Incorporating History and Chemistry Into My Tabletop Campaign

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.

Setting Background

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.

Historical Inspirations

Women working inside a London munitions factory. Source.

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.

Chemical Inspirations

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.

Branching Paths

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.

The Final Frontier

I’ve made a few posts about a one-page roleplaying game that I’ve been working on called The Final Frontier. It’s a simple tabletop roleplaying game perfect for any tired game master who just wants to run a quick oneshot with their players.

While I was designing the game I tried very hard to imagine scenarios that could be solved without violence. The game is meant to put players in control of characters not used to daring adventures and life threatening situations. Instead, players are challenged to use mundane skills to solve the problems before them.

I like to think that I succeeded. In the past few weeks I played several encounters with my players.

In the first one, players encountered a cult worshipping an alien hiding under the ice of Europa. The alien was infecting members of its cult with a psychic virus that allowed it to control them. Its goal was to get enough cult members to build a ship capable to taking it back home. My players didn’t care about any of this. They got back on their ship and left the inhabitants of the Europa colony to their fate.

In the second, my players encountered a strange alien object passing through the solar system. Though they didn’t know it at first, the object was an alien probe designed to test any species it encountered. After years of intercepting transmissions from Earth the object used the harvested data to present puzzles to the characters to help its algorithms ensure that it has been interpreting the data correctly. By the end of it only player character achieved their desired surge in internet popularity and another experienced what he believed to be a revelation and left ready to found a whole new religion.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the game is finally posted on! You are free to name your own price for the game so please, go check it out be sure to tell your friends about it.

Twenty Questions to Ask About Your Fictional Country

Okay so maybe it’s more like forty-ish. It’s hard to design a country from scratch. Many authors have to design at least several. If you’re sitting in front of a blank page scratching your head, this list is for you.

1. What is the climate like?

Us humans are pretty adaptable. We make otherwise hostile environments work for us by tailoring our clothes, our diet, and our homes to the local climate. Even ceremonial or luxury objects are descended from very practical pieces of technology.

2. Is it landlocked, coastal, or an island?

There’s a reason that most population centers are near a body of water. Water is literally life. It hydrates us, harbors fish and seaweed, and lets us move faster and easier than we can on land.

3. What resources are present?

Natural resources provide the foundation for an advanced economy. Without a strong foundation, the people of this country might be dependent on foreign supply lines.

4. What is the terrain like?

Is it wide and flat? Or rugged and mountainous? The easier it is to travel and communicate the easier it will be for a central government to exert control.

5. Are there any natural barriers that would impede movement?

Does an ocean or mountain range protect the country from invasion? Do its rocky shores make a harbor difficult to build?

6. Where are the sources of water?

Is it everywhere or nowhere? Who controls the potable water?

7. How many languages and ethnic groups are present?

Do the people see themselves as part of a single whole or are they just temporarily united for the next few decades or the next century?

8. Have any of these people been recently displaced?

Have these displaced persons been accepted by their new community?

9. How is society organized?

Who has all the money? Who does the populace listen to?

10. What form of government is there?

Is it a new democracy? An ancient autocracy? Something in between?

11. Do the people look favorably on the government?

If someone were to start a revolt how many would be likely to support them?

12. What religions are practiced?

Possible flavors include monotheistic, polytheistic, animistic, ancestor worship.

13. Is there a state religion?

Does that state religion tolerate competitors?

14. Who are the country’s neighbors?

And if there are neighbors, do they get along? Are they part of a regional coalition or trade zone?

15. Is this country more powerful than its neighbors?

Is someone preparing for a war of aggression? Does the populace fear an invasion in the near future? Has revolution in a neighboring country put the ruling class on edge?

16. What are the country’s major industries?

Does the government feel that it needs to prop up these industries? Are any of these industries owned by the state?

17. Is the country dependent on its neighbors for any important resources?

Can these resources be used as a form of indirect control? Do the people feel that they are paying fair prices for these imports?

18. Does the country have any colonies abroad?

Who owns these colonies? Are they ruled directly? Are people born in the colonies citizens? What languages do they speak?

19. Are any parts of the country’s territory contested by its neighbors?

How long has this territory been contested? Do the people living there have family on both sides of the border?

20. Does this country have any historic rivalries?

Populations can have rivals just like people. Is the rivalry over religious differences? An ancient betrayal? Are the royal houses related?

Campaign Cartographer: First Impressions

I am always looking for new worldbuilding tools. Am I substituting more tools for actually working on things? Probably, but it is fun.

There are a lot of worldbuilding tools out there, and figuring our which will best suit your workflow is tough. Personally I seem to just buy all of them, but that doesn’t mean you should have to. So, is Campaign Cartographer worth it?

I’ll be honest I had no idea what it was until ProFantasy started advertising their stay at home bundle. Now, compared to Wonderdraft these programs are expensive. But I got their map maker, city maker, and dungeon maker for about $60 on sale. Still not terrible considering all the included art assets.

I poked around online for some reviews. I wasn’t entirely thrilled by what I found but looking at the screenshots I really liked the art. A lot of it conjures up images of classic fantasy maps. That said, there’s still a lot to learn about making them.

On first glance the UI is anything buy modern. It’s not like wonderdraft were the icons immediately hint at what they might do. It takes some tinkering and a few checks of the manual to figure out. I don’t know about you, but as dated as this UI looks, to me it just oozes functionality.

I know it seems old but just look at how functional it is!

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to use. After a few minutes I was able to figure out how to draw land masses and to add rivers. I wouldn’t say that they look any good, but I’m getting the hang of it.

While the UI is very different there do seem to be a lot of similarities when compared to Wonderdraft.

