Primeval Thule Campaign Setting: Having a William Gibson moment

Damn you, Richard Baker! Did you steal my notes?

While browsing around on my continuous search for inspirational material for my Ancient Lands setting, I stumbled on Primeval Thule, a new RPG setting by Richard Baker, David Noonan, and Stephen Schubert that had a Kickstarter last year, but never really got a second glance from me. The final version was completed and released just last month, and with the 272 pages pdf being only 15€, I decided to make the gamble and give it a try without any helpful reviews of it being around it. And it looks good. Really good. You might even say too good!

Just after the first two pages I was starting to get a William Gibson moment. The story goes that Gibson was just in the process of finishing up the last touches on his groundbreaking novel Neuromancer, went he went to the theater and watched an obscure sci-fi movie called Blade Runner. And realized with a shock that he was seeing almost exactly the same thing as his own original and entirely new vision. Primeval Thule looks a lot like the outline for my own Ancient Lands setting on which I have been working for the last four years. A large, mostly unexplored continent of wild forests, where humans have arrived just 300 years ago, finding a world inhabited by the remains of the kingdoms of elves, snakemen, rakshasa, and cyclops, with much older and stranger beings slumbering underground and the weapons and armor technology being primarily bronze. Replace “cyclops” with “mountain giant” and make the elven kingdoms still powerful, and the description matches perfectly with the Ancient Lands as well.

To be fair, the idea for the general concept of my own setting came from me looking for a certain kind of world for my campaign and not finding anything that really fit. So I went ahead and started to createmy own setting and considering the idea of eventually publishing it, as I though I had found a big unoccupied market niche. And apparently, so did three other guys in America.

Actually,this is not the first time this has happened. A few years ago I got my hands on the Manual of the Planes for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, and their whole ideas of the Feywild and the Elemental Chaos also matched what I considered my own new takes pretty closely. Here in Germany we have a saying “two fools, one idea”. Sometimes a great idea isn’t so much a stroke of genius, but actually obvious when you consider the same situation.

While it might indicate that my ideas are not actually that unique or original, I am not going to let this stop my in my goal of seeing the Ancient Lands to completion and getting it out to the people. There are still some big differences that set it appart from Primeval Thule. Shaman and witches play a major role both in the setting and as important leaders of their society, the Spiritworld is a big part in the daily life of people, humans are a “lesser race” just rising from the shadows of the lizardmen and elves, and the mortal people are not the survivors of a greater civilization that has fallen into ruin. The two worlds are certainly very similar, but there’s still a lot that sets them apart and justifies their respective existance. And if I am trying to use all the same monsters and environments as the creators of Primeval Thule, it doesn’t make me less creative. Only them a bit faster. And as I said before, their work looks really good. I plan spending the rest of the weekend working myself through the entire thing, and expect to be greatly enjoying it.

And in the end, the release of Gibsons novel Neuromancer came to be regarded as the birth of the entire Cyberpunk genre, not the movie that came out shortly before it and shared so much of its style.

Psions, sorcerers, and redundancy in D&D 3rd Edition

I’ve just been thinking about psionics in AD&D and in particular how you could run a Dark Sun campaign without having to bother with the psionic rules and instead use something like 3rd edition sorcerers with limited spell lists.

And I think I know see why psionics always seemed redundant, as someone starting with 3rd edition. In AD&D, magic is something that is always learned. All you need is to meet the ability score requirements and you can learn arcane and divine magic. There was no such thing as being born with magic power or having a special natural talent that opens the path for magic training to you.

And that was the point of psionics. Psionics is a type of magic that can not be taught, but is something you are born with. A psion was simply a person who spend all his training on improving and expanding the powers he was born with, at the cost of forgoing the training of any other skills other character classes get.

And that’s exactly the same thing that sorcerers do. 3rd edition said that characters do have the option of being born with magic powers. But instead of bothering with an alternative list of abilities and mechanics, sorcerers simply use the same spells that wizards do.
But when they later added psionics to the game, that created a redundancy. Sorcerers and psions have the same fluff. They fill the same role only with different mechanics.

And that’s why you sometimes see people making such a big deal about psionics being not magic and being completely different because the power comes from within. In 3rd edition, that’s the same thing as sorcerers, but in AD&D, it was indeed a big difference. Magic was always something you learned about altering the world around you, never something you had naturally within you.

