Thursday, September 27, 2012

Running a Dark Ages Campaign

Any edition of D&D is roughly based on medieval Europe around the 14th Century. Gygax had to have his classic swords and sorcery mixed with 14th century knights in armor during the Hundred Years' War. Some supplements and articles have addressed other periods. But for the most part, D&D has maintained this legacy, even with 4e with it's "points of light concept" (though it quickly departs from there). Furthermore, a dark age doesn't necessarily have to be medieval. Look at Dark Sun for example. For a non-D&D game, look at Warhammer 40k and its associated RPGs (Dark Heresy, etc.). Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG has some sound advice for GMs wanting to run a Dark Ages game. And so do I.

For the last 20 years I've been working on and running a homebrew world called Domikka, set in a dark age. After much experimentation, I offer the following three tips to those wanting to run a Dark Age campaign.

1. Make knowledge scarce for the PCs. Seriously, don't even let them look at the map of the world, no matter how cool you think it is. They should only have a vague idea of the geography of the world. Even those who have access to maps cannot be certain--maps are most often wrong. In a similar vein, knowledge and information should be a treasure in it's own right.

For example: The PCs come upon a hidden vault within a ruined monastery. They find some old coins (gold and silver mostly), some gems, some relics (some genuine--magical?, others false), and finally several scrolls containing the history of the monastery (including descriptions on how it was built and noble lineages). Which item is the most valuable?

2. Make manufactured goods valuable. Heck, use a barter system using the gold piece values in whatever equipment list as a rough estimate of what a trade is worth, particular when characters are just starting their careers. Manufactured items are valuable because somebody took the time and effort to create them. They weren't created in a factory, mass produced. In fact, mass produced items and factories shouldn't exist. When players find a treasure cache, most of it should consist of manufactured goods--perhaps masterwork.

Taking this a step further, rank equipment by craftsmanship: Poor, Typical, and Masterwork. Poor quality items cost less, much less actually, making them tempting purchases for characters just starting out. But you get what you pay for. A poor quality sword might do -1 damage or has a chance of breaking on a roll. Many low level NPCs should have poor quality weapons and equipment, making typical quality items that much more valuable

3. Most magic items are priceless. Thus, a dark ages campaign should also be a low-magic campaign. I ruled that in my last 3.5e campaign that "disposable items" like potions, scrolls, and certain wands were rare, but did not deviate from their described powers. All other magic items, however, are unique. There were no simple +1 swords in my campaign. Each item had a history.

That's all for now. I know there's more. Older editions of D&D (pre-3e) made running a dark ages campaign easier since equipment wasn't necessarily tied with character level advancement. But I've run two 3e/3.5e campaigns with the dark age theme. They both worked fine at lower levels but around 8th or 9th level, I began noticing disparities between the characters and the Challenge Rating of the monsters they had to face. Basically, the Challenge Rating system assumes that PCs will have a certain amount of magic items and equipment at a given level, for the sake of balance.

I don't recommend running a Dark Ages game with 4e.


  1. I'd venture to add a further criterion that seemed essential to the flavor of your Domikka setting: a fearful, repressive society. Knowing that your character might get burnt at the stake for demonstrating magical abilities in front of the peasantry really added a lot of character to the setting. Initially, PCs within the party would even avoid casting obvious spells in front of other party members for fear of religious zealotry.

    Do you think Domikka could feel the same without the restrictions on magic use, say, if you were playing during the classical, pre-dark ages era? Are similar social restraints based on the ignorance and zealotry of the populace necessary for the ambiance of any dark ages setting?

  2. Now that you brought it up, I think fear, ignorance, and repression is essential. I'll have to think about it more. Because, on one hand, magic and magic-users are dangerous. Magic is a rule breaker for sure and can disrupt power structures in society, so it stands to reason why it should be feared. But is that an essential thing for a dark age setting?

  3. I don't think magic needs to necessarily be prohibited, per se, but I think a strict societal taboo that impinges directly on the players adds a lot to the repression of a dark ages setting. An example could be a society that takes a very dim view on tomb robbing, the bread and butter of adventurer-types. Players might need to talk fast when they start swinging around their ancient magical swords or dumping out bags of 1000-year-old gold coins.

    Overall, I think a magical prohibition works very well in a variety of settings including dark ages Renaissance settings. These could include Cruciblesque witch hunting, the Spanish Inquisition, or even some aspects of Domikka.


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