Thursday, 18 February 2010

Uniqueizing Your Campaign

Random Name Generators like the Forge are a very underused resource when it comes to giving a unique flavour to a campaign. I'm not talking about randomly generated names of places and NPCs, which I suppose are the most obvious usages but also the least interesting. No, I'm talking about the things which for some reason most DMs seem to see as sacrosanct - names of spells and monsters.

I'm not even talking about using a random name generator to create entirely new spells and creatures (which is a worthwhile though time consuming pursuit; I just generated the spell name Nassim's Monstrous Drinker, which if I had the time I would write up right here and now). I'm just talking about putting a spin on the tired old standards. I mean, how much more interesting would it be if, instead of discovering a spellbook containing boring old Magic Missile, your mage PC instead found something called Shatter Enemy, Ayz's Silt Flame, or the unbeatable Rage Sadism? The effect changes not a jot - Rage Sadism would be just Magic Missile masquerading under a cooler name - but the feel and flavour is totally different.

Similarly, imagine a campaign in which goblins are not called goblins, but "Obsidian Monkeys", trolls are "Frozen Minotaurs", orcs are "Rash Ghouls" and worgs are "Crystal Howler Locusts". Suddenly the flavour is totally different, and you haven't even had to change a single stat; all you've done is filed off the name and replaced it with another. There is no easier and lazier way of coming up with something different.


  1. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand it does change things up on the players. On the other it can lead to confusion as the game's common ground suddenly shifts without actually introducing a real change. I tend to use alternate names combined with a minor change to justify the alteration.

  2. I completely agree, especially when it comes to spells! Strange names reinforce the Vanceian character of magic!

  3. There is no easier and lazier way of coming up with something different.

    Easy and lazy? Sounds good to me.

    Just watch out for concept sprawl. Before you know it a simple bit of refluffing hijacks entire wings of your dungeon and starts redecorating. I learned this the hard way.

    wv: sorylizi - you might know them as Shadows

  4. I've always thought this way, simply because my go-to game is Call of Cthulhu, and it says exactly the same thing as you do here. The GM is advised to never just use the name of a spell, monster or book as is, but to come up with something new and appropriate to the context of the item's discovery. A Deep One is what it's called in the rulebook, but one sorcerer's hand-scrawled journal might refer to them as "the dwellers in the depths", and another might call them "lords of the sea" and so on.

    It all helps the sense of the unknown.

  5. A cynical person might suggest that this is exactly how most of the 3.5e monster manuals III to V were populated :)

  6. kelvingreen beat me to the Call of Cthulhu reference. It's a great way to make magic and monsters seem more unique without having to do a lot of mucking about with system mechanics.

    There was a great article in Dragon #200 called "The Color of Magic" that talked about individualizing spell effects as well. For example, a mage specializing in fire magic might have his magic missile look like a bolt of flame, whereas a wizard-assassin might have his magic missile simply consist of making a stabbing motion with his dagger and a wound opens up on his target. Range, damage, etc., all stay the same, it's just the cosmetic effects that differ.

  7. sirlarkins, Savage Worlds does something similar to that Dragon article, with its concept of "trappings" for spells and other similar abilities. It's a neat, elegant (and easy!) way to add variety to a setting.

  8. Yeah...just changing a name doesn't do it for me. I'm more inclined to go the way of the 'Color of Magic' article but in truth I went much further.

    Many mages in my primary D&D world are themed. In addition to alternate appearances for various spells (a Fire Mage's Magic Missile looking like a bolt of flame as described), many classic spells have been slightly reworked by the individual casters (read: Players) to make them much more customized and unique.

    At present, I believe we've developed at least a dozen fireballs, from the Chaos Fireball (roll to hit at a minus needed but extra damage) to the Waterball (very little explosive damage after hitting its target but it can put out fires in the same range).

    Similarly, I don't just paint Trolls white and call the Frozen Yakmen. My northern pseudo-Norse trolls are very different from the trolls that inhabit my pseudo-England region, being much more like the faerie creatures of Scandinavian myth (where as the latter are large, near-giant like beastial neanderthals and nothing more).

    If your gonna make a change, make it count or, IMHO, its not worth changing.

  9. Will you buggers kindly stop reading my mind? It's doing my head in.

    Here I was about to dive in the comments and say that "I bought Savage Worlds this week, I've been reading it and it's magic system reminds of me of The Color[sic] Of Magic from Dragon 200". Ho hum. :)

    wv:inegahs, great monsters that I just haven't come up with the concept or stats for yet.

  10. Yes, this is exactly what I have been thinking myself. There is an extent to which most becmi critters (and I assume that it is becmi you're thinking of) are so very generic and interchangeable, same goes with spells. Mucking around with the fluff actually does have the potential to produce a change in player actions to the extent that the experience is actually different. Doing a comprehensive find and replace job makes the game a different beastie.

    Chris' example of concept sprawl is delicious. The crunch is (or should be) a means of springboarding the imagination into new realms. Obsidian Monkeys probably don't live in subterranean warrens and ride dire wolves, the ramifications of pulling the rug out from under player preconceptions can be much more hard work but also allow more opportunities for creativity.

    Especially if one likes to draw.

  11. Barking Alien: I would never argue against doing as you suggest. Your way of doing things is how it always should be done. I was just talking about how to make easy and lazy cosmetic changes, which might lead on to something else.

  12. I get where you're coming from but I just can't do it myself.

    I maybe lazy when it comes to cleaning my apartment and occaisionally when making dinner after a long day but the day I am lazy with my game I'll just stop playing.

  13. Icy Shards has been the (most common) name of 'magic missile' in my campaign world for some time now... to say nothing of Lesser Fiery Claw ('hold person') or Rend Ye Veil Betwixt Ye Spheres ('gate')

    wv: forgram - a wizard with many a curious dweomer at his command.