Ancient Lands: An attempt at outlining trade

I have been giving some thought to the trade relationships between the peoples of the Ancient Lands and how they would have an impact on their cultures and society and possible sources of conflict or exchange. Now I consider myself decently educated in these things, but I think there’s probably still a considerable load of blatant error in here. Still, I’d like to show to you what I have so far and if anyone finds any errors and could point them out, I would be really more than grateful.

As you might see I am currently, in fact, working on a first early draft of an Ancient Lands Campaign Sourcebook. And it is coming along very nicely. I expect the first, completely rules free, version to be about 40 pages long. I also have a B/X based monster book, which I think will be of comparable size. Don’t expect a kickstarter anytime soon, but I really enjoy it starting to take shape after four and a half years of dabbling.


The main material for making weapons and armor in the Ancient Lands is bronze. Made from copper and tin it is quite easily produced and to work with and it doesn’t get damaged by rust. Weapons and tools made from bronze are made by melting the copper and tin until it becomes liquid and pouring it into a cast, and broken bronze objects can easily be molten down again in relatively small fires. If needed, this can even be done on the road without use of a propper forge. However, the scarcity of tin makes it quite expensive and only available in large quantities to people who have established trade with other lands. While copper can be found in many places, most tin in the Ancient Lands comes from the Erhait, the Vestanen Mountains, and the Highlands of the Mahiri Jungles. Much of the wealth of the skeyn and the Vandren comes from the mining and selling of tin, which in many places is as valuable as salt or gold.


Smelting iron ore into raw iron is more difficult than turning copper and tin into liquids and the resulting material requires many hours of hammering until it becomes a usable metal and even then the wrought iron doesn’t stand up to the toughness of bronze. It is also highly susceptible to rusting when not kept clean and dry and broken or rusted pieces can not simply be remade without use of a large foundry and a lot of labor. However, iron ore can be found almost anywhere and in much larger quantities, making it a much cheaper material when quality is not important, such as nails, arrowheads, or small plates for lamellar armor. The most important exception is chainmail armor, as wrought iron is much easier turned into rings than bronze. Both the Vashka and the Neshanen possess this skill and their armor often find their way into the hands of their neighboring tribes. The skeyn of both the Erhait and the Tavir Mountains also know the secret of turning iron into steel, which is a much more advanced process than simply making wrought iron and requires the use of large foundries and forges. Weapons and armor made from skeyn steel are almost as good as those made from bronze, but the much cheaper production of the metal allows them to create them in much larger numbers and the soldiers guarding Barregal and Falreig are the best equipped anywhere in the Ancient Lands. They also sell steel weapons to clans of other tribes, but most warriors anywhere would rather use weapons made from bronze.


Silver is not a good metal to make weapons with, but it is unique in it’s ability to harm spirits and many other other magical creatures. It has a unique connection to the Spiritworld, which not only makes it very valuable for withes and shamans in the creation of magical devices and amulets, but it can also cuts the flesh of creatures that are unharmed by bronze, iron, stone, or wood. Taken by itself, silver is far too soft to be made into blades, but when molten and coated on bronze, it will form an inseparable bond that can not be broken by any means. A bronze blade dipped into molten silver will gain a coating of silver that can harm magical creatures but retain it’s original strength and toughness. The silver edge of the blade needs to be frequently sharpened and blunts quickly when striking other metal, but for a small number against unarmored creatures it is a sharp as any other blade. Sharpening the edge will eventually wear down the silver to the bronze core, at which point it needs to get a new coating of silver. These weapons are very expensive and dull quickly when used against armored opponents or parrying the weapons of armed enemies, but they are invaluable to those who are fighting monsters and the creatures of the Spiritworld.


Tin is required for the making of bronze and a relatively rare material found in large quantities in only a few places in the Ancient Lands. Almost all tin comes from the Erhait, the Vestanen Mountains, or the highlands south of the Mahiri Jungles. Those clans who control the mines are among the richest and most powerful of their regions, since otherwise they have been conquered by their neighbors long ago. Copper just by itself is even less suited for weapons and tools than wrought iron and many wars in the Ancient Lands have been fought over the control of tin mines and the highly lucrative trade with the metal.


