Dragonspire is a fantasy Risus campaign set in and around a frontier boomtown on the border of a vast militaristic republic. Dragonspire draws upon the nostalgia of the old-school Dungeons & Dragons experience, while hopefully breaking ground with a modern take on the fantasy, pre-industrial society. In Dragonspire, the presence of magic has made technological advances difficult, but that hasn't kept culture from advancing beyond the pseudo-medieval dark ages.
Please note that this document is a work-in-progress... a temporary guide to jump-start the campaign.
World | Mana | Geography | Flora & Fauna | Sentient Races | Calendar | Language
The town of Dragonspire is on the planet Gîa, which resembles our own Earth in most ways. It is part of a solar system that also resembles our own, though the names and details of the various planetary bodies have been changed. The center of the solar system is the yellow star Sûl.
There are two inner planets, Mekâr and Sedêna. The outer planets are Satorê, Ôzon, Sadorn, and Fornus. Gîa has a single moon called Lûn, which orbits Gîa every 28 days. Lûn appears larger than our own moon in the sky and produces correspondingly greater tidal effects. Gîa orbits its axis in exactly 24 hours, with earthlike axial tilt, and makes one orbit around Sûl in 364 days.
The most significant difference between our own world and that of Gîa is the presence of mana, the force of magic. Mana infuses all things. Mana is the spark of life. Mana is the substance of spirit. It is the presence of mana that makes the controlled use of explosives, steam power, and electricity all but impossible. Wizards have learned to shape mana to produce magical effects, while some rare individuals develop strange powers that are clearly supernatural.
The distribution of mana is not uniform. It fluctuates by region and it is governed by the position of celestial objects. Most of these variations are subtle and only of interest to wizards, but there are geographical regions with mana levels that differ significantly from the norm.
For the purposes of this campaign, the geography of Gîa will be described only in general terms. It is enough to know the geography of the region around Dragonspire. The rest of the world's geography will remain somewhat vague.
Dragonspire is situated at the intersection of three mountain ranges, and thus borders several climate regions. To the north are the Lûmanô Peaks, towering, snow-capped mountains that are rumored to house vast treasures and dangers. To the west lie the great temperate forests of Thorbarden, a frontier province in the great Narsikan Republic. To the south, between the Dragonspine Mountains and the Shagêb Mountains, beyond the Pillars of Dishûm, lies the tropical heart of the Old Ilsûthrin Empire (now in ruins). To the east are the arid Gargalahar Wastes, which harbor dangerous desert nomads.
These lands occupy a large continent in the planet's northern hemisphere. The Dominion of Azânêa and various unnamed minor states make up the remainder of the lands on this continent, all to the east of the Gargalahar Wastes.
The Narsikan Republic occupies most of the world's other northern continent, as well as an enormous archipelago that stretches almost to Thorbarden. The Sardek Alliance primarily occupies a smaller ring-shaped continent in the southern hemisphere, with many other unnamed states being found bordering these nations and on the world's many island chains.
The presence of mana has had quite an effect on the flora and fauna of Gîa. In addition to the many plants and animals that can be found on earth, strange and magical life forms have evolved or were created through ancient experiments. The following is a just a sampling of "naturally occurring" creatures that are known to exist in the world.
Fantastic Creatures of Gîa
In addition to these creatures, there are a variety of supernatural plants. There are numerous rare herbs that can be used for minor magical effects with only limited preparation. There are also several species of fantastic trees, most notably the towering sablewood trees of Thorbarden, whose ebon wood is exceptionally strong and resistant to fire.
Spirits: Not a race, as such, they were the first intelligent beings to arise on Gîa. They come in many varieties and are often the cause of mysterious phenomena. Some spirits are elementals, while others are fae. Not all spirits are sentient and many have incomprehensible motivations. Even in the modern Narsikan Republic, precautions are taken to placate troublesome spirits. Spirits have been known to enter into symbiotic relationships with corporeal beings, which can explain some forms of undead and lycanthropes. They can be bound into physical objects, imbuing those objects with special abilities. Demons are malevolent spirits that are not native to this plane of existence.
