My players have been questing in Winterhaven for a few months now. I have two separate groups playing in the same setting and their paths are scheduled to cross next month during the holidays, when all four players are able to meet up for the climax of the first major story arc. But with these two adventuring groups simultaneously exploring the world I’ve crafted, I have a lot of NPCs to keep track of.
One thing that really helps are these character cards I’ve created, modeled after character portraits commonly found in JRPGs. I’ve lost notes and have forgotten what accent or vocal quirk I gave some of these characters, but at least key NPCs have a consistent face that my players are able to easily recognize.
I created a template and drew portraits for the key recurring NPCs my players would encounter. I didn’t have any cardstock available aside from index cards, and due to the gauge of these cards my laser printer produced some pretty crappy quality prints when I attempted to print directly onto them. So I had to compromise.
After printing all the portraits out on regular printer paper I cut them out with an X-acto and used some packaging tape to paste them onto a 3×5 index card. Unfortunately, the packaging tape I have isn’t wide enough to cover the entire card with a single strip, so I have to double up and I’m left with a very thin line running across the card face. After trimming the card with scissors, careful to leave enough of a buffer for the tape to cling to the card backing, it looks presentable. The tape increases the contrast of the print making the illustration pop out a bit more.
You can send your files off to get printed at a shop on cardstock and have it laminated for a more professional and polished finish. I’ll probably go back and actually ink and color these portraits at some point, but until then these monochrome cards serve their purpose just fine. But I want to be able to clip these things to the DM screen quickly and easily, so I made little clips out of index card strips.
I halved a 3×5 card longways and folded one of the ends over 4 times to accommodate for the thickness of my DM screen. I taped a clip to the back of each card and that’s about it. The character card is ready to be clipped to the top of the DM screen – it’s quick and easy to visually add or remove NPCs to the scene.
“Fret not for your captain is here!” the paladin exclaims as he saunters towards the front of the hall.
“Their captain is late,” Johanna grumbles as she straightens up and regains her composure to address the others, “This grinning idiot is Marrich Ogun, and he has been assigned as captain of this group. Despite his irritating disposition, he is more than qualified to lead you on this mission.”
Marrich, acting familiarly with Johanna, seems unfazed by her verbal prods. Upon further inspection one would question whether an insult from his own mother would have any effect on this impossibly optimistic and jubilant individual.
With the briefing concluded the members of the guild proceed to make preparations for their journey. The horse-driven caravan is loaded and all members of the adventuring party are able to board – even Klint is able to settle in with reasonable comfort. The inside of the carriage has two opposing benches accommodating the riders. El takes a seat next to Klint and is immediately followed by the rogue from earlier. Johann sits on the opposite side of his traveling companion, and the elf and dwarf take a seat towards the far inside corner of the opposite bench. Captain Marrich sits at the helm next to the coachman.
The rogue introduces himself as Vova. “You three know each other?” he asks learning in towards El, but inquiring to Klint and Johann as well.
El smiles and explains that she just met Klint and Johann, and that she is from Crysanth Village in northern Tiranor. Klint confirms that he and Johann have been good friends for a long time and are residents from the Vale of Winterhaven, “We have a common goal, so we thought it’d be best to contribute our efforts to the guild. Our commander recognized this guy the moment we stepped foot in the hall! Johann Sleetstorm, the Giant Slayer and favorite son of Knoc Liath!”
To these words of praise, El’s eyes lit up and she blurted out in amazement, “Giant slayer!?”
“That’s right! During the War of Glas Aldmahd, this dwarf fought off an entire legion of grey dwarves on his own and came face-to-face with the Giant Duergar Commander!” Klint confirmed and began to list other awe-inspiring feats, each one seemingly making Johann feel progressively more exasperated.
“Uh, Vova right? So, w-what about you three?” Johann asked Vova, attempting to stir the conversation away from himself.
