Forum > Articles

Plundering the pc: Age of wonders iii



Dungeons and Dragons 5E is here. It’s totally time for something new, and I’m talking about a new world for my players, a new point of view for a fantasy world. There’s nothing wrong with pre-purchased and already developed worlds like Neverwinter or Forgotten Realms or whatever, but my players, and I, seek new adventures to go with the new rules.

Phandelver is fun, to be sure, but…the air of those dungeons smells of the million other adventurers that have tromped through it, smashing a bugbear and goblins while trying not to get washed away.
By creating a new world, everything opens up. Everyone at the table knows that they’re having an adventure that’s all theirs, and when they complete a quest, I know it’s my players’ doing and not just that they read a spoiler online.
When I build a new world or look for a new point of view, I don’t create—I don’t have 7 full days, and, heck, I’m not God anyway. I steal. A great place to steal ideas from is a computer games. Computer games have, for years, taken ideas from D&D, it’s only fair to reciprocate. Even if you don’t want to build a whole new world, it’s still worthwhile to look at a computer game to stimulate your imagination.
The latest game I’ve found ripe for plunder is Age of Wonders III (AoW3), which runs great on my Origin laptop (yes, that’s a plug, deal with it), a turn-based strategy fantasy role playing game. Let’s take a look at the ideas here that might be useful for a D&D campaign world:

Age of Wonders has a good lineup of races, humans, elves, dwarves, draconians, orcs, goblins, and others. One thing unusual in AoW3 is segregation. Too many “modern” settings have the races so heavily intermingled that even tiny villages have representatives of nearly every race in them. Not so AoW3, where cities and military units are exclusively of one race. Now, a draconian army will follow a heroic Orc leader, mind you, but bottom line, only heroes readily intermingle with other races. Outside of heroes, the races stick to themselves.

Today’s modern multiculturalist sensibilities are why modern settings are the way they are, but something got lost in the shuffle: distinctiveness. If every city is a heavy mix of every race, there’s that much less to distinguish one city from another. How much distinctiveness can you have when you have to service a broad range of sensibilities?

On the other hand, restrict a city to just one race, and possibilities open up. An elven city might have 40% of the land area devoted to gardens, and “peddlers” that strictly sell potted plants walking the streets. A halfling city could average four tobacconists per block. An orc city might have three different slave markets and a dozen blacksmiths that specialize in torture equipment. A gnome city might be divided by a series of walls and canals so that failed experiments can only destroy a small part of the city at a time. None of that can happen in a city that’s supposed to have sizeable amounts of every different race.

AoW3 also reminds me about city placement. AoW3 is a wargame, but cities are always built near resources, as many as possible. It’s a good reminder about world-building: always ask “why is this city even here?”, because doing so can usually suggest good adventure ideas. Eventually, war breaks out because of control of those resources.

Let’s face it: magic item manufacturing completely changes the face of D&D. In an open system, my players go from “let’s go get treasure, and save up gold to buy a castle” to “let’s pore through a dozen rulebooks to find a magic item I can make to get another +1 Sperg bonus to my armor class.” All gold and treasure is quickly converted into magic items to get another different kind of +1 bonus to “whatever’s being min-maxed by a character. Gold is just a pre-magic item, I may as well present treasure as “30% of your next +2 sword”.

Now, I grant that this is a fun way to play, but in this system every magic item that’s randomly found is crap (or, “not the absolute bestest thing I can have made for that slot”, as the players say). I’m reluctant to toss item creation, players like making magic items, and it’s not a bad idea to have some use for gold besides huge big-ticket purchases. AoW3 smacked me in the face with an obvious solution.

AoW3 has a wide variety of magic items, there’s all sorts of good stuff to be found. AoW3 also has magic item creation, but not every dang thing can be made. A player can build a +1 sword or +1 armor for his characters, and a pretty good selection of trinkets, but past that? Yeah, you’re going to have to actually find the cool items.

And just like that, an idea worthy of a campaign world: the secrets of building most magic items are lost. So that Ring of Water Walking the players found will be kept, instead of turned into yet another Ring of MinMaxing +1.

Early on, the Age of Wonders series had the same problem of recent editions of D&D: characters became too powerful compared to everything else. You could build a hero, and after a few levels, that hero would be so strong that no army of orcs could even touch him—the game turned into lone heroes conquering city after city while armies quaked in terror.

This problem has been asked quite often in later D&D, or in Pathfinder—ten thousand standard orcs simply cannot beat an AC 30 cleric in open battle, after all, leading one to wonder why heroes don’t rule everything. AoW3 fixes that by toning down the best a hero can be—and it’s less than 2 dragons, which seems good enough.

