Sewer Rats (3.5e Campaign Setting)
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Sewer Rats is a campaign recipe for a beer and pretzel style D&D campaign. The primary purpose of this recipe is to give DMs a quick and easy way to slap together a fun game aimed at killing monsters and causing havoc. The secondary purpose is to help players create characters appropriate for this campaign setting. This campaign idea can be dropped into many game settings, and should accommodate many commercial modules.
A campaign recipe is like the recipe from the cookbook. The cookbook tells you the ingredients needed for a certain dish. You, as the cook, are responsible for buying, chopping, and assembling the ingredients. In the same way, a campaign recipe tells you how to create a certain style of campaign. You, as the DM, are responsible for bringing all the ingredients together and assembling into a fun game.
Sewer Rat is an insulting term for those adventuring parties that work in the sewers. Sewer Rats are infamous for smelling foul, destroying indiscriminately, and living down to their famously low reputation. Most adventurers look down on them. No self-respecting party would ever become Sewer Rats.
A Sewer Rats campaign centers on the following:
- You go into the ancient sewers underneath a city, kill things, break things, and sometimes fix things
- The characters are small races, such as halflings, gnomes, goblins, and kobolds. The largest race available is dwarf.
- This is a blatant dungeon crawl
A Sewer Rats game is great for a campaign for groups where the DM's switch frequently, the players can vary between games, or the players do not enjoy long and complicated story lines. A Sewer Rat game scenario should take one to two playing sessions to conclude.
Sewer Rats is a low fantasy game. The focus of this game is the low-end of fantasy society who do all the dirty work. Sewer Rats is also a team game. Each character plays a part of on the Sewer Rat team. The purpose of the team is to accomplish missions. Each character on the team should have the following described about them:
- Why they are a Sewer Rat
- Their temperament
- How they solve problems
- What skills they bring to the team beyond combat
- Their preferred method of indiscriminate destruction
With this in mind, players should be able to create characters appropriate to a Sewer Rat campaign.
Notes on Paladins: In this style of game, a paladin is expected to kill evil things without much thought. Morals are applied with the sharp end of a sword. Kill evil. Loot the bodies. Share treasure equally. That's lawful good.
Paladins work as a deputies under Sir Silvershield. You ARE the law. You know that Sir Silvershield is incompetent and you make adjustments for that. You have no trouble working the system to go around him and get the authority for anything that you do (even retroactively). By definition, it is both legal and good to kill those who resist arrest, fight you, or are the target of your mission. If you are expected to bring back prisoners, your orders will say so. Otherwise, you are expected to kill your opponents and finish off the wounded.
Unlike most paladins, you actually have leeway to make less than puritanical decisions. Those on the surface get the pleasure of high-minded ethics. In the sewers, you do the best that you can, make a few compromises where necessary, and turn a blind eye to those things that you can't justify. I'm not sure which god you worship, but he obviously doesn't mind your behavior as you haven't lost your paladinhood yet.
Sewer Rats accept missions from the government of their city. This city can be any city, from GreyhawkTM, to WaterdeepTM, to a fantasy London, as all cities have undercities. Where you have undercities, you have troubles. The deeper you go, the worse the trouble gets. With this being the case, the city government does its best to keep those troubles at bay. It is the Sewer Rats who get paid to solve these problems, usually by killing them. The government allows Sewer Rats to keep any riches that they find (unless they have a compelling reason to appropriate an item for compelling religious or political reasons.) The mission usually states whether recovered objects must be turned over to the government.
Sometimes, problems are mechanical in nature. If a pipe collapses, the Sewer Rats have to go in and fix it. If a pump fails, the Sewer Rats must fix it. This can take hours, if not days. These challenges require construction skills, repair skills, and a good defensive strategy. Whether the Sewer Rats fix it themselves or hire someone to do it, their job is to get it done.
Often enough, the city government needs to know what is going on in the sewers. Scouting and mapping the sewers represents the third challenge of a Sewer Rat party. The characters need to learn the hazards and layout of the sewers better than anybody.
Finally, there are rescue missions. Often enough, people go into the sewers and get lost. All too often, kidnappers hide down there. All too often, it’s up to the Sewer Rats to find those people and get them out.
In a perfect world, the Sewer Rats get one clear mission and accomplish it. In the real world, they get complicated missions with multiple objectives. “Kill the cultists, rescue their captives, and fix the pipes that they broke.”
Parties should only gain 1/2 experience if they fail to make their main objective.
