Raiders of the Serpent Sea: How Epic Paths Led to Epic Backgrounds

By Brent Knowles

Hello & welcome! I’m the designer behind Raiders of the Serpent Sea and in this article I discuss the design decisions behind the epic backgrounds feature. What is it? Why is it important? What am I doing with it?

Check out the Raiders of the Serpent Sea Kickstarter here:

Let’s start at the beginning. In Arcanum World’s debut title, Odyssey of the Dragonlords, they introduced a concept called epic paths. When I first had my hands on that delicious campaign guide, I was instantly hooked – as were the players for the campaign. The Gifted One can find the legendary Fortress of the Dragonlords? The Doomed One, plagued all their life by ill luck, must overcome a creature fated to slay them? Suddenly, an element so common to videogames – making a player character's story central to the overall plot & story – was right there in a tabletop rpg.

And of course it was.

James Ohlen and Jesse Sky, the creators of Odyssey of the Dragonlords, and the inventors of these epic paths, formed Arcanum Worlds after leaving long careers at BioWare (James, in fact, was my first manager in the videogames industry and we worked together on many highly rated RPG titles). It was always important to James to make the player feel important and I am sure this is also an element he used to high effect in his many long running Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. And so it was that this was also woven into the rich tapestry that is Odyssey of the Dragonlords.

All of the characters are important and are connected to the main storyline in a variety of ways. I can tell you from experience, with a multiyear Odyssey campaign still ongoing, that these epic paths help engage the players and provide them with additional motivation to undertake their many quests and ordeals. Here we had a group game where each player’s character has an integral role in the grand narrative being experienced. None overshadow the rest; all are important.

Enter Raiders of the Serpent Sea. When I looked at what was strongest and most worthy of continuing on into the next book from Arcanum Worlds, the epic paths were essential. But after discussion with James & Jesse, we realized they could be enhanced. To understand how, let's take a quick look at D&D backgrounds...

What are Backgrounds? In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, the concept of a character’s background came into being. This is a very handy system that helps to represent a character’s life before they started on the path to being an adventurer. This provides a variety of tools and skills and some starting equipment. For many players it helps ground their character with a core personality and traits.

For Raiders, we decided that who you were in the past should have more influence on the epic paths and hence we merged the two into epic backgrounds! This creates a fair bit more work on the front end in the player’s book (from a design point of view) as numerous additional features need to be developed. Additionally each epic background is going to be integrated even more into the narrative of the main plot. Like the gods of Norse mythology, each character is going to have a vital role, throughout the numerous stories told as the campaign unfolds, but also at the end during the battle of Ragnarök. Just as Thor fought his final fatal duel against the serpent while other gods survived to meet on the fields of Iðavöllr to build a new world, each character’s epic background takes them on a full journey throughout the campaign, and to an ultimate end. Different for each, but a conclusion drawn logically from all that has occurred previously.

Aside from the narrative connection, each epic background also provides tables for personality and traits and, importantly, hints towards specific rewards (like the epic paths from Odyssey did) to be discovered at key plot moments. This allows a player to build a particular type of character, anticipating what future equipment and abilities they might gain later. I have found in our own Odyssey campaign that this has made each player more invested in the plot – and happier with the character they are playing.

I feel I have perhaps rambled on long enough so I will end with a brief summary of the epic backgrounds we have revealed to this point:

  • The Cursed Raider. What happens when a brash and arrogant warrior dies an unworthy death? They live on, cursed to never enter Valhalla. What price must they pay to redeem the sins of their past?

  • The Fallen. With no recollection of their past, the fallen have simply existed, wandering from village to village. As Ragnarok approaches though they have begun to dream, catching glimpses of a past, of a destiny they are meant to fulfill. They begin to awaken.

  • The Royal Heir. The heir was once a noble from a kingdom long at war with the raiders. Yet their family was slain and they were taken and raised by the raiding peoples. The heir longs to recover the kingdom that is their birthright but risks destroying both of their worlds.

  • The Stranger. Literally from another world, the stranger is drawn to the mysterious lands of Grimnir by the legendary Rainbow Spear. Yet they too have a vital destiny to fulfill.

  • The Bonded. This is a new type of background in that two characters share it. They may be domestic partners, siblings, or even rivals, who have grown up for the most part together and have shared a significant part of their lives together. In turn, they each have a role in a shared story that binds them, as Ragnarök (and their destinies) rapidly approach.

Another change that I’m working on that may or may not make the cut is the idea that if there are any epic backgrounds not being used by players, then an NPC will fill the role. They may not literally travel with the adventuring party to every location, but they may show up at key moments in the plot. I think this helps reinforce how integral these new backgrounds are to the core story.

We shall see!

-Brent Knowles

Raiders of the serpent sea