Thursday, November 7, 2019

5e - Alternatives to Darkvision

Darkvision is fairly common among the character races in D&D 5e.

Dwarves have it, elves have it, gnomes have it, half-elves and half-orcs have it, and so do tieflings. Only humans, halflings, and dragonborn don't, at least among the races in the Player's Handbook.

Open up Volo's Guide to Monsters, and you'll find darkvision among aasimar and tabaxi, among all the monstrous races available for player characters - bugbears, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, orcs, and yuan-ti - along with a few more who don't, like goliaths and tritons.

Because almost every species has darkvision, it doesn't end up having much effect in play. Being able to see in the dark doesn't make you feel special, and can't become a key facet of your character's personality, if everyone else can do the same. Likewise, darvision never offers a character the chance to reveal hidden information none of their party members can discover if everyone knows that information by default.

So it would be more interesting, I think, from the standpoint of both characterization and information gathering, if different characters had a variety of different abilities, instead of all having the same one. It makes sense that Underdark natives - drow, duergar, svirfneblin - might have true darkvision, but this ability will feel more special if they're the only ones. I would also for sure let them see right through magical darkness.

I've made a list of some possible replacements. I've assigned them based on species, but you could also roll the dice, or just pick one you like. After the list, I have some thoughts about what it means for 5e to be designed so that so many player characters end up with darkvision. You could also add any of these abilities to a magic lantern or to a pair of glasses, like Luna Lovegood's spectra-specs. You can't really do that with darkvision, since every lantern already grants the ability to see in the dark. (Although I do deeply love The Manse's idea - orcs can see in the dark because their eyes glow red, and you can make a lantern by filling a glass jar with orc eyes.)

If you add to the list, make sure not to include things like "knows true north" or "can accurately guess distances" or "can count all the coins in a hoard on sight". Those might be superpowers in real life, but most GMs regularly assume that all player characters can do all of those things; it's ingrained in the way we share information with players. Offering those as special abilities is either going to be a cheat to those players when everyone else gets the same information anyway, or its going to impoverish your game by removing several common ways of communicating about the game world.

The senses listed below could be "always on" or they could require concentration to use. Some of these senses more-or-less replicate the effect of a spell. If that bothers you, you could make it take as long as a ritual to use effectively. You could also rule that some of these senses only work in total darkness, giving the players and incentive to douse the lights. If you don't like any of these options, you could also remove darkvision and replace it with a language, or with another proficiency.
 
image from Spelunky
ALTERNATIVES TO DARKVISION

Hill Dwarves - Gold Sense
Some hill dwarves possess a "gold scent" - they can literally smell the presence of gold, and the greater the concentration, the stronger the smell. They can tell when they're in the immediate presence of gold, and are drawn to the largest supply in the area - unless that's already on their person! (This one is adapted from DCC.)

Others possess a "gold sight" that lets them see gold glowing with a warm yellow light. A single gold coin gives off less light than a candle, but a small cache will shine like a torch, and a hoard like the noonday sun.

Mountain Dwarves - Trap Sense
Raised in labyrinthine halls amidst every available architectural trick and travail, mountain dwarves have an innate sense for building features intended to deceive or deal harm. In any built environment, they'll notice when they're in the presence of a "trick" or "trap" although they won't automatically be able to identify the nature of the hazard.
(Yes, "find traps" is a 2nd level spell. So is "darkvision".)

Duergar - See Invisible
The diabolical duergar have mastered the magical art of turning invisible at will. With proprietary alchemical paints, they've also filled their cities and lairs with invisible hazards to ensnare invaders. What is invisible to outside eyes is not simply visible to the duergar, it actually glows with ghostly white light to their eyes.
(This could be in addition to their darkvision, instead of replacing it.)

High Elf - Aura Sight
Millennia of schooling and study have trained high elves to recognize magic on sight. Every living spellcaster possesses a faint aura, as does every magic item, and every creature with a magical attack. Depending on the circumstances and the strength of the magic, these auras may be faint, sometimes almost invisible. Powerful auras glow like a bonfire of magical potency.

Wood Elf - Door Sight
In ages past, every forest was filled with hidden doorways that led directly to the Feywild. Today, nearly all of those doors are gone, but wood elves retain a special sense for noticing the presence of secret passages. Doors that are hidden or locked by magic appear as glowing rectangles. Other doors might not be visible, although the elves will know they're there. The means to open these doors will not usually be obvious.

