Using Microscope to create a campaign setting.
I had a general idea for the campaign but I liked the idea of using Microscope to come up with some of the background and history. For a few years I had been thinking about doing a campaign setting loosely based on ancient Carthage in North Africa, using Pathfinder rules. I had written endless notes and ideas but didn’t have any players or the time to do a proper campaign. So, recently I found a few people keen on playing and it all started to happen
I decided to use a simplified version of Microscope, which is described here. Instead of role-playing scenes in full, the player who set up the scene would ask a question and one of the other players would answer it. I figured we would be doing plenty of role playing in the actual campaign, plus we would get more turns in if we shortened the scenes. In the end only one player was able to make it for the microscope session so it was a two-player game (me and him).
I started by outlining roughly my idea for the campaign I wanted to run, and I provided a rough terrain map of the area. We talked about this and came up with a concept: Humans explore and settle a group of large islands.
Book Ends: The beginning of our history was the first human discovery of the islands. The end was the islands were fully explored and populated by a variety of human cultures with no central power.
The palette was:
Yes to gnolls, sahuagin and lizard folk. No to native/local elves, dwarves gnomes and orcs. (This left it open for me as DM to bring some in later if I wanted to, but there were no large populations of them in the Western Islands).
Yes to sorcerers and a female sorcerer bloodline. No to wizards
Then we started playing. I had a few periods and events that I had planned to put in, as I had a rough idea of the sort of history I wanted in my campaign but no details. As it happened we went off in all sorts of directions and came up with some very odd but good stuff! We decided to set our campaign in the very end period of the history we made so I have deleted a few of the very last events which may or may not directly affect the players as we continue to campaign. J knows what these were but may not remember them right and in any case I might have changed them a bit. This is what we came up with.
The foci were (in playing order):
The first Port on Khamsaa
The Isis cult
The new gnoll culture on Khusin Island
The legacies were:
Amenzu the Voyager
The Harbo family bloodline
The mutated monster man
Marissa the Isis Priestess
Start Period: Islands are unknown to humans and not settled by any mammals.(Light)
Lizard folk are the only intelligent humanoids on the islands, which are arid and mountainous. Animals include giant spiders, reptiles and birds.
Stone age tribes start exploring the islands nearest the desert coast. They are related to the mainland Stone Age cattle and goat herders. (Light)
Genocide on Khamsaa, as a large human clan settles on Khamsaa, and discovers the lizard folk who are all exterminated. (Dark)
Amenzu the Voyager dies. His crypt is secret. Amenzu is legendary founder hero, first explorer of the islands. (Dark)
The Age of Chaos: gradual climate change, sea levels rise over several centuries
Old mainland kingdoms collapse. (Dark)
Storm Giants build a temple for the human goddess Isis, on one of the outer Islands, Storm Island. This is a departing gift as they leave the island; the time of the Storm Giants is over. (Light)
As sea levels rise over several generations, a coastal river valley civilisation in the southern mainland collapses due to flooding and the spread of salt marshes. Eventually the stone ruins of their cities are drowned and the Sahuagin take over and build their city on the ruins under the shallow bay. (Light – for the Sahuagin anyway!)
(Scene) The four-armed Sahuagin King moves into the flooded ruins of the human palace and discovers that the city was built around a strange group of rocks with great magical powers of mutation and change. He and his minions learn to use this power to dominate other sahuagin. (maybe sorcerer bloodline for aberrations etc)
The Age of Progress and expansion
Harbo’s fleet comes south, builds trading colonies, and introduces Iron Age technology to locals. New Amenzu cult spreads throughout islands among the old clans. (Light)
King Harbo of the northern empire of Chum Cha’aka brings a huge fleet (30 ships and thousands of soldiers and settlers) south to explore the islands. Harbo builds his fleet base/ trading post on the island of Khamsaa and enslaves the local clans. While most of the other islands are not ruled directly by Harbo, his fleet and the Chum influence greatly change island societies. (Light)
The Islanders are devastated by plagues that spread ahead of the new settlers as they explore the islands. (Dark)
Battle of the Underwater City. Harbo’s fleet sails to the centre of the Havabal sea directly above an underwater sahuagin city. (dark)
(scene) An army of sahuagin warriors attacks the ships. How does Harbo win? During the battle sorcerers on board the ships summon an earthquake which causes an underwater canyon to collapse burying the sahuagin city. The power of the Sahuagin is broken, and Harbo rules the seas.
