Murky Waters

In the early 90s, a large asteroid crashed into the ice of Antarctica, releasing an enormous cloud of steam and dust high into the atmosphere where it stayed for weeks. Once the dust from the impact started to clear, researchers went to study the huge crater, they discovered an unknown orange-brown lichen growing on the newly exposed barren rock. Within a few days the scientists developed a severe lung infection that killed all of them soon after. Whether the spores had been frozen under the ice for millions of years or had arrived on the asteroid, the explosion from the impact had thrown them up into the atmosphere and to be spread by the wind all over the world over the following months. Nearly all people and animals everywhere became infected by the spores, usually ending fatal, reducing the global population to only a small fraction of what it had been within a year.

Those people and animals who turned out to have some resistance to the spores did survive the infection, but many of them continue to have them growing throughout their bodies like cancer cells, creating a wide range of strange mutations. And even for them, inhaling clouds of spores can overcome their bodies’ defenses, leading to a severe cough that can last for weeks and often be fatal.

At the same time as billions were dying all over the world, the lichens in the crater in Antarctica continued to spread, seemingly warming up the ground as they dissolved the rocks on which they were growing for energy, rapidly melting the surrounding ice much faster than anything that had ever been thought possible. Massive rivers of meltwater flowed into the oceans, raising sea levels, sometimes by several centimeters a day. The rising waters forced the people who survived the spore infection to flee inland as most major cities and industrial regions of the world were swallowed by the waters.

Four decades later, the rising of the waters finally came to an end, some 80 meters above what it used to be, which some have calculated to mean that all the ice in Antarctica must be completely gone. In Northern Europe, most of the regions around the North Sea and Baltic Sea sank beneath the waves. All that remains of Denmark and of Northern Germany are a few groups of small islands, and a small number of larger islands are where Northern Poland and the Baltic States used to be.

Without any ice to reflect sunlight and a larger ocean surfaces for water to evaporate, the new world is one of frequent and often massive storms. Clear skies are rare in a region that always used to be cloudy and wet, but these days smaller storms happen nearly every week. Towards the start of winter, they become almost daily and often grow to devastating strength that can snap or rip out trees. But people have discovered that salt is quite effective at killing the spores and the swampy marshes along the new coast lines are nearly free of lichen growth. This makes these areas much more hospitable than places further inland, where clouds of spores quickly overwhelm the lungs even of people resistant to them.

While the new coastal islands of Northern Europe are home to many tens of thousands of people and large numbers of animals, the sea itself is a different story. When the many large coastal ports of the region sank beneath the waves, the waters also swept away all the landfills and industrial waste and carried the toxic slush into the sea. With the waters from all the large rivers running into the Baltic Sea, the current has slowly carried much of it out into the North Sea and eventually Atlantic Ocean over the decades, but people still avoid swimming in the sea or eat any of the fish that are slowly coming back.

I had the idea for this Wet Wasteland a few years ago when I was reading Apocalypse World. It seems like post-apocalyptic wastes are 70% deserts and 30% nuclear winter, and while those can be really cool, it really gets a bit repetitive eventually. And nuclear war is so 80s. We now have many more varied ways to lay the world to waste and kill of most of the population. Being from Northern Europe, sea level rise and worsening storms are of course the obvious choice.

I am thinking of this world as a kind of blend between Fallout 1 and Metro Exodus with a good dose of Stalker. And having recently watched several videos on a couple military games from the late 80s and 90s like Wasteland and Jagged Alliance, I somehow got the idea that using that period as the peak of technology to be salvaged could be really fun. By now it’s very retro, but a period that hasn’t really been used much for that purpose yet.

I don’t think a setting like this would be much fun for long ongoing campaigns. But for single long adventures or shorter campaigns of 10 to 20 games in something like Mutant: Year Zero, this could be a pretty cool background

Dungeons & Swords & Sorcery

I’ve written about my thoughts on how to evoke the style of Sword & Sorcery in a fantasy adventure game before in the past. I’ve been thinking about it again recently while looking to find the spark again to continue work on my setting, and my thoughts have been revolving primarily around the role of dungeon crawling in a Sword & Sorcery campaign.