Drow - Poison Scent
Surrounded by scorpions and spiders, successive generations of their leaders assassinated by tainted food, adulterated drink, and poisoned blades, the drow have evolved an infallible nose for toxins of all kinds. They know when rations are unsafe, when monsters are venomous, and when weapons have been coated with poison. Drow with particularly discriminating palates can even identify different types of poison by scent alone, although such sommeliers require additional training in alchemy or herbalism.
(This is in addition to darkvision, however, drow just get regular old darkvision, not the superior kind.)

Stout Halfling - Food Sense
These hereditary gourmets have a knack for finding edible morsels. When foraging or examining the corpse of a monster, they're able to the safest and tastiest portions. Except in unusual situations, poisonous  items that offer no nourishment will appear obviously inedible. Stout halflings can also "follow their noses" to locate kitchens, larders, pantries, feast-halls, and even occasionally guardposts where meals are taken or prepared.
(This replaces Halfling Nimbleness, which becomes a Lightfoot ability only.)

Forest Gnome - Hazard Sense
The untamed wilderness is full of natural perils, and territories controlled by other species are more dangerous still, littered with abandoned siege weapons, crumbling border fortifications, and half-forgotten anti-invasion ordinance. Forest gnomes, who claim no territory and wander freely across the frontier and the settled lands, have encountered all of them. From infancy they learn the tell-tale signs of danger, and as long as they're outside, they know when a trap or natural hazard is present, although its source might not be readily apparent.

Rock Gnome - Machine Canny
Even rock gnomes who don't build machines themselves understand how they work, an ability that appears near-miraculous to other species. To gnomish eyes, every machine is made of parts that operate by cause and effect. "Cause" one part to activate, and its "effect" becomes the cause for the next part, and so on until the machine completes its final effect. While they have no special talent for spotting mechanisms, a rock gnome who notices a machine part can intuit its "cause" and its "effect" and can guess what kind of part comes before it and after it. They can also tell if the part is broken, or if its link in the chain of cause and effect is broken.

Deep Gnome - Gem Sight
Although everyone perceives gemstones as lustrous, to deep gnome eyes they literally glow, the color of the light determine by the color of the gem. Raw and uncut stones give off a dim light that aids in mining, while finished jewels cast a brilliant sparkle. Though unlit to outside eyes, deep gnome cities and lairs appear filled with rainbows and kaleidoscopes to their builders, with strategically placed gems drenching every corner in colorful light.
(This could replace darkvision, leaving svirfneblin on equal footing with others outside their own territory.)

Half Elf - Fey Sense
The elfin blood in half-elves veins calls out to other fey, granting them a powerful intuition that is felt more than seen. Half elves can identify fey creatures, and can tell the difference between those native to the Feywild and those born into the material world. They can identify radiant magic and positive energy. They can identify fairy pranks, even before the prankster has been spotted. They can see the bond between warlocks and the Archfey and the Celestial; and they can tell when someone has been charmed, frightened, or possessed by a fairy or celestial.

Half Orc - Shadow Sight
Born between worlds, half-orcs can see just past the veil between worlds, into the Border Ethereal and the Shadowfell. They can perceive ghosts and fiends lurking invisible and incorporeal, whenever they are close enough to manifest. They can see the difference between dead bodies and the undead, between ordinary shadows and shadow-monsters. Half orcs can see the bond that connects warlocks to the Raven Queen or the Fiend; can perceive when someone has been charmed, frightened, or possessed by an undead creature or fiend; and can see necrotic magic and negative energy whenever they're used.

Tiefling - Mind Reading
If a tiefling can look directly at another being and concentrate, they can actually hear the other's thoughts, the voice in their head like a half-whispered, half-mumbled monologue. This only works if the tiefling can see the others' eyes, the windows to their soul. They hear surface thoughts only, and can't elicit or insert specific ideas, but their infernal ears are especially attuned to thoughts of temptation and desire.
(Like "darkvision" and "find traps", "detect thoughts" is also a 2nd level spell.)

Other Options
When designing a new 5e race that you're tempted to give darkvision, ask yourself if any other divination ability might be more thematically appropriate. Does your species have infravision, able to see heat signatures, but unable to detect oozes, constructs, undead, or even lizards, fish, or amphibians against the ambient air temperature? Can they dowse for water? Are they magnetically drawn to the presence of iron? Can they see emotions? Can they hear lies? Are they able to perceive cosmic alignment, or see the umbilical threads that bonds believers to their deities? Can they sometimes talk to insects or plants or rocks? Can they speak with the recently dead? Be creative, and your world, and your players' experiences, will be richer for it.


image from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
WHY I THINK DARKVISION NEEDS ALTERNATIVES

So, maybe almost every species has darkvision. So what? Is that a problem? Well, maybe. I can think of two possible reasons for 5e to be designed this way, although of course I'm only speculating. The first possibility is that darkvision isn't really intended to be relevant in play very often or to have a frequent mechanical effect. Maybe it's mostly meant to be a nifty factoid about your character, something flavorful to distinguish the various demihumans from humanity, but ultimately no more important than green skin or pointed ears. (Although if so, it ultimately makes humans seem like the strange ones, cursed with a night-blindness that doesn't afflict anyone else. And at least "I have green skin" and "I have pointy ears" mark actual differences between half-orcs and half-elves!)

