Monthly Archives: June 2015

RPG Review: Primeval Thule

Primeval Thule is a Sword & Sorcery campaign setting that was released last year for Pathfinder, D&D 4th Edition, and 13th Age. It is set in the “Pre-cataclysmic Age” of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu, which has been the backdrop for the worlds of many Sword & Sorcery stories and RPGs, like Conan and Kull, Barbarians of Lemuria, and Atlantis: The Second Age. Primeval Thule adds a fourth mythic continent to this famous group, which takes the form of prehistoric Greenland. In the world of Primeval Thule, is a place very different from the one we know today. A vast tropical island covered by lush jungles and home to many strange beasts.

133780As someone with a passing interest in geography and geology, the map of Thule is quite interesting. For one thing, all the maps have west “up”, which I find pretty clever. Greenland is so far north that the difference between the axis of the Earth and the magnetic pole becomes quite significant and any compass would be pointing to a spot off the northern coast of Canada. Which seen from Greenland is in the west. A somewhat odd thing though, is that the map seems to be based on the geography of the rock below the modern Greenlandic ice and all the fjords and clacial valleys would not be existing yet before the coming of the ice. But hey, this is a pulp fantasy setting, so it’s not like that would actually hurt the world in any way. Another nice touch is that even though you’ll recognize all the islands of the northern Atlantic, Iceland is missing. Because Iceland is geologically speaking a very recent addition. By which I am saying 16 to 18 million years old, which was long before the evolution of the first apes. Scientifically widely incorrect, but I still like the idea.

Primeval Thule reads a lot like an honest attempt to merge Dungeons & Dragons with the Prehistoric Sword & Sorcery of Robert Howard, much more so than even Dark Sun. But my feelings about the result are a bit ambigous. Thule is inhabited by humans, atlanteans, beastmen, and serpentment, but also D&D races like elves, dwarves, and rakshasa. The elves I feel are done very well. They are in fact an alien race from another dimension that created a colony in Thule a long time ago and had several big wars with the local serpentmen and rakshasa. Which they did defeat, but ultimately they also fell into decline and were pushed back by explorers and conquerors from Atlantis in the south and are now almost disappeared. The center of remaining elven culture is a single large city which is increasingly falling into ruin and decaying anarchy, which I think integrates them very well into this type of fantasy setting. On the other hand, dwarves are just boring. They have a single small kingdom somewhere in the mountains, which is of no significance to the rest of the setting as a whole. It feels like the dwarves are only there because the rulebooks of the three games the setting is written for have them as a player character race. But they are just shoved into a back corner and then forgotten. Why bother then? I even saw a single case in which a village of halflings is mentioned. And that’s all. For any intents and purposes, halflings don’t really exist in Thule. I don’t think there was any mention of orcs or goblins and I am not sure if I’ve seen any instances of dragons and ogres. Other than that one dwarven kingdom, there isn’t really much D&D specific in the setting, which works quite well for integrating it with the Precataclysmic Age.

The book looks great, being in full color and the background of the pages of each chapter is tinted in a different shade, which makes it quite pleasing to look at. The art is also quite nice, but most of the time I had the impression that the images were ordered before the book was written and then put onto various pages pretty much at random. Often I saw a picture of an interesting location and wanted to know what kind of place it is, but couldn’t find any description on that double page or the one before or after it that would match it even remotely. That’s rather week and disappointing. In the pdf for the Pathfinder version all the maps are really blurry and often almost unreadable, which is just bad and should not be happening. The big continent map is better, but I can’t really say I am a fan. Even though Thule is supposed to be this wild and savage land, the map is absolutely cluttered with markers for villages and ruins, the majority of which doesn’t even have a description in the book and is just a name. As a result Thule feels very overcrowded and not really wild and unexplored at all.

Which brings me to my main problem, which is the geography chapter. On the plus side, the amount of great and evocative ideas for various kinds of is very high. There is tonnes of stuff that made me really think I want to have an adventure set there. But the problem is that each of these places appear to have been written and existing almost in a complete vacuum. Nothing is ever connected or related to anything else on the continent at all. You could easily take any place in Thule and drop it into any space of the map you want to. You could even drop them into pretty much any other setting. There are plenty of factions with various interests, and many of them are pretty interesting ideas. But again their interests are entirely restricted to a single place, which quite often is not much more than a short paragraph or two. Combined with the overcrowded map it just doesn’t feel like a living world. Despite all the flavor it is still somewhat stale and lifeless. That’s often good enough for one-shot adventures and mini campaigns, but in that case you probably don’t want to read a 280 pages book on the setting.