The most important shared advantage of the two are the art assets. Having premade icons for towns, houses, bridges, and what not are a huge timesaver. And just like wonderdraft it’s hard at first to figure out how to best use these assets and still seem original.

As long as you’re careful about what order you add assets in there is a lot you can make with just a small set.

Just like with Wonderdraft, the key is to experiment. After a few tries I think you’ll find that it’s easy to combine these assets to create something original. The trick is to be patient and not be afraid to start over. I know always want my first attempt to be the last but I don’t know of any project that doesn’t need a few edits.

So is campaign cartographer worth it? Is it better than Wonderdraft? To be honest with you, I don’t know. I can see already that both have a lot of potential, and Campaign Cartographer wouldn’t have lasted this long if it didn’t have potential. For me personally, I’m already enjoying Campaign Cartographer simply because it’s easier for my computer to run.

I’ll post a full review once I’ve had time to fully explore its features. For now it seems clear to me that Campaign cartographer has a lot to offer. Picking it up on sale and seeing if it’s right for you might not be the worst idea in the world, but be warned that it will take some getting used too. And right now they’re even featured on Humble Bundle!

Have you used Campaign Cartographer or Wonderdraft in the past? If so, do you have any advice you could give me? I’m always looking to learn. You can find me on twitter @expyblog. If you liked this review you can help support this site at the cost of a cup of coffee.

I made a One-Page RPG!

Making an RPG is something I’ve been thinking about doing for awhile. A few months ago I started compiling a short setting book for Sprawling Iron, but that is taking awhile and it will be quite some time before I get all the writing for it done and finalize the maps. In the mean time, I’ve made this 1 page RPG and plan to make a few others as I have time. This one is called Before the Mast, and is set in Catatera, a mobile city made up of hundreds of loosely affiliated ships that endlessly circles the globe.

I’ve included the pdf here for anyone who wants to try it. There has been exactly 0 play testing, so any feedback would be very welcome. Find me on twitter @expyblog and let me know what you think!

Five Tips for Fantasy Map Makers

1. Mind the Rivers

Some worldbuilders spend years getting their plate tectonics and ocean currents just right. All of this can be fun, but you can make a convincing fantasy map without it. The thing you should really focus on is rivers. No one really cares if your ocean currents are off or your mountains aren’t in the right place. Rivers have an intuitive aspect to them that no other geological feature can match and because of this mistakes are easy to notice. To put it simply, rivers flow from higher elevations to lower ones. Most often rivers will flow into lakes, oceans, or other rivers. Rivers do not flow into a lake, wait around awhile, and then flow into a different river.

This is important because an incorrectly drawn river is jarring to look at even if you don’t know why, and because rivers are hugely important to civilization. Most major cities are built on rivers in order to take advantage of the farmland and transportation that they provide. This means that rivers can serve as a vital plot device, and as such their portrayal should not be ignored. Of course all of this can be ignored, it is your world after all, but I would advise making sure that you have a good reason for doing so.

2. Make Your Map Fit Your Story

People grow to fit their environment. You wont find horse-mounted nomads living in the mountains or naval powers in the middle of the desert. People do the best they can with the hand they are dealt. In fiction, we can decide what that best is and determine a hand that will enable it. There is of course fun to be had in drawing a map and simulating the evolution of civilization from the stone age to now, but that is not what most of us are doing. Most of us have a story we want to tell or an idea for a world we want to depict. There is no reason then to design a landscape that does anything other than to enable the story you want to tell. If you want your countries to be fighting for control of a major sea lane they there better be access to water and natural choke points. If you want your characters to venture to a distant mountain and fight a dragon then you better include a mountain or two within reach.

3. Choose a Realistic Scope

A lot of us like to think big. We draw a map of an entire world, solar system, or even galaxy and then set about filling all of it in. The problem here is that you probably wont use most of what end up writing. Trying to fill every corner of a world with detailed is fun, but ultimately futile. Above all remember that map is meant to be a reference for your players or readers, and the focus of the story is likely to only concern a small corner of the world.

Lately I have preferred to start with a single region or country that is going to be the focus of the setting. Once I have a solid idea of what that country will be I start to fill in its neighbors. Unless I have good reason to, I try to avoid writing detailed histories of these neighbors. I make a brief summary of their current state and history, and after that I try to only flesh out the aspects of this neighbor in areas where they intersect with the story I want to tell.

4. Pay Attention to Natural Barriers

Rivers aren’t the only feature on the map that shape a civilization’s development. What hinders movement in your setting can be just as important. Swamps, mountains, deserts, and seas are all important in imposing limits on an empire’s expansion, providing shelter for smaller groups, and providing places to hide all sorts of interesting dungeons.

Once barriers are in place, routes to circumvent them gain immense strategic and economic importance. Mountains, swamps, and other remote areas might also be where your world’s exiles and hermits choose to live away from society. Both of these provide opportunities for interesting conflicts or quests in a story or campaign. Characters and armies can be sent to secure and defend mountain passes, or might discover that the old hermit living in the swamp has the answer to all of their problems, but reaching him can be an entire adventure in itself.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Things

Getting wrapped up in the worldbuilding is easy. It’s also easy to be disappointed. The finished product rarely resembles the initial concept and there is nothing wrong with that, except of course if you are not happy with it. If you getting into your worldbuilding and you realize that you put a mountain in the wrong place or your cities are too far apart. If you begin to get the feeling that your map is keeping you from writing the conflicts and plot lines that you want then by all means change it. Starting a new project by drawing a map can be a great way to start, but that map should not be a cage. Sometimes we need to make revisions, and it doesn’t do any good to get too attached to a map you have drawn. Keep it of course, even discarded ideas can be useful later on. Don’t be afraid to retcon the entire map if it no longer serves its intended purpose.