpoon gun; roll as attacking with a ranged weapon except with a -d4 to the roll. The gun only fires in a frontal arc.

8 Bridge

  • Three monitors around the edges, each with a comfortable looking seat.
    • These allow remote control of the Stabiliser (3), Engine (12), and Air Supply (11).
  • A big golden chair sits importantly in the middle of the room. It is surrounded by microphones..
    • The seat holds the Communications Array and allows for radio communication around the ship and with other ships. Speaking whilst in the chair booms your voice across all speakers throughout the ship. If another ship is near, a button on the seat will toggle between green (allowing inter-ship communication) and red (internal-only communication).
  • Two complicated control panels at the front of the room, in front of the window. The left is covered with joysticks and levers, and the right holographic maps and globes.
    • The left panel pilots the ship.
    • The right panel controls warp navigation.
If a party member fiddles with the pilot controls, the ship warps d100 x 1000 light years in a direction given by a scatter dice. If it’s a hit, the ship slowly begins to take off then does as they say. From then on, piloting is equivalent to a sailing check.
9 armoury

  • Both doors are closed.
  • A huge Crespexipede egg made of obsidian, hatched
  • The skeletons of two crew members, one buried with a platinum necklace
  • Two suits of Astromail (see 2).

10 air supply

  • Both doors are locked shut and will have to be opened in the Stabiliser.
  • A system of tanks and valves fills this room - the Air Supply. It has 3 HP remaining and is in remarkably good condition.
  • The janitor, a small droid, has been maintaining the Air Supply here for hundreds of years.
    • It is very nervous and thinks the humans are hallucinations.
    • It will break down in grief if it encounters the remains of crew members and will be inconsolable for d6 days.
    • It knows the ship's systems well and can be tasked to repair them.

11 engines

  • All doors are closed.
  • A huge engine here, with tonnes of valves.
    • Power can be shifted to or from the engines through a three way valve. If power is shifted to the engine, it can boost the ship twice as fast but suffers enormous strain.
  • There are three levels:
    • The top is walkways suspended above the engine. d8 Crespex eggs sit here.
    • The middle level is ladders and platforms. Requires a climbing roll to navigate quickly.
    • Hot steam vents through the bottom level. Roll a d6; the shape of the dice rolled is the layout of the vents that blow this turn. Each vent hit is a save vs breath for d8 damage.
  • One Crespexipede has nestled within the engine at the lower level and any attempt to use the engine will awaken it, damaging the engine.

12. Fuel tank / Abyss

  • All doors are closed, heavy portholes that can be opened by a winch.
  • This is a vast pit 120ft deep.
  • Gravity always pulls towards the engine in this room.
  • At the bottom is concentrated Dark Matter which appears to lens.