It also explains why the 3rd edition Monster Manual has creatures with psionics, which work 100% like spell-like abilities. In AD&D, aboleths and yuan-ti were getting their powers from the list of psion powers, not from the spell-lists of wizards and clerics.Apparently some writer wanted to keep calling it psionics, even though they were now spell-like abilities in everything but name.

So now I think that when you use psionics in a 3rd edition or Pathfinder game, that campaign should not include sorcerers. Other classes like bards or beguilers can stay, their spells seem to have always been considered learned instead of inborn (except for dragon disciples, but those are their own can of worms.)

3 Acts and no End in sight

Yesterday I saw an article about the pacing in RPGs and 3-act story-arcs at Run a Game, which made me think of something that has been on my mind several times before. I actually think it’s a really good explaination of the subject and I don’t mean to criticize the authors views, but I think there’s something fundamentally flawed, or at least problematic with the whole premise of the subject.

The first sentence of the main article goes “Most western stories are structured around three acts”. And that’s the whole problem with it.

Three act story structure may be a classic and considered tried and true, and I think when it comes to theatre plays and movies, it’s still a valid approach. There are only two or maybe three hours to tell the whole story and that really isn’t that much time to have an elaborate beginning and end, as well as a good deal of additional action between them in the middle. But when we’re dealing with both literature, roleplaying games, and also video games, this is usually not a restriction the writer has to work with. And there is a serious downside to this approach. Because three act structure is comon in most western stories, things tend to become fairly formulaic. Not only do we have a pretty good idea what will happen, but also when it will happen. Things are getting too predictable. The first act twist and second act twist are not twists, and the third act revelation is not a revalation. Because we already know that they are coming, often long in advance.

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Ashwood Vale – Part 6

Almost two months after our last game, we finally continued our campaign today. A basic cave exploration losely based on the Pathfinder adventure “Flight of the Red Raven”. One player was absent today and another could play only for the first hour, so for most of the adventure it was just three characters.

John the Younger: Human male Fighter 2
Kendall: Human male Cleric 2
Isayoki: Half-elf male Priest 2

427, 7th Moon, 4th Sun
In the early morning, Isayoki, the junior priest at the village shrine, was called by the head priest Karras. During the night, someone had broken into the inner sanctum but stole only a single object. A simple amulet that belonged to one of the villages founders, which she had taken from a Hag she had killed to rescue her kinsfolk while the men were at war, conquering a territory for the newly founded clan. The day before, a local vagabond named Fox had come to the village. Though technically an outcast with no clan, his mother had been born in this clan and been exiled with her infant child for a crime commited by her husband. The villagers could not take her back, as doing so would have been an insult to the neighboring clan that banished her, but unlike most outcasts the boy was allowed to visit the village on occasion. And now he had suddenly disappeared during the night, at the same time as the relic from the shrine. Asked to keep silence about the matter for as long as possible, Isayoki got John and Kendall to get their gear, while the elder priests nephew would be their tracker to follow Fox’s trail.

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Ding, second level

Today, we were continuing our AS&SH campaign, starting with our three spellcasters chosing their new spells for 2nd level. Thinking back over my groups of the past years, I made the startling realization that this was the first time I was running a game for a second level party in about 10 years. I was a player in a Pathfinder campaign in which our characters reached 8th level, but all the campaigns and one-shots I’ve ran since school started at 1st level and never made it to 2nd.

The player of the mage had to leave after the first hour, and the scout couldn’t make it at all, so it was just the fighter, cleric, and priest. They were at a bit of a disadvantage, but with the two toughest characters and the two healers of the group, they were still very durable. It ended up getting quite close against the pair of ogres and especially against the ogre mage, who was defeated only with the help of two 1st level NPCs, and I now I think they probably were a bit too tough for the three PCs. But they did manage a close victory in both cases and after the game the players really felt like boasting about it to the two absent players, who couldn’t be there to have their share of these heroic victories. So it was still totally worth it.

I’m quite excited to see how they will be doing when they are back at full team strength, as I’ve never been in an oldschool campaign with 2nd level characters before, and have no idea what to really expect. Running games for a group of commoners with the potential for greatness is lots of fun, but I can’t wait to run adventures for actual Big Damn Heroes.

Sandbox campaign logs?

While I get the general idea of dungeon crawl sandbox campaigs and use some elements of sandbox settings for my own campaign, I’ve been puzzled about how such campaigns actually look in practice. I occasionally see advice that GMs should not direct the players to anything and that any story that evolves comes entirely from the players descisions. I have a hard time imagining that, but so far never had any luck in finding actual gameplay reports of such campaigns.