Harbo the second inherits his father’s titles and starts conquering and subjugating the islands. He builds a fortress and the city of LiHarbo on the island of Winson. (Dark)
A war breaks out between Harbo II and the kingdoms of Ni Ani over control of the island of Schulin. This war rages for a decade and the island is devastated. (Dark)
(scene)Eventually Harbo decides to recruit a mercenary army of Gnolls from the desert mainland and he imports them to fight in Schulin. Harbo wins the war but the gnolls quickly become a problem for him as they establish a population in the mountainous interior. (Dark)
Harbo III becomes King of the islands, He lives in LiHarbo and is determined that their will not be another war. He is devoted to a pacifist philosophy, and is just and kind. (Light)
(Scene) Harbo III sends an emissary to meet the Sahuagin of the south sea. They do something terrible to the emissary and he returns a bloated mutated shell of a man with little trace of his earlier personality. Harbo is horrified and the emissary is taken to the Isis temple at Li harbo and confined out of sight while the priestesses work on finding a cure for his mutations.
A group of Gnolls in the mountains of Schulin burrow deeper than is sensible and discover an ancient underground temple.
(Scene)They explore the temple and tear a rift into another dimension. What happens? answer: An enormous flying worm creature with telepathic powers breaks through to their world and enslaves them all.
(Scene) Harbo III sends Bazru, an emissary, to negotiate peace with the Schulin mountain gnoll tribes. What happens? Bazru is enslaved and controlled by the worm. He returns to LiHarbo with a peace treaty but is now an agent of the worm.
One of the Schulin island tribal chiefs enters an alliance with the mountain gnolls. Together they take over the southern port of Schulin (now known as Gnolltown) where the chief declares himself tyrant and runs the town as a pirate base, preying on the southern shipping lanes. (dark)
(scene) Many humans from his tribe join a new cult of the worm. The Amenzu cult in Gnolltown protests and declares the worm cult to be evil. How does the tyrant react to this? The tyrant does nothing openly, but in the following weeks and months, almost all the local Amenzu cult leaders are murdered or go missing (most are fed to the tyrants gnoll bodyguards).
The tyrant seizes the now empty temple of Amenzu at Gnolltown and reconsecrates it to the cult of the worm.
End Period: Fully explored multicultural islands with no dominant central power (Dark).
The last century or so, when the islands have no central power. Current campaign set in this period. We never did figure out how the central ruling power of Harbo fell apart but in this period the Harbo family only rule the island of Winson. The main human cultures are the Mazikeen, (descended from the original tribes of the islands plus related immigrants from the mainland), the Chum (from the northern empire), and the Manada, from the southern mainland grasslands.
A band of gnolls from Schulin hijack a ship and sail to an outer island where they pillage and loot a small town.
(scene) Sahuagin come ashore at night on the eastern coast of the desert, and attack a convoy, kidnapping a noblewoman and delivering her to a lord in Schulin. Why has he kidnapped her and why is he working with the Sahuagin? He is in lust with her and slightly mad, and the sahuagin agreed to do the kidnap in return for access to metal and magic technology which they cannot produce themselves.
The warlord and the princess have a daughter (Marissa, who will grow up to be the high priestess of the Isis temple at Li Harbo, which is developing some serious problems).
Countless experiments and failed cures have done nothing for the mutated emissary still confined under the Isis Temple in Li Harbo. It is now over 150 years old and no longer recognisably human at all. It is getting bigger and starting to produce new appendages, some of which have detached themselves and escaped.
The Isis priestesses are struggling to contain the monster. They think there is still a glimmer of the original soul inside it and cannot bring themselves to destroy it. Now it is too late and they struggle to contain it in the underground chamber they have built for it. They are becoming morally compromised by what they must do to keep it contained. (Several events and scenes deleted her as I don’t want to give away what happens next and I may have changed bits slightly!).
The end for now..
That was the Microscope History we made. The following week one of the players decided to play a Tengu character, which added a whole lot of new stuff I had to add about how Tengu fitted into the world. Lots of fun, and half the islands and almost the entire mainland are unmentioned in this history so there are still lots of people and places left for me as a DM to invent.
The history we played out has given us a lot of details and quite a few unresolved issues in the campaign.