Campaign settings as coloring books

I am still settling in after my recent move across the country back to the grim North of the Baltic Sea, looking to pick up my great grandfather’s trade as a carpenter, or another great grandfather’s trade as a saddler, or take the old family passion of gardening as a job in a plant nursery. (And yes, we are almost as rural as you can get in central Europe.) So this idea is still somewhat half baked, but something I consider interesting to ponder.

Many campaign settings published for RPGs tend to written in a way that makes them interesting ro read, but not necessarily good to actually play in. When a 300 page setting book tells me that there is a burried ruin at the end of an old elven road in the forest, which is constantly guarded by a dozen or so elves from local clans, and which turn away everyone until they have a special permit from their leaders, it does get you interested and makes you want to explore the place. If you are a player. But if you are a GM, what are you going to do with it? A few words on why the elves make the effort to post a permanent heavy guards and what reasons would get the players permission to enter would be more than just useful. Such information is necessary.

And it’s something that I rarely seem to find. Published campaign settings never seem to be able to decide if they are an overview for players with knowledge that player characters could easily know, or GM guidebooks that provide hidden behind the scenes information to run adventures. I’ve been long of the opinion that these kinds of books should simply be split. A main volume with the standard public informtion, and a smaller booklet with secret knowledge for GMs. But how would such a GM book look like?

I think a good length would probably be about half a page for each location, including a basic overview of what the place looks like, what special features it has, what it is inhabited by, and what kind of big secret it hides. Even with small font side you get half a page very quickly. But I think as content goes this might be enough. Enough for GMs to use it as a starting point to create their own location based adventures. Some ominous words about a room with six portals to other worlds being hidden somewhere in the deepest halls, or frog-like creatures seen dancing around a large fire during stormy nights is insufficient for GMs. It makes players curious and interested to check out these places, but doesn’t give any help to GMs who still have to make up some cool background and story for it from basically nothing. What GMs need is not a finished adventure for every place in the setting, but a solid concept of what each place is meant to be and what it’s special feature is that the players are meant to discover.

In many ways, this would be making a campaign setting like a coloring book. You provide the outlines that already let you see what you’re dealing with, but it’s up to the GM to bring it to life by creating maps, chosing the types and numbers of creatures to be found there, the current situation the players will encounter, and so on. Every GM’s dungeon will be different, so it doesn’t matter much if some of the players have read the description in the past. They will always encounter something completely new behind each door and corner. And even knowing that somewhere in the dungeon is an undead warrior guarding the tomb of a mummified sorcerer who is gathering his strength to return and conquer the country wouldn’t give away how exactly an encounter with these two would play out.

As someone wrote a while back, people don’t like exploration. People like discovery. A campaign setting that only gives you things to explore but no things to discover isn’t really well suited for use in an RPG. And even as a GM, creating places to explore is easy. Filling them with things to discover is much harder, especially for a world you’re only passingly familiar with. I think a lot more could be done in this regard than it has been in the past 30 years.

Villains for the Old World

As I was writing on the idea of Hope & Heroism, someone pointed out to me the importance of motivations for the antagonists. Coming up with a list of heroes who represent all the ideals I am looking for in protagonists was very easy. But examples for good antagonists turned out to be a much more difficult task. I had a few ideas for villains who I think are cool and who I would love to put into the Old World, but thinking of any reason why the heroes would be fighting them was a lot harder.

The more I was thinking about it, the more I came to the conclusion that good motivations for an antagonist are much more dependent on the specific attributes of the setting than it is the case for heroes. Heroes are generally easy to create as they really just need to be good people with the determination to take action against villainy. You can quite easily move these from one setting to another and their motivation to do good always works just fine. But antagonists don’t have to work just with the heroes, but also with the many unique aspects and elements of the setting. They need much more than just a hero to oppose them. They need to have a goal that benefits them and a plan that is actually feasible. And these things really depend a very great deal on what and who else is all in the setting.

So I’ve decided that a post on Villains of Hope & Heroism wouldn’t be making any sense and not be useful. The same narrative principles can be applied to a huge range of very different settings. Instead I am focusing on the nature of antagonists in my own Old World setting.

After going through all the examples of books, ,movies, TV shows, and games for ideas what kind of antagonists could work in such a setting, I narrowed it down to four main types of antagonists.

