View Full Version : Campaigns / Adventures The "Just Folks" Campaign

10-02-2009, 05:09 AM
A while back I had an idea for a campaign world whose inhabitants think they're living in a world similar to the standard FRP, but don't.

Note that I've never played this campaign; it's only a set of notes on my hard-drive so far. Perhaps someone can adopt a few of my ideas, and try them out.

Some guiding principles:

One or more low-tech human civilizations dominate the world. Whether these cultures resemble ancient Greece, medieval Europe, medieval Arabia, Imperial China, the Japanese Shogunate, or something else entirely is a matter of taste, as long as there's a well-defined dominant culture or two.

Nearly everyone believes things that are just not so. Like their historical counterparts, the vast majority of people don't travel far from the place of their birth. They're liable to believe fervently in legends, tall tales, and rumors of "foreign parts", even if an enlightened individual tries to set them straight. Worse, certain people and phenomena reinforce these beliefs, sometimes by design. A default implementation might start with a single village or kingdom, and expand as the players and GM explore.

Humans are the only (known) sapient species. (Hence the name "Just Folks".) The world appears to have Elves, dwarfs, and Orks, but they're human cultures, not distinct humanoid species. Sapient monsters have a stranger explanation, below. If another sapient species exists, it keeps itself well hidden.

All standard Dungeon Delving tropes exist, albeit with unusual explanations. Many fantasy tropes exist through strange cultural practices and human confabulation. A few exist through super-science artifacts misinterpreted. Nothing is as it seems.

Little Folk (a.k.a. dwarfs, halflings, gnomes, et al)

Post-Tolkien fantasy fiction and games always include "dwarves" as a distinct non-human race. In this world, they're just humans with a genetic abnormality that makes them around three feet tall. It's a recessive trait that breeds true. Unlike people with real-world dwarfism, Little Folk seldom have serious health problems, and live at least as long as Big Folk.

Although some large cities might have a population of Little Folk, most Little Folk live in isolated enclaves. They live apart because they're outcasts and freaks among humans, or find "tall folk" too trying. No wonder, given the ridiculous myths about them:

Myth: Little Folk live underground, and come from vast kingdoms far below.
How would anyone maintain such an underground kingdom, if they have to eat and drink? While some Little People live in homes dug in the side of a hill, or natural caverns, most live in villages little different from Big Folk.

Myth: Little Folk are magical.
In fact, they're not, no more than Big Folk. They don't have pots of gold, they can't grant wishes, and they can't do the work of fifty men in a night.

Myth: Little Folk steal babies, leaving a changeling in their place.
The genetic trait for Little Folk exists in most human population, meaning that some Big Folk parents might give birth to Little Folk. Because of this myth, children who prove to be Little Folk often die at the hands of their parents, trying to make the "changeling" talk. In the best case, the peasants bring the child to the nearest Little Folk enclave, where the Little Folk will adopt the child, and wearily tell the outraged mob that the real child is at the nearest orphanage.


If the GM desires, he can divide Little Folk into subtypes, corresponding to stereotypical Tolkienish dwarves, halflings, gnomes, or whatever.

The GM may also introduce giants, who have acromegaly in the same way Little Folk have dwarfism. Most elements remain the same, except giants wouldn't be bullied quite as much.


Elves are a reclusive human race (NOT species) with its own unusual and little-understood culture. They are known for their striking physical similarity: small and slight builds, slightly wavy black hair, pale olive complexions, lobeless ears that come to a slight point, almond-shaped eyes. Males and females are about the same size; both sexes dress alike except when a female is pregnant or tending children.

Elves, being just humans, don't live for centuries, although they appear to because of their great physical similarity and their bewildering use of names. An elf may have dozens of names, including its Milk Name, its Secret Name, its Adulthood Name, and names relating to place, family, professions, and notable accomplishments. Since few outside their culture speak Elvish, when an Elf says its name is Orandel, it's really saying it's a "hunter".

To confuse matters more, among the elves are a few Great Names, descended from gods and/or cultural heroes. (Elfin culture makes no distinction.) Elves who perform extraordinary service for the tribe acquire a Great Name; for all intents and purposes, they are the owner of that Name, and act in the way they think that Name would act. Thus, Elf heroes and rulers seem to live forever.

Despite their reputation as "free spirits", Elves prize conformity to the complex and byzantine unwritten laws of Elf behavior, from high principles of ethics to small mannerisms and rituals. Many elvish customs serve to distance themselves from non-Elves.

Elves who cannot live up to the high standards of Elfdom, or break laws, are considered Trow, or outcasts. Trow are the elves most often found in human lands, albeit as solitary and miserable wanderers, often dressed in gray or black. They find ordinary human cultures grating, yet are forever sundered from their homeland. To make their lives worse, each Trow is branded on the forehead with a rune describing his or her crime. Depending on their crimes, a normal Elf might regard a Trow with pity, contempt, or murderous rage. Some Trow have aided humans in understanding Elf culture, thus deepening their crimes.