My opinion of Primeval Thule is that it is a great source of ideas for Sword & Sorcery campaigns, and in that regards it is one of the most interesting settings I’ve read. But as a campaign setting it falls somewhat flat and I don’t see myself ever getting excited to actually run a campaign in it. For people interested in learning about various types of Sword & Sorcery settings, I really do recommend it. But I would not expect to find something that is as compelling to start a campaign with like Dark Sun or Spears of the Dawn.

Witches & Warlords B/X clone?

Right now I am seriously considering making my own B/X clone. Does the world need another one? Of course not. But the amount of work is trivially small (I had the idea yesterday evening and it’s almost complete by now) and I am mostly interested in it for my own personal use. Since I am doing the work anyway and I got most of the ideas from other peoples B/X variants, why not put it all in order and make it available for free?

I am normally not a fan of D&D at all. I think AD&D is the most terribly designed and messily written RPG I’ve ever seen getting any widespread response, and while the d20 system of 3rd edition cleaned up the mess and straightened out the math, it actually made the rules even more needlessly complex and overdesigned. (Took me over 10 years as a GM to come to that realization, though.) But Basic really does have a very nice charm that just doesn’t stop calling to me. It’s very small, very simple, and mostly works very well, and it also has huge numbers of fans active in creating and sharing their own variants and content. There are only two things in B/X which I really don’t like, which are the mindbogglingly insane rules to calculate a hit and the magic system. Fixing attack rolls and Armor Class is easily done. (So easily I can’t understand why it took 25 years to chance it!), which leaves only the magic system.

Magic in D&D is a classic case of what I consider disassociated mechanics. Spell plots and spell preparation are game mechanics that exist only as mechanics without actually representing anything in the fictional world of the game. The books occasionally try to somehow come up with an explanation why it works that way in this specific kind of fantasy world, but it never really feels truly belivable to me. And it’s a major obstacle that keeps D&D from being a generic system for campaigns set in any average fantasy world. Being very pleased with the attempts done by Spears of the Dawn in this regard, I checked out Stars Without Number (a B/X sci-fi game), from which it takes most of its rules. It looks really great and with a few tweaks would be what I’d use to run Star Wars or Mass Effect, and it’s also free. The magic system of SWN is actually a completely different one and seems to be based on the psionics rules from the D&D 3rd edition Expanded Psionic Handbook, which is my favorite magic system ever written. But the XPH rules are a bit too complex compared to the simplicity of B/X games and what Crawford did to make it simpler seems really very good. Add to that a number of ideas from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the bestiary from Basic Fantasy and there is already something really nice looking taking shape.

tumblr_n374rxTjKW1tx4l4ho1_1280The main goal is to provide a rules system that works well with the Ancient Lands setting I’ve been working on for a while. Which in turn is greatly inspired by the stories of Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber, but also Kane by Wagner and The Witcher by Sapkowski. With additional influences from Dark Sun, Skyrim, and Dragon Age II. (And Star Wars, because everything is better with Star Wars!) Barbarians of Lemuria would be a good game of choice and it is a very nice game. But I have to admit that I really have a great appreciation for class based systems. Leveling up by distributing advancement points after every adventure isn’t really my preference. Sorry, BoL. Yes, there are already OSR games based on Sword & Sorcery, like Crypts & Things and Astonishing Swordsment & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. But AS&SH is still based on AD&D and Crypts & Things seems to be unavailable, and they both cost money! It’s not that they are very expensive, but when we’re all putting together our own packages of house rules, you want to have a quick peek at what others are doing and nab a variant system or mechanic here or there. And I am not going around spending even just 10€ every two week to flip through a pdf in 20 minutes and decide that there isn’t anything interesting for me in it. That would add up very quickly. (And to be frank, while AS&SH is the tidiest version of AD&D I’ve ever seen, it doesn’t really make any changes to make it more of a Sword & Sorcery game.)

And so that’s why I am going to make my own B/X variant.

benderWith owlbears and spriggans!

War Cry of the Flame Princess: Poison

I retroactively added this post to the WCotFP series.

I am really not a fan of poison that instantly kills a character dead on a single failed saving throw, but I neither can say that I am very fond of the various mechanics from d20 games to deal with poison.

snakeAnd completely out of the blue I suddenly had this idea for how one could possible handle poison in OSR games (and probably a wide range of others as well). It’s so simple that I am most likely not the first to come up with it, but that actually makes it a good argument for and not against it.

When a creature gets hit by a poisonous attack, it needs to make a saving throw against poison or take X amount of damage. At the begining of its turn, a poisoned creature has to make another saving throw or take another X points of damage. Once it successfully makes a saving throw against the poison, it takes no damag and the poison ends.