  • Warlords: Perhaps the most classic type of antagonists. These people are military leaders whose long term goal is to hold their territory against their many enemies, and often to destroy them before they attack on their own terms.
  • Sorcerers: If there are antagonists for Sword & Sorcery type tales more iconic than warlords then it’s the sorcerers. Masters of dangerous arcane powers who are always looking for more knowledge and power and often try to take direct control over the domain of the master they serve.
  • Bandits: Simple but reliable. Some antagonists don’t have any big elaborate plans or higher goals. Some are simply content with taking what they want and killing those who resist them.
  • Avengers: In a world where might makes right and the law is in the hands of whoever carries the biggest stick, vengeance is the way to put the offenders in their place. In many tales the protagonists set out to avenge their fathers and masters, but in a tale of Hope & Heroism nothing good can come from that. But a lot of bad for a lot of people who are only tangentially involved. Whether the tool of vengence is poison, an army, or a horde of demons, it’s always a great source of trouble for the heroes to take action against.

Regardless of who the antagonists and their minons are, every heroic tale needs some type of villainous plot that the heroes are trying to stop. (I wonder how far back this convention goes. It doesn’t seem to be common in ancient hero tales.) For a setting of city states and barbarian tribes I found these following ones to be a good set of templates to work with.

  • Conquest: Sometimes an antagonist of the warlord type simply wants to expand his territory for greater wealth and fame. It is simply ambition that drives him and a need to show his prowess. Not a particularly interesting motive but a simple and uncomplicated one. Probably works best as an additional complicating factor in situations where tbe heroes are already busy with going after someone else. The conquest might be just an opportunistic small warlord seeing a chance to make his move or be the backdrop for the tale of the heroes. In either case, the conqueror is probably not being to be the focus of the adventure since he’s not very interesting in himself.
  • Resources: In this situation a warlord is in the whole conquering business just for the sake of it, but it really is just the means to get access to very important resources. Something that the antagonists needs, and needs so badly to kill for it and take it from others who need it as well. This is much more interesting as it’s probably easy to see that the antagonist had to do something to keep his people fed and save. But it’s going to be the method with which the heroes will take objection. Simply beating back the antagonists forces won’t end the conflict, only delay it for a while at best. This doesn’t have to be a military invasion of a neighbor. It might very well be the antagonist’s own subjects who have to carry the burden.
  • Defense: Things get even more ambiguous when the antagonist is taking drastic actions as a measure to defend his domain against another foe. The measures taken to improve defenses might lead to hardship for the farmers and workers, but can also mean attacks on and annexation of vital territory. Many of the locals might even support a change in leadership which will only make the antagonist to resolve to even more draconian measures.
  • Magic Power: True magic power is in a wholly different league than ruling over land or people. This alone might lead sorcerers to see the hardships of others as a very accepable price and warlords might very interested in getting their hands on a magic weapon that can secure and expand their power. The plans to attain a new source of magic power can be very complex, but as a motive for an antagonist it’s actually very simple. Many of the lunatic sorcerers who want to destroy the world can be made much more plausible if they are simply searching for magic power and are willing to pay a very high price for it. Or rather, have someone else pay that price.
  • Vengeance: A relatively simple and straightforward motivation, but one with endless possible applications. Pretty much any character imaginable can be motivated by vengeance and the possible plans to gain it are endless. The main use of vengeance in tribal society is to scare away enemies and prevent further attacks in the future. Retaliation as a show of strength. In societies with no police this can put the heroes in quite difficult positions. For a short adventure a group of warriors seeking vengeance against someone in the protection of the heroes makes for a great conflict. But revenge for past crimes that have already been mostly forgotten can be a much bigger source for a lot of trouble that is still to come and the heroes are probably going to much less sympathetic to such a cause. Especially when the revenge comes in a form that affects many other people mostly unconnected to the original offense.
  • Plunder: And sometimes all that bad people want is some wealth and comfort. Other people’s wealth to be specific. Greed is as basic a motivation as it gets and there is little about it that would justify negotiating some kind of compromise between parties. But used for minor antagonists or as an easy break between more complex adventures it’s still something that does the job. Antagonists out to burn and pilage (and that other stuff) might either be in addition to the primary opponents of the adventure, or they might constitute a particularly unpleasant segment of the main antagonist’s minions.