The second possibility is that WOTC is scared to death of resource management play, and doing everything in their power to prevent it. Maybe they think that only asshole GMs run resource management games, and want those assholes to stay away from their popular new edition. Maybe they're afraid that a novice GM will find an asshole OSR blog exhorting that "Gary wants you to count torches", will naively try to run a resource management game, and will end up driving themselves and their novice player friends right on back out of the hobby after a single bad session.

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. Between the ubiquity of darkvision and making the "light" spell a cantrip with unlimited re-use, it's basically impossible to run a game where the player characters get trapped somewhere because they're unable to see.

Now, I've been very vocal in the past about not wanting to run a darkcrawl game, but I also don't really care for solutions like this. They feel dishonest. If you don't want to play a game where it's possible to get trapped in the dark, then don't, but don't pretend to offer it as a possibility with one hand, while using the other hand to smuggle it back off the table. Don't make a rule, then give every player permission to break it. Don't claim darkness is important, then fail to write any procedures that would actually support using it, then try to escape the contradiction you've set up by handing out "get out of dark free" cards.

Be honest. Tell potential GMs "The rules of this game assume that a low level of lighting is available at all time. Whether from moon and starlight outside, phosphorescent fungus growing in caverns and tombs, intelligent monsters lighting candles and braziers to illuminate dungeons for their own purposes, or from the player characters bearing torches and lanterns - it will never be truly dark. If your fictional solution involves the characters wielding light sources, these should never cost treasure to supply, never run out, and never count against the characters' encumbrance limits. Assume they are omnipresent, like the clothes on the characters' backs. This is not a game about counting torches or mapping caves in the dark." Then set the example and teach novice GMs how to do this by using the read-alouds and box-text in your sample adventures.

That would have pretty much the same effect as the current arrangement, but it would have the benefit of not pretending to do something you really don't, and it would allow GMs and players who want to engage in resource management play to do so without having to rewrite the spell list and nearly every species' racial traits. Ironically, under such an arrangement, the rules themselves would be more agnostic toward RM play than they are now, when they claim to take no official stand, but then saturate the game world with so much darkvision and magical light that RM play is rendered impossible in practice.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Dungeon Alphabet Dozen - B is also for BATTLE

B is also for BATTLE
Roll 1d12!

There are two ways to ways to use this table. The first is to set a flat 1-in-12 chance for each combat to be interrupted by a random event. The second is to automatically trigger a random event whenever combat "goes long." (I would recommend making that at the start of round 6, because let's be honest, no one ever makes it to round 12.)

Random Events Occurring During Combat 

1 Absolutely enormous parent monster shows up, scolds "children" for missing dinner, apparently-slain monsters revealed to be "playing dead," all enemies ushered out with warning from "Mother" not to play so rough next time. Initiating combat against unbelievably tough "Mother" is basically suicide.

2 Half a dozen referees in striped shirts appear, interposing themselves between combatants, hustling opponents apart, handing out yellow and red slips of paper to everyone in sight, all enemies have somehow been spirited away by the time the character make sense of things.

3 Lively music starts up, combat somehow morphs into dance-off. Judge is encouraged to adjudicate contest based on real-world dancing by players. If the characters win, the monsters voluntarily retreat, otherwise, characters are forced back into previous room and blocked from re-entry.

4 Power outage! Room goes completely dark for 1d6 more rounds before back-up generators kick in. Anyone who makes an attack must roll 1d6 instead of normal attack roll: 1 attack hits intended target, 2 attack hits a different random monster, 3-4 attack misses completely, 5 attack hits a random ally, 6 attacker only injures themselves. 50% chance all the monsters have gone missing when the lights come back on.

5 Maximum weight exceeded! The floor collapses, and everyone drops to the dungeon level below, taking 2d6 damage from the fall and debris. If there wasn't a dungeon level below this room before, there is now, but before you can see it, you'll have to escape from this room-sized pain-in-the-ass PIT.
 