The strength of the poison is entirely defined by the amount of damage it deals. The difficulty of the saving throw is always the same (no penalty to the saving throw against very strong poisons) and the duration of the poison is always as long as it takes to make a successful safe. So you only need to remember the amount of damage done by the poison and nothing else. You don’t even have to take count of how long the poison has already been acting. Poisons that deal higher amount of damage are more difficult to survive simply by the fact that you might run out of hit points before you even get the opportunity to make a third or fourth attempt at shaking it off. Even if you survive, a high damage poison still leaves you a lot more crippled than one that deals little damage. And if you’re already injured and unable to take much more punishment, even a relatively weak poison might still kill you.

Since saving throws against poison in B/X are usually save or die, the chance to succeed are pretty good, even for 1st level wizards. The chance that you take damage three or four times before making the save are very low at any level and at high level getting damaged even twice won’t be very common. So because of that, the amount of damage dealt by the poison has to be pretty high. I think a good rule of thumb might be that the poison should deal at least as much damage as the primary bit or claw attacks of the creature. In case of a small creature that relies primarily on its poison, it should be even considerably higher than that. I wouldn’t even bother with anything under 1d6. The highest number I use with my monsters is 3d6 for wyverns, and that’s because I am always very generous towards players when it comes to poison. If you want really nasty ones, you could easily go up to 4d8 and beyond.

An early map of the new Ancient Lands

There’s been some maps of the Ancient Lands before in the past, so if you’ve seen any and remember them, the new map doesn’t really look much different than the old ones.

Le perfectly drawn map

Le perfectly drawn map

The lables seem to be pretty much unreadable, but I think the coasts and terrain are hopefully still fully visible. The main change I made was to remove the open plains of Sanved on the western shore of the Inner Sea and cover it all with forest again, which is actually what you would get on the eastern coast of a continent. (Deserts are always on the western coast because of wind patterns. Except Arabia.) I also beefed the Vestanen mountains up in size and moved them a bit more south, as they will now be the new homeland of the Vandren.

The Border Hills in the west and the Great Plains beyond them are now completely gone. Nobody knows what lies in that direction and when the forests might ever end. In the north I reshaped the Rayalka mountains a bit, but you might be able to make out that there is still a big question mark in the kaas homeland of Yakun. Got to do something with it, as I love the kaas, but that will have to wait for later.

One thing my maps never show satisfactorary is the scale. This area is pretty huge. (Not when compared to those map nuts who do whole globes, but still distances that would take weeks to cover by ship and months on foot.) That bulge in the north is about as big as China and the whole map covers an area that ranges from the Subarctics in the north to the tropics in the South. Imagine you had the Russian pacific coast on the north edge of the map and Vietnam on the south edge. You probably could get all of Europe on this map (though perhaps without the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland).

You might think that the sea coasts are boringly straight and there is going to be more detail in more refined maps, but mostly this is how real coastlines look like. Europe and Indonesia are the exception. Look at Africa, South America, and most of North America and you’ll see that there are very few bays or major islands except for the arctic regions.

Something I’ve seen when searching for other fantasy maps as inspirations and which I still want to add are some major inland lakes. On Earth these are very rare and most fantasy maps do them pretty unrealistically, but they still look interesting and add some variety to the endless sea of trees. Also allows me to do more boat stuff even far away from the coasts. :p

The complete and really short history of the Ancient Lands

My progress on creating the Ancient Lands setting for the last two years has always and regularly been slowed down to a crawl by two major obstacles: Making good names for all the people and places, and creating a good historic background for the world. History always seemed very important to me because I’ve seen it used for such marvelous effect in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games. Not because there were so many fascinating tales that are exciting to hear about, but because historic events explained why all the major groups have grudges at each other and which encounters between two or more people are powder kegs with lit fuses before anyone has said a single word. It explains which subjects are touchy and where you need to tread carefully when attemting to negotiate, and also which buttons you need to push to get two people to kill each other. Dwarves hate elves? So what? That’s not very interesting. What do you do with that? Giving some hint why they feel that way makes a huge difference.

So to have a rich environment for complex interactions between characters from different cultures or factions and get some ambiguity into the conflicts, you need to have a history for the setting. But try as I might, I’ve never been able to come up with anything but a few general ideas, never really making any progress with the setting. But now I’ve sat down to sift through the sources for some ideas I might be able to adapt. And realized there isn’t really anything either. Elric might be an exception (I’ve read only two random stories), but in Sword & Sorcery he is always the exception. But when I look at Conan, Kane, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and the early stories of the Witcher (not very far with the novels yet), there actually isn’t really anything either. Two of the best Sword & Sorcery RPG settings, Dark Sun and Planescape don’t have any history at all in their original (and true) incarnations.

