Last year I got to run my first full tabletop campaign since before the pandemic and I had a blast. Besides being the first time I’ve run a game in years it was notable for a couple of other reasons. Not only did the campaign run to completion, the setting was one that I’ve been designing from scratch for several years. The other exciting part about this campaign was that the party consisted of a chemist, a biochemist, a biologist, and a biophysicist. Being a chemist, I decided to take advantage of those backgrounds and tried to incorporate some chemistry into the campaign as well.
I decided that the characters would all be new arrivals in a major industrial city where they had come in response to recruitment posters seeking workers for a new munitions factory. There they would have the opportunity to get involved with labor riots, political malcontents, and sorcerous scheming. More on that later.
Goals and Railroading
When I was planning the campaign I had a few limiting factors in mind. The primary one was that one of my players was going to be moving out of the country soon, and the other was that I was supposed to be working on my dissertation. With that in mind, I wanted to make sure I was planning a campaign that could be completed in a relatively short amount of time with brief sessions to best accommodate everyone’s busy schedules. So I decided on some plot points that would always happen no matter what the players did. There was always going to be some kind of labor riot, someone would definitely try to assassinate the local Duke, there would be an explosion at the factory no matter what, and the Duke’s attempts at performing a dark ancient ritual in an abandoned temple beneath the city was always going to happen. The choices the players made would instead determine how they experienced these events, which perspectives they heard, and which faction’s machinations were successful.
Finally, I decided to use Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds ruleset for a couple of reasons. Firstly because I already owned the rulebooks and was somewhat familiar with it thanks to having briefly run a Deadlands Classic campaign a few years ago and a few Powdermage RPG oneshots before that. In practice, the rules were more like guidelines.
The campaign took place in a country called Whalvia, an anachronistic industrialized monarchy made up of a patchwork of regions that used to be independent kingdoms at some point in their history. At home, the Emperor/Empress wields considerable power but is limited in some ways by rights and privileges guaranteed to various city councils and aristocratic families. Overseas the story is much different. Whalvia is located on the edge of a supercontinent that comprises most of the known world. Huge storms fed by the hemispheric world sea regularly buffet the continent and Whalvia is one of the lucky few to be somewhat shielded by these massive storms thanks to its position on the coast of the Inner Sea. This has allowed Whalvian rulers over the centuries to amass large merchant and naval fleets with which they could venture out to far-flung locations for trade and conquest. This empire consisted of loose trade networks, leased territory, and proxy states whose monarchs were related to the Emperor through marriage, or outright conquest. All of this is controlled or owned either directly by the monarch or indirectly through their majority ownership of the Outer Sea Trading Company and its private armies. A lot of this doesn’t come up in the campaign but I like rambling about it so there you go.
More recently, Whalvia has come under the rule of the Empress Imerelda. Her elderly father Kirstivan II ruled for about 60 years and made many reforms during his reign but married late in life. When he died his daughter rose to the throne and while she was capable she was also not ready. Only two years into her reign a war began with Whalvia’s historic enemy and landlocked neighbor Icara. This brings us to the city of Hofni where the campaign took place.
Hofni is a large industrial city in western Whalvia situated at the confluence of two rivers. In the old days, its Kings were major rivals of Whalvia and the descendants of those Kings are now reduced to mere Dukes. The current Duke of Hofni was a close friend Kirstivan II and has become an ardent supporter of Imerelda in turn. He is also very old, is living with the injuries resulting from an explosion in his laboratory, and is very aware of the fact that he isn’t getting any younger. He also has no direct heirs. So naturally, patriot that he is, when the war begins he wastes no time evicting tenants and expanding his munitions factories to supply artillery shells to the front.
While the Duke has been working on these projects he has also departed from his normal scientific and alchemical studies and has been learning to perform sorcery himself with the help of his new advisor Zora(?). His family is old and descended from the original rulers of Hofni who built a temple that is now buried deep beneath the city where his ancestors made offerings to a now-forgotten god.