6 End scene! Combat ended by thunderous applause from 12d12 human peasants. All monsters begin taking bows, dead monsters stand up to accept praise. Piles of flowers heaped into room. Meanwhile, 2d12 dark creeper and dark stalker "stage hands" are busy breaking down the set, rolling away dungeon walls, carrying off props, sweeping up the floor. By the time the curtain drops, the entire dungeon behind the heroes is reduced to a wall-less empty shell with theatrical supplies lining the back wall. There's a pretty nice reception on the other side of the curtain though, and the peasants would love to shake hands with a few of the "actors."

7 Groggy and disheveled random wandering monster appears in nearest doorway, rubbing eyes, wearing peaked nightcap, carrying candlestick. Spends a moment taking in the scene, then bellows at everyone to "BE QUIET!" because "PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP!" Re-roll surprise and initiative. Anyone who's surprised can't act this round, and enemies who are surprised will act apologetic and slink away to the exits. The first person who makes any noise again is going to face the full wrath of the monster, but luckily for assassins, it's the victim of a sneak attack, and not the perpetrator, who generally makes a sound.

8 Rival ADVENTURING party parachutes in from overhead / repels down through previously unseen hole in ceiling. Re-roll surprise and initiative for all current combatants, reaction rolls to determine whose side the newcomers are on.

9 Army of murderous KOBOLDS (1d6 per person) literally breaks down one of the walls, streams into the room, and starts attacking everyone. Everyone who wants to live had better team up now, any survivors may not remember what original conflict was even about.

10 Whistle blows, combat stops while all monsters AND all retainers punch out on a time-clock and disappear out the back. They're all replaced by look-alikes with full hit points, different color-schemes, and (in the case of the retainers) different but rhyming names. Second whistle resumes the fight.

11 Bell dings, and the twin of every original monster (even those now defeated) tags in to join the fray. Original monsters somehow "forget" to tag out. New arrivals all armed with metal folding chairs.

12 Sound of clock striking midnight heralds in beginning of next real-world holiday. Monsters break out decorations, begin singing seasonally-appropriate tunes, no one (including player characters) can find the will to keep fighting. Everyone present feasts on available rations, exchanges gifts if the holiday permits.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Undersea Miscellany - Microscopic Fairies, Undersea Lilliputians, Delicate Invertebrates, Plates of Jellyfish

 
 
Under Victorian Microscopes, an Enchanted World
Olivia Campbell
JSTOR Daily

"As they became more powerful and more affordable, microscopy became an increasingly popular hobby. Gazing through these “magic glasses” rendered previously unseen worlds, which teemed with tiny living creatures, newly visible. When it came time to describe what they were seeing, people frequently turned to the language of the fantastical."

"Naturalists and lay users readily used a vocabulary drawn from fairy literature to… convey the incomprehensible strangeness and minutiae of the microscopic world. Though the link may seem incongruous, a surprisingly substantial body of Victorian scientific literature and fairy stories connect microscopes to fairies."
 
 

Lilliput Under the Sea
Tim Flannery
New York Review of Books

"Varying from foot-long mollusks to speck-sized shrimps, invertebrates like those depicted are the largely silent majority of species on Earth. Yet by virtue of size, camouflage, or hard-to-access environments, they are all too often unobserved. To enter their world through this book is to dwell, albeit briefly, in a Lilliputian realm far more mysterious, breathtakingly beautiful, and mystifying than our own."
 
 
 
The Delicate Science-Art of the Blaschka Invertebrate Collection
JSTOR Daily

"The nineteenth century saw an explosion of interest in the exploration of the natural world, resulting in growing numbers of zoological and natural history societies, which often established museums to garner more popular interest and support. Expeditions that investigated ‘new frontiers’ - rugged tropical rainforests, the fossil record, the ocean depths - proved particularly sensational, and the findings they gathered were often put on museum display."
 
 
 
A Plate of Jellyfish
Lucy Jakub
New York Review of Books

"Haeckel believed that evolution would unite science with art and philosophy under one discipline, through which humans could reach a greater understanding of their world. His intention was to make the natural forms of elusive organisms accessible to artists, and supply them with a new visual vocabulary of protists, mollusks, trilobites, siphonophores, fungi, and echinoderms. Opening Art Forms is like stepping into a cathedral, a place crafted by human hands that nonetheless inspires awe of the divine. Within are jellyfish that look like flowers, protists that resemble Fabergé eggs, presented like crown jewels on black velvet, the seeming cosmic vastness of the images belying their actual, microscopic size."
 

Monday, October 28, 2019

New New Crobuzon - A City of Stones and Spirits

A couple days ago Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque posted an old link to Githyanki Diaspor. I suggested calling this the "New New Crobuzon Challenge" and following the rules to make more of them, and a few people have taken me up on it!

