Moving further towards perfection

With my work on the Ancient Lands I have fully embraced the paradigm that perfection is reached not when there’s nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away. And there’s always more stuff that still hangs around because I like the idea but that doesn’t really contribute to the overall quality of the setting. This is not just geographical content and world lore, but also a lot of small changes and custom additions to the rules and mechanics of B/X D&D. Some of them might actually be really good ideas, but who is really going to care? Those people who would care are most likely people who make their own extensive custom changes to the rules and the most likely to not use any material the way I have written it. And what am I really trying to sell to people? It’s not a game, it’s a world.

I think cramming too much custom rules into a setting is to be following in the steps of the Fantasy Hearbreakers from the late 70s and early 80s. They were attempts by people to make and release their own RPGs that are largely like D&D but with some improvements. Some of them might even have been quite good, but who cares? People already had thei D&D and you have to offer them something substantially different to get them to switch. It’s easier with the new options of publishing today and Kevin Crawford seems to be doing just fine with his work, but I really don’t think that there is much interest in small obscure settings with their own unique rules. But it’s going to look much more promising when you turn to settings to be used with the rules people are already using.

Some while back I mentionee working on an alternative magic system, but I’ve now decided to not pursue it any further. At least for now. The Ancient Lands are a world to be used with the rules of D&D, but not written for D&D. While I like the mechanics f B/X, I am not actually a fan of the type of settings that follow from putting the content described in the rulebooks into practice. I already replaced the vast majority of character races and creatures with my own creations and the world is written with a soft cap of 9th level for characters. (You could play at higher levels but it’s assumed that the number of such people in the world is negible.) When it comes to spells, I have decided to give the setting its own identity by simply stripping away everything from the rules that doesn’t fit. D&D magic has long been designed to offer any kind of spell players could think of so they would be able to play any kind of spellcaster they’ve seen in fiction. While this is part of the reason why magic becomes so (over)powerful at higher levels, it’s actually very convenient in this case. For all the things I want magic to do in my setting, there are already spells available. So I created the following spell list to be used wit the magic-user class.

  • 1st Level: charm animal, detect magic, entangle, light/darkness, message, remove/cause fear, resist cold, sleep.
  • 2nd Level: charm person, detect invisible, ESP, invisibility, obscure, resist fire, speak with animals, web.
  • 3rd Level: dispel magic, growth of animals, gust of wind, hold person, infravision, produce fire, suggestion, water breathing.
  • 4th Level: charm monster, fear, growth of plants, polymorph other, polymorph self, remove/bestow curse, speak with plants, wall of fire.
  • 5th Level: animate dead, dispel evil, hold monster, insect plague, stone shape, wall of stone.

As some might have spoted, there is no direct damage, no free information gathering, no teleportation, and no healing. As I already mentioned in previous posts, healing is the domain of spirits and potions. Helpful spirits might be encountered in the wild and be persuaded to provide healing, but usually the right adress for magical healing is a village shrine where the shaman can channel the healing powers of the local god that watches over the settlement. In my last three campaigns the party did just fine by relying only on healing potions and not having any cleric around. It really depends on how generous the GM is with these being found on overpowered enemies and in treasure coffers.

Why D&D always seems to break down around 10th level

The 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons is notoriously bad at dealing with parties above 10th level or so. But this isn’t really anything new. Back with AD&D and even before that with the first D&D game, lots of people are in agreement that the game really works best in the range from 3rd to 10th level. After that things start getting increasingly wonkey.

184warpfThis came as a bit of a surprise to me. Even though they are all D&D, there’s a huge number of major differences between the various editions. The most common reason I’ve seen discussed for 3rd edition being bad at high level play is that wizards got more spells per day and lost most of the limitations and weaknesses they had in AD&D. But that alone can’t be reason if the problem goes back all the way to the mid 70s.

Higher level spells are certainly problematic a lot of times. It’s not so much that each spell taken for itself is a major dealbreaker (though there are a few contestants for that position) but that the wizard class in particular and the cleric class to a lesser extend, are too broad in what kind of things their magic can do. D&D magic is not good at one thing. It’s good at all things. A wizard class that would be really strong in one situation would not be too disruptive to the game. But D&D always aimed to be somewhat generic and so any kind of magic effect you could think of is available to wizards and clerics. Simply so that you can make the kind of spellcaster that you want to make, regardless of what work of fiction inspired you. Later 3rd edition classes that have a much more tighter focus on specific fields of magic are widely regarded as much better classes when it comes to being a team player. Magic being too broad is certainly a contributing factor, but I believe that’s still not actually the main reason for the wonkeyness of high level D&D.

I believe the real reason for the issue lies in the most basic action resolution shared by all editions of D&D since day one: The 1d20+modifiers roll.