Salt is one of the most valuable resources in the Ancient Lands and the real source of the wealth of the Vandren. Nomadic hunters in the wild or the people in small fishing villages can do well enough without it, but for those people who live by farming and storing food for the winter it is both vital for their health and the preservation of meat. People in farming villages who live mostly on the plants they grow will soon become sick and eventually die when they have no access to salt and meat is almost impossible to store for later without it. Not only is salt necessary for survival in the civilized parts of the Ancient Lands, it is also demanded in huge amounts. When tin runs out people can keep using the weapons and armor they have and melt down broken pieces to make new ones, but when the trade with salt comes to a stop it becomes an immediate matter of life and death. Both the Tavir Mountains and the Vestanen Mountains have several large salt mines, and digging the salt out of the ground is backbreaking work that often falls to thousands of slaves who rarely survive for very long. Both the Vandren and some of the Neshanen cities in Senkand gain their wealth primarily from selling salt to Eldanen, Halond, and even the Mayaka kingdom. The Ruyaki also have some limited trade in salt with the Takari, but in the last hundred years the Vandren salt mines have given the Takari access to much more salt than ever before.


Wool is found almost everywhere in the ancient lands and comes mostly from sheep and goats. Linen and cotton cloth is much finer and lighter but requires a lot of work to make and the flax and cotton plants don’t grow in many parts of the Ancient Lands, which makes both yarn and cloth highly desired goods. The most prized and valuable cloth is silk, which is only produced by the Takari on the coast of the Mahiri Jungles.


The largest and thickest pelts come from the winter coats of animals found in the coldest lands of the North, such as Venlad and Yakun. These fetch very high prices in the markets of Halond, Senkand, Eldanen, and even the Vestanen Mountains where they are highly desired over wool from local animals. They are one of the main reasons why people from other lands make the long journey to the Northern Sea.

Bone and Ivory

While bone can be found in any places in the Ancient Lands and there are several large beasts with big tusks and horns in the jungles of the South, they are nowhere found in such large numbers and sizes as in the Northern Sea. Walrus and whale hunters in Venland bring a bounty of tusks and whalebone to the markets every year that is greater than what most kings of the South will see in their entire lifetime. And which makes those merchants who successfully make the journey to the frozen lands and back very rich.

The Next Big Thing in OSR?

I just noticed yesterday that there seems to be a pattern of certain trends or even fads among OSR writers and commenters over the years. OSR as it exists today is usually considered to have started with OSRIC in 2006, but really appeared to be a thing that gets discussed on the internet around 2008 or so. Look at any of the oldest websites that are still around and almost none of them is older than that.

And as far as I am able to tell, there have been four main periods so far: Retroclones, Megadungeons, Sandboxes, and Weird Fantasy. Though I am getting the feeling that Weird Fantasy might already be on its final legs. But I am wondering what the next big thing that gets everyone excited might be. I think one good candidate might be Campaign Settings. The most highly praised releases of the last couple of months seem to be Yoon-Suin and A Red and Pleasant Land. Wouldn’t be surprised if we’re going to see more people hopping up on that train, though it might not be lending itself to discussing the theories behind it as much as the previous trends.

A Roleplaying Game of Mars

I wasn’t expecting that. There’s going to be a John Carter RPG to be released by Modiphius at the end of the year.

5714094_origWhile a bit crude and dusty by now, given that they are almost a hundred years old, Edgar Burroughs space fantasy novels set on Mars had a huge impact on fantasy and science-fiction that surely equals Conan and The Lord of the Rings, even though few people still know about. It’s the primary source that inspired Star Wars to the point that you may call the first movie a rippoff, and it will be instantly familiar to any fan of the Dungeons & Dragons setting Dark Sun. There was a movie a few years back with the unfortunate name “John Carter”, which I think was pretty decent, but got not a lot of notice, and which I am assuming is the reason why this game is named the way it is. Even though I personally wouldn’t have any interest to run a campaign in which said character appears. There is so much more to the world than this one guy, who isn’t a particularly great character either.

Sadly, it’s a 2d20 system game like the new Conan game. It would need a lot of good press to make me want to spend any money on that.