Other New New Crobuzons include New Twain (from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque), The Last City (from From the Sorcerer's Skull), The City of Emination (from The Benign Brown Beast), Thaw (from Archons March On), and a nameless new new city (from Dead Tree, No Shelter).

There are two parts to the challenge - first, choose 3 humanoid monsters to be minority citizens in your fantasy city and assign them cultural niches; second, choose 3 horrible monsters and decide how the city accommodates their presence without them destroying everything.

I picked shaitan genies, dhampirs, and wayangs for my minority citizens; and devourers, callers in darkness, and caryatid columns for my monstrosities.

Shaitan Genie from Pathfinder Bestiary
Citizens - Shaitan, foreign disruptors.

The shaitan arrived as foreign merchants, their caravans carting in untold fortunes in gold and jewels. They bought the banks, the warehouses, paid off the city's debts, and earned the right to collect tolls. They charge entry fees at the gates and the ports, they charge beggars and businesses alike for the right to conduct business on their streets and in their bazaar. Yet traders flock from afar for the chance to pay the shaitan's fees.

They are the gaudiest of nouveau riche, building mansions, throwing parties, holding extravagant festivals and parades. Their pashas rival the power of the old families, though they have remained outside city politics, for now. A new class of oread youths, the product of dalliances between the shaitan and humans, are just entering adulthood, buying up so many seats in the university and commissions in the army that the children of the lesser old families are beginning to be blocked out of positions they once considered their birthright.

Dhampir from Pathfinder Advanced Class Guide
Citizens - Dhampirs, untouchable underclass.

Long before the shaitan came, before the Revolution ushered in an elected government and gave power to the so-called "old families", the city was ruled by the vampire oligarchs. For too long, the city starved and suffocated in their iron-strong grip. As the oread are to the pashas, so were the dhampirs to the oligarchs - even their illegitimate children held a higher station than any full human. But when the Revolution drove out the oligarchy and divvied up their estates, the dhampirs were bereft, and remain so to this day.

The most fortunate dhampirs work as skilled healers and caretakers, their hunger met by prescribed medicinal bloodletting. The rest must drink from rats and stray dogs, from the sluiceways at slaughterhouses, from dead bodies awaiting ritual preparation. Rumor claims they are diseased, and they're still blamed for the sins of the oligarchs, generations ago. A few dhampirs take up swords as brigands who steal blood from the healthy, as militants who protect their ghetto from celebratory violence on Revolution Day. These few are the most hated criminals in the city.
 
Wayang from Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide
Citizen - Wayangs, extraplanar artisans.

Wayangs come into the city from across the veil of shadows. They claim the city has a dark twin just across the veil, identical in architecture but with a population and political structure all its own, although strangely, their history also includes a time of misrule beneath vampire oligarchs. Academics debate the meaning of this coincidence endlessly.

The wayang who come here are refugees, exiled from their home for blasphemy or political critique. Whatever their vocations at home, here they are artists, for they control shadow-stuff as easily and fluently as humans control the sound of their own speech. Their concerts and plays are riots of condemnation against the rulers who exiled them, though no doubt much of the metaphor and allusion are lost on human audiences. Still, at their greatest performances, the shaitan pashas sit beside the old families, and even the caryatids gather to watch.
 
Devourer from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition Monster Manual
Monstrosity - Devourers, constructs run amok.
 
The undead bodies of devourers stand two or three stories high, and are all but indestructible. They are thought to be siege engines, escaped from some foreign holy war. They seem to be drawn to the city by the presence of here of belief, although others have been spotted at a distance wandering the countryside. Fortunately, their numbers are few, and they remain mostly confined in the poorest neighborhoods - those places that are poor and remain so because anyone who can afford to move out does so.

Whenever a prayer is spoken or a miracle cast, a bit of its power escapes, just as some of the power of an engine becomes heat instead of motion. This wasted piety fuels the devourers. The cages of their chests fill with divine magic, which takes shape as a ghostly image of the faithful. Usually by the time a devourer has strength enough to lumber about, this image is a composite of a dozen faces, and the deaths and damage they cause can't be easily blamed on one devout. Though the city has rituals, it is officially godless. Though the caryatids guard temples, those stand empty. Prayers spoken within the city are not answered, they are eaten. But still, the people have never fully stopped praying.

Caller In Darkness from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition Psionic Handbook
Monstrosity - Callers in Darkness, undead pollution.

Since the reign of the vampire oligarchs, the city has known how to burn fossils as a source of fuel. Properly interred after the appropriate rituals, a well-buried skeleton will blacken within a year, and the poorest families have long used their own ancestors for winter's heat. Recently, industrialists have discovered that layers of the ancient dead lie beneath the streets, pressed hard as stone by the weight of the city overhead, and even recently excavated grave earth can be compacted to a suitable density.