A mission will also have secondary objectives. The party should gain +10% gold and +10% experience for meeting each of these objectives. A mission should have no more than two secondary objectives. Secondary objectives should make a mission more difficult, but not extremely so. Example: Stop Bloody Paw gang operating out of level two. Capture their leader if possible and return him for questioning.
Sewers are a hostile environment. They are filthy, cramped, damp, maze-like constructs that breed disease, decay, and foul creatures. The sewage of an entire megacity runs through these channels. In all ways, they must be considered hostile environments. Where sewer rats must go, there are no walkways. They must trudge, crawl, and swim through the worst muck imaginable to access areas so remote, only small characters can reach there. To make things worse, this is a world plunged into total darkness.
There are many dangers in the sewers: water, undead, vermin, aberrations, unnatural ecology, disease, maze-like passages, vertical drops, collapsed tunnels, no natural food, total darkness, hidden shrines to evil gods and the cults that worship them, hiding felons, hiding were-creatures, lost passages and dungeons, old crypts and catacombs, and traces of ancient and inexplicable civilizations. These are the hazards that characters must be prepared to overcome.
The most common hazards are those that the characters will face every day: food, light, safe resting areas, getting lost, water, and disease. The characters should have contingencies for each of these permanent problems.
All sorts of creatures live in the sewers. On the upper levels, these are mostly vermin, stray animals, small humanoids, and skeletons and zombies left over from the last necromancer who tried to take over the city. Deeper down, the hazards get worse. Aberrations abound. The undead grow more powerful. Unholy or magically contaminated areas grow more plentiful. Deep down, the hazards are very dangerous, and few will speak of them.
As if the hazards were not enough, there are also mission objectives that involve the environment. The characters will need to fix masonry, metal fittings, pumps, pipes, and other underground artifacts. They must be able to negotiate tiny passages, cave-ins, vertical drops, and open spaces. Finally, they must be able to find their way about and not get lost.
Abe's Pub: Just about the only place where you can find decent numbers of Rats out of the tunnels, Abe's Pub is the favorite watering hole for Sewer Rats. They have an outside porch near the river, which is downwind from most other customers. The place is currently run by Maggot (or Maggie to her friends), a half-orc who acts as her own bouncer (Fighter 7/Barbarian 1). The food is very bad, but the ale is very good. The Guild often passes messages through Maggie. There's also a convenient sewer entrance in her basement.
Temple Square Fountain: The Temple Square Fountain is the single largest contributor of water to the city. It is actually based on a permanent gate to the Elemental Plane of Water. Ever so often, a water elemental pops through and goes wandering through the water system, bursting pipes. Sewer Rats have to clean up these problems.
The Ant Nest: In years past, giant ants built a complicated nest. Kobolds later moved in, making this underground area the center of kobold culture in the city. The kobolds make some of the best small-sized equipment available anywhere.
The Pit: Five hundred feet below the city, in a perfectly spherical room with a 180-foot diameter, is the master cesspool of the city. Everything drains here, and as such it's hard to get deeper into the planet than the Pit. In the middle of the room, towards the bottom, stands a Sphere of Annihilation destroying everything that comes into contact with it. The waters that fill the sphere are in a permanent whirlpool about it. The Sewer Authority takes no responsibility for any works destroyed by the sphere.
Not surprisingly, the Pit is a favorite place for the underworld to execute its rivals and permanently dispose of their bodies.
The Temple of Skulls: This terribly evil place is a perennial favorite among evil cultists. Somebody is always setting up shop here to worship some evil god. The place has been unhallowed so often that its spell effect, zone of truth, is now always in effect and also makes infiltrating the temple rather difficult.
The Break: Very nearly the last place a Sewer Rat mission hopes to go, the Break is a section of tunnels where a distant network of monster caves finally cracked into the tunnels. As of recent, the entrance on the other side collapsed, leaving the inhabitants with only one way out, and the Sewer Rats with a brand new headache.
The Bolt Hole: More a rumor than a fixed location, the Bolt Hole is used by the Thieves’ Guild to hide people who need to hide.
The Catacombs: This is where the city buries its dead. Some of the dead don't stay buried. Inside the catacombs is the Chapel, which is a hallow space used for funerals and retreating from the undead.
The Monster Lab: This area is often used by those who wish to create creatures or undead. For some reason, they always think that they are the first folks to find this old place. The city regularly sends down Sewer Rats to clean out these squatters.