These lists are both not very long, but I think each of them comes with so many variables that they can be reused many many times without becoming overdone. Especially when you switch between them regularly to avoid falling into a regular pattern. Even when not looking specifically for something to use in an adventure of Hope & Heroism or something set in a Bronze Age setting, all of these motives should easily work in most types of tales.

A case for Hope & Heroism

This probably should have been my first post on this subject and not the third, but now I am getting around to it and hopefully clear some things up for the future, as I think this is probably going to be something of an ongoing theme here.

Hope & Heroism isn’t any kind of established fantasy genre. I actually made it up just this week.

I am going to make my own fantasy genre…

Why do such a thing? Isn’t that really pretentious from some nobody who hasn’t published anything yet? Well, yes it is, but I think there’s still a good reason. When I gave up on the d20 System and the kind of fantasy RPGs that are being published by Wizards of the Coast and Paizo a few years back, I went from Myth & Magic through Castles & Crusades and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea to Barbarians of Lemuria and on to Fantasy Age. But eventually I came to the venerable Basic/Expert rules of D&D that are even older than I am and the most simple system I’ve ever seen (after RISUS). And looking for a version that comes with sensible modern improvements like increasing AC (Decreasing AC is dumb! And it was dumb back in 1974!) I eventually chose Lamentations of the Flame Princess over Basic Fantasy (It was the thief skills that won me over.)

That’s how I got in contact with the LotFP adventures and their Weird Fantasy style, and I found something that I’ve always been missing in RPGs. I am still not really sure what it is, but I think it’s an appearance of some kind of greater cerebral depths that sets them apart from regular fantasy elfgames. Sure, a lot of the earlier stuff was junk, but I still appreciated the effort and could see the honest attempt to be something more. But Weird Fantasy is not what I really want out of a roleplaying game. It’s all soo bleak and grotesque in a way that just doesn’t seem fun. Interesting certainly, and probably fascinating, but not fun.

Another effort to take D&D type games in another direction away from just killing people and taking their stuff and then patting each other on the shoulder that happened a few years before the whole OSR thing gor of the ground was Green Ronin’s Blue Rose setting that they marketed as Romantic Fantasy. A term freshly invented to summarize the kind of fantasy novels it draws from and give an impression of what people can expect from them. But again, though I appreciate the attempt, the execution is not what I am looking for. Even though I had been looking for ideas to get some of my mostly female friends who are interested in fantasy but not about monster slaying into RPGs, Blue Rose clearly wasn’t the way to do it. It’s peaceful egalitarian setting of love and respect always seemed just way too sappy to me.

But now just a few days back I read a very interesting post that describes Romantic Fantasy as something broader than just princesses and unicorns and girls falling in love with dashing heroes and heroines. And I think Joseph’s approach to thinking about fantasy that follows the ideals of Romantic Fantasy lines up very much with my own. What I am calling Hope & Heroism is basically the same thing that he describes as Romantic Fantasy.

So why not just go along with that and call it Romantic Fantasy, too? Because for everything outside of Blue Rose and its source material, it’s a really awful term. The word romance has become so closely associated with love stories these days that few people even know about its earlier meaning. I think the last time it was used to simply mean Fantasy as it had been for centuries before was with the Planetary Romance genre, which today is much better known as Sword & Planet. For Blue Rose the association with love stories is not a problem because that interpretation also works. But for everyone else the term Romantic Fantasy is much more of a liability than a benefit. Of those people who encounter the term Romantic Fantasy for the first time, only those intrigued by fantasy love stories will even take a second look at what you’re presenting. It won’t gain you an audience but probably lose a lot of potential readers. Something else is needed and after discussing it for a few days with other people the term Hope & Heroism emerged as the most popular substitution. I am not a big fan of X & X titles, but it just emerged that way and once you’ve started using a term for a while it feels odd to change it. But other than that I think it’s a pretty good one. It’s snappy, it says what it is about on the tin, and you can use it in a sentence as a descriptor in a way that makes grammatically sense. So Hope & Heroism it is. What is it really about?

It really starts with my idea of an ideal fantasy hero and the kinds of conflicts that make for meaningful fantasy stories. What does that include in practice?