Ancient Lands: Lizardmen

The Lizardmen are the dominant race of the Mahiri Jungles, Kemesh, and Suvanea, with smaller isolated groups being found on islands and in marshes as far north as the Tavir Mountains. They are on average a head taller than humans or elves and often weight twice as much, but the clans of some regions are of much more slender build. While not particularly fast or agile on land, they are very good swimmers and divers and most often make their homes directly at the water. As the other races are concerned, lizardmen show few emotions or individual personalty and seem generally somewhat dull, but in reality they are not any less intelligent. Much of their culture seems very strange to other peoples, such as their apparent lack of families. Eggs and young children are cared fore collectively by the women of a village and most make very little difference between their own children and those of others. Men are often not aware which children of the village are their own and young lizardmen become mostly independent of their caretakers by the age of ten. Positions of authority are usually attained entirely be merit and not by right of birth. To people from other tribes lizardmen often appear as highly indifferent and uncaring towards their children and eggs are usually regarded as replaceable, but they protect their young just as committed as all other peoples.
The cultures of the lizardmen are among the oldest in the Ancient Land, with many of their realms predating even the earliest elven kingdoms. However, the people of most major cities consider the lizardmen to be stuck in the past and having reached the limit of their abilities. While many of the outlying tribes do indeed have no writing or barely any metal, the major cities hidden deeper in the jungles are just as advanced as any elven kingdoms.


The tribe of the Gandju lives in the many islands of Suvanea on the eastern end of the Inner Sea, which they share with the much less numerous human Amakari. Though there have been a few old naga castles in Suvanea, the Gandju never were made slaves in large numbers and their culture is entirely their own. Like the Amakari, the Gandju use no metals except for a few knives and spear blades taken from elven ships that have been boarded or run aground in the region. Gandju villages are mostly found on the beaches or lakes found on some of the larger islands. Their boats are much smaller than the merchant ships of the Keyren, Neshanen, and Takari and not well suited to endure storms out on the open sea, but very fast and maneuverable and perfect for travel between the islands. Some clans are frequently visited by merchant ships buying fresh food for the long journeys across the Inner Sea, but others are pirates who simply steal whatever goods from foreign lands they find a taste for.


The Kuraka a group of highly diverse clans of lizardmen whose most common trait is that they never were slaves to the naga or part of the Mayaka kingdom. They have no cities and only a few towns of significant size and they don’t make bronze, but have long ago learned to work the metal taken from dead Mayaka and Suji soldiers and they have many bronze spears and daggers in addition to their own stone and obsidian weapons. The Kuraka are most numerous in the highlands west of Kemesh, but small clans can be found throughout the huge unclaimed territory that separates the lands of the two great powers of the region and on many stretches along the coast. Most clans don’t want anything to do with either the naga or the Mayaka and live in small villages in hard to reach places.


The Mayaka are the largest of the lizardmen tribes and one of the most advanced civilizations in the Ancient Lands. Enslaved by the naga lords who ruled over most of the Mahiri Jungles and Kemesh many hundreds of years ago, the lizardmen in the western cities rebelled when the power of the naga began to wane and over several generations gained control over a large territory. Shamans of the slaves had been worshiping the Sun in secret for centuries, and it was these shamans that eventually were able to overcome the naga sorcerers, allowing the warrior slaves to conquer the great city Nakat Sahri. The shamans chose one of the greatest warriors of the rebellion to take charge of the armies and made him the first king of the Mayaka. While the king has been the leaders of the Mayaka warriors and in control of most of the everyday business of the kingdom for almost a thousand years, each king is chosen by the high priests of the Temple of the Sun, who may even replace him if he ever becomes unworthy as the avatar of the Sun.
Having driven the naga from one of their greatest cities and making it the seat of their new kingdom, the Mayaka had access to large irrigated fields and mines of copper and tin from the very beginning, when most other tribes where still living in trees and caves with nothing but sharp stones for weapons. Even almost a thousand years later, only the Neshanen and the skeyn have achieved a sophistication of technology to rival theirs. Though only a relatively small number of Mayaka is living in the great cities of the kingdom, most villages are well connected to the bureaucracy of the kingdom and the army of the kingdom is well organized and has many fortresses and camps on the borders to the dark elves in the West and the remaining naga cities of Kemesh in the East. In addition, the king also commands the Guard of the Royal palace, which is one of the most well trained and organized forces in all of the Ancient Lands, being rivaled only by a few of the best companies of the Sakaya. Soldiers of the Royal Guard wear bronze lamellar armor and swords, which make them stand out clearly from the regular Mayaka soldiers, who are equipped with armor made from corded rope and iron spears. While Mayaka soldiers are rarely seen outside the borders of the kingdom when not on a campaign to destroy enemy troops, soldiers of the Royal Guard also have the duty of escorting dignitaries of the kingdom to other countries and are sometimes chosen send on special assignments that lead them to far away places. Within the great cities of the kingdom, children of women of the palaces are raised away from those of the common masses, creating a kind of aristocratic caste that is unknown to the other lizardmen tribes. Commoners can still rise to position of great power and might even be selected to become king, but the children of the palace are given much better education, which puts them at a great advantage.


