A seagull wheeled in the clear air above the crashing surf. It landed on a half-submerged chest and pecked curiously at the wood, before flapping away to avoid another wave.
Spiratus was feeling terrible. His aching body had not improved for having spent the last few hours in the frigid ocean water, though it had helped numb the throbbing pain coming from his shoulder where that fool elf had shot him. Worse yet, he’d been forced to let the bear carry him as his plate mail was too heavy to swim in. It’d been a humiliating couple of hours. What would the knights of Myth Drannor think if they could see him now?
In the early morning light he was able to see that the current was carrying them towards a small island, but the sun had risen by the time they struggled up the rock beach. Spiratus let go of the bear’s fur and stood in the shallow water while the bear carefully shrugged its other passenger off its back, the dragonborn with copper-green skin. Spiratus tried to help, but the bear let out a warning growl, stopping him in his tracks. It almost looked as if the bear was casting some sort of spell and suddenly the dragonborn coughed and spit up water. She’d survived the night, but there was an ugly bruise across the side of her head.
Spiratus looked up and down the beach. He saw the elf who’d shot him and a human pulling themselves up onto the beach. A little further out in the waves he saw the three barbarians together on what looked to be part of the ship’s mast. Even from the beach he could hear them arguing, something about how none of them wanted to paddle because it was too much like rowing a boat. Up the beach in the other direction came a tiefling, looking more like a demon than a human with dark blue skin, hooked legs, horns and a tail.
“It seems the currents have been kind to us,” said the tiefling.
“You have any idea where we are?” asked Spiratus as he dumped water out of his boots.
“It’s three days since Waterdeep. I believe we are more than halfway to Callydir, but not much more.” The tiefling turned his eyes to watch as the barbarians made it to shore and immediately charged off up the coast. “The imprisoned passengers seem to be enjoying their freedom.”
“My name is Nowhere.”
“Spiratus Sci,” said Spiratus.
“I landed further south and could see to the end of the island. There were some structures, but they did not look inhabited. I think it best if we head north.”
Spiratus turned and squinted off after the barbarians. The beach blended with marshland at this end of the island, a grassy expanse filled with the calls of birds. The island seemed to rise to the north though, the marshland becoming low lying hills before eventually rising to wooded bluff. Spiratus guessed it wasn’t more than ten miles away.
“Help me! Please!”
The shout had come from a hill in the distance, where the coast curved inland. A bedraggle man had staggered to the top of the hill. “Please, my wife! She’s stuck on the rocks!”
The man pointed desperately out to where a small reef was causing the waves to break white against exposed rocks.
The elf and his human companion immediately started running towards the man and Spiratus followed, though with his numb legs and heavy armor he wasn’t nearly as fast. When he finally made it around the bend in the coast, he was surprised to see the man had disappeared. The elf was standing on the beach, watching as his companion waded out into the waves.
“Where’d he go?” asked Spiratus between breaths.
“We think he must have gone into the water. We lost sight of him.”
Spiratus stared out towards the rocks. “I don’t see anyone out there.”
“Neither do we. Erdor is checking though.”
Erdor swam out into the ocean, fighting the waves that tried their best to drive him back to shore. Eventually he reached the jagged rocks and did his best to climb them, but the waves kept pushing him off. He disappeared for a minute or so and when he finally began swimming back Spiratus could see he was towing something that he’d tied to a rope.
“Well?” asked the elf as Erdor climbed up out of the waves.
“Nothing. Nothing out there. Didn’t see the man or his wife.”
“Perhaps something was trying to lure us out onto the rocks,” said a voice.
Spiratus turned to see that Nowhere had followed them. “What do you mean?”
“We don’t know this island and those rocks could be deadly if one is not careful. A good trap.”
“Maybe,” said Erdor as he untied his rope from around his waist. “I did see this had gotten stuck between two of the rocks though.” He pulled a chest from out of the water. “Looks like it might have belonged to the captain. Nicely made and waterproof by the look.”
The chest wasn’t very large and after a minute of fiddling with the lock, Erdor managed to get it open. Inside was a sheaf of parchment that turned out to be ship logs and maps.
The elf and Erdor examined a map of the Sword Coast while the rest of the survivors slowly trickled up the beach.
The bear who’d been helping the dragonborn growled out a question, “What do we do now?”
Spiratus started in surprise. So the bear was a druid, though one who seemed extraordinarily comfortable in her animal form.
“You can speak then,” said the elf, looking up from the map. “What’s your name?”
“You can call me Ethel,” responded the bear and gestured with a massive brown paw to the dragonborn who was leaning on her for support. “This is my sister, Korrin.”
“I’m Glyn Dagwood,” said the elf. “It’s good to meet you. Nowhere, our tiefling companion, has suggested we head north. If nothing else we can climb that bluff and try to get our bearing.”
“What about the barbarians?” asked Spiratus.