Dragons: They are possibly the oldest of the corporeal sentient races. They were venerated in the Old Ilsûthrin Empire, and may have been its true masters. They were certainly highly magical beings, with great knowledge gained from their vast lifespan. Today, all five breeds of dragon are believed to be extinct, though rumors of sightings persist in backwater regions.
Dragonkin: Not strictly descended from dragons, these humanoid reptiles evolved independently (possibly with dragon guidance). It is not commonly known that they were once the rulers of the Old Ilsûthrin Empire, as they were eventually supplanted by the Imril Houses. There were several distinct races of dragonkin and all are believed to be extinct.
Humans: The most numerous of the Old Ilsûthrin servitor races, as well as the base stock from which the other races were bred. They are incredibly diverse, with build and coloration varying by region. Many humans have features of other servitor races, since they interbreed so easily. Today, they are the dominant race in the Narsikan Republic and the Dominion of Azânêa, as well as many smaller states.
Elves: The elves (Imril in their own tongue) were the first servitor race bred from human stock. In time, they ascended into positions of power in the Old Ilsûthrin Empire and continued breeding experiments on their own. There were five noble houses that dominated Ilsûthrin politics, each choosing a breed of dragon as a patron. The White Elves (House Forodril) were the least numerous and had a terrible reputation for cruelty. The Black Elves (House Morendil) were the most numerous, sailing far and wide on their sablewood galleys. The Green Elves (House Galendiril) survived in greater numbers after the fall of the Empire, and it is their physical features that are most common in the elves of today. The Blue Elves (House Maradiril) were the Empire's philosopher-knights, riding into battle on Blue Dragon steeds. The Red Elves (House Narendiril) were physically and magically strongest, driving the Empire with their fiery passion.
Today, elves make up less than 1% of the population of the Narsikan Republic, and they are all but unknown in Dominion or Alliance lands. They are feared and discriminated against, as they are still blamed for the cruelty of the Old Empire. But the Republic recognizes their useful magical talents, and the younger members of society are starting to embrace Imril ways. There are regions where communities of Elves live in relative equality. For the most part, the bloodlines of the old houses have disappeared, with modern elves forming a distinct racial identity.
Dwarves: An earlier servitor race that was bred for manual labor, they were actually the first to successfully rebel against their Ilsûsthrin masters. During the Sunsûl Uprising, free dwarves assisted the other servitor races with weapons, technology, and even soldiers. As a result, they are respected all over the world and the Sardek Alliance is a prosperous center of commerce. Dwarven merchants and engineers travel freely throughout the world, and many have settled for good in the Narsikan Republic. It is in no small part thanks to dwarven ingenuity that Narsikan technology exceeds that of all other nations. They are known as Kozod in their own language.
Halflings: After the dwarves rebelled, the halflings (Kûduk) were bred to be especially compliant. To some extent, this worked. Halflings are conservative by nature and naturally seem to respect authority. But they are surprisingly hearty folk, who will not tolerate tyranny. Despite their small size, they played a major role in the Sunsûl Uprising, mostly as spies and saboteurs. Today, there are vibrant communities of halflings in the Narsikan Republic and they are by far its largest non-human minority.
Orcs: Orcs were bred primarily to fight the rebel dwarves, so there is little love between those two races. Orcs are fearsome creatures, with a natural predisposition to violence. That being said, a significant number of them fought on the side of the rebels in the Sunsûl Uprising. These orcs were rewarded with homes in the human lands (including the Narsikan Republic). Today, they have a well-deserved reputation for thuggery. But many have become very successful in careers that provided them with a legitimate violent outlet.