The Suji are a unique tribe in the Ancient Lands, as they have no chiefs or shamans and are entirely under the rule of the naga of Kemesh. They are almost never seen outside the naga realms, except when crewing the rare occasional ships that transport their naga masters to other lands. The Suji perform almost all manual labor in Kemesh except for the casting of weapons and armor for the naga and their elite serpentmen guards, and they also make up the majority of the vast naga armies that are in a slow but almost constant war with the Mayaka, and occasionally come to clash with each other. According to the Priests of the Sun and the Mayaka king, they are continuing their rebellion to free all lizardmen from naga slavery, but to most Suji they are heretics who are refusing to bow to their divine masters. Fieldworkers from villages captured by the Mayaka are often brought to the kingdom and live pretty much as slaves, with their young being raised in Mayaka hatcheries. Suji soldiers often fight to the death rather than joining the heretics and it is rare that any are taken alive by victorious Mayaka armies.

Ancient Lands: Humans

Humans are one of the minor people who live in the Ancient Lands. They consist of four major tribes that are very different from each other and live separated by many hundreds of miles from one another. They have been few in numbers and of little importance in the history of the Ancient Lands for the most time, but in recent centuries Vandren from the Vestanen Mountains have been coming into the lands on the Inner Sea in increasing numbers and started to settle in some parts of the lowlands. There are still many Falden or Ruyaki who have never seen a human in their entire life, and with the exception of the Amakari in Sunvanea they are almost unknown to the lizardmen of the Mahiri Jungles and Kemesh. Humans are very similar in height and stature to elves, though usually somewhat bulkier build. By the age of 20 they are fully grown, but rarely live for more than 80 years and even that is very rare except for some powerful shamans and witches.
Even though humans are not as strong as kaas or lizardmen and lack the speed and agility of elves, they have an endurance toughness that beats that of all the other humanoid people. As long as they have sufficient water, humans can travel almost an entire day with very little rest, even in heat that brings the strongest kaas or elves down within an hour and they can keep doing so for many days with only little food. Humans who are traveling light can easily cover as much distance in a day as a horse, and even outdistance them on a hot day. Scouts and patrols of other people rarely attempt to pursue humans who have a good head start as the chances for catching them are slim. And outrunning human pursuers on foot is a situation in which even the most experienced and toughened never wish to find themselves. Skeyn may have a similar ability to keep up hard physical work for long time, but nobody outruns even a moderately healthy human over long distances. In addition to that, humans are also exceptionally hardy when it comes to dealing with malnutrition and the various diseases that often accompany it. They are able to survive on a wider range of food sources than almost anyone else and it’s often said that there is nothing sold as food in the markets of the Ancient Lands that humans couldn’t digest. Their bodies are also able to deal reasonably well with food that has been partly spoiled and become inedible to other people without becoming thick. In the centuries in which human mercenaries have been hired by elven warlords, it has become well known that they will almost always outlast nonhuman enemies in a siege, regardless of which side of the walls they are on. Unsurprisingly, this has made them highly valued as mercenaries for the wood elven tribes and Amakari slaves often bring the best prices for Takari slavers. In recent generations they have even started to be hired as sailors on Keyren ships.


The Amakari are one of the two tribes that inhabit the countless islands of Suvanea in the eastern waters of the Inner Sea. They are taller and broader build than humans of the other tribes and have deep brown skin with dark earth and sand colored hair and beards. They are not very numerous, even in their home islands, which they are sharing with the Gandju lizardmen. Amakari technology is very similar to that of the Gandju and uses almost no metal except for a few small ornaments. They travel between islands and catch fish in small but very fast boats that can be both sailed and rowed. They have the fewest similarities to other human tribes and some think that they might actually be neither humans nor elves, but something else entirely.


The Kaska are a small tribe that is very similar in appearance to the Vandren of the Vestanen Mountains and speaks a similar language, but as at home many hundreds of miles to the north in the Witchfens between the great Nareven forest and the Rayalka Moutains. They are of similar height to Vandren and wood elves and have straight black hair and light brown skin. The Kaska are very reclusive and usually hostile to people of any other tribes, but many of the neighboring people believe that they are fighting just as much among themselves. Not much is known about them by people from other lands, as the Witchfens are a highly inhospitable place and nobody is sure what drive the Kaska to make their homes there in the first place. Kaska warparties regularly creep through the hills of the Erhait to raid villages in the valley of the Kaldaven for weapons, grain, and slaves. Within the Witchfens, the true power over the Kaska clans lies in the hands of their witches. Most of them are women who have great power over the clan chiefs, but they also have their own hierarchies and rivalries of which even the common Kaska understand very little.