The Blackshafts: Far, far, below the city lie the Blackshafts- an old section of dwarven mining tunnels sealed off because the dwarves cracked open a room that was holding something nasty. Recently became connected to the city sewers through various cave-ins and the like, and despite the Union's honestly dedicated efforts sealing them up again has proven futile. Nothing has ventured out into the sewers yet, thankfully, but occasionally some upper-dwellers are stupid enough to venture in, and then it's time for the Sewer Rats to follow them.
Artemesia (DnD NPC): Artemesia is the clerk (Expert 3) who acts as the manager for freelance sewer contracts. In short, she's the one who assigns you your work. Artemesia reports to Sir Silvershield. Artemesia is usually overworked, harried, and poorly slept. She is also the power behind the throne.
Sir Silvershield (DnD NPC): Sir Silvershield, Sheriff of the Sewers, is the kind of paladin that everyone loves to hate. (Paladin 6). He is dutiful to an extreme. He is the epitome of the clueless cop. His uniform is perfect, but he has no clue on how to actually catch a criminal.
Gog: Gog is an earth elemental lord of some unknown type. He lives deep below the city. He got kicked out of his dimension by his wife and he is waiting a few millennia for her to calm down. He is quite knowledgeable in history, ancient lore, and planar geography. He rather hates the 'normal' adventuring parties, who think that they can just waltz into his house and ask questions. The sign outside of his house says, "Visitors will be detonated." His normal tactic is to ignite his bomb collection, which does nothing to him, but rather dismembers unwanted visitors. However, he rather enjoys the sewer rats that come to visit him. As presents, Gog likes sacks of salt, saltpeter, coal, and lime.
Old Squint (DnD NPC): This is not so much a place as a roaming location. Old Squint, a tough old gnome, runs the Thieves Guild Store wherever is safe and comfy at the moment. Most non-guild members never know the location, but Sewer Rats are an exception. In Old Squint's opinion, the Sewer Rats keep the sewers safe for the Guild. Rather than be in debt to anyone, the Guild allows the Sewer Rats access to their wares. They will even tell you if an item is legit or stolen. As long as the Sewer Rats keep the peace with the Guild, all will be well.
Sewer Rats do not need to worry about conflicts with the Thieves Guild. Sewer Rats will never receive orders that are in opposition of the Thieves Guilds. The Guild insures this.
The Guild: This is the Thieves Guild. They are the dominant criminal organization in the city. They have deep ties to the city government, business, and the courts. They do their best to keep crime low-key but profitable. They are in a low-level war with the Bloody Paw. The Guild's sign is a copper piece with a nail hammered through it, preferably a real nail and a real copper piece.
The Bloody Paw: This militant criminal group split off during a purge in the Thieves Guild a few decades back, and now forms the backbone of violent and revolutionary criminal organization. They are lead by Hardnose Whiskers, a were-rat of deeply ill repute. He leads the Paws in high-profile heists designed to anger the ruling elite and cause political havoc. The sign of the Bloody Paw is three vertical lines and a paw print, all in red. Their goal is the overthrow of the dictatorial elite, freedom of the wrongfully imprisoned, exile of all paladins, destruction of the Thieves Guild, execution of all bankers, exclusive protection contract paid to the Bloody Paw, and full rights for all the least human of the city.
Hardnose Whiskers: This is the leader of the Bloody Paw. He is a were-rat criminal (Rogue 15) of considerable guile. There is a 10,000gp reward for him, wanted dead or alive. The Guild will pay an additional 40,000gp, wanted dead. You must bring proof of his death. To add to the challenge, Hardnose makes it his business to never be at the business end of a sword. (Hardnose Whiskers should be designed by each DM. The players should never know what they are getting into when they encounter Hardnose.)
The Union: More fully, this is The Union of Plumbers, Masons, and Underground Service Workers. If there is any organization that gives the Guild a run for its money, it is the union. If you want help in the sewers, you need to hire Union labor. That's the law. If you don't obey they law, the Union will explain this to you in uncomfortable and humiliating ways.
In theory, the clerk's office gives you enough money to cover labor costs when you take a contract. In practice, the Union always seems to find many "extra" charges that leave them with your payday. Every little thing that they do is extra money. You even have to pay to negotiate with them. (If the players don't learn to hate the Union, then you are doing something wrong.)
Sewer Rats often need specialized equipment. Here are a few things that are useful to Sewer Rats.