If you haven’t been able to tell this setting is heavily inspired by the early 20th century with fantasy, dieselpunk, and steampunk elements mixed in. And during the First World War, there was a very real shell shortage that was quite the scandal in the UK’s Parliament known as the Shell Crisis. This wasn’t unique to Britain, no one was prepared for the intensity of industrialized war and shortages caused problems in both east and west alike. I tried to replicate some of the working environment inside the munitions factories including the wooden clogs workers had to wear to prevent sparks and included several NPCs who were suffering from the effects of TNT poisoning and other workplace hazards.
The munitions factory I had the players working in was synthesizing TNT and then using it to fill artillery shells while the explosive was still molten (TNT melts at 80.35 °C ). Two of the player characters worked on the filling line and two others worked with the factory’s alchemists managing heat flows and mass transport.
Lots of people know about TNT but not as many know that those letters are short for trinitrotoluene. That’s a toluene molecule with three nitro groups. TNT isn’t the only explosive that was used in the first world war but for simplicity, I decided to stick with it. Despite being an explosive it’s actually fairly stable and will only detonate under specific conditions.
TNT is made by nitrating toluene using nitric acid, a process that requires a few other chemicals like sulfuric acid as well. All three may be familiar. Toluene has a sickly sweet smell and is often used to thin or strip paint. Nitric acid and sulfuric acid are also common chemicals and are produced industrially in huge quantities. Concentrated nitric acid is especially fun, is red in color, and gives off toxic red vapors. This red color is not actually nitric acid but various compounds of nitrogen and oxygen that can act as powerful oxidizing agents. These can cause some fun (dangerous) side reactions the synthesis of TNT is not done properly which I considered as a possible cause of the factory’s explosion.
Like I said before, I had a few different threads planned for the players to follow in Hofni. Here are the main three.
- Union organizers in the munitions factory agitating for safer working conditions.
- Evicted tenants who want revenge for being kicked out of their homes.
- The Duke’s efforts to reach an abandoned temple beneath the city that he believes will heal his broken body.
How It Went
The players immediately took a liking to the NPCs and got mixed up in a brawl between union organizers and the Duke’s guards sent to break up the meeting. Then, in exchange for weapons, they made a deal with the proprietor of a local dive bar to steal a quantity of TNT from the factory in exchange for supplies. Later, discontents used the TNT the players stole to make a bomb that was used to blow up the chemical storage tanks outside the factory. Heavy black smoke and choking chemical fumes filled the streets, it was great in a horrifically tragic way.
I worried about finding a way to draw the players into the Duke’s search for the temple beneath the city. Two character backstories made this pretty easy. One of the characters was academically inclined and wanted to secure a job in the Duke’s research facilities so there was an immediate hook to draw them all to the palace. The other was a character who was being stalked by a lost god.
In this setting gods and other entities are mostly gone from the world. Some are dead, others forgotten, and some just…left. The Old God of Hofni (OGH) was one of the forgotten gods. So forgotten that it had almost lost its form entirely. When one of my players said that his character was on the run from a shadowy entity he had met in a cave I knew what I had to do. The player didn’t know it, but in that meeting the much diminished OGH had latched onto him and his fear of it gave it new strength. In effect, he became a sort of pseudo-worshipper for the OGH which followed him to Hofni and took on his appearance. It was a lot of fun having the OGH appear in the distance to spook the players, give its new worshipper visions, and help them win the Duke’s favor by foiling an assassination plot.
The campaign wrapped up with the players finding the temple beneath the city. In the process, they fought a group of giant spiders and some reanimated temple guardians. Once they opened the temple the OGH was able to return to its home. Then, when the players realized that the Duke planned to use arrested union members as human sacrifices they turned on him and locked him in the temple. Also, they stuffed a roast pig full of TNT as a distraction. It blew up.
I had a lot of fun running this campaign. Like I said it’s the first one I had run in years and the first time I had run a game in a setting entirely of my own design. That was a little nerve-wracking and I came to each session worried that I didn’t have enough planned or that the encounters wouldn’t be fun enough. I was wrong though and we had a blast. I also really liked starting a campaign with a set ending and sessions that were limited to about two hours, it kept everything moving and I didn’t have to worry too much about story bloat or any kind of mission creep. Of course, all the fun we had was really thanks to the players. They took the setting I laid out before them and ran with it creating some unexpected scenarios that were a lot of fun to play through.