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Onyx Path: Writing for Frostlands of Fenrilik

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By Sarah L. Stewart

Art-for-Teamwork-Frostlands-of-Fenrilik-

Several months ago I joined a team working on a new book for the Slarecian Vault. I was tasked with writing the bulk of the first three chapters of the Frostlands of Fenrilik. Those chapters introduce the setting and describe various backgrounds, locations, NPCs, story hooks, and encounters found on the far northern continent of Fenrilik in the Scarred Lands world setting. I was excited to participate on this project as it’s a great location in the Scarred Lands. Very little was said about it in the original Scarred Lands publications, giving us plenty of room to expand and enrich the setting.

I’ve been a Game Master for many, many years, but only been a professional writer for a handful. I’ve written many technical papers, but I know the Scarred Lands setting really well and felt confident that I could write about it. A bit back, Onyx Path published my first fantasy novel, set in the Scarred Lands. I started publishing on the Slarecian Vault at the beginning of this year with some small titles. Fenrilik was my first time writing for an RPG as part of a large team.

I was given a list of areas to cover and a specific word count for each chapter, but otherwise I had relatively free rein on how to write it. I took my initial inspiration from the style of many of my favorite Scarred Lands setting books for the D&D 3.X system (Mithril, Shelzar, Hallowfaust, Calastia, etc.): most chapters in these books started with in-world first-person observations from an NPC, like from a letter, report, journal, ancient text, or similar. I decided on the journal of a scholar visiting Fenrilik from the continent of Ghelspad (where the majority of Scarred Lands content takes place).

Before writing anything, I kicked things off by watching a few documentaries on the Antarctic (which was amusing, as at the time we were having 90+ degree Fahrenheit weather). Then I wrote several pages of my scholar’s adventures: crossing the ocean to Fenrilik, meeting various people there, what she saw, how she felt, etc. I created an awesome, rich story for the character. Then I submitted those pages to our development lead for his feedback. He cut out over half of it. “This is all neat stuff,” he said, “but it doesn’t bring anything to the party for Fenrilik itself.” I was disappointed at first but, after a tiny bit of thinking about it from the perspective of a GM, realized he was completely right.

While a travel journal is fun to read (and write), GMs need quick references when they’re running a game, which is really what I needed to focus on. That became my guidepost for the project: what would I want in a campaign sourcebook? I kept the journal for the establishing sections, but I shifted my focus in the straight-up game content sections to mostly the facts, with touches of flavor.

When I pick up RPG sourcebooks (as opposed to rule books) I look for:

  • Adventure modules (which another project team member was writing)
  • Maps & artwork (left to those with better artistic talents than me)
  • Descriptions of locations the PCs are likely to visit or hear about
  • NPCs the players can meet and interact with
  • Obstacles the PCs can encounter
  • Interesting setting elements the PCs can discover

I started world-building. Who are the people of Fenrilik? What are they like? What’s important to them? How do they survive in this incredibly harsh environment? And what will the PCs (whether native to Fenrilik or from elsewhere on Scarn) need to do to survive as well? 

I also needed this new material to be consistent with the original descriptions of Fenrilik published in Strange Lands: Lost Tribes of the Scarred Lands, as well as what’s in the Scarred Lands Players Guide. Personally, I love those kinds of constraints. Give me a blank white page and I don’t know where to start. Give me a few constraints and the words start to spill out of my brain onto the page.

With all that, just covering the things I find the most useful as a GM turned out to be tough to do, since we had limited word counts for each section. I (and our editor) did a lot of rewriting to squeeze more good content into fewer words.

Then, once I got the content written, I needed to go over everything for game rules, balance, and consistency. 5e D&D and the Slarecian Vault have a lot of style guidelines to follow when describing locations, creatures, effects, etc. Plus, word use, word order, capitalization, spelling, and fonts are all important. Sticking to the proper styles helps GMs and readers easily understand how the new content fits into the existing game rules and find what they need during a game. For example, you say, “Make a DC 13 Dexterity saving throw,” and not “Make a Dex Save at DC 13.” Luckily, both Wizards of the Coast and Onyx Path provide great style guides that help writers get it right (and we also had a great development lead and a great editor, both of whom checked everything for mistakes. I’m eternally grateful for their hard work). Be sure to keep all these style guides in mind when you write your own titles for the Vault.

With multiple writers on a project like this one, it was very important that we were all consistent, especially with overlapping materials. One person couldn’t describe a location as underground while another put it on top of a hill. Part of our development lead’s job was to make sure everything locked like LEGO bricks. It was a blast seeing it all come together.

For the previous RPG titles I’d worked on, I only worked with one or two other people at a time. This time there was a large group of us, and we actively collaborated on several areas. In one case I created a location while other contributors each created the people, the related adventure, the map, and the art. We threw ideas around back and forth, growing and enriching the concepts.

The writer working on the adventure content also decided to include my journal-writer character as an element of her adventure. I even got to run a playtest of her adventure (and some of my own game elements), so she could take notes and improve her content. I very much look forward to working with her again in the future! In fact, I’d love to do more close collaborations like these the next time I work on a big title. Even if it’s not easy to coordinate with everyone, I think it produced some of our best work.

Frostlands wasn’t a perfect project, and we did make a few mistakes along the way. Since we were writing for the Slarecian Vault, we didn’t use Onyx Path’s official RPG project processes. Communication fell apart in a few places, and a couple of people on the project got pulled away by regular life stuff preventing them from finishing their parts. As a result, a few things came in after our original deadlines (and we crunched a little at the end to make sure everything was completed on time). There was also some confusion around ownership and access. 

We learned lessons, though, like having a document repository, using standard naming conventions (Especially for file versions!), having clear lines of delivery and communications, and probably having more frequent check-ins (all things to keep in mind for your own RPG projects). Yet despite our obstacles, we made something awesome.

And personally, I’m not done quite yet. I plan to reincorporate the cut parts of that travel journal, with expanded materials, add a new map and some other content, and put it all out on the Slarecian Vault as an extra little title that people can use alongside Frostlands of Fenrilik. I hope you check it out. I’m also planning to stream a game on two set in Fenrilik on Twitch, if you want to see a “Master GM” at work with their crazy friends.

Anyway, I hope you pick up and enjoy Frostlands of Fenrilik when it comes out and think about adding to this rich setting yourself. And remember to keep your stick on the ice, and never lick a crawling glacier!

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