Vova confirmed that he has been traveling with the other two for about a month now, but that he is a relatively new companion and that the elf, Gil, and the dwarf, Bolgan, have known each other longer. Before Vova could continue with the story of how he met them, Gil glanced at Vova with a look of discontent. “… They don’t like to talk much.” Vova shrugs as he turns his attention to El.
Gil sighs and shakes his head and looks towards Bolgan, who has fallen asleep due to the rocking of the carriage. Gil reaches into his sack of belongings and pulls out a lute, which he begins to play much to Klint’s surprise and delight. In response, Klint procures an instrument of his own from his belongings and plays an accompaniment. The irate monk is taken aback for a second but he does not stop. As the two musicians perform their duet, El can’t help but smile.
The entourage had departed from Dalhearth during the late morning. They crossed the bridge from Tiranor into the Vale of Winterhaven and arrived at the halfway point a few hours later. Journeying further into the valley the sky becomes brightly overcast with a gentle snow fall. The roads are clear but a thin layer of snow coats the grasslands and the treetops of the forest. Shortly after passing a fork in the road, the party can hear Marrich shout, “Hail traveler, do you need assistance!?” followed by a jerking motion as the plate-clad paladin leaps off the moving transport.
The coachman pulls off the road and the carriage gradually slows to a stop. With the exception of Gil and Bolgan, the adventuring party exit the caravan and see Marrich approaching a distressed young man standing next to a broken down, and horseless, carriage.
The city of Dalhearth is a prosperous and bustling trade city full of merchants and vendors, some local but most from afar. It is located south of the Winterhaven Enclave, on the northern tip of the continent Tiranor. Johann Sleetstorm and Klint Andios arrive in Dalhearth on an overcast and chilly morning.
At a glance, the pair provide a stark and jocular contrast to one another. Johann, a fully bearded dwarf with a scar across his left eye, no taller than a prepubescent human boy, treks through the winding city streets leading the way to their destination. A pathfinder, fully clad in studded leather and hides, one could safely assume that this dwarf has spent most of his life surviving in the wilds.
Behind Johann, Klint nonchalantly follows, taking in and observing the hustle and bustle of the city. Klint’s presence draws attention and some people cannot help but stare with befuddled looks on their faces. Towering over everyone else at nearly seven feet tall, this immaculately well-dressed half-orc ironically projects the poise of a proper gentleman. Equally perplexing is the instrument he carries around, a set of reeds protruding from a bag slung over his shoulder.
The two approach a stone building labeled Stormgarde Company Guild Hall and ascend a short flight of stairs to the entrance. Inside they are led to a large meeting hall, preoccupied by two people – a dwarf and a halfling, both female. As Klint and Johann approach, the female dwarf greets them and introduces herself. Her name is Johanna Runefaust, Commander of the Dalhearth Branch of the Stormgarde Company.
Johanna stands at roughly the same height as Johann and is fully clad in polished heavy armor that emits a soft glow. She offers a firm handshake to both newcomers and acknowledges Johan Sleetstorm, who has built a reputation for himself as a folk hero amongst the hill dwarves of the Winterhaven Enclave. He played a key role in his people’s fight against the Duergar of Grim Ungor and helped establish a new home, Knoc Liath, after his people were driven out of their homeland by an army of undead. As a mountain dwarf from Grom Kazad, Johanna is also a native of the valley and is sympathetic to her kin’s plight.
Klint is also a native of Winterhaven, hailing from the grand city of Etoile near the heart of the valley. He settled in Knoc Liath and for several years has taught at a school he cofounded. Johanna expresses relief that this new group the company has pulled together has a couple of natives from the valley. She introduces Klint and Johann to the halfling, a beautiful young lady called Eleanora Gladehart. The charming and amiable halfling wholeheartedly smiles and greets her new allies.
“Take a seat for now, we’re expecting three others,” Johanna instructs as she begins mulling over a short stack of documents placed upon a podium.
