Becoming a Dungeon Master and a Love Affair with the Malazan World. Fith Edition D&D Design.
Updated: Jul 11, 2018
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Knowing that I would be leaving London and therefor my Dungeons and Dragons group with my friends I knew it would be hard when I got hoe to find people to play with. Most of the people I grew up with had moved away and as I live in a village it is a bit hard to find people.
In order to facilitate getting to play I realised that I needed to come up with my own Dungeons and Dragons campaign for me to Dungeon Master. Because if there wasn’t already a group there was no reason why I couldn’t make my own.
Having only started the year before I had none the less devour the rule books and made over thirty characters, all with (in my friends opinion) ‘bad’ class and race combinations. What can I say? I like the challenge of working out why a Goliath is a Wizard with the Noble background.
Though it was suggest to me that I could start with one of Wizards of the Coasts Wonderfully made pre-existing campaign books the opportunity to create and problem solve in my own game was too much of a temptation. It is after all why I love art and games design.
Making a whole world from scratch though…that is a tall order. Fortunately help was at hand with a book series from the same group of friends had gotten me into. The Malazan books of the Fallen by Steve Erikson. Nine books with numerous spin of books some written by another writer Ian Cameron Esslemont. Why are both of these two men writing in the same world? Because the story started as their Advanced Dungeons and Dragons campaign when they were studying at university. Erikson as an anthropologist and Esslemont as an archaeologist, and by god you can tell they like their history. I have never read a book series with so much age and world building in it short of the galaxcy spanning worlds created by Games Workshop for their Warhammer 40,000 series. I havn't played the game in years, but I still read the books and can't help but love the setting.
You can also tell that they played a very brutal D&D game. If you think Game of Thrones kills a lot of characters you have no idea what you have gotten yourself in for. People that you think are important can die on one page with nothing leading up to it. No build up, they just rolled a 1 on something and are dead.
I’ve also never cried so much in a single book series.
For a series that focuses a lot of war, soldiers and fighting with almost no romance whatsoever it is none the less one of the most deeply moving books series I have ever read. Reading book two I ended up crying on the bus uncontrollably. This normally only happens if a dog dies! I think I have cried twice reading books before but he managed to pull the emotions out of me at least once for each of the nine books, and no it wasn't jsut when somone died.
As someone who loves world building and likes a more role play heavy game of D&D then there really wasn’t an option. My players shall play through the Books of the Fallen, and oh how they shall fall.
To avoid needing to wrap myself up too heavily in the plot I chose to start my players in book three and rather than following the main characters the players would start alongside some secondary figures from the books. A man named Gruntle and his caravan.
I have to beg my player forgiveness here. I’m railroading them but at least I am up front about it. I am a new DM and I struggle balancing prep and improvisation> TO make my life easier Everyone starts as another guard hired onto the caravan, and they each need to have a reason why they are heading to the city of Capustan the destination of the caravan.
They have a deadline they need to reach. The city is soon to be under siege. Wether or not they get there before the army is there depends on how many side quests they do and how long they take to do them.
What they do and how they do it is up to the players, but for a new DM it makes my life a lot easier if I at least know where the destination is.
Importantly I’m a games designer as much as I am a fan of Erikson. Erikson worked his game in the GURPS role playing system of which I had no understanding. Also very few people play it. So I would be playing this game in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. I knew how to play it I had abetter chance of finding players.
The problem? The Malazan world does not follow most of the tropes of traditional fantasy. No Dwarves, Gnomes, Orcs or trolls. There are daemons but they don’t follow the same mould as D&D and western mythology and magic works differently.
So how do I go about making them work together? How much can I keep from both without losing something important from either one?
The main answer was to re-skin as much as I could. The large, muscled and hairy Trell could use the orc stats, they both have tusks don’t they? The hulking Toblakai and their various descendants could be Goliaths. Sure the flavour might take a moment to get to used to for players but that is easy enough.
But what about the races for which their is no analog? What about the insect armoured Moranth? What about all the D&D races. Do I just get rid of them as I had seen most people on the internet do? The problem there lies in game balance and variation. Without those options with their various bonuses and racial abilities the game is more restrictive for players. Most people are different from me and like to have a high number in their primary game statistic. If they are going to play a Warlock then they are going to want the +2 charisma that a Tiefling and a Half-Elf gives. But where do they fit into the world? Which is more important, staying true to the books, or ensuring that the game is fun for players even if they have never heard of the book series and that the game promotes a diverse range of classes and play styles? I think it is obvious from my tone which I chose.
This was the biggest challenge for world building, and by that account the most fun as well. How could I make Dragonborn, Tieflings and gnomes fit into the world? Would I need to make up whole new peoples and slot them into the story or could I find somewhere little explained that I could fit to my own goals?