The cold northern land of Venlad on the coast of the Northern Sea is the home of the Mari, a small human tribe that has lived mostly in isolation from the rest of the Ancient Lands for countless centuries. Unlike other humans or elves they have relatively light skin and brown hair and they tend to be somewhat taller than most of these people, though not as big as the Amakari. Most Mari are reindeer herders or fishermen, since the cold land doesn’t lend itself well to growing crops. Villages are small and most houses built partly into the ground to be protected from the fierce winter storms, but there are also a few small towns of wooden houses on the coast where ships from the South come during the summer to trade for pelts, whalebone, and dried fish.


The Vandren are the largest of the human tribes that live in the Ancient Lands and have their traditional homeland in the Vestanen Mountains between the forests of Nareven and the Red River. They are similar in height to most elves with black hair and light brown skin and make many of their clothes and armor from leather, as they keep many herds of goats, sheep, and mountain horses to survive in a land where growing crops is hard and difficult work. Though gold, silver, and copper can be found in the mountains, the greatest treasure of the Vandren is salt, which they trade with merchants from all over the Ancient Lands. For several centuries elven merchants have been hiring Vandren warriors to protect the valuable caravans from bandits and the warriors of hostile clans, and they soon began to employ large numbers of Vandren mercenaries in their wars against each other. Vandren have been migrating from the mountains to the borders of the elven lands ever since, and while still mostly disorganized and relatively few in numbers, they are becoming a new powerful tribe on the coast of the Inner Sea.

The most famous of the Vandren mercenaries are the Sakaya, who began as a religious group in the Vestanen Mountains that had its own warriors to protects its great monasteries and farming villages. During times of peace, these warrior monks took up mercenary work to hone their skills of combat, but some never returned to the mountains and instead made their new homes in the conquered fortresses of their defeated enemies. Though the Sakaya of the lowlands accept warriors of any tribe or clan into their ranks, the majority of them are still Vandren, and for many people on the Inner Sea there is very little difference between the two.

Ancient Lands: Dark Elves

Dark elves are at home in the Mahiri Jungles between the Red River and the Mayaka Kingdom on the southern shores of the Inner Sea. They resemble wood elves of the northern lands in stature, but their skin is a dark ashen gray and their hair ranges in colors from white to light blond and various shaded of silvery gray. The color of their eyes is usually in shades from dark ember or copper to a deep dark red and they have excellent vision in the night, even under the dark shadows of the thick jungles. Being well adapted to the dark, dark elves often make their homes in caves or live in homes with small windows, and life in the villages and towns usually starts only in the afternoon when the trees of the surrounding jungles provide plenty of shade and continues deep into the night. Like wood elves, dark elves are fully grown at around 24 years of age and often live well over 300 years if they don’t fall victim to disease, war, or accident.



The Ruyaki are the smallest of the three tribes of dark elves that lives in the Ancient Lands. They inhabit the northernmost parts of the Mahiri Jungles and the lands along the Red River south of the Vestanen Mountains. They often wear shawls and hoods to protect themselves from the sand that gets blown up from the dry banks of the Red River and to provide some shade for their eyes in more sparsely forested northern reaches of the Mahiri Jungles. They are also known for their armor, which is often made from the hides of giant insects that live in the region. Ruyaki clans are often rather small, often numbering just several hundred people or a few thousand. Vandren from the Vestanen Mountains rarely travel into Ruyaki territory, but the relations between clans most commonly depend on the past history between specific clans. There are few Ruyaki towns of remarkable size and some clans are almost entirely nomadic and live from hunting and keeping antelope-like mountain goats.


The Takari clans live along the coast of the western Mahiri Jungles between the Kuremo swamps at the mouth of the Red River and the territory controlled by the Mayaka. Like the Neshanen on the northern shores of the Inner Sea, their culture is centered around several major port cities and towns that have come to considerable wealth through trade with other cities. Highborn Takari often live in great city mansions or villas in the surrounding villages. In addition to the valuable goods from the jungles, the Takari also trade in slaves, which are usually captured from the Yagashi clans deeper in the jungles or Amakari and Gandju villages in Sunvanea.