- Blasting Kit (3.5e Equipment)
- Mining Helmet (3.5e Equipment)
- Mining Helmet, Continual (DnD Equipment)
- Sure-Strike Matches (3.5e Equipment)
|Gog sells other specialized equipment to Sewer Rats.|
Advice to the DM
A Sewer Rats game is a beer and pretzels game. This is the kind of game where the players have plenty of room to role-play, roll-play, and generally have fun beating up monsters for an afternoon. A game of this style should never be high-powered. The difficulty curve should stick close to recommended CRs. Most of the game (90% or so) should happen below ground. That is the focus. Top-side role-playing should be held to a minimum. This style of game can last an afternoon, or a year, depending on your group. Play as long as you have fun. Stop when you don't.
In terms of creatures, you should lean heavily on aberrations, magical beasts, constructs, and undead for your monsters. In addition, most sourcebooks are full of underground style creatures to challenge your players. The whole sewer system is a vast, unnatural environment where you can explain almost anything with a few hand-waves.
The characters are living in a huge city. They should have ample opportunity to spend their wealth on the equipment that they need. Most everything under 1,000 gp should be trivial to find, and most things under 5,000 gp should take only a few days to find or a short commission. The characters should never want for any low-level magic items. They should have little trouble selling what they loot.
Some objects have a low real-world worth but a high religious worth. Most temples will pay well for religious artifacts, but they will offer even more in temple services. For example, you may be able to see the Blessed Eyepatch of Tobin to an antiques dealer for 1gp, sell them to a temple for 1,000gp, or give them to the temple and gain 2,000gp in services as a “thank you” gift. (This “thank you” gift does not violate the Vow of Poverty. The “thank you” gift only applies to those few items that have a religious value.) In essence, this gives players the option of creating a "healing savings account" for the party without railroading them into the decision.
Religious artifacts can be identified using a Bardic Knowledge roll or Knowledge (religion). I suggest DC=10+(Religious Value/1000)
Stick close to the recommended wealth for characters. The nature of the campaign should require more overhead in terms of specialized items. Utilitarian items should be compelling purchases and give as much benefit as a weapon or armor. You can control wealth easily if the bulk of the player's wealth comes from completing missions.
As a DM, do not get too stuck on alignments. In this style of game, a paladin is expected to kill evil things without much thought. Morals are applied with the sharp end of a sword. Kill evil. Loot the bodies. Share treasure equally. That's lawful good.
Here are a few adventure ideas. (Please feel free to add ideas.) Please keep scenario ideas fairly direct and mission-oriented.
- Some adventurers cleared out a necromancer on level 1. They did not get all the skeletons and zombies. Go in and clean them out.
- A merchant's daughter has been kidnapped by the Thieves’ Guild. Deliver the ransom and escort the daughter out.
- The Smith Street pump is acting up. Go fix it. (Clear out the vermin and then hold out against more attacks.)
- The Bloody Paw has mined its way into a temple and stolen many holy items. Recover the temple holy items.
- The Bloody Paw have holed up in the sewers. Find them and report on their location, strength, and composition. The administration will send in a specialized strike force. Lead the strike force to the hidden lair and then watch their backs as they attack Hardnose Whiskers.
- Strange aberrations are coming from the sewers. Find out why and stop the cause. (The cause is magical contamination from an alchemist.)
- A small-time branch of the black market has set up shop in the sewers, and there is reason to believe that they are supplying the Bloody Paw with magic items. Find the merchants, "remove" them and seize their goods.
- A berserk Stone Golem is wandering the sewers, erratically decimating important structures as it does. Destroy it before it can inflict further damage.
- A Union repair group vanished on level 3 two weeks ago. Make their rep stop screaming at me- go find out where they went. (They're dead, and apparently there's a new tunnel leading from the Monster Lab to right about where they vanished.)
- The South End hasn't had water for three days. Get down to Temple Square Fountain and find out why. (The Bloody Paw is wrecking the pipes in an attempt to turn South End into a disaster area. That just won't do.)
- The Pit Sphere's stopped working. Hurry up and find the cause before it's too deep in sewage to locate. (Loonies at the Temple of Skulls causing trouble again.)
- The Bloody Paw has kidnapper members of the Union, go save them.
Sewer Rats works great with 4th edition. Open the DMG up to Random Dungeons, make yourself and encounter deck, and off you go.
Sewer Rats should work better with 4th edition than with 3rd edition. There's not time to rest in the sewers. Missions are time critical. The sewers are always dangerous. You never know what you may face.