As characters advance in levels, different classes advance different stats at different rates. In 3rd edition the bonus to attack for a fighter is double the bonus for a wizard of the same level. At low levels this is a small difference. +2 against +1. But as you go to higher levels and get a lot of additional modifiers from other sources, you can end up with +40 against +15. Even though it seems like the modifiers have scaled roughly evenly, the 1d20 roll to which they are added does not. The d20 never scales up. What you get eventually is situations where one character couldn’t even fail with the roll of a 1 and a different character couldn’t succeed with a roll of a 20. As modifiers increase and dice stay the same, uncertainty decreases and there is less and less “chance” to anything. It develops more and more into a simple yes/no.

You also have to consider that while you can increase the power of enemies, a lot of obstacles in the game remain static or have a maximum difficulty. At some point, and often pretty early on, you can’t make a wall more steep or a storm more deadly. Eventually you reach the point where all noncombat obstacles become trivial. This point might actually come much later, but it seems that regardless of edition the effect already becomes noticable and makes the game less satisfying around 10th level.

This problem is an intrinsic one of the basic 1d20 action resolution. No matter how much you tweak classes, monsters, and spells, this is something that can not be easily fixed without a complete replacement of the whole system. This is why high level D&D always has been wonkey and always will be wonkey. The most practical solution to that which I see is the one people have been using all the time: Stop continue playing with characters that have reached high level. Instead I propose to treat the game, regardless of edition you use (though 4th and 5th might be an exception here) as only covering the level range of 1-10. After that, you have reached maximum level.

An interesting option for OD&D, AD&D, and B/X would be to basically run it as “Epic 9”. In the 3rd edition variant “Epic 6”, characters only advance to 6th level and after that get one more feat for every additional 5,000 XP. Since characters in older editions already stop getting more Hit Dice and rolling hit points after 9th level, E9 seems to be a good cutoff point. The game does not have to stop there. You can still get the fixed increases of hit points from leveling up (though not chance to hit or saving throws) and find new magic items and discover new spells (of 1st to 5th level only).

Welcome to Chemnitz

After many years (is it six already?) work on my Bronze Age fantasy setting feels like having left the conceptual phase and it’s now seriously starting to take shape as an actual manuscript that people other than me could read and actually make sense of. Unfortunately, this means I have to tackle one of the most unpleasant and dreaded parts of worldbuilding: Locking in the names for things.

When I went ahead and did a serious cleanup of the messy heap of collected ideas that was the Ancient Lands a few months back, I renamed the new iteration on a completely redrawn map the Old World. But that name was always meant as just a temporary project title that would eventually be changed to a real name for the setting. Something snappy sounding that also communicates the content and catches the eye of people who might be into this stuff. Golarion or Grayhawk don’t really do that.

But coming up with names is hard. So I turned to a lesson from history. Back in 1990 the city Karl-Marx-Stadt was looking for a new name because of some political fad of that day, and in the end they just went with the simple route and named it back into Chemnitz.

Why throw away a perfectly good name and stress yourself with thinking up a new one? Welcome back to the Ancient Lands.

Is AD&D 2nd edition still oldschool?

There was another discussion started by curious people from outside asking what the deal is with this OSR thing that some fans of Dungeons & Dragons keep talking about in their corners of the internet. Which is always great to see, as it means some new people have already caught interest and they want to be given a sales pitch. And as usual, once the initial questions had been answered, it went on with the typical nitpicky debates about what exactly is oldschool and what isn’t.

And big surprise: It actually went in directions that had me consider some new thoughts. It stil happens. Usually the assumed default cutoff point for oldschool and not oldschool is the shift of D&D from TSR to WotC and the first major overhaul of the rules with the d20 system. But as the discussion moved toward oldschool roleplaying being most importantly about how GMs set up the game and players engage with the game world, it had me wondering whether the shift might have happened even earlier.

The two things in contemporary D&D that for me set it the most apart from OSR gaming are character optimization and adventure paths. Character optimization as it exists today really started with the d20 system, but the idea of having a prewritten story that the players follow goes back much further. My first hunch was that Forgotten Realms set a precedent that became the TSR paradigm for the second edition of AD&D. The old first edition books seemed much less metaplotty than those from second edition. But when I looked it up, it turned out that Dragonlance, which was first an adventure and then a setting while simultaneously being a novel series, preceded Forgoten Realms by three years. This makes it seem more like the Realms where published as a setting in response to the shift already having taken place.

And then Black Vulmea at brought up this little “gem”.

By 1986, you have Doug Niles writing in the 1e AD&D DSG, “The story you design for your players is just as important as the world setting you create. In fact, the story line may be the most important element in your campaign. In fact,* the DM’s function may be viewed as that of a bard or storyteller who creates the stuff of heroic fantasy . . .” followed by a five-page of discussion of ‘story structure’ that could be cribbed from a Learning Annex seminar on, “How to Write Short Fiction That Sells!”

So yeah. I am really not surprised that second edition is almost never talked about in an OSR context. This is very strong evidence that as far as TSR is concerned, the oldschool era was already done and over by 1986. Which is 14 years before the launch of the third edition and about the same time the Known World setting was worked over into Mystara.