YagashiThe Yagashi are the largest tribe of dark elves and are spread throughout a vast region of jungle south of the Takari coast and west of the Mayaka Kingdom. Most live in small villages that have little contact with the people from other land, but there is also a number of great temple cities deep within the jungles, which are ruled by powerful shaman queens. The Yagashi use little worked metal and most bronze is used for spear blades and arrow tips. Their warriors wear simple armor made from corded tree fibers and reinforced with animal bones that serves them well in the hot and humid jungles of their homeland. Their warriors are also painted in complex swirling runes made from a mixture of white clay and the ground bones of monsters, which binds the spirits of those creatures to them and gives them some of their powers. As much as they revere and honor the creatures of the jungles, they rarely wear more than two or three such runes on their body at the same time, as they fear the spirits might be able to possess them fully if they use too many at once and for a long time. Sleeping without washing off the runes is regarded as highly dangerous and warriors will often destroy the runes on an ally who falls unconscious in battle even before treating his wounds.

The key to great monster design?

One of my favorite parts about roleplaying game is the creation of new monsters. Sometimes you look at a monster and think “I want to do something just as great”, but since there are already literally thousands of fictional creatures that have been made up by writers in the past 100 years, it always seems very difficult to come up with something that doesn’t look like an almost-copy of something else.

I’ve been looking over a lot of monsters from RPG monster books, videogames, and movies over the last years and found that really outstanding monsters are no accidents. If a monster becomes popular with fans or even a famous part of culture is not entirely up to luck and there are some things they pretty much all have in common and do not actually require being a creative genius.

The first discovery I made is that great monsters are never about their looks or their abilities, but about their behavior. Perhaps let’s call this Yora’s First Law of Monsters: “Monster behavior is more important than appearance or powers.” Yes, the alien from Alien looks really cool and it certainly helps for making it famous, but what makes it so great in the movies is not what it can do, but how it acts. The actual powers are not very interesting at all. It is fast, kills with a bite, and its blood is acid. As monster abilities go, that is very basic and even rather bland. It becomes a great monster because of the way in which the characters of the movies interact with it. It climbs on ceilings, sneaks around silently, and waits in the dark for the perfect opportunity to strike. It doesn’t actually fight very well and is quite easily killed in a direct confrontation. But it doesn’t allow you to face it in a direct confrontation and that’s what makes all the difference.

Going through some Dungeons & Dragons monster books again yesterday, I discovered Yora’s Second Law of Monsters: “Great monsters have a backstory.” With monsters in movies and novels, a great part of the plot is about revealing the story behind the monster and discovering its origin. It’s not very pronounced in Alien, but it’s still there. The eggs in the derilict ship, the dead pilot, the attack on Kane, and the eventual emergence of the alien are all clues that are hinting on the creature to be much more than just a regular alien animal. Someone once transported a whole shipload of those eggs and must have been aware of what they are, but was still unable to contain the threat. That hints at something more going on and that in turn makes the creature itself much more interesting. At the Mountains of Madness introduced two of Lovecrafts most famous creatures, and it’s really all a big mystery story about revealing their parts in a much larger picture. A a counter example, Robert Howard had Conan fight a lot of big dangerous monsters in his stories, but none of them ever really made it big. They are just scary looking things with teeth and slimy tentacles. They work for the stories, but they don’t inspire at all. Worms of the Earth is often mentioned as one of his best stories and the worms work well for the plot, but it doesn’t really seem as if there would be much more to them than that. One creature that Howard created did make it big. The serpentmen from Kull. The yuan ti from Dungeons & Dragons and the naga from Warcraft are among my favorite monsters, but they are really just remakes of Howards serpentmen. Other than taking the shape of humans with the lower body of a snake, they have almost nothing in common with the creature from Asian myth. And what makes the serpentmen different from most other monsters Howard created? They have a backstory. They have goals, they have motivations, and they are integrated in the history of the world.

This seems particularly important to me when creating new monsters for roleplaying games. When you read through monster books, the vast majority of the creatures are just very bland. They have an appearance, some abilities, and very often that is it. Two sentences about the kind of environment in which they live does not suffice to make them cool or interesting. Because there’s no plot hooks in that. What are you supposed to do with a big flying white snake that makes ordinary objects come to life? It has a look, it has powers, but what does it do? When it comes to having players confront a monster in a game, I made the observation that very often reputation makes a huge difference. A telepathic monster that can stun people with its mind might be interesting and challenging to fight. But that’s usually nothing compared to “Holy Shit! It’s a mind flayer! We’re so screwed…” Surprising the players with something completely unexpected is nice sometimes, but just as often you’re getting a lot of excitement if the players are already aware of the creatures reputation. If you create a new creature that is yet unknown, try to put a lot of hints about what it can do and make the other people of the game world be terribly afraid of it. Nobody is going to get super exited about the news that there is a pack of weird critters at the edge of the village that is known as a nuisance. Have the villagers get into a total panic because they have heard many stories about the creature and they don’t believe anyone could possibly save them. That is going to get the players a lot more excited as well.