An unfortunate byproduct of this process is the release of callers in darkness, composite ghosts made from dozens of souls, released simultaneously when the fossil stone is burned. They are largely confined to the industrial districts that safely empty out at night, and will harmlessly evaporate in warm, dry weather. Unfortunately, they tend to accumulate in the coldest, wettest months of winter, and sometimes spill over into the factory-workers' housing districts and the dhampir ghettos, where they are blamed for the untimely deaths of infants and the elderly, and at least once, of an entire housing block whose lives were extinguished in a single night.
 
Caryatid Column from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition Field Folio
Citizens - Caryatids, guardians of tradition.

The oldest buildings in the city date back to ancient times, and each is home to caryatids, who are made of the same stone as the buildings, who remember every moment of their waking lives since the moment of their creation. The ancient buildings are now the city's most important civic sites - the courthouse, the library, the amphitheater. The caryatids enforce the Ancient Laws inside their buildings. It is impossible for one person to harm another inside without lethal retribution, impossible for anyone to appropriate these sites for anything other than their intended use.

The caryatids never leave their buildings except to pay one another occasional visits, walking along the ancient roadways. They spend much of their time sleeping, motionless, unbreathing. When awake, they seem to enjoy conversing with humans. Their knowledge of history is deep, but constrained to their vantage point, and riddled with gaps from their slumber. They never speak first, but will answer if addressed. They will not speak to everyone, and no one understands their criteria for choosing. They will answer any question if they can, and fortunes have been made, powerful people humbled, by asking the right question of a caryatid.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Campaign Setup - The Price

The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Price" would make a pretty good set-up for a campaign. I feel confident saying that because apparently the makers of Star Trek thought so too. This episode is a microcosm of the set-up that became the entire series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a single unanswered question left lingering at the end of the episode is enough to launch a second entire series in Star Trek: Voyager.

In terms of ideas that have generative power, "The Price" might be the most fecund forty-five minutes of television ever put on the air.
 
 
 
You might not realize it if you watch the episode, because it appears to be all about a love triangle between Riker, Troi, and a boyfriend-of-the-week character named Ral. Ral is a freelance negotiator, and like Troi, he has empathic abilities that let him sense other people's emotions, and also like Troi, he uses his abilities to do better at his job. The character story here is all about Riker proving to himself that he can do Troi's new boyfriend's job better than he can, and Troi proving to herself that she uses her psychic powers more ethically than Ral does, and also kind of about Riker and Troi reaffirming that even though they're not dating right now, they still like each other better than either of them likes anyone else.

So that's whatever, but it's these negotiations, and what they're all negotiating for that are campaign gold. Because at it's heart, what you have here is a great prize that is controlled by a weak faction, three stronger factions competing to win an alliance with the weaklings and control of the prize, and the weak faction themselves trying to maintain some semblance of autonomy in the face of the others' territorial ambitions.

And just like in Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeoneque's recent post about using Dune as a campaign set-up, "The Price" presents a situation that you could reskin to match whatever campaign aesthetic you favor.


So the key elements of this set-up are:
 
 
The great prize - A location of great power to whoever controls it. In "The Price" it's the Barzan Wormhole, an unstable gateway to the far side of the galaxy. In Deep Space Nine, it's the Bajoran Wormhole, which is a stable gateway to the far side of the galaxy.

The prize can be anything valuable enough to be worth fighting over, and too tied to it's location to be feasibly relocated, so it could be an oasis, or an oil well, or the sole planetary source of Spice. Although I will note that if you want planar travel in your campaign, the precedent is already there.
 
 
 
The weak faction - The people indigenous to the place where the great prize is located. Notably, when I say that they're weak, I mean that they're too weak to militarily defend the prize from anyone who wants to take it by force, and too weak to economically exploit the prize for their own benefit. So they're in the market for a benefactor. It's sort of a shotgun marriage though, because they have to choose one of the stronger factions, because they'll invaded if they don't pick, and would probably be decimated if the stronger factions fought a war with each other over control of the prize.

In "The Price" the weak faction is the Barzans, an alien-of-the-week faction we've never heard of before and will never hear of again. In Deep Space Nine, it's the Bajorans, who we actually have heard of before, and who, you know, stick around for the entire series. The Bajorans are a pretty religious people. They have a theocratic government, believe in the importance of revelation and personal experiences with the divine, they oppose secular education and other non-religious public institutions, and oh yeah, their key representative on the show, "our hero," is a former terrorist who loves to tell stories about her "good old days" of waging terror. (The show plays a bit differently today than it did back before September 2001, is what I'm saying.)

