Friday, 3 August 2012

Dungeons & Discoveries

One D&D variant I'd like to run would be a campaign I call Salomon's House, after Sir Francis Bacon's college of sages in his book New Atlantis. This institution, in Bacon's mythical utopia of Bensalem, was set up to "to discern between divine miracles, works of nature, works of art, and impostures and illusions of all sorts" by discovering "the works of Creation, and the secrets of them".

Salomon's House in the original is supposed to be a place where scientific experiments are conducted - it is sort of a blueprint for the modern research university - but in my version it would be about sending adventurers forth into creation, to discover monsters, strange beings, divers creatures and magicks, wondrous places, and mysteries of the universe. Things of that nature. Basically, a guild of sages who send groups out into fantastical wildernesses, ruins, and other planes, to bring back whatever they can for sages to study and analyse.

This would require rejigging the XP system, I think: the aim is not to gather gold and advance that way, but to gather knowledge. So XP would be awarded for mapping new locations, finding new archives and bestiaries, capturing new creatures, bringing back the bodies of bizarre life forms, exploring new experiences, eating new foodstuffs, trying new drugs, shagging new alien races, or whatever. This could just map to gold for XP, ultimately (the sages pay money for all this information) but I also quite like the idea of people doing it for the sake of knowledge. A little like a mixture of the Fraternity of Order and the Society of Sensation in Planescape, but more cerebral than the latter and more chaotic than the former. Perhaps a forerunner of the empiricists, though more interested in cataloguing and enumerating than experimentation. So you might have a system of XP awards for the importance of the discovery and the risks associated with it.

Naturally, this would make extensive use of random generators, so the DM is partially in on the act of discovery too. It would also have different character classes, because most of the standard D&D ones don't fit. Handily, Bacon supplies us with different categories of sages working at Salomon's House who have ridiculously cool 17th century names:
  • Merchants of light
  • Depredators
  • Mystery-men
  • Pioneers
  • Compilers
  • Dowry-men
  • Lamps
  • Inoculators
  • Interpreters of nature

I don't know about you, but if I could play a character class called a "mystery-man" I would be all over it like a rash.


  1. I have an NPC who is a naturalist and offers double-xp worth gold for new and exotic monsters. Much more if they're brought back to her island alive. She's a pretty good sandbox engine

  2. "inoculators" and "shagging new alien races" calls for really crazy XP tables. I'm in for playing the Fortean Gigolo.

  3. There actually is a Mystery Man class for D&D: it's Hideouts and Hoodlums' version of the thief, but reskinned to be like The Shadow or Batman.

  4. Wunderkammer gaming!

    Did you ever read Ken Hite's article on the mythology of Iron Chef? He suggested a campaign where the PCs are sent out to gather the rarest, most exotic and bizarre ingredients for the Royal Court/Secret Masters' feasts. I immediately pictured it as simultaneously Ars Magica, the 16th century hunt for spices, and some kind of Peter Greenaway/David Cronenburg dreamlands trawl.

    There was also a brief skit on Spitting Image years ago where David Attenbrough was hosting "Lie on Earth" and his stage-hand was trying to lever the hooves off a sheep in order to pretend it was some weird, novel sort of fish. Beware the Charlatan of Venice and his illusory kamer.

  5. This description is a virtually perfect match to the hex crawl system I've been trying to write up for the last two weeks!

    I debated back and forth between setting it in the real world (as an alternate history version of the discovery of the Americas by scientists instead of conquistadors) and doing it as a standard fantasy game. I ended up going with "fantasy" since it let me recycle a number of familiar rule elements from the OGL without having to invent my own, so I could spend more time researching species distributions and mineralogy.

    Plus, it makes me feel less guilty about tossing in cameos by charismatic prehistoric megafauna like mastadons and giant ground sloths. They don't feel nearly as immersion-breaking when they're already being alternated with dragons and unicorns.

  6. I like this type of campaign a lot. its sort of amazing that 20 years rpgs basically did not look beyond hacking and slashing.