Coldforged Adventures: Writing for a Dark Age

A Darkness Permeates

in the real world, the middle ages span the time from the fall of Rome to the beginning of the Renaissance. Any period, for the most part, within that span of some 900 years will often work well enough. There are anachronisms, but those are easily dismissed through the simple expedient of a world being inhabited by dragons, elves, and wizards would very likely tread a different path than the one we know, especially one not dominated by wars over who is allowed to talk to the deities, who is part – or not part – of a diety, and which diety is real, in the end. Crossbows, plate mail, stirrups, and massive castle complexes simply make the most sense to include no matter the setting because it is part of the fantasy tropes that we are all so used to, and so enjoyable.

Coldforged, for its part, is ostensibly set in the earlier part of the middle ages, the so-called Dark Ages and Viking Age, that takes us from just after the fall of Rome to the rise of the great kingdoms of Europe, which is notably earlier than many of the settings of that are traditionally used. In order to impart that specific flavor, I think it’s nice to keep in mind certain differences from around that point in time and keep them in the fore when designing adventures and campaigns in the setting.

A Compact Fit

The first thing that I want to focus on is the scale of the world that the players should be interacting with, as this is often one of the best ways to keep the game within the flavor and style of the campaign setting.

When creating adventures for your players, try and keep the area of the adventure tight. When you need to go to a new location, make it a day or two away, maybe a week at most. This gives the players a sense of continuity to the location. Most people don’t travel far and wide, and keeping the players close to their home really invokes that same feeling, and turns some of the focus on the continually recurring NPC’s. The lord and the mayor, the bailiff, and the captain of the guard become individuals that stand out in the crowd and can be used later on for purposes both benign and nefarious.

This local feeling is, while not vital, important to establishing the feel of the setting, one where each local is dependent on itself for nearly all of its resources. The local grain is ground into local bread and ale, local cows are milled for local butter and cheese, and the local game is caught and eaten. The nobility, through taxes and privilege, is able to purchase exotic wines, as well as iron to make weapons, and sometimes weapons themselves, Trade is extremely limited, as those towns and villages who cannot provide for themselves are weak, and often die out, or fall to conquest from one of the many armies that abound.

A Few Good People

one of the more surprising aspects of the early years after the fall and the before the rise of the middle ages is not the scope of locality, but the scale of engagement. In these times, it was battles of hundreds of warriors, not thousands, that defined the path of the age. While it is strange to our worldly minds, the logistics and engineering to keep tens of thousands of warriors on the march and on campaign simply no longer existed. The fall of Rome brought with it the fall of great armies. Of all the changes, this one is the hardest to implement in both the player’s minds and on the table, as he players are used to facing down huge numbers, and the armies on the march being so large as to be positively Napoleonic.

The battle of Crecy, for example, is one I would place at the far end of our spectrum of possible timelines for fantasy worlds. That battle, on the low end, was 7,000 fighting against 20,000, with a possibility that it was 15, 000 v. 30,000. At the other end of the spectrum, the Great Heathen Army of 856 likely consisted of a few hundred to around a thousand in the fighting force. Exploiting this smaller size can definitely bring a higher sense of gravity to the players defeats, but can also highlight their ability and power, as their ability to stand against dozens, and even more together, makes them an extremely powerful force, something that even a king might have to think twice about.

This also goes, though, for the enemies. Each villain or simply bad guy doesn’t need to have thousands of followers or be threatening the lives of great cities, they can be the leader of dozens or hundreds and still be a significant threat. Approached from the other side, as well, it can be said that defeating a villain is a major setback, as even those with great power and influence can only gather a few hundred to their side.

Use this to your advantage, when writing adventures, and keep the challenges tight, and the numbers fathomable. I, personally, like to give the main villain a specific and realistic number of subordinates to do the job, and I try and use them sparingly and to good effect, and let the players and characters know they are whittling down the enemies forces with every encounter.

Lower the Bar

The final thing I would recommend for running a Coldforged game is, in the same vein as the other two, keeping the NPC and the PC levels in check. I don’t like and don’t think its appropriate, for either side to have characters with huge levels. That said, there are plenty of individuals with lots of levels and high CR’s, and most of these characters and individuals are relics of the past age, a greater age. They experienced the downfall of the civilizations on the continent, and are the final reminders that there once were these great powers, these titans that walked the land, and their last remnants remain.

Most towns and villages won’t have a character of greater than 5th level, and most often not even one greater than 3rd. The local lord can be a level 2 or 3 Character, with some of the veteran knights being level 4 or 5. The hedge mages and the local guards aren’t equipped and trained in such ways as to make them that experienced, and the clerics and priests are often simply characters of other classes with the acolyte feat. This also has to do with survival and struggle, as there are many early level spells that completely nullify surviving for even the most difficult environments, given a character of high enough level. Keeping all of the important characters at a low level makes that higher level 8 or 10 NPC an anomaly worth recognizing, and someone who probably knows their way around the world.

This goes, as well, for players. I won’t be taking any more characters beyond level 17, and most often I won’t be taking them past 15th. 12th, by far, is my favorite stopping point. I like that the character has progressed into a powerful form, but at this point isn’t completely invincible. I’d even consider creating a method of alternate leveling past 12th to provide the cool abilities and spells without upping the Proficiency bonus and Hit Dice.

Disease, famine, and war were the constant companions of the Dark Ages and the heroes of these adventures should feel that oppressive feeling of a slightly less than high middle ages setting when playing a Coldforged Campaign. I think these points help solidify that feeling while still providing for a foundation for good adventures.

Until next time,