Klint and Johann quickly befriend Eleanora, whom they promptly take to referring to as El. She is a Druid from the south and is the newest recruit, having just registered with the company hours ago. Before the three are able to become better acquainted, three others are escorted into the hall by a receptionist and are instructed to take a seat. One of the strangers, a young, androgynous rogue glances at El and immediately takes a seat next to her. The other two, a tall elf with a lean and muscular physique and an exceptionally grotesque-looking dwarf, stroll across the hall and sit at a distance from the gathering. The receptionist takes his leave and closes the doors to the hall.
“You’ve all been summoned here today to uphold the pledge you took when you registered as a mercenary for the Stormgarde Company,” Johanna announces as she stands behind the podium, addressing everyone in the room. “Winterhaven is in dire need of our assistance. A plague has spread throughout the north, and to prevent it from spreading any further the roads have been closed off and the region has been quarantined. With Osiria isolated the royal guard and militia are also cut off, leaving the southern regions of the valley vulnerable. While this bodes ill for the kingdom and its people, it means adventuring companies like ours are back in business and are returning to the valley.”
“We have a few groups already conducting business in the valley,” Runefaust continues, “But we’ve lost contact with one. This group, full of you fledgling null-rankers, will be running a reconnaissance mission to reestablish contact with the missing entourage. Along the way, you’ll be stopping in Margalo to take care of a goblin problem they’ve commissioned us to deal with.”
The elf seated at a distance audibly shares his indifference with a dissatisfied grunt. In response, Johanna comments, “This is your orientation as non-ranked initiates. The purpose of this trial run is not only to showcase your capabilities, but to determine whether you are fit to represent the Stormgarde Compnay. You will be led by a ranking member of the guild, and the leader assigned to this group is-“
Before Johanna could finish, the doors to the hall burst open, the sudden deafening sound reverberated through the hall and startled El for a brief moment. A paladin in blindingly shiny armor erupts from the entrance of the hall, grinning from ear to ear exposing his pearly whites, his curly locks bouncing and fluttering as if a gentle breeze was blowing. Johanna’s glare breaks from the paladin and she keenly reviews her documents before sighing heavily and tossing them aside. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” she mumbles under an exacerbated groan as her head sinks into her open palm.
I already keep a record of everything that happens during my games, but I want to creatively chronicle my player’s adventures and share their story. But before I can do that, I need to introduce readers to the world that they’re playing in, because while it is rooted in the Forgotten Realms it didn’t start that way. It actually wasn’t until we were a couple of weeks in that I decided that we were going to do a little bit of retconning to the world’s history to make it fit into FR.
Fortunately, none of my players have characters that are particularly religious, so the complete gutting of the preexisting pantheon hardly mattered to them. Regardless, with such a big change to the setting it’s something you should consult with your players. I did and they were cool with it.
The Winterhaven Enclave is located on the northern tip of Tiranor. Nestled between the mountains is the Vale of Winterhaven, the dominion of the Kingdom of Osiria. Despite its namesake the ever snowy valley is quite accommodating throughout most of the year. The kingdom is ruled by the Ivory Queen, a benevolent and revered monarch of the Grisonnant — A hardy race of humans native to the valley — and the Dwarves. The Ivory Queen is also the prophet of the Goddess Vasila, the deity of the monotheistic Pravdan Church.
The valley has experienced a peaceful spell for a number of years. The local guard and royal militia are highly sufficient in neutralizing threats to the livelihood of the people and creatures of the wild typically adhere to the boundaries of their territories. A land devoid of problems has little need of mercenaries and adventuring companies, and they have since moved on from the valley. But there is a new and dreadful peril that has taken hold of the kingdom.
An epidemic has overcome Osiria. Over the course of a couple of weeks the sickness has spread throughout the city and the church is doing everything in its power to combat the plague. To prevent the sickness from spreading, the north has been quarantined and the roads closed. Traveling merchants, citizens, and guards that have been dispatched to the southern territories are unable to return home until the sickness has been quelled.