While classic dungeon crawling is a very fascinating and fun form of gameplay in its own right, I think the archetypical dungeon crawl is not a good basis to build a Sword & Sorcery campaign around. The classic dungeon crawl, with its complex underground labyrinths, countless traps, secret doors, and numerous small hidden stashes of treasures all over the place naturally promotes a play style that is very cautious, methodical, and calculated. It encourages players to progress slowly and with care, to examine all the small and possibly insignificant details, and to take any precautions before following through with well thought through plans. In a well deaigned dungeon, this can be hugely exciting and thrilling. But it’s a kind of exitement and tension that is very different from the style of Sword & Sorcery. This is a style that is all about fearless and even reckless initiative, where fortune favors the bold. Heroes are certainly relying heavily on cunning and trickery to take down foes much stronger than themselves, but often these are things improvsed in the heat of the action and more of a gamble than much of a plan. In a Sword & Sorcery themes campaign, players spending a lot of time over maps and rummaging through large boxes of tools to disable a dangerous mechanism with a minimum of risk is something that you want to avoid, not to have as the default approach to playing the game. While a lot of useful things can be taken to create a great Sword & Sorcery campaign from oldschool roleplaying, the classic dungeon crawl probably isn’t one of them.

Still dungeons as a concept and an environment are really cool and absolutely have their place. But I think they need to be approached quite differently.

The first thing that I see is that dungeons should be relatively small in scope. Typically in a Sword & Sorcery adventure, a dungeon is only one chapter of a larger story. As such, I think dungeons of a size that the players can get through in two or three hours should be quite big enough. Heroes usually don’t enter a dungeon to explore its secrets, but to track down something or someone specific that they have good reason to believe to be somewhere inside. Going into a dungeon is usually more a kind of raid than an exploration. Get in fast and quietly if possible, grab what you came for, and get the hell out again fast. The dungeon is not a place to be mastered or conquered, but to be survived.

As I said above, in a Sword & Sorcery style campaign, we don’t typically want the players to stay in one place long and go through everything with a fine comb. There are two main ways to encourage that. The first one is to avoid having the players be weary of traps. If every floor tile could be a trap, things will slow down a lot. And most of the time, there won’t even be any actual danger in the first place. Environmental dangers and constucted defenses against intruders can totally work, but they should be announcing themselves to the players instead of  being hidden. Be it obvious pits of spikes, moats with hungry crocodiles, a hallway with mummies in open coffins that line the wall, or two dramatic gargoyle statues on top of the gate. What we want to accomplish is to have the players understand that if a passage looks empty and perfectly safe, there is no point for them to stop and take all the time consuming precautions to make sure there really is no trap. And this has to be absolutely consistent. It might seem fun to have a completely unexpected trap jump at the players now and then, but when you do it once, the plaeyers learn that it could happen at any time when they don’t expect it, and then they will always expect it.

Similar to the placement of traps is the placement of treasure. Having some spare change hidden between the couch cushions to reward players who spend the time to check for there is a great way to encourage them to really search everything in an area they come through, and it can be quite a lot of fun for players to do this easter egg hunt. But just as wit traps, this is something that w don’t really want in Sword & Sorcery adventures. Instead of lots of small portions of valuables being hidden all over the place, I think having just one big hoard of all the treasure in one place works much better. Yes, it’s all the joy of discovering treasures crammed into a single scene instead of having it spread out evenly, but that also means to joy in that moment is more intense. This hoard can be placed right behind the greatest danger in the dungeon, but it doesn’t have to. Getting the whole haul out while the biggest threat is still on the prowl can be even more exciting. And the main pice of the loot could also be somwthing that might be a very powerful weapon against that threat when the players encounter it later.