Elves generally shun iron weapons, even in trade; they don't have any particular weakness to iron, but iron is Not Elvish for some obscure reason. They lead lead a spartan wilderness existence, somewhere between Stone Age and Bronze Age, with only minimal outside contact. Any elf who spends too long among outsiders, especially not on a tribal mission, is "tainted" and must work extra hard to prove they're truly Elvish.


By day, it's a peaceful peasant village at the edge of the badlands. On some nights, though, the Call sounds across the plains, echoing off mountains. These peaceful citizens don their masks, and surrender to their worst instincts.

A group of barbarian tribes worshipping the same brutal war-god, the followers of the Orking Way wear masks resembling pigs, apes, or demons when they raid other villages or towns. They believe that the masks are responsible, not them; while wearing the masks they're possessed by spirits, or reverting to primal nature, or subsuming themselves into their cruel and nihilistic god ... whatever. Their attacks are inconceivably brutal, vicious, obscene ... and it's not their fault.

Some Ork-cultists appear to be normal, reasonable folk, until the war-chant goes out and they don their masks. Others love casting their consciences and fears aside, becoming an unstoppable tide of violence and madness; to them, the mask is their true face. And a few are utterly psychotic, pitiless mass-murderers or howling rabid fiends in human shape. Villages that try to "pass" often hide away the last sort, lest they alert wandering magistrates to their true nature.

Monsters, Mazes, and Magic

The Dungeon, filled to the brim with traps and horrible monsters, is the mainstay of Fantasy Role Playing. In the Just Folks world, too, some men and women, tired of peasant life, venture into Places of Mystery to win their fortune ... or die trying.

Long ago, an ancient technological species died out for unknown reasons. Among the artifacts they left are stationary Holographic Generators, operated with only a thought ... the "Places of Mystery". Unfortunately, the people of this fallen age lack their ancestors' mental discipline. The Holographic Generators pick up on the fears and superstitions of adventurers and generate monsters for them to battle, often in ecologically improbable ways.

Wizards and Clerics, used to rigorous thought or rock-solid faith, can manipulate the Generators, much as a lucid dreamer can alter a nightmare. Unfortunately, their greatest powers only work in the Places of Mystery, which is why they don't unbalance warfare or the economy. In towns and villages, magic-workers use conjurors' tricks and psychological manipulation, augmented by centuries of tradition, to convince townsfolk of their power.

Sometimes, amidst the ancient gold and abandoned weapons of a Place of Mystery, adventurers find a genuine artifact of the ancients. To superstitious townsfolk and even magic-workers themselves, these items are pure magic. Wizards, in particular, have elaborate theories about how these items, and their "spells" in Places of Mystery, actually work ... none of which is even remotely true. A very few might have enough hands-on experience to repair a broken item, but no more.

Other Weirdness (Optional)

To really throw the PCs off, GMs may want to introduce non-human intelligences or other genre-breakers.

Perhaps the Ancients left telepathically-activated artificial intelligences, who might even control the weather and other aspects of the physical environment. To the superstitious folk, these are spirits, demons, and gods, dwelling in the Otherworld. (Or perhaps they can manufacture and take over robot bodies, to present a more immediate danger.)

Perhaps all cats are intelligent and telepathic, manipulating humanity behind the scenes while pretending to be dumb pets. ("Magic is fake, but the cats are talking to me!")

While most "magic items" will appear to be fire-shooting wands, invisible shields, and so forth, perhaps a few are 20th century technology, unexpected but comprehensible.

Holographic Generators (and the Otherworld AIs) actively scan the minds of humans within range. Perhaps humans possess latent psionic talents, which the Church or some other pervasive authority deems witchcraft.

Perhaps there are humans (or cats) actively perpetuating the Masquerade for their own ends. They keep the HoloProjectors going, and create fake monsters outside their range. They fill the Places of Mystery with treasure, and suppress technological advancement. They seed the superstitions and folk tales which shape the average man's reality. If the PCs tumble to their game, would they eliminate them ... or recruit them?

10-02-2009, 06:41 AM
Interesting. I like your Ork explanation. It has a very real world feel to it.

10-02-2009, 05:59 PM
Interesting. I like your Ork explanation. It has a very real world feel to it.

Thanks. I based them partly on Berserkers, partly on the classic Village With a Secret, and partly on an essay about Tolkien's orcs (http://www.ansereg.com/unnatural_history_of_orcs.htm).

FWIW, the Little Folk were my attempt to break free of Tolkien's dwarves, plus real-world discrimination turned to 11. (The plethora of short humanoids in RPGs was also a factor.) Elves started as an exercise in mundane explanations for fantastic abilities, into which I stirred unusual social conventions present in our world: shifting names based on the relation between speaker and referent, religious isolation, taboos, and the flip side of Orkish "becoming the mask".

If someone wanted to run something like this, I'd suggest all PCs were human to start with. The true nature of other "races" and the world would remain secrets to be discovered (unless they read this thread). I could see a Little Folk PC, and maybe a Trow PC, but most Elves are too xenophobic, and Orks could only fit in an Evil Game (or at least a savage one).