Anyway, your weak faction can be deferential or defiant, but what's important is that they seemingly cannot hold onto the great prize without picking one of the stronger factions as an ally. They aren't exactly the protagonists of either show, but this faction wouldn't be a bad choice for your player characters to belong to. They're the belle of the ball, they have their pick of the litter, and who knows, maybe they can figure out a way to refuse all three suitors, or arrange shared custody, or find some other way to subvert the restrictions of the scenario to achieve a better outcome for their faction.
 
 

The distant empire - One of the strong factions, arguably the strongest of the three, but the great prize is at the very edge of their territory, and they're stretched a bit thin out here. So while they might win hands down closer to home, here they're forced to compete on much more even footing. The distance involved might be one of the only reasons why the weak faction isn't already a part of the empire, in fact. They represent the promise of civilization and the threat of assimilation. If the weak faction picks this ally, they'll be welcomed into the local pinnacle of culture and refinement, but at the potential cost of being forced to give up their cultural distinctiveness.

In both "The Price" and Deep Space Nine, this role is played by The Federation, who are the protagonists and "good guys" of both series. You could follow that lead and assign your player characters to this role. If your players take on the part of any of the stronger factions, the campaign becomes a mission to perform tasks that will impress the weak faction, and do espionage to subvert the other two strong factions. Part of me feels like the weak faction deserves to be given the agentic role in the campaign, but there might be more for your players to do if they're the ones wooing rather than the ones being wooed.

A key creative task here is to decide on some kind of incompatibility between the empire and the weak faction. Because they're the strongest, because they come bearing all the wonders and comforts of civilization, because they're offering equal-status membership alongside the other nations in their union, this faction seems to be making an offer that there's no good reason to refuse. So you need to make sure there is a good reason. In "The Price" it's not really clear, we've never met the Barzans before, and their ambassador just seems kind of wishy-washy. In Deep Space Nine, the Bajorans are religious where the Federation is secular, they worship "Prophets" that the Feds see as "wormhole aliens," and they just recently managed to kick out the previous occupying conqueror (via the aforementioned campaign of terror), which makes independence seem much more attractive than membership. In your campaign, the weaker faction might not want to give up their gods or their language, they might believe in different economic  or political arrangements, they might have different perspectives on gender or sexuality, or they might be a society of fish-people unsure about joining an empire of land-dwelling mammal-peoples. Or maybe they're more like the Roman Empire and "membership" isn't going to be on anything like equal standing. Whatever works for you.
 
 
 
The merchants - A second strong faction, they have a plan to use the prize to make money, and they're willing to cut the weak faction in for a small slice of the pie if they're granted control. Both the other two strong factions mostly seem to want to prevent each other from getting ahold of the prize, the empire might have some noble-sounding but probably-slow-moving plans to use it for the betterment of all humanity, but only the merchants really have a plan to really do something with the prize, and that something is going to make everyone involved very quickly very rich.

In "The Price" and Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi take on the role of the merchants. In "The Price" they aren't chosen pretty much just because they're the "bad guys" of the episode. In Deep Space Nine, they actually do get the chance to launch trading expeditions through the wormhole, and make a lot of money for themselves and the Bajorans when they do so, although later there are consequences.

The merchants offer the most economic benefit for the prize, but otherwise occupy a kind of middle-ground between the empire and the conquerors. They don't want a political union at all, just a contract that apparently maintains the weak faction's sovereignty and autonomy. Like the empire, they're offering a kind of equality, although they also inspire a kind of queasy feeling that things won't really be as equal as you're being promised. There's a sense that, like the conquerors, they're going to move in an make themselves at home. The real threat of the merchants is the threat of unrestrained capitalism, and all the ills that can accompany it - pollution and environmental destruction, the landscape is changed beyond recognition, foreign workers who speak a new language and practice new customs, foreign soldiers who commit crimes and behave as though they're above your laws, entertainments that you consider "vice" spring up to service the outsiders and some of your people get a taste for them, an influx of cash transforms your society by rewarding some of your people while impoverishing others, a simple increase in population and traffic turns your town into a city, you can't go "home" because that no longer exists.
 
 

The conquerors - The final strong faction. In "The Price" this part is played by the Chrysalians, another alien-of-the-week we've never seen before and will never see again. The Chrysalians are a bit of a cypher. We know they hired Troi's boyfriend-of-the-week to negotiate for them ... aaand that's about it. In Deep Space Nine, we get the Cardassians, a species of fascist reptile-people whose government appears to be modeled after 1984. They previously occupied Bajor and subjugated the Bajoran people, but never did much of anything with the prize while they held it. The threat of retaliation by the other two strong factions is the only thing preventing them from trying to reinvade.

