High Fantasy Campaign Design

Since a number of folks in our gaming group have shown an interest in having a high fantasy campaign, I’ve been working on a setup that would make such a game feasible while addressing some of the problems we’ve observed in previous games.

Troupe-Style Play

Troupe-style roleplaying, as introduced by Ars Magica, is probably the most interesting form of gaming for us, since it allows people to trade off the roles of gamemaster and player. However, one of the more tedious things this leads to is “crumbling”: resolving the way the rules of the game work so all game masters are in agreement.

The only internally consistent way to avoid crumbling is to have different game masters control separate portions of a world, or have a set of parallel worlds that the party can travel between in some fashion. (Roger Dearnaley has spoken of a setup where the characters have a magical puzzle-box that can teleport them between worlds.)

The idea I came up with was a single world that had a number of different domains where the laws of magic and physics could vary— providing an excuse for the vagaries of different game masters without setting precedents others would have to remember. Being vaguely influenced by Michael Moorcock’s Elric books and the phrase “Shattered World” (from the role-playing game, which I’ve never seen more of than the title, or maybe the books by James Michael Reaves, which I’ve never read), I had a vision of a world made of roiling chaos, with islands of stability floating along the surface like icebergs— either the world is still in the process of formation, or something terrible happened to it. Naturally, each different island could have its own laws of physics and magic. Small islands could function as dungeons; large ones (on the order of Hawaii, Japan, or New Zealand) could be whole nations for different gamemasters to administer.

The System

AD&D is a classic FRPG, but the level and skill systems are irritating. Rolemaster and Fantasy Hero require too much bookkeeping. Ars Magica makes wizards too much more powerful than other sorts of player character. Amber is a bit too free-form, and best suited to Roger Zelazny’s universe. It occurred to me that an excellent system for running the game might be Feng Shui, with a magic system where you have areas of competence rather than specific spells, and very general skills.

The Setting

The world will require some constants that the game masters can agree on ahead of time.

Day and Night

The world has a 24-hour day/night cycle with the usual 23° axial tilt; unlike Earth, it’s about 32,000 miles in diameter. The sun and moon are reliable and Earthlike, while stars, planets, nebulae, comets, weird sheets of light, and other phenomena tend to swim about the sky— some so slowly that you can only notice the difference from night to night or even generation to generation, others crossing the sky swiftly. Most theoreticians agree that the sun and moon are emblematic of Order, and the other stellar phenomena of Chaos. There are some islands that have a bubble of their own reality— in the manner of a regio from Ars Magica— that completely ignores the outside sky.


Chaos is a roiling mass of randomness, continually in the process of creating, transforming, and destroying. It has certain tendencies: it creates and destroys atmosphere at roughly the same rates, keeping the planet habitable; it tends to destroy a fair amount of water that flows off islands (as streams) and create it elsewhere as water vapor, maintaining the water cycle. It usually looks like roiling iridescent fog, but can glow, darken, or manifest vague shapes at any moment. When it produces or transforms living things, such life is usually DNA-based and of a fairly familiar form (though exceptions abound). (Since chaos has these apparent tendencies, there will be speculation as to whether chaos is not truly random or it’s being affected by divine will or unconscious mass belief.) It can be affected by willpower: a weak-willed person falling into chaos will probably be dissolved, a person with a moderately strong will should usually make it out with heavy mutations (probably related to how they got out of the chaos), and a person with a very strong will should be able to simply be ejected if they will it so. (It should not be possible to get anything useful out of chaos without great effort by a person of very strong will and possibly magic— there shouldn’t be a post of “village maker” where you go out, dip up some chaos, and turn it into whatever people need.) The arcanowave mutation rules for Feng Shui should be adaptable to handle what chaos does to people. Chaos should keep roughly to “sea level”, though there should be occasional waves of it and even the occasional chunk that detaches and goes floating across the land, transforming things in its wake.

Chaos should randomize magic as well: the best way to hold off chaos with magic is to create stuff to get in the way of the chaos. Lands where magic is rare should be less affected by chaos; this will help give rise to theories that magic and chaos are linked. (Some will claim that using magic helps use up chaos and makes the world safer; some will claim that using magic is a violation of the normal laws of the world and promotes chaos...)

Things immune to chaos

In order to have islands floating on chaos, there should be a form of stone not affected by chaos, with a magical property of floating on top of chaos. I’ve tentatively titled this stuff terra ultima. Such a substance should be very difficult to destroy, and my first idea for it is to make it a substance that can be worked and shaped, but not broken or shattered. (In order to avoid swords and armor being made of out of it, its density should be very high, and have some minimum thickness that makes it impractical to use it as a tool unless it’s been laboriously enchanted to be lighter.) I’ve arbitrarily designated it to be a translucent, milky crystalline substance.