The answer is a mixture of the two. I Found empires and people that are mentioned very little and changed them into one of the races from D&D, while also working out how they could fit into the game. Tieflings? The Umryg empire is mentioned once in a single book to my knowledge. And island kingdom with a limited enough description that I could build out from it and it wouldn’t change very much if I faulted them into blue skinned and horned humanoids. How do they fit into the genealogy of the world? Well that at first was a problem as the evolution of races from older ones is a big part of the Malzan books, discovering who is descended from what is an interesting exercise for readers. Eventually I remembered a race of daemons exist in the books with large horns from their heads with their own sophisticated empire within their own Warren. Importantly remember that these are not your Hellfire daemons. These are people from their own Warren and world.
Finally how to make them different from normal D&D Tieflings? A culture and a people were really what I was after. Fortunately some time ago I had found some illustration by the artist Phobs of Tieflings that really blew me away. I fell in love with their colour and the clear cultural style that linked them all together.
All that was left to work out where all the other D&D standard races fit into the world. Ill be posting more about the individual changes in another post.
And the magic? During my research I found a lot of D&D players who had started trying to play in the Malazan world. Almost all of them tried to change the magic system for D&D. Magic works slightly differently in the Malazan world.
Without giving away too many spoilers there are different plains of magic, in this case called Warrens. A mage (a catch all term here) can draw magic from one of these warrens. More powerful and skilled mages can draw from more Warrens. Especially powerful ones can travel to them. A mage who uses the Warren of Hood, the god of death, can both heal and kill, as well as interact with spirits and even resurrect the dead. They can also travel to Hoods own realm. The problem is that for most mages this means that this is ALL they can do and it is a very flavourful thing about their character. A Mage who uses the warren of Ruse can only use sea based magic. That is it.
The problem is that D&D doesn’t work that way. So most people try to change it by inventing their own magic system. I agree that the feeling of the Warrens is so key to the books that you can’t just get rid of it. But the way magic works in 5e D&D is so balanced and interlaced with the game that you might as well just go play GURPS anyway, that is after all why they used it, due to its flexibility.
Again I don’t think this is needed. All it takes is re-skinning. Give each player at the start of the game a Warren to call their own. Describe it to them, and then when they cast their spell, describe how it looks different to someone casting the same spell but who uses a different warren. Using Ruse the Warren of the sea while your friend is using D’riss the Warren of the sea? Both cast mage armour? No problem. I can leave it to your own mind to work out how that looks different for each of them. Fog cloud? Fine, for Ruse you get fog, for D’riss you get a dust cloud made from small particles of rock. Not a problem.
Then there is the problem of Damage types.
What if a sorcerer who uses a Warren of the Sea wants to cast fireball? Should it still deal fire damage? Could it be a boiling ball of steam instead? Possibly, possibly not. It doesn’t quite fit neatly and won’t work for every spell.
So why not just change the damage type? But then doesn’t that change game balance? This is something that I notice a lot of people fail to understand when they first try and change the rules. They think changing fireball to ice or thunder won’t matter. What they fail to realise is that the reason it does fire damage is that it is the second most resisted damage type in D&D, that is why the spell is so powerful, because it won’t always work. Where are psychic and force damage spells don’t exist a lot and tend to do slightly less damage, because little or nothing can resist it.
Fortunately for me I don’t need to follow the standard D&D resistances for monsters. After all a lot of the creatures I use from the Monster Manual will look different anyway in order to fit the setting. In that case I can spread out the resistances a bit more, have less things resit poison, and more resist force as needed. Again the Malazan world gives me a good outlet for the use of almost any monsters I want. Though the standard countries and worlds don’t have roaming giant beasts all over the place attacking people they are rife with old temple and tombs where daemons are bout to service or hurried to keep the away from people. These Daemons can take almost any form I need depending on what Warren they are from. There are plenty already mentioned in the books which again can have their skin torn of and wrapped nicely around a Monster Manuel creature.
The only problem is that to maintain the flavour many of the named ones need to be changed in some way. The Kenryll’ah, the ancestors of the Tiefling re skin mentioned above. They are very large, so giants right? But they aren’t really known for throwing boulders nor do they really have fire or Ice immunity. They are a starting point. But I need to work out how to keep them interesting.
Oh dear, now when have the next big problem. The battle royal that is ‘which race is the most powerful’. Working out a Challenge rating for the various races that exist, especially if they have no D&D analog is another whole can of worms. I posted it on the Malazan Empire facebook group. Wow that was interesting to watch.
I think at this point I should stop however. As an introduction this is quite long enough.
To close I will tell you that I found a group, we take turn play as the Dungeon Master and so the challenge of building the world began. After a few games I ended up running a second game as well, this one online and requiring art assets which is the main reason for me starting this part of the blog, more info on which is to follow.
For anyone interest in running their own games of Dungeons and Dragons in the Malazan work please come back later to follow my exciting start as a new DM and get some inspiration for your own campaign, and perhaps help me out when my brain starts to turn to mush.