D&D 5E similarly has toned down character development, but if players can’t singlehandedly destroy entire armies, what’s left? AoW3 answers that: lead armies. Heroes in AoW3 provide benefits to the entire army they lead—it’s not huge, just +1 damage or the like but it still gives something. This is something “old” D&D had that’s vanished in the last few editions: after a certain point, players stop breaking into places, killing the residents and taking their stuff going into dungeons, slaughtering the denizens and finding treasure. They stop that, and start leading armies. In old D&D, players were often rewarded at “name level” with a free army or something. If WoTC doesn’t come out with some books, I might just make up some rules to motivate players to put together armies to conquer cities and capture resources. It sounds like more fun than just converting gold into another magic item, at least.

AoW3 even has an alignment system, your kingdom drifts towards good, or evil, depending on your actions. Declare war, attack non-evil creatures (especially those attempting to flee), burn down cities, and you drift towards evil. Make peace and alliances and attack creatures dedicated to evil? Well, you get the idea. The game has something to say about my next campaign world.

Alignment is perhaps the most unique thing about D&D, and a source of many problems (and much humor, I admit). Alignment in AoW3 automatically affects how others react to you, more so than diplomacy. If you’re evil, undead creatures are more likely to flee, for example, and a Good kingdom will have a very hard time entering into a profitable alliance with an Evil one (although lasting peace is at least possible).

In D&D terms, AoW3 reminds me to let players build a reputation. A party of Good heroes will catch more breaks when asking Good-ish cities and organizations for help, and if my players tend towards evil, then they’ll get some breaks dealing with the evil guys (I have players that go both ways).

Heroes, incidentally, are very limited in AoW3, a whole kingdom can only have so many. I think that’s the world I’ll have; with only a few heroes running around, reputation becomes much easier for “the common folk” to follow. In game systems where heroes are all-powerful, you rather need there to be lots of heroes to explain why a handful of heroes doesn’t just control everything (and to give your players plenty of believable foes to fight)…but if heroes are just really, really, good, you don’t need to have so many in the world.

AoW3 has heroes lead armies into dungeons for the good loot, but I have to admit setting up rules for that seems more trouble than it’s worth. On the other hand, there are many suggestions here for adventures beyond the old “rescue the fair damsel in distress.”

AoW3 lets you establish cities, build fortifications, and construct roads. Yes, roads. Road construction crews are pretty vulnerable to attack, so that’s one thing my players can do—protect a road crew. As an added bonus, it lets players make a lasting impact on the game world. “This is the road my characters helped build” isn’t said much in campaigns—I don’t think there’s a single published adventure with such an important quest in it, even though roads last a  heck of a lot longer than any damsel, no matter how fair.

Cities need resources, but all such resources need to first be cleared out. Aow3 uses heroes and armies to do it, but a party of adventurers could as well. As cities grow, they gain access to new resources that need to be made safe to exploit. Clearing out gold mines, shrines to weird gods, vaults of lost knowledge, sources of magic power? That sounds like exactly the things heroes can do, and AoW3 even gives me suggestions as to what monsters they should meet (it even has Beholder-looking critters!).

So, looking at AoW3, I have a pretty good idea for a campaign world, and a good idea for a campaign.

The players’ first quest will be to guard the road crew as it connects the capital city to a new settlement. I can easily do “dungeon of the week” here while I’m getting a handle on the 5E rules set. Every ten miles the road advances, another dungeon or something. In the modern world, 10 miles is nothing, but before the days of cars and paved roads, most people lived and died never going more than 10 miles away from home—that’s as far as a human can walk, do something, and make the round trip in a day.

Once the road is built, well, the new settlement starts to grow. It was built due to two nearby gold mines that, alas, are occupied by goblins/orcs/troglodytes (depending on how many levels the characters gain on the road-building part of the campaign). The PCs will be awarded them some land, too…I want them to see their road all the time.

As the city grows, a vault of lost knowledge is found; the heroes are hired to clear it out. The knowledge promotes the growth of research in the city, and this causes the city to grow further, expanding outward, opening up a new resource, a shrine to some forgotten god (less detail as I plan further out, since the players will probably have their own ideas at some point). The god is so grateful for clearing out the shrine that whatever kingdom controls it will have all its troops blessed in battle.

The players clear the shrine, but this shrine is also near an enemy city, one that appreciates the value of the shrine. War over control of the shrine will probably lead to an adventure or two…

And look, with hardly an original thought in my head, I’ve plundered Age of Wonders III for enough ideas for at least an outline of a new fantasy world, and a campaign. And it’s not even a role playing game!


[0] Message Index

Go to full version