Inner Sea started with the momentum of my first ever completed D&D hardback and the abundance and time and energy from the COVID-19 lockdowns. We switched from Roll20 to Foundry VTT, and I became quite active in the community of Isometric VTT DMs, helping to tune and test the grapejuice isometrics plugin and learning Blender 3D to create custom battle maps.
After a year and a half of nonstop Zoom meetings at work, the campaign collapsed due to my burnout. I spotted it as it was happening and stopped the game as we hit the 7th level after 40 sessions. It might be a while before I feel confident running an online game or doing an every-other-week commitment, as I don’t like disappointing my players, for whom the time commitment was also no small contribution.
With that aside, here are my thoughts on what went well and what I’d like to do differently:
We ran a full session zero, which I had never done. Usually, my campaigns are put together world building was enjoyed by the party. Their race and class selections determined which parts of the world’s backstory had to be fleshed out. I tried to “yes and” their character backstories. We didn’t dive fully into character-driven storytelling as we’d be running a customization of premade modules - which was a big part of the success of our Tomb Game. I had story elements planned for each character but I made the mistake of leaving them to much later parts of the game. Only one PC, our frog artificer, really ran into the plot hooks surrounding his backstory and we didn’t fully resolve it.
Fronts and Threats
Emulating Dungeon World, I tried to keep track of enemy factions and their motivations whether or not they were on camera. We ran into these factions multiple times, giving the world the atmosphere of an ongoing threat. However, we never established a strong villain. That is something that I miss from playing in Curse of Strahd and I’d like to have that in a story I run someday. In Inner Sea, no enemy ever survived contact with the players.
I like to think I succeeded at creating NPCs the players cared about. Iona was created to intentionally make the players care about the free ports and want to protect them from invasion. Iona never became a DM PC, but I did have a custom artwork created by the Patreon artist who created the token are I used to introduce Iona at a lower level.
It was surprisingly easy to create homebrew races to match the underwater campaign. Using the Drow as a model for balance to avoid overpowered characters we made races for Atlantean, Cnidarian, Wug, and Drowned. DnDBeyond made the homebrew race feel official and the characters felt instantly in place in the custom world.
Reusing Wizards of the Coast Content
Interspersing smaller content like Dragon of Icespire Peak and the Lost Laboratory of Kwalish into the broader campaign worked well and prevented me from having to create adventures from scratch, which I find very time-consuming and difficult mechanically given the lack of tools in 5th edition. I just don’t get much satisfaction from making modules from scratch. Customizing and reskinning adventures though comes naturally and is creatively satisfying to me.
Call from the Deep
The main plot of the game was taken from the DM’s guild adventure Call from the Deep. In hindsight, this was a great move. The adventure has better pacing than most of the WOTC adventures and did lots of the heavy lifting of creating interesting combat encounters with stakes and drama. The cities of the Forgotten Realms sword coast were easily reskinned to be the Free Ports of my setting
I didn’t dive fully into the horror of the mind control aspects of the enemies beyond the fishing village of Fiskrbak. Once the party is past 5th level, they aren’t as threatened by simple magical threats. Continuing the cosmic horror theme was difficult as at a higher level it all turns into high fantasy.
I think I could have done more to make the full world explorable, the city of Herakleion was inaccessible due to the lack of a submersible ship. I got the comment from one player that the game could just as easily be set in Spell Jammer with each island being a different planet of crystal sphere. If I ever run a naval, Spell Jammer, or plane-hopping sandbox I’m going to have to make an effort to make travel easier so that players don’t feel disincentivized from exploring.
I have a magic item problem
As DM I’ve become fully dependent on module authors to plan when I give my players magic items and other game economy. I either need to do more upfront planning of the game economy or play a game that doesn’t use currency and inventory beyond major story items. I write this most of the way through a run of Light of Xaryxis and I’m realizing that I haven’t been paying anywhere near enough attention to this. Loot is a big part of what makes D&D fun, and I’m not hitting that well.
The best moments at the table are when the players themselves take the story in directions I could not have predicted. As much as I enjoy customizing modules, the high level of art prep prevents me from letting the story adjust to the player’s decisions. My 3D render of the Cartographer’s Cathedral was done months before it was seen in the game. While the game that I played after Inner Sea was very much an episodic rail-road, if I’m going to run another game that attempts broader player agency I’m going to have to find a system of prep that is more free form or even return to Theater of the Mind. I love a tactical game, but I’m not getting the same energy from the party to keep me going if I’m not letting them contribute to how the story plays out.
This game ended at 7th level. My players are convinced we have a curse never to get into higher-level D&D play. Hardback campaigns like Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation end before getting past 12th level, moving quickly through the last few levels in big dungeon crawls. This is the third game I have run in the last 10 years that has died at around 7th level. I think this is a good sign that I need to build a shorter act structure into campaigns to create more flexibility and give a chance for momentum-rebuilding, players to leave and join a campaign. Stories stretching across 8 levels of play feel long and make it hard to naturally transition to what’s next.