Video Games 25 Years Ago

I’ve been long of the opinion that videogames really made a giant leap in evolution in the late 90s. There are many games from the early 90s and even mid 90s that are still very well remembered as amazing classics, but I feel that these are games that you can really only enjoy through nostalgia. Just a few years later these had already aged rather poorly and already felt dated at the start of the 2000s. But something changed significantly later in the decade. True 3D graphics being of course a massive milestone that allowed for completely new forms of gameplay, but it seems that at the same time computers also became able to handle a much wider range of colors, allowing for more interesting textures and at least the illusion of lighting that wasn’t completely flat. There also came to be more things on the screen at the same time, which also impact the experience. But I think there also happened to be a giant leap in storytelling, which I think might be just as important as the introduction of 3D engines, and affected also games that still continued to use 2D graphics.

Here’s a few select game that just passed the 25 year mark recently.

  • Duke Nukem 3D: 29 January 1996
  • Resident Evil: 22 March 1996
  • Quake: 22 June 1996
  • Super Mario 64: 23 June 1996
  • Tomb Raider: 25 October 1996
  • C&C: Red Alert: 22 November 1996
  • Diablo: 3 January 1997
  • Final Fantasy 7: 31 January 1997
  • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: 20 March 1997
  • Star Fox 64: 27 April 1997
  • Dungeon Keeper: 26 June 1997
  • GoldenEye 64: 27 August 1997

Yes, all these games are old as hell, in many ways just as clunky to play, and their graphics look like garbage. But compared to games that came out just before or even many that came out at the same time, these were stunning  leaps forward. And more importantly, these are games that I think would still be a lot of fun for people who started played videogames only many years later, or who might not even have been born yet when these came out.

There are numerous older games that are historically just as significant and that can still be appreciated for their accomplishments. But I think the enjoyment people get from those is more of an academic interest. In 1997, we see the start of a transformation that is just as big as the leap from say Metropolis to Casablanca. Works from before are historic artifacts, but those made after the shift are simply old, but still works of the kind we enjoy today.

A Tale of the Past

Feeling particularly fed up with the D&D Fantasyland cliches, I found the motivation to resume work on Planet Kaendor and go full out with the Sword & Sorcery treatment. I once again had Kenshi and Conan Exiles on my mind, and now Forbidden Lands. (Also Morrowind, because I always do.) When I last ran out of steam, the setting seemed a bit bland and stale, but I think a new backstory could do wonders to give it the spark it needs without reworking the geography and culture in significant ways.
Long in the distant past, the lands between the Sea in the West and the Mountains in the East was home to the northern civilization of the Rakshasa and the southern civilization of the Naga. Eventually the two rising powers came into conflict, which turned into centuries of warfare. As the wars dragged on, both sides unleashed incresingly devastating sorcery, turning the forests that made up the borderlands between the two powers were into a blasted wasteland. Even when armies managed to cross the burned plains to lay siege to the enemy’s cities, there was no way to possibly hold a city that was taken on the other side, and so the original plans for conquest gave way to a rage of blind destruction. As the desolation spread further into the two great woodlands and both sides exhausted their power, invasions became more difficult and less frequent, until eventually they simply stopped altogether, with nobody having any claim to victory.

Where the burned wastelands slowly recovered over time to turn into a great plain of grass and shrubland, the two battered civilizations did not. When the shared enemy from the outside faded into the distance, cities turned against each other, further reducing both realms into hollow husks of their former selves.

Eventually, human barbarians from the Mountains in the East came down into the depopulated plains. First to hunt the abundant grazing beasts, but then to settle the fertile banks of the great rivers. Three shaman kings managed to defeat the last rakshasa lord ruling in the plains and somehow gained immortality for themselves in the process. Each of them claimed one of the former rakshasa cities for themselves as conquerors, though two of the cities had already been abandoned long ago at that point.

While human civilization grew in the plains, they always stayed clear of the great ancient woodlands to the North and the South, as the Rakshasa and Naga that continued to live beneath the trees were still terrible foes to face. But over the last generations, hunters and explorers have dared venturing deeper and deeper into the northern woodlands, and rumors spread that the Rakshasa seem to be gone. Many have doubts that these ancient beings have truly disappeared for good, but to many people in the western plains, possibility of a life beyond the reach of the sorcerer kings is very much worth such a risk. The northern woodlands are not just calling to those who wish to escape the grasp of the sorcerer kings. Abandoned rakshasa castles and towers promise powerful magical artifacts that might have been left behind and forgotten, and whose value could be beyond measure.