11-15-2009, 05:21 PM
Fm - your idea is very similar to what my campaign world looks like. The PC races are Just Folks, but the reason they appear as different races is due to sexual selection, not being Born From Stone or what-have-you. Hobgoblins are the "warlike" folk - but only in the sense that they're less civilized and relatively strange-looking. The racial traits from the PHB persist, except that elves don't trance or live forever. Ogres are my giants (large humans).

Besides that, the campaign is very Tolkien; magic is rare, civilization is relatively fragmented, and crazy monsters are also rare. Most monsters have a natural basis, those that don't are man-made. (The chimera isn't a common species, it's probably someone's magic experiment...)

Dwarves don't live "underground," but they do occupy exhausted mines (when they can afford the upkeep and investment).

Elves actually do live in the woods - to varying degrees. Some incorporate an organic look to their architecture and urban planning. Some are a bunch of crazy hippies that find security in embracing nature, and the accompanying mental clarity that the lifestyle affords (which they channel into magic).

Careful with the Believing Things That Aren't So concept. People don't become civilized by being impractical. If these things don't have a practical impact - like explaining disease as a force instead of a bacterium - then go for it. But don't explain building massive structures like pyramids on unrealstic beliefs (the pharaoh is a god); try something more plausible: the workers were told that their leader was divine, but didn't stop to contemplate while their backs were being whipped.

11-16-2009, 07:59 AM
Except their backs were not. The pyramids got made because they did believe the Pharaoh was a god and he needed the big tomb to ascend to Osiris and intercede for the people. The Egyptian world view is very much different than our own, but, and this in important. It explained the world as they understood it, and it worked. Therefore it was as logical and reasonable as our own. To the Egyptian magic was real. The gods were real. Their religion was frankly no less reasonable than any practiced today.

Egyptians were not stupid. They built the pyramids on a copper age technology. They constricted a nation and world system that lasted over 3000 years. What they lacked was the shoulders of giants. The accumulated knowledge and science that we look on as our rightful legacy of reason.

The pinnacle of that civilization right before the barbarian Romans smashed it was a man that had developed analog programmable machines and was on the cusp of steam power.

If you are looking for a civilization to base a Just Folks game on that embraces magic, you would do far worse than a serious look at the Egyptian culture.

11-16-2009, 08:59 AM
The intent of the "Just Folks" idea (I really need a better name) is a deconstruction of typical FRP tropes, not only "races", "monsters", and "dungeons" but the whole notion of reliable magic.

Even in legends and pre-D&D fantasy, magic was a rare and unreliable force, often treacherous. Yet most FRPs treat magic as just another tool. There's something to be said for the "what if" game, but honestly I'm much more impressed a hero who conquers even the most unnatural threat with wit and steel alone. I'm also fascinated with the idea that magicians are simply bamboozling laymen, or worse that they're deceiving themselves; what happens when the public sees behind the curtain ... or a demonstration of power fizzles?

Careful with the Believing Things That Aren't So concept. People don't become civilized by being impractical. If these things don't have a practical impact - like explaining disease as a force instead of a bacterium - then go for it. But don't explain building massive structures like pyramids on unrealstic beliefs (the pharaoh is a god); try something more plausible: the workers were told that their leader was divine, but didn't stop to contemplate while their backs were being whipped.

As tesral points out, the Egyptians did great things despite having some beliefs we would consider irrational. Their beliefs worked as far as they were concerned, and they had just enough successes to sustain that belief. Pharaoh might as well be god, for all the power he commanded. Elaborately preparing a body to last eternity just made sense, since how could somebody have fun without a body?

Aristotelian physics "works" for a certain value of "works". If you push a chair across the room, it stops when you stop pushing. Heavy things fall through water to the earth, flame seemingly struggles to surmount the air, ergo they really are seeking their "natural place". Aristotle's explanation of arrow flight sounds a bit dodgy, but since the things flew any explanation was better than none.

One of my favorite examples of keen observations but faulty beliefs is the vampire legend, as explained in Paul Barber's Vampires, Burial, and Death. Witnesses described exactly what a decaying body looks like, as we know from more methodical studies, but explained the retracted skin around hair and nails as growth after death, the ruddy appearance as having fed on blood, shredded shrouds as gnawed by the corpse, and the post-burial movement of the body as signs of unlife. (Bodies slough off skin, putrefy, and bloat after they're nicely composed in a casket, which tends to jostle the body quite a bit.)

Mankind also has an amazing capacity for self-deception: we remember when our beliefs are confirmed, and often forget when they aren't. Your mother had a dream the day grandma died, but, given how sick grandma was, how many dreams did your mother have in the days before?

Finally, in the "lost technology" version of the world, these medieval folks confront a technology beyond their experience, explicitly designed to create fake sensations. How can they not draw the wrong conclusions?

People really did believe in magic (some still do), and as far as we can tell it never really worked. They believed in their gods and demons as fervently as some people today believe in theirs. Even today, people will believe in tall tales that happen in China or Africa that they'd scoff at if the teller had located the story in their home town. I'm fascinated by the way beliefs shape our interpretation of events; my aim with "Just Folks" is to explore a world where the players start off knowing that they can't believe everything they "see", but the characters are fully invested in an incomplete and incorrect world view.