Because of the major differences between the Chrysalians and the Cardassians, there's no single strong precedent for this faction, although since I named them "the conquerors" you can guess which model I recommend. I will say though, that I think this set-up will work better if they have a reputation for being conquerors elsewhere, but haven't actually the former occupying army who used to have their boots pressed against the weak faction's neck. There's not really much temptation to make an alliance with the conquerors if they previously conquered you - although it does pile on the pressure to ally with one of the other two.

The Chrysalian option makes this faction kind of a wildcard. Their promise and peril could be pretty much anything you want. If you do model them after the Cardasians, I would say that their promise is protection. They have a strong military and will use it to defend you. No one else is going to be allowed to hurt you anymore. The peril is that these people are unrepentant autocrats and their government is a tyranny. Before the ink is even dry on your agreement, you won't be allowed to say anything critical of the conquerors, and if you ever feel like the deal has been altered, you'd better pray they don't alter it further. While the empire and the merchants are both likely to seem a bit libertine compared to the weak faction, the conqueror's laws are going to be more restrictive, and probably something the weak faction enjoys is going to be made illegal. The conquerors also don't really want to use the great prize, they just want to have it, and to make sure no else has it.
 
 
 
That's the main set-up, and as I said, it should work with whatever genre reskin you wanted to put over it. The campaign starts with the courtship with all the counter-espionage and corporate intrigue between strong factions you desire, in due course, the weak faction makes the decision and picks a partner. How they choose probably ultimately depends on what they want - do they want culture? do they want money? do they want to be powerful, or to feel protected by someone powerful? This alliance will be tested, and might endure, or it might fail, leading to a new alliance. The losing factions might attempt to seize the prize directly. And of course, the happy couple will want to use the prize to accomplish a goal.

You could also add a few extra complications if you wanted. The space station Deep Space Nine becomes the fortress. It turns out that to control the great prize, you really need to control the fortress. Long-term, holding the fort requires being on friendly terms with the natives of the weak faction, but short-term anything is possible. The Klingons could serve as the mercenary army. They're ostensibly allied with the empire, but a new warlord might give up fighting for pay and start fighting for conquest and/or the joy of fighting. They have a decent shot to capture the fortress no matter who's holding it, and the opportunity to recapture it might tip the balance of power. The Romulans could serve as the royal spies. A highly trained group of infiltrators and saboteurs, they're on friendly terms with the conquerors, but as with the mercenaries, their loyalties could shift.

And finally, there's my favorite faction, and a key reason to make the great prize a portal to somewhere - the people from the other side. These could be djinn- and ifriti-people who live at the bottom of the oasis, archaean natives of the deep hot biosphere at the bottom of the oil well, or my personal favorite, extra-planar entities from the other dimension the portal links to. Because the wonderful thing about making the prize a portal is that you get to go to the other side and see what's over there. It also means that the people from the other side can come to you, which is also exciting. In Deep Space Nine the people from the other side start out as just another faction, and eventually grow into an unstoppable army who seem impossible to defeat. They don't have to be that way in your campaign though. They just have to be interesting enough make the possibility of planar travel seem tempting rather than forbidding.
 
 
 
Planar travel, incidentally, is the answer to that lingering question, I mentioned in the very beginning, when I said that "The Price" also inspired Star Trek: Voyager. The Federation and the Ferengi both send crewed shuttlecrafts through the Barzan Wormhole to the far side of the galaxy. The far end of the wormhole turns out to be unstable, and the Feds barely make it back through in time. The Ferengi miss their chance, and are forced to try getting home the long way, a trip that will take 70 years at top speed. "What if a Federation crew got trapped by a one-way wormhole?" is the question that becomes Voyager.

I started thinking about campaign set-ups after reading Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque's post about a faction-heavy set-up. Jack's two most recent publications, The Liberation of Wormwood and Dirge of Urazya are also campaign set-ups. Evlyn at Le Chaudron Chromatique has also written quite a few of these. Because what occurred to me is that a campaign set-up is different from a campaign setting. It's the same way that character motivations are different from character occupations.

A campaign setting is a world where adventures can take place. It's a lot of fun to imagine what those worlds might be like. But there's something missing when all you have is a campaign setting, and that missing piece will leave you saying "it's a nice place to visit, but I don't know what you'd do there." A campaign setting, by itself, is not enough. You don't just need characters, and a world, you need characters who have a place in the world and a goal that sends them out into it. Without that, all you have is a travel guide. The same setting, incidentally, can probably host many different campaigns, which are made different by their differing set-ups.