  • The heroes seek to restore peace and order over destroying evil.
  • The heroes get involved when witnessing injustice.
  • The heroes aim to be examples to others.
  • The conflicts have sources that won’t go away by killing the enemy leader.
  • Mercy and offerings of peace will pay out in the long run.
  • Violence can help to get out of a tight spot but will always mean more trouble down the line.
  • The antagonists have various reasons to fight and at least some of them can be persuaded to change to other methods.
  • Heroes will sometimes fail, but having tried is what matters.
  • The heroes give and risk more than can be reasonably expected of them. (That’s what makes them heroic.)

Is this a new genre? Not exactly. This is not a new branch in the taxonomic system of fiction genres. This is much more like a new circle drawn on an extremely messy Venn diagram of fantasy styles. Hope & Heroism is a group of certain qualities that have been existing in works for ages. Nothing new has beem created, only discovered. And it might not even be new. The link I put above shows at least one person did it before me.

The type specimen of what I think of as Hope & Heroism is the movie Princess Mononoke. I thknk it has everything that I consider important. Other great works that I consider great examples are the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the TV shows Avatar, Seirei no Moribito, and Rune Soldier; the videogame series Mass Effect (at least when following mostly the Paragon path) and the main plotlines of the games Witcher 2 and Witcher 3 (there’s way too much combat between scenes for my taste). My love for Mass Effect was actually reason I got interested in doing more with fantasy than just destroying evil monsters.

From what I’ve seen in recent years, there seems to be a lot of people looking for something more in RPGs. Both Weird Fantasy and Romantic Fantasy are probably too niche to ever become widely popular. But I think Hope & Heroism is much closer to the RPG mainstream and might be of interest to a wider range of people. I think it’s certainly an approach worth sharing and a convenient name for it could only help. Who knows, maybe it’ll catch on over time?

XP in campaigns of Hope & Heroism

When it comes to RPGs that are meant to result in campaigns that follow a certain style or genre, one of the strongest incentives to get players to play along with the concept is the way the game awards experience points. Since the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the early 90s, giving the players XP for defeating enemies has become well established as the most common and perhaps default method of character advancement. Often it is never questioned at all but it’s far from being the only option.

Giving XP for winning fights sends a very strong signal to the players: Go and find any enemy you can and defeat all of them, or you will be at a disadvantage later. It’s a mechanic that tells players not just that it’s okay to fight everything but that they are supposed to fight and defeat everything. Not doing so effectively results in a penalty.

An interesting alternative used by earlier editions of D&D is to give only a small amount of XP for defeating an enemy in combat but a much bigger XP reward for leaving the dungeon with treasure. With a combat system that makes fights pretty dangerous and death a constant risk, taking enemies on head on isn’t such an attractive choice. Instead the option to steal a treasure without a fight looks much more promising. 70 to 80% of the reward for only a fraction of the risk? That sounds like a really good bargain. In some cases avoiding any kind of confrontation becomes the best choice. What are you going to gain from fighting wolves who don’t have any money? The potions and spells to heal the wounds from such a fight could have been much better spend on letting the party steal more treasure. It seems somewhat strange that stealing gold makes a fighter fight better and become more durable, but then it’s just as nonsensical that a wizard would learn new spells from hurling sling stones at enemies. XP are always an abstraction of heroism, they can’t really represent skill training.

When I was looking for interesting Sword & Sorcery games a few years back, one very interesting one was Atlantis The Second Age. In this game players get XP for attempting cool and amazing stunts. And they get full XP regardless of success or failure. It’s so simple but also brilliant. As a GM in a Sword & Sorcery campaign you want the players to play larger than life heroes who do crazy awesome things. Players don’t want to risk their characters getting hurt with nothing to show for the effort. So if you give XP only for successful stunts they will only attempt it when they are reasonably certain they will make it. Playing it safe is not the Sword & Sorcery way. Doing cool stuff that is excessive and out of proportion is the way things are done. Giving full XP even for failed attempts to be awesome encourages players to go looking for opportunities that could serve as a pretext to do something cool. If they fail they get hurt, but you also get hurt when fighting an enemy for XP, so it’s fine.

I really like this approach of both old D&D and Atlantis. Reward the players for acting in ways that match the genre of the campaign. You don’t have to ask the players to do it and you don’t have to explain to them what you want them to do. Players also want to play their characters in the way they see fit, it’s not the GM’s place to tell them what their characters should be doing. But when you reward certain behaviors this does change. Players will adjust their perception of the campaign and image of their character so they can gain more benefit from the way the game handles character advancement. Most players are pretty happy to play a wide range of different characters. But they will make their choice based on what they expect the campaign to be like. Once that choice is made, the GM telling the players what they should be doing is just not done. But seeing the XP reward system in action can make players adjust what they want to play. If you explain it from the start before character creation that’s even better.