This post is a kind of open call to everyone to pointers where one could maybe find campaign logs and play reports of this type of campaign. Any replies will be highly appreciated.

XP for treasure

One oddity of AD&D 1st edition that had always seemed nonsensical to me, is to give characters XP not only for defeated monsters, but also for the value of treasures they bring back with them into town. Why do that? Picking up stuff that is lying around does not make you better at fighting or casting spells. And in those games I’ve been playing the most, treasure is there to be sold so you can buy better equipment and magic items. But in campaigns of a more oldschool leaning, there frequently are no more things for sale, which you don’t already have by 2nd level. So why bother with treasure at all?

Very often, and probably most of the cases, defeating an enemy also gets you treasure. But you can also defeat an enemy and not getting any treasure (because he doesn’t have any). And you can get treasure without defeating an enemy!

That’s what makes XP for treasure relevant. Sometimes an enemy can’t be fought, or the risk is regarded as just way too high. But if you can find a way to get his treasure while avoiding him entirely, you still created a clever solution to a problem. Which is rewarded with XP. Even in a game where money has no practical use, treasure still serves as a measure of your accomplishments. When you return to town, the treasure you bring back with you is your proof for your deeds.

You can’t make the player feel the comforts the money of the PC can buy him. And it’s extremely difficult to really play out the benefits of good clothing and a fancy house. To the character, being rich has great value and benefits. And when the chracter sees a golden idol, it is luring him with expensive wine and crocodile skin boots. But since comfort does not carry over to the player, XP can serve as a substitute lure. Instead of dollar signs in the players eyes, it’s saying “XP”. What matters is the emotional response.

When the GM describes a golden idol with ruby eyes on a pedestal, the player should think “I really, really want this. I hope there’s a way to get it without getting killed.” In other games like D&D 3rd edition and later ones, the player will want to have it because it can be traded in for magic boots or enchanted armor. So there is no need to add the additional lure of XP.

Words of Sword & Sorcery (but mostly swords)

“Steel isn’t strong. Flesh is stronger! What is steel, compared to the hand that wields it?”

“Gold is for the mistress; silver for the maid; copper for the craftsman, cunning at his trade. But iron, cold iron, is master of them all!”

“There’s nothing in the universe cold steel won’t cut.”

“If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

“I fear no living enemy, but my axe cannot cleave fleshless spirits.”

Ancient Lands: Cleaning out the Bestiary

The bestiary for the Ancient Lands is taking shape nicely. Selecting the wildlife and monsters for a setting is a part of worldbuilding I find particularly interesting, but doesn’t seem to be given much attention most of the time. There seems to be a common tendency to throw in pretty much every beast and critter the creators find interesting, but personally I think that’s something that doesn’t really work well. I’ve been reading through the old AD&D monster manuals again some time ago, and those who always surprise me the most are the Forgotten Realms appendices. Those are meant to cover creatures specifc to the setting that are not covered by the regular monster books. However most of them ended up completely forgotten and never mentioned again in other books, box sets, and 3rd edition. It’s not enough to simply write up a creature, it also needs to be woven into the rest of the setting and become part of it.

Take for example Dark Sun, which has the kang, mekillot, and inix, which barely resemble any animals found on earth and have no special abilities. But they are memorable because they have a very important role. They are the horses and camels of the setting, which are used by everyone who is sane enough to not try crossing the desert on foot. Eberron has such unique creatures as the quori and the warforged, which could easily be dismissed as silly ideas, but are among the best known features of the setting because they play an important role in the world. Dinosaurs are implied to be existing in some remote regions in almost all D&D settings, but only in Eberron is their presence really acknowledged. By having a race of deinonychus riding halfling barbarians!

Quality goes over quantity, and I vastly prefer the approach of not adding anything to a setting unless it is relevant in some way.

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Note to self: Take better notes

I was just updating my monster manual for the Ancient Lands and found a note that I still need to write stats for the Sand Bision.

I have no idea what a sand bison is.

The next item on the list is a Riding Goat, so it’s probably some kind of actual bovine, but I havn’t the slightest clue what I could have meant with the name. There aren’t even any deserts in the Ancient Lands!

Update: I believe I simply meant an upsized version of the regular old musk ox.