And now that I think about it, the history elements from the games that inspired me are extremely brief as well. The story of the Krogan in Mass Effect is the most complex and difficult of them all, but it is also very, very short. The Salarians needed super soldiers to defeat the seemingly invincible Rachni, discovered the Krogan and gave them space ships and advanced weapons. After the Rachni where defeated the Krogan didn’t want to stop conquering planets and give back the weapons. So the Salarians created a bioweapon that could drive the Krogan close to extinction within a generation (annihilating them would be inhumane) and the Turians used it. Now Krogan civilization is a shadow of what it once was and the Salarians refuse to make a cure and let the Krogan population grow again. The Krogan are pissed, the Salarians and Turians have no regrets, and while many others sysympathize, the idea of the Krogan increasing their numbers doesn’t sound very appealing either. There are other old conflicts like that in the setting, but those are even much more simple. But the really great thing about them is that we don’t really know the name of a single person who was involved in those events or any planet where something happened. There also is no date or any numbers of populations or worlds. Because none of that really matters to understand the current situation and why Krogan are always hostile to Salarians and Turians. In the stories of Conan, everyone fears the warriors of the Cimmerians or the Picts, but we’re never really told anything about specific wars or battles in the past. Conan fought in the battle at Venarium when he was young, that is all we have. And I now feel confident that I don’t need any more than that either.

So here I present the complete and very short history of the Ancient Lands.

  • Many centuries ago fey races from the Spiritworld built great castles in the world of mortal creatures and they often took elves and lizardmen as slaves, so the other primitive peoples hid deep in the forests and mountains.
  • At some point the shie began to abandon their castles, letting them fal into ruin and leaving their abandoned slaves behind. Some slaves understood the farming they had done in the fields of their masters or had seen them work with bronze, and as they faded back into the wilds, the basics of these arts spread among the other savages.
  • Humans had been hiding in the most impassable mountains far out of sight and never been taken as slaves. They also avoided the elves and lizardmen, so they did not learn about metal and farming until thousands of years later
  • In one great city of the naga, a group of lizardmen slaves secretly worshiped the Sun and gained the magic power to face the naga sorcerers and start a rebellion. The rebels defeated their masters and created the Mayaka kingdom.
  • The Neshanen elves discovered the secrets of naga sorcery and learned to use the power of demons for themselves. The druids of the Falden thought it to be too dangerous and tried to destroy them and the ongoing conflict of the two groups has led to many wars between Falden and Neshanen armies.
  • Naga and Neshanen sorcerers are constantly trying to steal each others magical secrets and burried magic treasures of other Ancients for as long as anyone can remember.
  • Eventually human Vandren came down from the mountains to trade with Falden and Takari and many Vandren became mercenaries for Falden chiefs. Some generations later three half-elves started a monastic order based on the equality of all people, with no distinction between clans and no slaves and masters. It quickly grew to include Vandren, Falden, Ruyaki, and kaas.
  • A warrior monk of the order decided that he had enough of trading great amounts of goods for every small piece of metal for their weapons and armor and take control of some mines for the order. That worked out really well and for the past hundred years their ships have been cruising the Inner Sea to take over any town that has something which they want but would be too expensive to buy, recruiting whoever wants to join their army. The sages of the order do not approve at all, but their opinion has stopped mattering to the warrior monks a long time ago and many of them have never been to any of the original monastery towns.
  • In the North Falden and kaas clans have been fighting for control over copper and tin mines for a very long time, and very often they are trying to drive each other out of the region entirely. When they think their rival clans are getting too strong and could become a threat, they raid each other for loot with which they can pay allies to fight at their side. (Which doesn’t mean that kaas are never raiding other kaas or Falden never other Falden, but kaas and Falden never ally with each other.) Since the Falden have the most trouble with the warrior monks, the kaas have a quite high oppinion of them.
  • The Demon Hunters are mostly Takari who have special mystical training to fight demons and sorcerers and always travel the Inner Sea to fight and destroy them. That makes Takari very unpopular with the Neshanen and enemies of the naga. Since the Mayaka also hate the naga, they sometimes are trained as demon hunters as well, as do some Vandren. However, since they use sorcery to destroy demons, the Falden Druids see them as no better than sorcerers who use demonic magic for their own benefit.

That should provide enough hate to last for countless stories and adventures. No need for a timeline or the lives of any specific heroes.