When I had abandoned XP for defeating enemies, the new approach I used was to tie character advancement to completing goals. If the players accomplish the objective without getting into any fights they still get the same XP as if they slaughtered everything that moves. But if they failed and could not complete the goal their characters did not advance. This seemed like a good idea and worked quite well for a long time, also because it rarely happened that the players failed completely. It was somewhat based on the ideas of Lamentations of the Flame Princess where getting into fights with nightmare creatures is a certain way towards a quick and horrible death.

But now that I am working on methods to run a more heroic campaign of bold warriors confronting evil, this approach doesn’t seem right anymore. Caution, careful planning, and cutting your losses isn’t the kind of behavior I want to promote with Hope & Heroism. I want something more like Sword & Sorcery with heroic bravery. And I think the way Atlantis approaches XP is the way to go.

What things are expected of heroes in a campaign of Hope & Heroism? I think they should race to the rescue of people in danger, intervene when witnessing injustice, and be an example to others. It’s a style in which it seems very appropriate to treat it as more important to try than to succeed. I want the players to give it their all even when the odds are dismal. “Nah, sorry. This looks too tough for us” isn’t something that players should be saying. So the mildly radical idea is this: Player’s get full XP for an encounter any time they take a risk to save someone or confront villains. Doesn’t matter if they fail or if they have to flee or surrender. It’s the effort that counts. But they only get XP for encounters if it’s to advance an attempt to restore peace and order and save people from danger. Getting into any other fights or dangerous situations without need doesn’t get them any XP.

But of course, any encounter has other consequences beside XP or no XP. Trying to save someone and failing might mean they get no reward and no recognition. Confronting villains will likely gain them new enemies regardless of which side loses the fight. Trying to talk opponents into changing their behavior but leaving with no success will affect how others think of them. In some situations it might be best to not get involved and accept that the odds are stacked against the PCs. But if they risk it anyway, the players always get at least the XP for it. There is always the temptation to interfere even when it’s against the players’ best interest. And for a band of courageous heroes this seems very appropriate to me.

(And now I realized I have to determine XP values for all my monsters. Damn.)

Out of Space, out of Time

This post has been in the working for over a week now, having been interrupted by computer troubles and then growing into a huge monster of semi-coherent rambling which got me to decide to cut it all down to essential parts and get to the point. I hope this will at least somewhat get the main points across in an understandable way. It’s still a monster of a post, but it seems mostly tamed now.

When it comes to fantasy world, bigger is usually considered better these days. People are often more interested in the settings than the plots, but back in the 90s and before you really only got your books that you might read a second or third time to discover another neat little detail or two that you missed before. Today it’s very easy to set up big archives and databases and make them publically accessible, which I think is one of the main driving forces behind the current popularity of and love for getting deeply invested into the background lore of various works of fantasy and science-fiction. When you find something neat, you can share it with all the other fans in the world and discuss it. What was once an occupation for a few hardcore fans is now very much a mainstream activity. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon. I remember back in the 90s when people gushed about the scale of the worldbuilding in Forgotten Realms and the Dark Eye setting Aventurien, and let’s not forget that “Tolkien-Scholar” is a word that is actually being used without any irony. People always loved fantasy lore, it’s just now become much more accessible.

The Problem with Loredumps

But I see a tendency of people creating huge piles of lore and backstory simply for the sake of having lore and backstory, not so much because it really adds anything to the stories that use the world as a setting. When it comes to literature, this is mostly a matter of taste. Infodumps are only bad when it’s done in a boring way. If all the backstory is presented in an entertaining way it’s called exposition. When you open a book you already signed up to being told a story. Whether it’s story happening now or a story being told within the story doesn’t make a huge difference. But with roleplaying games the situation is different. When you sit down to play, you have come to do things. You’re not really interested in listening to a story.