First Impressions of Forbidden Lands

I recently had a conversation about how I am sooo over the D&D Fantasyland and the various assumptions and structures that are baked into the rules of all editions, and how there’s actually not a lot of medium-weight rulesets for generic heroic fantasy. But to my surprise, I discovered that Forbidden Lands is actually a Year Zero game, which I recently found to be really promising looking in Coriolis. I think I got Forbidden Lands years ago, quickly decided that it’s a weird D&D, and then completely forgot about it. But now that I am specfically in the market for “anything but D&D”, it’s actually looking much more interesting. It still has elves, dwarves, and halflings for PCs and the monster section, and the druid is clearly inspired by D&D, but that’s easily reflavored to your setting of choice.

While it basically has classes, skills, and talents like in recent D&D editions, Forbidden Land doesn’t have levels. You gain a small number of XP any time you play, but these don’t track progress but rather work as advancement points to spend. Your four attributes (Strength, Agility, Wits, Empathy) remain fixed, but skill increase cost 5XP per new skill rank (1 to 5) and talents costs 3XP per new talent rank (1 to 3). Each class has three class-exclusive talents, and there are an additional 46 general talents available to all characters. So you’re not going to max out your character any time soon.

The game doesn’t have hit points and instead damage goes directly to your attributes. Injury is Strength damage, exhaustion is Agility damage, fear is Wits damage, and despair is Empathy damage. Attributes can go to 6 at the highest, but attacks typically only deal 1 or 2 damage. So combat isn’t going to turn into long slugging matches. (Assuming you land hits.) When an attribute falls to 0, the character is out of action, and in case of 0 Strength or Agility suffers a crticial injury. There is a 20/36 chance that the critical injury will be nonfatal, a 14/36 chance of dying in the next days, hours, or rounds without treatment, and a 2/36 chance of immediate death. (Druids with rank 3 in the healing talent can revive the dead within a few days, but that permanently reduces Empathy). If you survive a critical injury, you’re still crippled in some way for a few days.

Magic is one of the most interesting things about the game, and from what I gathered looking around about the game, one of the most divisive. The talents for the different magic paths have three levels, each level giving you access to more advanced spells. The level of the spell determines how much Willpower you need to cast it. The spell automatically succeeds, but you still have to roll dice equal to the Willpower spend, and every 6 means the spell gets an extra boost, and getting a 1 means you suffer a mishap. Most of the mishaps are not so bad, but there’s a 1/36 chance that the character gets pulled to hell and basically instantly dead with no chance or recovery. Which sounds to me like spellcasters might have an life expectancy of about 100 spells. Which can work for short campaigns where characters might only cast 30 or 50 spells in total, but for longer campaigns I think something like demonic possession until exorcised might work better.
Willpower is another thing where it gets a bit odd. Willpower is used to power spells, but also by various other talents used by other characters. But the main way to get Willpower is to suffer damage to an attribute when you pushed a skill check and a 1 came up. The only other way is to get 1 Willpower point when you return back to your base after an adventure. 1 point. If you play a spellcaster and don’t want to get all bruised up by plenty of dangerous exercise, you need to find opportunity to cause yourself mental stress. Making checks for Lore, Insights, Manipulation, Performance, or Animal Handling can get you Willpower points if it drains your Wits and Empathy, but you only get to make a roll in situations where there is real pressure, and you only get to roll once for any action. Also your Willpower maxes out at 10, so you can’t build up a big pile of Willpower to prepare yourself for big awesome magic duels.
I have to see this in action, but I think this could work pretty well if you have a campaign that assumes infrequent uses of low-level magic as the default. I would guess as a sorcerer you’re probably more an occult scholar than a flashy spell-slinger. Which for certain kinds of campaign would be very appropriate. It had me thinking that this might even be a good fit for people who want Sword & Sorcery campaigns where magic is pricey and risky.