Goblinoids: Goblins were bred as a replacement for the dwarves, even before the dwarves launched their rebellion. The hope was for a less-capable race that would still suit their labor roles. Regular goblins were bred as miners and craftsmen. Hobgoblins were bred as warriors. Bugbears were bred for their tremendous strength. All were bred to be easily controlled with magic and charismatic leadership. As a result, the goblinoids didn't rebel in Sunsûl Uprising and most were killed in the fighting. In fact, they were believed to have been completely wiped out until communities were discovered living in the foothills of the Lûmanô Peaks. Today, goblinoid tribes are a constant threat to Narsikan settlers on the Thorbarden frontier.
Giants: Giants (and ogres) were bred for heavy industry. Always viewed as dangerous, they were never bred in large numbers. As a result, there are very few communities of giants remaining in the world. Almost all of these communities are in remote places where human settlements have yet to encroach.
Hybrids: Centaurs, satyrs, and minotaurs were bred simply for the amusement of elven wizards. Of all the Ilsûthrin experiments, these three races had the easiest time surviving after the fall of the Empire. Centaurs and satyrs are found exclusively in the province of Thorbarden, while minotaurs have been seen in the Gargalahar Wastes.
Others: The lords of the Old Ilsûthrin Empire created many more races. Among the most notable were elaphantines (humanoid elephants spotted in the Ilsûthrin jungles), gnolls (humanoid hyenas found in some parts of the world), mermen, sahuagin, naga, treants (found in Thorbarden), and intelligent constructs.
The calendar of the Narsikan Republic is universal within its borders and very common outside of them. Years are counted from the start of the Sunsûl Uprising, with the current year being 1011 A.U. (After Uprising). Years are divided into 13 months of 28 days each. The months of the year are: Ûmanô, Dûmanô, Trêmanô, Kavarô, Kavênô, Sesmanô, Septêmô, Ôkonô, Nûmonô, Dekmanô, Dekûman, Dekdûon, and Dektreman. Months are divided into four weeks, with the days of the week being: Sûldâ, Lûndâ, Dûzdâ, Arzdâ, Thûdâ, Glindâ, and Sodira.
The four corners of the year are Beldâ (spring equinox - Trêmanô 25th), Firlondâ (summer soltice - Septêmô 4th), Sowendâ (autumnal equinox - Dekûman 10th), and Yûldâ (winter soltice - Dektreman 18th). Some important holidays include:
Narsikan and Azânêan are the two most important languages in the world, and each serves as the "trade language" or "lingua franca" in those two nations' spheres of influence. Citizens of minor countries will usually learn one or both of these languages, in addition to their native tongue. Both languages developed out of the secret slave language of the Old Ilsûthrin Empire, though they have diverged significantly in the years since emancipation. Narsikan uses an alphabet inspired by Dwarven runes and Azânêan uses a syllabary that has evolved from Old Ilsûthrin ideograms.
Narsikan is similar to English. That being said, it is not English. Proper names should always follow the spelling conventions of the language, unless the names are purely descriptive (such as Dragonspire). Imported words from other languages (of which there are many) follow different spelling conventions.
Among other languages, Old Ilsûthrin is the most important language for magical scholarship, since some important thaumaturgy texts and grimoires from the Old Empire have been rediscovered. It was an old language even at the time of the Sunsûl Uprising, with most of the Ilsûthrin aristocracy speaking an older form of Narquol, the language of the elves. Both languages use the Old Ilsûthrin ideograms.
Kharkraez, the language of the dwarves of the Sardek Alliance, also grew out of a secret slave language, though it is only distantly related to Narsikan and Azânêan. Many other human languages exist, the next most important being the language of Jaadlun minority (which used Azânêan syllabary until recently).
The orcs spoke a bastardized form of Narquol that evolved into their own language. It was quickly extinguished as the orcs assimilated into other cultures and it never had a written form. Gamok, the language of the goblinoids, also derives from Narquol (but this connection is only apparent to expert linguists).