Getting players to become invested in setting lore is often like herding cats. When you write a three page introduction to get the players familiar with the bare basics of the setting, you generally can not expect that this stuff is known by most of them when the game starts and they create characters. When you have an NPC tell the players the backstory for a quest or an item, almost all of it will go in one ear and out the other. If some of the players might remember next session that they did talk to “a guy” who told them “something”. But often even that is a risky bet. I believe a great part of this problem is presentation. The human brain has an automated mechanism that filters data for pieces of information that are considered relevant and immediately discards everything else. When you have a questgiver make his speech, the players are concentrating on picking out the “what” and “where”, as these are relevant to their next action. Everything else is irrelevant in that moment and means nothing to them.

Mythic Worlds

But that’s really a topic for another time. The reason I am mentining all this is that you have only a very limited amount of information you can get the players to remember, so make it count. When running a campaign, having a compact and lightweight setting can be quite a considerable advantage. But that’s also not without its problems. If your setting has few distinctive features it can easily become generic, forgetable, and feel rather artificial instead of like a believable world. And people really love big and expansive worlds. What ways do you have to recncile these conflicting priorities?

One type of fantasy stories that have always fascinated me greatly in both literature, movies, and videogames are those set in worlds that seem to float disconnected from both space and time. Stories where you don’t have any idea what might lie beyond the horizon and know nothing about what happened in the past or is currently going on in other places. Perhaps the most succesful fictional universe was first introduced to audience with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” There is also the D&D setting Dark Sun, which is just a small stretch of rocky hills with a handful of heavily fortified cities surrounded by sand dunes in all directions, possibly covering the entire world, and (at least in the first release) we’re only being told that the world was once green and alive, but this was a very long time ago. Now there’s just the desert and the sorcerer kings ruling the cities, and nobody knows how long it has been that way and what came before. Then there’s the adaptations of Dune (never read the book) and the stories of Kane by Karl Wagner. There’s Shadow of the Colossus, the Legacy of Kain series, Dark Souls, and also the Halo games (excluding the expanded universe). Or the continent Xen’drik from the Eberron setting. These are all fascinating settings even though – taken by themselves in their original form – they are really very sparse on lore.

This is a type of fantastic storytelling that has a lot in common with how we today perceive mythology. 2,500 years ago the Greeks knew exactly where their myths were taking place. Those where the places where they lived or where they might have been visiting relatives (if they were rich). But to us, Mythic Greece is like a completely different world from the actual Aegean Sea. A Greek merchant could have gone on a ship and sailed to England. But could a Greek hero descend from Mount Olympus and take a ship to travel to Avalon? Could he continue to sail north and reach Niflheim? That doesn’t feel right to modern audiences; it would be like a crossover between different fictional universes. It becomes even clearer when looking at time. Myths don’t happen as part of history. They just happen with no particular order at no particular time. You can’t assign a date to mythological stories. (Mythologized accounts of real historic events are obviously a different matter.) At least to modern audiences, myths are mostly stand alone stories that happen pretty much outside of a greater context. They happen in a mythic place in mythic time. And as I see it, mythic time doesn’t actually flow. Events just float freely and independently, unconnected and in no order.

But all these universes are still really interesting and entertaining settings, even with their scarcity of lore. Which makes them great examples and precedents for the creation of compact campaign settings.

Participatory Worldbuilding

While researching for this post I found a very interesting post on Hill Cantons from a few years back. The idea it presents is that all fiction is partly created by the audience themselves. The author only creates the events of the plot and some basic rules for the world, all the details are actually filled in by the audience. (It might even be true for all art.) Even in a movie the camera only shows a small part of the world but the viewers automatically create the space that lies beyond the edges of the screen. Inception is all about this. It looks like a trippy heist movie to entertain a wide audience, but it really is a movie about filmmaking and storytelling in general. The whole part of Ariadne’s training after the introduction is about worldbuilding in particular. (A lot of basic but good lessons in that movie. The deal with the dream people attacking intruders who mess with the reality is all about the suspension of disbelieve. If you break the rules of the fictional world too much, the audience will butcher the author.) As an author you really only present ideas, the audience will then add their own thoughts and emotional responses to those idea and turn them into a full world that exists in their heads. This happens with all fiction, but when your goal is to make a world that has only a small amount of actual hard facts but feels much larger and full of wonder and magic, it’s a great tool to use. Continue reading “Out of Space, out of Time”