To provide the fun of seagoing adventures without requiring that they be land-locked, there should be aqua ultima, a form of water that acts just like water at a molecular level, save for its tendency to form into a barrier against chaos, insulating anything inside it. It should also “float” on chaos. (Thus, a mixture of ordinary water and aqua ultima poured onto chaos would quickly turn into a pond.) In addition to the solid islands floating on chaos, this means there can be “ponds” and “seas” floating there as well. (Said “ponds” and “seas” will tend to amalgamate whenever they meet, given the nature of aqua ultima.) With breeds of coral reef that float, there can even be treacherous reefs and even whole floating islands in these seas. Aqua ultima is chemically inert, safe to drink, and capable of freezing and boiling; however, as a gas, it is a bit heavier than air (even when boiling hot) and will tend to condense out fairly quickly. It stays level with local chaos, and islands floating on terra ultima will be stable in aqua ultima. (This can lead to islands with surrounding seas, since aqua ultima is somewhat “clingy”.)

Initially, I considered the possibility of nebula ultima as a form of chaos-immune cloud for symmetry; it then occurred to me that this would be an excellent way of having blimps and dirigibles as the means of inter-island commerce. (Previously, I was thinking of ships made of terra ultima and the occasional small floating island with a Big Sail attached. These aren’t precluded, but dirigibles make commerce a bit less of an investment. And besides, dirigibles are cool.)

Since there are occasional chaos storms that will blow across the land, some things should be less affected by chaos than others. (It would be nice to have temples and other public works not to look like Salvador Dalí has been after them, unless they were designed that way.) Blessings should help maintain against transformation (though not necessarily in making the chaos do anything), and noble metals should be less affected by chaos than other substances.

I like the notion from Rolemaster of gems being highly magical, and there should be both normal gems and “chaos jewels”, morphing, iridescent, color-changing things emblematic of chaos as normal gems are of order. (Properties to be defined.) The creation of these should be obscure.

Where do the islands come from?

Possibilities include:

How are they populated?

None of these are necessarily exclusive from each other.

Character Classes

To stick with the traditional genre of high fantasy, one should have an abundance of appropriate character classes. I like the fact that Feng Shui comes with so many different archetypes that all correspond to “Warrior”, because this actually fits the genre better than just having a generic “Fighter” class.

Rangers will require creating a new skill, Ranging, which is about as broad as Intrusion is for thieves. They’ll also have access to a certain range of clerical magic (see below.)

AD&D style priests (who can hold their own in battle) and paladins will both be the same class, the Paladin, which will be a fighter with riding skill and access to clerical magic.

There are spheres of magic that require that you have an earlier one— they are currently marked with I, II, and III. You may not start with a sphere at a level higher than II. Learning spheres requires finding a teacher, old tomes, or supernatural creatures to teach you.

Regular priests will not be directly combat-effective and will correspond very closely to the Sorcerer archetype.

Priestly magic should be different from wizardly magic. I’m calling the two “Theurgy” and “Thaumaturgy”, and those will be the names of the skills (with “Sorcery” doubling as a synonym for “Thaumaturgy”). Magicks of life are only possible through Theurgy— wizards cannot heal or perform true shapeshifting (where a being truly becomes something else). Thaumaturgy is the only way to wield Illusion— not just the simple illusions a la Spectral Forces and other good old AD&D treats, but illusions so good they have power over reality. (This is why so many wizard spells have durations: they aren“t really doing it, they’re just providing an illusion that“s good enough to fool physics.) That level of illusion will permit someone shapeshifted into a mouse to crawl through a hole only a mouse could get through.

Theurgy should be based off a different stat than Thaumaturgy. Entertainingly enough, half of Feng Shui’s primary stats each have four secondary stats— one of the exceptions being Chi, which only has three (one of which is Magic). By adding a fourth secondary stat to Chi, as a basis for using theurgy, this actually rounds out the system. This new secondary stat is called Attunement, and represents the character’s ability to align themselves with outside forces (the forces of nature for druids, or a deity for priests).

Bards we might do in one of two ways. One might be to make them mages or priests, using music as their way of performing magic; limit their spheres appropriately. Alternatively, it might be that creative activity should be magical in its own right, and high enough rolls should be equivalent to various of the effects under the Mind schtick of Sorcery. Certainly, they should have a new skill representing musical performance, the contacts one makes when performing music, knowing the rumor mill, and so on.

The experience bonus of being attuned to a feng shui site, and the ability to adjust your attributes that goes with it, should be possible. If a member of the party is carrying a significant artifact that has a quest or pattern of quests associated with it, the entire party that is helping out in the quest has the benefit of being attuned to a feng shui site. Similar effects can occur if you follow signs and portents on a quest; divine powers are helpful in such matters. It is possible to be attuned to particular sites, but they have to be powerful sites (a palace, a temple), and you have to be in a significant position (so you’d have to be returning regularly if you’re venturing out for adventures). A tiny floating island could be effective for such purposes.

Various of the classic fantasy races should be possible as well. Dwarves, elves, halflings, and anything else that seems like fun.

High fantasy means people should wear armor, and the penalties in Feng Shui are a bit harsh for that. My latest idea for that is to come up with an alternative skill to Martial Arts, called Melee. It functions just like Martial Arts, but is based around combat in armor; it isn’t as good at Martial Arts-style stunts and doesn’t help you with Fu schticks, but it doesn’t take penalties for wearing armor as long as your skill (not AV) is high enough. Armor encumbrance penalties also impair combat spellcasting, though they do not affect out-of-combat, slow casting.

Characters will get high fantasy schticks as well.