Nonhuman characters in Sword & Sorcery

When talking about Sword & Sorcery and the essential traits and themes of the genre, there is almost always at least someone making the claim that the absence of nonhuman character is outright essential and that a work can not be Sword & Sorcery if it has any nonhumans that are not monsters. Yesterday someone made the commendable effort to provide a reason and supporting evidence why nonhumans are not a thing in the genre, by stating that there are pretty much no works of Sword & Sorcery which have nonhumans as counter evidence. Now obviously that gets us to a True Scottsmen argument. If your definition of Sword & Sorcery includes “no nonhumans”, then of course there are no works that have them. You could also say that Sword & Sorcery doesn’t have guns. But Salomon Kane has guns and I haven’t seen anyone claiming that he isn’t Sword & Sorcery. Guns are just uncommon, but not conflicting with essential traits of the genre.

However, I want to argue that there are in fact many works that have all the relevant traits of Sword & Sorcery and also nonhumans, and in which the inclusion of nonhumans doesn’t in any way conflict with with those essential elements and themes.

  • Atlantis: The Second Age (rpg)
  • Bound by Flame (videogame)
  • Dark Sun (rpg setting)
  • Dragon Age II
  • The first three Drizzt novels.
  • Elric
  • Primeval Thule (rpg setting)
  • Rune Soldier (anime)
  • The Witcher

I admit, most of these are fairly recent. But just because something is not found in the oldest works doesn’t automatically make it incompatible with a genre. It still walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks as a duck.

Nu Wars is not for me

I saw the first reveal trailer for the New Star Wars movie when it was first released and I already didn’t like it. That rediculous three bladed lightsaber was just too stupid, as was that silly googly eye robot. And even though it was announced that the movie would be a completely different continuity than almost all the existing material that we’ve been loving for the last 24 years, I thought I am probably ending up seeing it anyway.

But now someone showed me a link to one of the changes they appear to have decided on (“Disney’s already fucking up Star Wars!”) and that confirms to me that indeed, this is a completely different universe, entirely unconnected to the Expanded Universe. It is only that the events of the first six movies happened to happen identically in both. (Obviously big spoiler.)

It’s not that I have any particular attachment to this part of the EU, but it seems pretty indicative that not only do they plan to tell the story differently, but actually make it a completely different story altogether. At least Nu Trek is a semi remake of Star Trek I and Star Trek II, but Nu Wars apparently doesn’t even care for that. Well, neither do I care for Nu Wars.

It’s not really a problem for me. It’s not like de Camp destroyed Conan. He just wrote his own officially licensed fan fiction. In fact, it is probably better that they decided to make Nu Wars, as that leaves the Expanded Universe untouched.

So let’s not treat this as a day of disastrous news, but instead as another opportunity to think of the greatest works of the Star Wars continuity:

  • Tales of the Jedi
  • Knights of the Old Republic (videogame)
  • Knights of the Old Republic (comic)
  • Racer
  • Republic Commando
  • Revenge of the Sith
  • Tie Fighter
  • Star Wars
  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Return of the Jedi
  • X-Wing: Rogue Squadron, Wedge’s Gamble, The Krytos Trap, The Bacta War
  • Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command
  • Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast, Jedi Academy

Freaking Star Wars! Fuck Yeah! I love this stuff.

A new map for the Ancient Lands?

Pretty much entirely by accident I stumbled upon this map posted by Dariel at Hari Ragat.

Sundaland

Sundaland

I’ve been struggling with a good geographical layout for the Ancient Lands for quite a while and so far had only decided to have a big ocean in the east and use the landscape and environments of eastern Asia an inspiration. I’ve always been more fascinated by the very blurry references to Lemuria and Mu in pre-cataclysmic fantasy than by boring old Atlantis. The RPG Atlantis: The Second Age has some very fun ideas for these other two ancient continent, making them the home of intelligent apes and the serpentment (who are a pulp version of naga, which happen to be from that corner of the world).

I am not going to have the Ancient Lands be set on ancient Earth, but using “ancient eastern Asia” as a rough outline for the basic concept seems really very appealing to me right now. And there’s still going to be elves, giants, and dragons, but it’s most likely going to look much more like Xen’drik from Eberron.

Dictionary of Mu reprint coming?

According to someone who claims to know know Judd Karlmann, (and why would he make that up?) there’s going to be a new print run of the Dictionary of Mu coming soon.

Direct quote from Judd Karlman, author of Dictionary of Mu:

“I’m talking to the printer. It’ll be back this year.”

Dict MuI am very pleased to hear that. This book has a pretty outstanding reputation, but being unavailable for download it has been very difficult to get a copy for several years.