Heroes of Hope

Joseph Manola has made a good case for approaching the style of Romantic Fantasy as something broader than only the settings of “Pladins & Princesses” that takes a central part in the Blue Rose RPG. I only learned a month ago that he’s been working on his Against the Wicked City setting for over a year, which like my own work on the Old World has been greatly inspired by the ideas and concepts of Romantic Fantasy. And apparently it seems that we both idepently decided on very similar tones and priorities. But the term is highly problematic. For a game like Blue Rose the association with love stories works in their favor, but the 20th century use of “romance” has replaced it’s previous use so thoroughly that you can’t really untangle it anymore. (Previously romance meant pretty much the same thing we call fantasy today.) It’s rare to find mention of Planetary Romance these days, but you might have a vague idea what to expect from Sword & Planet fiction. I think there has to be a better way to describe the broader concept that won’t make most fantasy fans “eww… is this kissing stories?”.

There is currently a thread going on on, and while my favorite is High Valor, Hope & Heroism seems to be one of the more popular proposals. Which I think has a quite nice ring to it, is easily identified as a name for a style of fantasy, and I think it includes the essential qualities right in the title, just like Sword & Sorcery. If you never heard it (which you won’t, because we just made it up) you probably still get a good idea what it would stand for.

"I wish to see with eyes unclouded."
“I wish to see with eyes unclouded.”
“I am no hero. Never was; never will be. I’m just an old killer hired to do some wetwork. All the heroes I know are either dead, or in prison.”
"Butt kicking for goodness!"
“Butt kicking for goodness!”
“Too many men have died at its edge. It may look pure… , but only because blood washes so easily from its blade. “
“For over a thousand generations, the Jedi knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic… before the dark times… before the empire.”


"... and engage in jolly cooperation!"
“… and engage in jolly cooperation!”
"We were meant to be incorruptible, above reproach. How seldom does reality match the ideal."
“We were meant to be incorruptible, above reproach. How seldom does reality match the ideal.”

I hope this will dispel any notion that this is Wusses & Woobies. Badassery is not mandatory to personify the ideals of hope and heroism, but I think it certainly helps.

Blood Magic

Blood Magic has very much fascinated me since I encountered it in Dragon Age six years or so ago. I wanted to have something like that in my own setting since all the way back when I started planning it. Since then I learned a lot more about how magic works in the Thedas setting and it actually is mostly demonic mind control. Not really much blood involved. But I most liked the idea of blood magic not being fundamentally evil and one of the first blood mages you encounter in the series is actually a pretty nice and also average guy. That had always had me want to have blood magic in my setting and the idea of using blood as a power source instead of some ethereal mana or mental energy is also really cool. It’s much more savage and primitive than arcanists in their libraries playing with astrology. Perfect for a Bronze Age barbarian setting.

But the whole time I never developed the idea further than that, always keeping it off for later. Because I just didn’t have any good idea how blood magic could be different from regular magic and my magic system kept changing all the time anyway. Now I do have a magic system that I really like (but still got not around to write out in full) and with the rest of the setting being already very far along it’s really getting time to finally tackle it.

How it works

latestMagic in the Old World is based aroud the idea that the being of any creature is a single entity of spirit and body, but that it extends beyond the boundaries of the physical form that is seen with eyes or felt through touch. The physical forms of creatures and things have clear boundaries, but the immaterial aspects do not. They just weaken with distance and eventually blur together with the essence of everything else. (Similar to gravity or magnetic fields.) Most beings only have mental control over their own bodies and minds, but since everything is connected and the spirit has no clear boundaries, it’s possible to take control over things outside the physical body and even over other beings’ bodies and thoughts through a contest of wills. This control over other creatures or things is magic, as it is used by all witches, shamans, and spirits. One important limitation of magic is that it only works when the caster is actively taking control. When the control ceases, the magic ends. It’s also not possible to use magic against creatures who are not nearby, unless a spirit is send to visit people and use it’s magic on them. It is also the reason why magic objects can not be created; they can only come into existance naturally.

Blood magic is one way to get around this limitation. Instead of maintaining control over an enspelled target, a blood mage weaves the spell into the target’s blood, whose life force will then power the magic instead of the mages mental energy. Blood magic keeps working regardless of how far the target moves from the blood mage and the spell can continue potentially for as long as the target lives. Masters of blood magic can even weave spells into the blood of their target that will remain dormant until certain conditions are met and they perform their true enchantment. Having some of its life force consumed by a blood magic spell causes the target to be slightly weakened, depending on the power of the spell. But usually the effect is too small to be a clear sign of blood magic, with the target only being slightly more tired or faster out of breath during strenuous activities.