Idols for Sword & Sorcery BECMI

Reading in theĀ Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cylopedia today, I got reminded of the relics again, which had been introduced in the Companion Set. In B/X and BECMI, only humans can take the cleric and thief classes. All dwarf and halfling characters and NPCs have the abilities of fighters and all elves the abilities of both fighters and magic-users. AD&D made the concession that these demihuman races can have NPC clerics, but in the Basic and Expert sets they have no access to cleric magic at all. To get them access to healing magic and protection against undead, the Companion Set introduced the relics. For the elves, the relic is a Tree of Life, for the dwarves it’s a magic force, and for the halflings a magic fire bowl.

Each relic has a single keeper, who is a regular NPC of that race, but who has access to special powers provided by the relic. He is able to cast spells that heal wounds, cure blindness and disease, neutralize poisons, and identify magic items. In addition to that, the relic is constantly using the Turn Undead ability of a 15th level cleric with a radius of 360 feet. Which is powerful to turn everything except for lichs and instantly destroys everything up to and including vampires. The keeper can use the spells almost unlimited, but every time he does the radius of the Turn Undead area shrinks by 5 feet and only returns by 5 feet per day. So the keeper has a very strong incentive to always try to keep the power of the relic close to its maximum and not cast cure serious wounds on every little bruise.

151217For my Ancient Lands setting I’ve never been happy with clerics, as their abilities really don’t fit as stand-ins for tribal shamans at all. Keepers are a totally different story though. They recieve their powers from a specifc object tied to a specific place, which serves as a conduit for divine powers. And it has a strong resemblance to many animistic religions and traditions. In the technical terms of antropology, the relics are idols. They are physical objects in which the divine force resides and which priests and worshipers visit in person to communicate with the deity. It is a temporary or permanent home of the deity and in some cases it’s actual body. I belive even in Greek religion it was believed that the deity is actually present in the statue that represents it in its temple. In other places, these idols are natural features, like mountains, springs, or unusual large trees or rocks.

In the RC, all elven relics are Trees of Life and all dwarven relics forges, and they all grant the same spells to their keepers. But that really doesn’t have to be that way. Not only can you easily change the appearance of each relic, you can also easily add a few more spells to their reportoire. Also, the Turn Undead effect could be replaced with a different power that is permanently active. The wonderful thing about it is, that it works at every level. It works for a small village shrine that simply has an idol for the spirit of the lake that lies next to it, and you can also have an idol inside a huge temple within a large city, which channels the divine power of the sun to the high priests. By chosing different appearances and powers for each idol, every local cult becomes unique and can have quite different means to protect itself against harm. Instead of a Turn Undead aura, the keeper could be given the ability to raise ring of growth of plants with a 360 feet radius around the idol, to raise and lower an impenetrable wall of briars as it is needed. You could have a shrine in a fortress that constantly puts a bless spell on any defenders on its walls. An a deranged cult that worships a horrific entity from the Underworld might have an idol that utterly defies description. In wilderness locations, an idol could take the form of a magic spring, a waterfall, or a giant tree. Or really anything you can imagine.

I think these idols probably work best if you don’t have any cleric characters at all in the setting. I personally would allow mages to learn cure light wounds as a 2nd level spell and neutralize poison as a 4th level spell, since player characters tend to get into trouble far away from any settlement and you generally don’t want to have the party constantly commuting back and forth during adventures. But any other cleric spells, like restoration, cure blindness, and raise dead, should only be available as miracles granted by the gods if a ritual is performed before their idol. And since most of these gods would just be relatively minor spirits of the land, not even all of them might be able to perform all of these. To raise someone from death, it wouldn’t be out of place to have the party travel to visit the archdruid at the oldest tree in the heart of the forest, or to descent into the Underworld to find an ancient shrine where a powerful demon is being held imprisoned.