The first step in creating a character is to decide on an interesting concept. Though set in a fantasy world, many character types from more modern genres are appropriate. Inspiration may be drawn from The Lord of the Rings, classic Dungeons & Dragons, Dragonlance, Eberron, and Warhammer. Other inspirational sources include the steampunk fantasy of R. Talsorian's Castle Falkenstein, Sleepy Hollow, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and the Indiana Jones movies. Players should choose heroic concepts that are appropriate to the inspirational material. This often means classic fantasy role-playing game archetypes based on D&D classes, but it can also include cinematic pulp or steampunk archetypes.
The character's concept will often directly translate into the character's clichés. More importantly, the concept will help define the character's motivation as well as their role in the unfolding story. All characters that participate in the first episode are assumed to be interested in becoming adventurers, as the story hooks will begin with rumors of old ruins and lost treasure.
Dragonspire characters are created using Risus rules with 8 dice divided among their clichés and a maximum of 4 dice in any single cliché. Hooks and Tales are allowed and recommended. Double-Pumps and Funky Dice are also allowed, but they require special approval from the GM since they are not appropriate for most clichés (though they may be required for some). In general, Double-Pumped clichés are used when a character can sacrifice energy or health to achieve greater (usually supernatural) power for a given action. Funky Dice are used to build clichés that imply superhuman scale or potency for otherwise human levels of mastery. If Funky Dice are used, characters are limited to 48 points (plus 6 points each for Hook and Tale).
Players are free to be brief or verbose when naming their clichés. If players don't mind long cliché names then The Risus Companion has some excellent advice for cliché construction. Regardless of whether a character is a Soldier (4) or a Spiritually Gifted Wanderer of the Thorbarden Frontier (4), the player should write a brief description of what the cliché entails. That way, the GM and the player will have a clear understanding of how the cliché can be used during play. In addition to skills and abilities, players should specify what Proper Tools (including Yes-Men and non-portable items) come with the cliché and which of these are required for any particular endeavor.This following list of clichés is provided to give players examples that are especially suitable for the setting. Players are encouraged to customize these or invent new clichés of their own.
A character's race or culture should rarely (if ever) be a cliché unto itself. Instead, it should be listed as a modifier to one of the character's clichés if it differs from the standard human race or Narsikan culture. If a character's race or culture implies special abilities, then they are governed by this cliché. Abilities of this race or culture also color the character's other clichés and may modify TN rolls.
The "Sidekicks & Shieldmates" rule from The Risus Companion is available to characters. Essentially, this rule allows players to trade one or more dice (or Funky Dice points) during character generation for three times as many dice (or points) to be used on NPC allies. These allies can be regular individuals or they can be something more unusual like a piece of magical equipment, a really good horse, or a grunt-squad of loyal followers. Sidekicks are limited to a maximum of four dice in any single cliché and they should not have any clichés that are better than the player character's best cliché.
Sidekicks & Shieldmates are usually under the player character's control, though the GM is free to use them as required. Note that it is possible to have minions and special equipment without spending dice on them, as they could be handled with the Proper Tools rules.
Another rule from The Risus Companion that we will be using is "Lucky Shots & Questing Dice". During character generation, players may sacrifice one or more dice (or multiples of 6 Funky Dice points) for three Lucky Shots or five Questing Dice. A Lucky Shot can be used to increase a character's cliché by one for a single roll provided the player explains how luck will benefit the character. Additionally, characters can spend two Lucky Shots to completely recover all the dice in a single cliché during combat (effectively a second wind or heroic surge). Lucky Shots are recovered at the end of the session and they do not carry over if unused.
Questing Dice work just like Lucky Shots except that they must have a narrative or thematic limitation that restricts their use to certain situations (such as when a character is pursuing a specific goal). Questing Dice must be narrowly focused and approved by the GM in advance.
The final steps in character creation involve fleshing out the details not immediately apparent from the character's clichés or hook. The player should note the character's appearance and other physical details. The player should also note which languages the character speaks or reads (and to what level of proficiency). Some clichés allow the character to have command of a large assortment of useful languages. In these cases, the player should only note what languages the character definitely does or does not speak (or read), while other languages can be known with a Target Number roll.