A more well known use of blood in the casting of magic is as an alternative power source to the mental energies of a blood mage. Wrestling control over another person’s body or thoughts is one thing, but actually draining life force from living creatures is much more difficult. Usually this is done by complex rituals and the use of various potions that allow apprentices and acolytes to give their masters access to their mental energies. A simple shortcut to this is to simply tear the blood out of a living creature’s body and use the life force it still carries. This gives a blood mage a great boost to his power when casting a spell. It’s still a difficult thing to do, especially in the middle of a battle, so often blood mages draw on the life energy within their own blood.

Since the corrupted energies that animate undead are very different from the life force of living beings, they are neither affected by it, nor can they use it.

What it does

Aside from giving a blood mage a boost in power from draining life force from a living creature, blood magic can be used to put long lasting enchantments on living creatures. One common use is to make the target creature a permanent slave that has to obey the blood mage’s orders. It’s similar to a powerful charm spell but the ideas planted into the targets mind do not fade away as it remembers its own thoughts and memories.

Alternatively a blood mage can give a creature specific orders to be performed under specific circumstances without it even knowing that such an enchantment is in place. Unlike a spirit following around a victim, such enchantments are very difficult to detect by other witches or shamans. Blood magic can also be used to permanently alter memories. Such enchantments are very difficult to break and require a shaman who knows exactly what he’s looking for. Blood mages familiar with the process can break it just like any other spell.

Instead of manipulating a creature’s mind, blood magic can also make changes to the body. Blood mages can give their servants and henchmen great strength and resilience which they retain even without the spell being actively maintained. Since the magic power to maintain these spells is entirely drawn from the creature’s own life force and not the mental energy of the caster, such enchantments tend to take a significant toll on its health. Giving greater strength to heroes for an important battle can often be more than a worthy trade, but guardians who are kept permanently enchanted often live for only a few years. The enchantments keep them strong until the very end but eventually they just fall over dead as desiccated corpses.

How it is treated

Blood magic is not an inherently corrupting or more harmful form of magic but usually seen as one of the darkest forms, similar to sorcery. Tearing the blood of a creature from open wounds is an incredibly violent process compared to the casting of other spells and it’s easy to see why it is especially feared. The effect it has on the bodies and minds of creatures that have been heavily enchanted with blood magic also gives people plenty of reason to regard blood mages as nothing more than savage sorcerers. Blood magic is more common among the more wilder and isolated clans of the Old World and often associated with the witches of the Witchfens, which gives it a reputation of being primitive and brutish though it’s actually a very advanced magical art.

Blood magic also has a much greater potential for manipulating people’s thoughts and controlling their minds than ordinary witchcraft, wich makes known blood mages even much more mistrusted. Even those powerful ancient witches and high shamans who know the secrets of the red art rarely trust their students with such powers and the lack of teachers makes it a very rare skill outside of clans who practice it openly.

RPG implementation

Except for the blood draining ability there are no specific rules for implementing blood magic as a game mechanic. It simply allows blood mages to make their enchantments permanent without any special costs or mechanics.

Barbaripedia is back up

Technically it was never down, but I updated all the entries to the current state of development and put a link back into the header menu.

The Barbaripedia is my archive for all the content of the Old World setting according to my current whims. I had it set up even before this site and the content has changed a lot over the years. And it probably still will (though I think I got stuff mostly nailed down in my head now). I mostly put the stuff up there because I got annoyed by keeping my notes from several computers up to date. There’s far more material I have not written down yet as well but plan to in the near future (but you should know me better than that), but for anyone interested in seeing how things are currently looking it’s made publically accessible now.

I’m a big boy now!


Yeah, look at that. I’m gonna sit with all the cool kids now. Now I got some real street cred with the big OSR people. And not just for some minor crap like trolling. They got me for a Rule 2 breach, the most prestigious of all.

Meh, so what. Wasn’t like I had actually said something that¬†anyone could have taken as being offensive.¬†But so what, it’s not like the people I am talking with are rude or have a habit to pick fights or anything. No reason to rage quit. I already got 16 warnings on the GitP forum.

Though another mod comming in to congratulate the first one on his first ban was a trifle unnecessary. And said first mod then boasting about his power rush was rather dickish.