My new Gears of Ruin Clockwork D&D 4e campaign starts as soon as the holidays are over (with a pre-campaign session right before).
I’ve spoken a bit about what the setting would be. I’m moving away from my traditional fantasy world and creating a new one based on Clockwork Fantasy tropes (Girl Genius, Iron Kingdoms, Shawn Gaston’s Clockworks, etc) and other sources I’m shamelessly stealing from (Dune, Eberron, Myazaki’s Castle in the Sky).
One of the challenge I found myself facing was finding a way to convey clockwork fantasy without falling in typical setting design pitfalls. The first one is thinking that ‘fluff’ alone can convey your setting’s feeling to your players. If I tell everyone “okay, now magic needs Clockworks so you’re stuff is all made of clockwork” and left it at that… the players would likely forget about it and the game would veer back to a vanilla 4e campaign.
On the other hand, if I sat down and started designing rules for clockwork items and wrote pages after pages of items and powers… I’d be likely spending too much time on crunch and getting lost in the details.
And I know that many of you get easily lost in the details.
As I sat trying to figure out how to design just enough fluff and crunch to get my campaign concept off the ground, I recalled the basic trick of campaign design: Start small and grow outwards as the story unfolds. Then I recalled a 4e specific lesson: “You don’t need any mechanics for your monsters, just make up clockwork-like powers.” So I only needed new mechanics for PCs… and I didn’t need many, one should suffice to nail the feeling and we’d grow from there if needed.
The setting’s elements (AKA Fluff )
I decided to focus on one aspect of technology in my new campaign and work from there. It all started with my main ‘what-if’ questions:
What if gears could help magic like it does for moving weights in our world?
What if clockwork was used to enhance magic, bringing it up to par with the standard D&D world?
In Gears of Ruin, the ability to tap into the world’s magic has been severely limited due to the outcome of the divine/primordial war. The default assumption then is that access to powers over those of level 1 requires PCs to use clockwork ‘helpers’.
Of course, some cool exceptions will crop up, like PC s powered directly by the Elemental Chaos, but I’m getting ahead of myself .
There would be 4 types of clockwork machinery that would see use in the campaign:
- The Watch(™): An armored armband that acts as a catalyst between the character and their Arcane, Primal or Divine power source (I plan to leave Martial and Psionic out of the clockwork equation). Without it, the use of powers would be limited.
- Implements and Magic Items: Will feature little cogs and gears that channel the required magical energy to grant abilities, bonuses and powers.
- Technology and Transportation: airships, firearms (re-skinned ranged weapons) plus any gadgets I think would be cool (Flash lights, Grappling Hook guns, Para sails, etc).
The way I pictured clockwork helping magic was that each ‘machine’ would be powered by a bound elemental whose energy and link to the Elemental Chaos acts as a catalyst for the device (Thanks to David Pulver’s work on Technmomancer for the idea). I decided not to explain it any further, I had the minimum required for what I needed for my stories and mechanics.
As I worked out the technology fluff, I made a cardinal rule for this campaign. I would not attack/destroy any piece of equipment that would rob the PCs of their class abilities. That means that I would not destroy the watch and I won’t likely create powers that destroy clockwork magic items (unless it’s as a Rust Monster analogue).
However, as I made the rule, I had another ‘what if’…
What if the PCs could bust some of their clockwork equipment, freeing the trapped elemental in a burst of savage energy, as a last-ditch weapon?
My PC-specific mechanic was born.
All magic items with the clockwork keyword have an extra power:
Power (Daily); Standard Action. Make a Rule 42 attack (single/blast/ranged/area) (Normal/Limited damage) (optional: Forced Movement/Ongoing/Status effect) based on item level. Item loses all non-Enhancement powers until repaired.
I know this makes little sense but it’s my personal template for all improvised attacks. I usually start with an attack with a single target, dealing high Limited-Damage (See page 42 of the DMG) using the items’ level to determine damage. I then adjudicate damage based on what the player wants to do. Increasing range, number of targets and adding effects to the attack lead to lower damage.
For example, if a player wanted to cause a blast 3 of cold damage that slowed targets, I would probably use low or medium normal damage expression and I would also likely make the attack vs Reflex, using the PCs’ attack bonus.
Rule 42 is my friend!
If this rule is too confusing, have a look at page page 7 of The Plane Below when it comes out. That’s another example of improvised elemental attack.
Oh and the party would have a mechanic that would repair broken items at each extended rest. Depending on the type of campaign the player and I settle upon, I may put a price on repairs or I may assume that they always have the required resources to do it.
So, do you think this mechanic is going to fly? Do you have other ideas for a cool 4e Clockwork game (I’m not calling it steampunk because there will be very little steam)