Finally, the player should note any additional equipment or possessions, beyond those that were agreed to be included with the character's clichés. The GM will approve most reasonable requests, so long as they are properly justified.
The standard Risus rules for character advancement will not be used. Instead, characters will be awarded a certain number of experience points per session. These experience points can be used to purchase any of the following character improvements:
Raising a Cliché: Provided the improvement is justified, the character may purchase the next level of one of their clichés. The cost in experience points is equal to the number of dice of the new level multiplied by 6. Thus, to raise a cliché from (3) to (4) would cost 24 points. Raising a cliché from (1d8) to (2d8) would cost 12 points. Raising a cliché from  to  would cost 30 points.
Getting Funkier: If Funky Dice are appropriate for a given cliché then a character may upgrade the die-type for that cliché by one step, assuming there is an in-game explanation for the increase in power. The cost of this is equal to the level of the cliché multiplied by the number of sides of the new die-type.
Gaining a New Cliché: If a character has developed in ways that are not reflected in their existing clichés then the first die of a new cliché may be purchased. The cost of this cliché is equal to the size of the die (usually 6), multiplied by 2 if the cliché is Double-Pumped.
Gaining or Improving Lucky Shots & Questing Dice: Use the rules for raising or gaining clichés, with every 3 Lucky Shots (or 5 Questing Dice) being equal to one regular die cliché. Thus, buying the character's first 3 Lucky Shots costs 6 points. Gaining the character's second 5 Questing Dice costs 12 points.
Sidekicks & Shieldmates: Assuming it makes sense in the context of the game, points may be spent to advance Sidekicks or Shieldmates as if they were regular characters. New Sidekicks or Shieldmates may be acquired as well. Note that Sidekicks and Shieldmates do not get the 1:3 discount that they receive during character creation.
Here are some example characters. Notation is per standard Risus, with brackets for Double-Pumped clichés. Additionally, an underscored cliché value indicates an ability to use magic, super-science, or other powers to create fantastic effects outside of combat.
We will be using the "Boxcars & Breakthroughs" rule from The Risus Companion. When a character rolls all 6's, they may immediately roll all their dice again and add the results to the first roll. If this second roll also produces all 6's, then they may roll yet again (continuing until they fail to roll all 6's).
Combat in Dragonspire will be handled using a system that is a subtle variation on the standard Risus rules (so subtle, in fact, that you may not notice the difference). Here's how it works:
We go around the room, allowing each character to act in turn. On a given character's turn, that character has the spotlight for enough time to perform one or more short maneuvers, followed by one or more offensive actions against a designated target. The player can say something as simple as "I try to kick him in the head" or as complicated as "I leap across the pit, lunge at my opponent, and press my advantage until I hit". The player then specifies what cliché their character will employ in this action. The GM will rule on the appropriateness of the action and the choice of cliché to perform it. The Inappropriate Cliché rules are not used, since any action that is allowed is actually appropriate in this situation. If the attack is clearly less than effective in this situation then a penalty can be applied for lacking Proper Tools.
The player of the defending character then describes their response to the attacker's action. Like the attacker, this might be simple ("I duck out of the way") or complex ("I retreat across the bridge, parrying my attacker's blows while I look for an opening to get under his blade and strike"). The defender then specifies which cliché the character will use and the GM once again rules on its appropriateness against the attacker's tactic and cliché. Unlike standard Risus, defending characters will only inflict "damage" on their opponent if the description of their defensive strategy includes an offensive component or at least an explanation of how the attacker might "lose ground" as a result of a successful defense. Otherwise, the defender may only avoid defeat. A sub-optimal defense may result in a penalty for lacking Proper Tools.
Now, both players roll dice against their characters' clichés and apply "damage". If the loser is still up, then the GM will narrate the result of the exchange and explain the character's cliché loss. If the loser is reduced to zero dice then the winner can do whatever he or she wants to the victim (subject to GM veto if it doesn't follow from the attack description). This allows for violent fights to end with surrender, flight, incapacitation, or death as needed. There is no accidental death.