Starting at high Hit Points

One peculiar thing about Dungeons & Dragons, and especially in the older editions, is that characters at first and second level are extremely fragile because they have very little hit points and even a single hit by a pretty minor foe can easily lead to instant death, even if the character had been uninjured. A common reason I’ve seen people give for this is the idea of “Zero to Hero”, where you start as an absolute nobody with no skill at all and have to work your way up to become someone. But at some closer examination, that is not really the case. First level fighters are already elite warriors who are standing well above all regular soldiers, mercenaries, bandits, and other professional full-time warriors, many of which have been at that job for years or decades. Except for commanders, all soldiers in B/X or AD&D are simply “Normal Men” or “0 level men-at-atms”. A first level fighter has a better chance to hit, better saving throws, and also has a Constitution score that can get him additional hit points. You’re not a nobody, you’re already starting as someone who has come farther than all regular people will ever get.

As characters go from 1st to 2nd level, their average hit points double, and depending on how your dice fell, they might even tripple. Yet enemies are still dealing pretty much the same damage, so that is a huge jump in your odds to survive. In some recent games, like Barbarians of Lemuria, Dragon Age, and Atlantis, hit points for starting characters are handled quite differently. You start at a pretty decent number but then increase your maximum number of hit points only at a relatively modest pace. I wonder how that would change D&D?

One simple idea would be to reduce the type of hit die by one step for each class and then give all characters a number of bonus hit points equal to twice the maximum hit die result. An AD&D thief would start with 8+1d4 hp (9-12) instead of 1d6 hp (1-6) and a figher with 16+1d8 hp (17-24) instead of 1d10 hp (1-10). If you leave the amount of damage dealt by enemies unchanged this should change gameplay at lower levels quite significantly. Ignoring healing spells and potions (which 1st level parties would have almost no access to), staying power would increase about an average of four times. As you go to higher levels, that initial boost becomes increasingly less significant and you probably wouldn’t notice the difference between 9d10 hp (average 50) and 9d8+16 hp (average 56). If survival at low levels becomes significantly easier and groups can take on much larger numbers of enemies, but you got almost no difference at higher levels, it also quite likely would change the perception of how high-level play becomes either easier or harder.

However, that would mean that 1st level characters are able to deal with much larger numbers of low-level monsters at once, and I am not sure if I’d want them to be that heroic. One solution would be to also give all the monsters bonus hit points. Perhaps equal to the maximum result of one hit die (8). That would mean one on one fights are unlikely to end at the first hit and usually take two or three to win. This would be closer to what the games I mentioned above are doing.

I’d really like to try that out and see what happens.

The Ancient Lands as a Frontier Setting

I’ve been interested in making my own campaign setting for probably 10 years or so, originally starting with the idea of detailing the elven realms of Eaerlann and Illefarn from the Forgotten Realms as they would have been 4,000 years in the past. I had been playing a Neverwinter Nights campaign online, which was set around the High Forest and involved some 100 regular players. I also became one of the assistant DMs and main map builder for the forest areas. My own character belonged to a gang of elven and half-elven rangers and druids (which had a bit of a nonviolent feud with another group of elven wizards and clerics that was much more LG high elves compared to our CN scoundrels), and since then it’s always been my goal to make a true wilderness campaign that deals entirely with druids, rangers, spirits, and monsters.

And I have to admit, in all these years I never really found an answer to the question how one would actually pull that off well. Now I feel that I’ve reached the conclusion that the actual answer is: You don’t.

The wilderness does offer plenty of challenges and obstacles to overcome, but it’s really poorly equipped to provide the players with goals. The wilderness is something you move through, but neither the source of adventures nor the destination. There might be ways to actually pull it off, but for the kinds of heroic activities I have in mind, each adventure needs to start in the frontier. It would be very difficult to have an ocean campaign without ports or a desert campaign without a single oasis. No matter how interesting your wilderness is, it does not create adventures. People create adventures. Anything that happens in the wilderness isn’t really of any concern to the players until it starts to affect people. The forest is on fire? The whole valley drowned by a flood? Move out of the way, crisis averted, threat overcome. Nothing to see here. Move along.

I’ve been of the opinion that good settings are not defined by their environment, any locations, or their history, but entirely by the people who currently inhabit it and the way they interact. You could call it the Mass Effect paradigm, as that’s usually the example I give as a perfect execution of this principle. You don’t know anything about the planets you visit and almost no specifics about their history, but you pretty soon figure out what makes the people tick and that leads to the best videogame RPGs I’ve ever come across. It’s obvious in hindsight, but if this is what interests and fascinates me the most about settings then it obviously should also be part of the approach to adventures. If the world is about the people, then the adventures also need to be about people. And the next closest place to the wilderness that has good numbers of people is the frontier.

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