“They are currently spying on us from behind those bushes,” said Nowhere, pointing.
The bald barbarian instantly sprang from his hiding place. “WE WERE NOT HIDING YOU CURSED DEMON!”
“Come down here!” shouted Glyn. “We’re planning how to get off this island.”
“And if we don’t want to leave?” growled the barbarian. He cautiously stomped down the hill towards the rest of the party, still eyeing Nowhere with mistrust.
“Who are you?” asked Glyn.
“I am CHOPKIL!”
“And your companions?”
“Duk and Muk,” said Chopkil. They grunted at the rest of the group. Spiratus wasn’t really sure which was which.
“We’re planning on heading north up the coast. Would you join us?”
“Is that Demon going with you?”
“I don’t like him. Can’t trust him not to turn me into something!”
Glyn glanced at Nowhere. “We’re all stranded here together. We don’t know what dangers might be lying in wait for us.”
Chopkil grunted. Then pointed at Spiratus. “I don’t like halflings either.”
“I’m a Dwarf,” said Spiratus angrily.
Chopkil stared suspiciously at Spiratus, as if not quite trusting that there was a difference. Then he turned his glare back to Nowhere.
“What?” asked Nowhere.
“You’re going to turn me into a Newt.”
“No, I’m not.”
“I know you demons, up to your wizarding when I’m not looking.”
“You must make me a charm.”
Everyone watched as Chopkil picked up a piece of driftwood and crouched down on the beach. Taking a sharp rock he laboriously gouged out the words ‘nevr newt’ on the wood and tied a piece of string to it.
“It only works with blood,” said Chopkil, gesturing towards Nowhere’s hand. Nowhere reluctantly reached out and took the rock, making a small cut on one finger that he pressed onto the wood.
Chopkil smirked at his two companions then turned back to Nowhere. “Your demon magics have no power over me now!” he said as he triumphantly tied the wood around his neck.
Bending the environment
Creating a world takes a lot of time and mental energy so always be on the lookout for environments you can steal from. Instead of building a map from scratch I went island hunting on google maps. Driftwood island is based on Beaver Island in the Great Lakes.
Using an existing place meant I didn’t have to do the busy-work of generating geographical features and landscapes, but could instead simply adjust the existing features to fit my story. I copied the shape of the island, but scaled it up just enough so that it would take my players a while to walk anywhere, but made sure it was still small enough that it wouldn’t show up on any official D&D map resources (since I still wanted to use maps of the Moonshae Isles).
Here is a list of environmental items you don’t need to create if you use an existing place, but are all great chances to spark your imagination:
Industry (does your location already have a town? People in that town make a living somehow)
Animal life (this is also a great resource to inform your monster creating decisions. A large bird population on Beaver island is the reason Driftwood island has cockatrices)
Names (it’s nice not to have to name every fiddly little lake on your map)
Any time you get to research something there’s a good chance you’ll come up with world building ideas that you might never have had on your own. Maybe there’s a lentil festival celebrated each year? Maybe the water table is too high so none of the houses have basements? These little details add so much to a story and make your world feel like a living, breathing place.
Here’s a random, but great real world example. During the Santa Rosa festival a group of 100 men carry a 5 ton, 90 foot tower through the city of Viterbo, Italy. A beautiful (and occasionally deadly) yearly tradition. Here’s an article on the festival.
Bending the Rules
My very first monster encounter with the players gave them some tricky decisions to make rather than something to fight. Should they make the moral choice and risk themselves to try and save someone in (apparent) danger? Should they trust a man who called for help then disappeared? I wanted to make sure my players knew not to take everything at face value.
In the same way that I tend to bend real world places into D&D environments, I’ll often take existing D&D monsters and change them to fit a cool concept in my campaign. The man calling for help was, in fact, a Will-O-Whisp, but not a traditional one you’d find in the Monster Manual. Instead, my Will-O-Whisps tend to appear as illusions and are able to imitate human voices to draw unsuspecting creatures into traps. Using real monsters means you don’t have to make up stats if it comes to a fight, but still gives you creative freedom.
Bending the Characters
In general, I think it’s a good idea to bend over backwards to accommodate your players’ ideas when it comes to character creation. The more input a player has in character creation, the more connected they will be to their character, knowing they made something personal and unique. If the change is too powerful you can always tweak another aspect of the character to keep the power level balanced.
Ethel and Chopkil are both good examples of this. Ethel wanted to be a bear all the time, but the normal rules for a druid don’t allow this. I let her be a bear, but if she wanted to turn back into a half-elf (her true form) she had to use her druidic wildshape ability. She could still speak, but couldn’t cast spells that required complicated hand movements.
Chopkil wanted companions that were part of his religion. We decided to exchange his proficiency bonus for two companions (Thugs in the Monster Manual). Looking back, this was probably too much of a handicap to his character, especially in light of what happened to his companions, but I’ll talk about this more in a later post.