With assistance from the north cut off the southern half of the valley is vulnerable and strange things have begun to transpire. People have gone missing, a mysterious fog occasionally creeps out of Winterknell Forest and whispers of the Ebon Witch reach ears in every corner of the vale.
Before we had our first game, I sent out invitations to my players. The invites had the general summary of Winterhaven as well as some notes regarding what they could expect from the games I run. Along with the invitations was a print out of a poster with text in Common and Dwarvish. It was a call to arms, posted by a newly formed adventuring guild looking to recruit new blood – The common thread that would draw the players together to begin the game.
We had a pregame meet up in which I explained a little more about the world, and since two of the players decided they wanted to be natives of the valley I had to give them a bit more information regarding the towns and cities, the general population, local legends, history and current events, etc.
We also ended up creating two new towns to coincide with their background stories, which just further enriches the already established setting and gives me more to work with! Communication with your players is crucial, and it sometimes helps when your players are also writers. Sometimes… but that pretty much covers the intro to the Vale of Winterhaven. Until next time!
As an artist, I’ve been drawing and crafting since before I can remember, and I got in trouble on numerous occasions for sketching away during class at school. As a writer, I always had a napkin or scrap paper in my pocket that had Worldbuilding notes that I jotted down while on the job at work. As a gamer, I got my start with a Tomy handheld Pac-Man console and a hand-me-down Atari 2600 when I was three years old, and I haven’t stopped. I’ve been able to use three passions of mine as tools to facilitate my abilities as a Dungeon Master for tabletop gaming; specifically Dungeons & Dragons.
When I first entered High School, literally on the second day, I discovered Dragon Magazine in the library. My first impression was, “How does a pen and paper RPG even work? It doesn’t sound like much fun…”
I was playing Final Fantasy VII at the time and the only D&D games I had played were Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara. I had heard about the tabletop game from my older cousins, but never had the chance, nor the desire, to try it. I loved fantasy and writing, so I spent a lot of time in the library reading through their stock of Dragon Magazine.
My closest friends are the ones I made during my freshman year, and they were all sophomores at the time. The one I hung out with the most, Josh, who at one point in time practically lived at my house, played tabletop RPGs and I had no idea! It wasn’t until almost a decade later that I found out, but by that time I was already married and had a kid.
It took a long time to convince them, but I finally got two of my brothers and my waifu to give D&D a shot. We got started just as 4th Edition was rolling out and our first campaign lasted for a few months. My friend Josh eventually joined, and then I got the chance to join his games. It was around this time that I started studying game design and I wanted to create a more streamlined system that my son could comprehend and enjoy.
I took the fundamentals and created a streamlined RPG. To add to the immersion, my son and I took his collection of Tomica and Legos, brought out a notebook and we started creating characters and assigned them to Minifigs. Giving these figures names and adding stats and backstories enhanced the fun and introduced narrative, stakes and consequence. Playtime was now also story time and my son loved playing within this reactive fantasy world. The fact that his actions and decisions influenced the story blew his mind and the random randomness of a child’s imagination blew mine.
Seriously, the whims of a child can challenge a GM’s ability to improv like nothing else! My son will bust out the most random shenanigans and I have to try and create some feasible reaction that doesn’t break the game or cause some type of cataclysm! I must be doing something right because, so far, the world remains intact!
Fast forward several years. My family packed up and moved so many times I’ve lost count. But we’ve all finally settled down, hilariously back where we started. I got invited to play test my friend’s game in development and that night the fire had been rekindled! I had heard promising things about 5E and after reading through the changes I was eager to get started.
I unpacked all the old goods and tools, and I’ve been setting aside a day per week to dress up the old stuff and craft up some new components. I have two separate groups gaming in the same setting. They haven’t come together just yet, but their fates are intertwined. I’ve been keeping a DM journal but with the resurgence of tabletop RPGs as of late, I figured it’d be worthwhile sharing our gaming experience for anyone who’s curious. I’ll be writing up entries detailing the unfolding stories and share my DM crafts and thoughts.