Of course, as with standard Risus, this system also works for combats that are actually chases, seduction attempts, exchanges of ego-bruising insults, and any other conflict that can be narrated as a series of moves and counter-moves.
There are a few nuances that I will describe below (such as Teams and "When Somebody Can't Participate"), but that is the gist of it. Characters can try anything that is appropriate for their cliché (and some things that may seem less appropriate). For that action, the character is the star of the scene. You can describe one attack or many. Weapons (other than special treasure items) are mostly special effects and even ammunition is only counted as common sense demands. Players are free to be as cinematic or mundane as they choose.
Critical Hits: When the margin of success in a combat is 15 or more, the loser takes 1d6 dice of damage, rather than a single die.
Clarifying the Risus rules as they apply to my take on combat:
On any given player's turn, one of the characters may need to invoke "When Somebody Can't Participate". An example of this is when an untrained character picks up a machine gun and starts shooting or when an ordinary Joe must withstand the mental assault of a diabolical telepath. The 2d6 bonus dice apply only for that action. If either character takes damage, they may chose to take it from their unmodified cliché (assuming they have one) or from the bonus dice themselves. In the later case, the character will now have fewer dice (1d6 or 0d6) to call on next time the "When Somebody Can't Participate" rule is invoked. These lost bonus dice recover at a rate similar to that of regular clichés (according to the nature of the attack).
The rules for player character Teams are different than standard Risus. In combat, characters may give up their regular actions to spontaneously team up under a designated "Team Leader". When the Team attacks or defends, Team Members must describe how they will contribute to the effort and what cliché they will use to do so. If someone intends to step up and take damage on a loss then the Team Member's description of the action and choice of cliché should account for this possibility.
Teams only persist for the remainder of the combat round. There are no penalties for disbanding a Team, just as there are no "vengeance" bonuses. Note that Team Members still take a die of "damage" if the Team Leader is reduced to zero dice (from the shock of watching their leader go down if there isn't a better explanation).
Note that the Team rules can also be applied to non-combat Target Number rolls where a group of characters is cooperating to achieve a desired objective. Examples of this would include multiple characters trying to lift a heavy object or a circle of wizards trying to cast a powerful spell.
The Risus Companion section entitled "Target Numbers and the Single Showoff" will be my guide to handling the rather open-ended use of superpowers, magic, psionics, and weird-science gadgets. Target Numbers are assigned to tasks based on the dramatic impact of what the character is attempting. The following table is for players who lack The Risus Companion (it also borrows from S. John Ross' article on Elemental Magic):
To the above Target Numbers, I will add a modifier based on how appropriate the cliché is to the given task: +5 if the cliché implies a secondary ability, +10 if the cliché implies a distant ability to handle the task, +20 if the cliché implies a remote chance of success.
Just what is actually possible and how it can be achieved depend entirely on the cliché description. When describing their character's supernatural or super-science clichés, players should consider the following:
Characters with the ability to produce supernatural effects will likely want to create or modify clichés with their special powers. Temporary effects can be handled by trading dice from the character's magical cliché to buy a cliché augmentation (for themselves or others), a Bonus Gear item, or three times as many dice in Sidekicks. The character is still treated as if having the higher cliché level for character advancement purposes and the lost dice are regained when the effect is terminated.
Permanent effects should instead be paid for using the Character Advancement rules. The caster or the subject may pay the experience point cost of the advance. Bonus Gear items have the same cost as Sidekicks, with their bonus taking the place of a cliché level.
Note that a Target Number roll is still required to create these effects. Permanent effects will usually be Complex or Difficult, as they tend to hog the scene a bit. Also note that minor "enhancements" that alter the nature of a cliché without changing its level are possible. In these cases, the cost is the same as if the character were enhancing the cliché by 1 level.
Click here for examples of play.
World | Mana | Geography | Flora & Fauna | Sentient Races | Calendar | Language