Project Forest Moon

While visiting my parents I recently watched all three Star Wars movies again with my mother who seemed to have forgotten most parts of The Empire Strikes Back since last seeing it. Which really is something that needs to be rectified and now we had a good opportunity. And with no kids in the house my parents have a nice movie room with a projector and 5.1 sound. I don’t think I’ve seen the movies in this big since their re-release back in 1997. And while watching Return of the Jedi I was reminded how very much of an impact Endor had on my perception of a fantasy wilderness.

When I started toying around with worldbuilding for RPGs, my first attempt was to make the High Forest from Forgotten Realms but 4,000 years in the past, which I imagined very much like Endor, and it soon turned into a setting “inspired by” the ancient High Forest. My Ancient Lands, Old World, and the preceding Wildlands are all evolutions of that initial concept. Since the Wildlands each iteration became a successively smaller world. As some French guy said, “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away”. And seeing Endor again in all its crisp green glory made me realize that there’s still some stuff I’ve been hanging on to even though it doesn’t really add to the main parts of the setting and rather distracts from and dilutes the core concept.

This led to me starting Project Forest Moon. Another directed effort of stronger increasing the focus of the setting and giving it a more unique character.


  • Only Forests, Mountains, and the Sea: It all started with the idea of a single huge forest and now I am returning to that paradigm twelve years later. I am linking up all the forests of the Old World and eliminating the patches of plains and deserts that were still around in some places. Open land is limited to some floodplains on the sides of major rivers and barren mountain valleys.
  • Scrapping Venlad: During the last focusing of the setting I had already removed humans as one of thr humanoid peoples and merged the human Suri with the elven Eylahen, which took over as the people of Venland. But while Icewind Dale, Northrend, and Forochel are all somewhat intriguing places, I don’t really have any need or purpose for an arctic tundra in a forest setting. So Venlad has to go. The northernmost part of the map is clipped off and the Rayalka Mountains become the effective edge of the known world. Yakun is already a region with heavy winters and the Rayalka Mountains on its northern border are a decent environment for anything snow and ice based.
  • It’s pure Fantasy: When I began worldbuilding my main reference for a very long time was Forgotten Realms, which is a very Renaissance style setting full with farming villages, market towns, and big merchant cities. And combine “German” with “RPG fan” and you get a particularly potent brew of “pedantic about realism”. It also happens that my home city was the biggest trade giant in late medieval Northen Europe and this history is still a big part of our cultural identity. (Even though with the exception of Hamburg, Northern Germany is now a total rural backwater.) The resulting attention to sound economic resource flows and historically accurate productions of food and trade goods turned out to be a weight on a chain that slowed down work on the important parts of the setting and often worked directly against the idea of a world of supernatural wonder. It’s certainly always a big asset to know about how things historically worked to avoid big blunders and major stumbling blocks in making a world believable, but it’s not helpful to get caught up in minutiae when you really want to be fantastical. I’ve not written much about these things before but put a lot of work into them. And I think a lot of it can just be ditched. What you really need to know for running a game is how a settlement could be cut off from their food and fuel sources and where they got their weapons. That’s almost always going to be the only aspect of economy that might become relevant.
  • Big Bad Beasts: On Earth, the human ability to use tools and coordinate tactics very quickly made them the top predator on the entire planet. With some planning, spears and arrows are sufficient to kill everything that moves and doing it repeatedly to exterminate whole local populations. Humans can kill bears, mammoths, and even whales with the clever use of pointy sticks. Wherever humans go they quickly dominate the landscape. But in a fantasy world you can have creatures much bigger and meaner than bears, mammoths, or whales. Things that won’t die if you stick them with a spear. This serves as a natural barrier to the expansion of settlements. Many regions are home to wildlife that makes them impossible to settle. You can move through with lots of armed guards but it’s just way too dangerous for farmers in the fields or let children roam around outside. Humanoids only thrive in areas where they can be at the top of the food chain, with only the occasional wandering monster showing up to cause terror.
  • Fortified Settlements: With a world that is all forest and forests that are full of lethal predators, the average feudal European farming village wouldn’t work. All permanent settlements need to be defensible, and it’s a good idea to chose camping grounds with the same approach. There’s a wide variety of options. Wooden palisades always work with a limitless abundance of trees. But cliffs are also very effective, as is putting settlements on islands. Fields and orchards usually have to be kept outside of the defenses, but sleeping places and stores of stores and wealth should always be in a safe and protected location. Whenever the players enter a settlement they should be aware that they are crossing a clear border by going through a gate, across a bridge, or crossing water by boat.
  • Tree Villages: I made the decision early on that I don’t want my elves to be cliche elves that so many people hate, since they are the most numerous group of humanoids in the setting. And so I wanted to avoid tree villages. But this is now no longer a big kitchen sink setting. This is now Project Forest Moon. Giant trees are the dominant landscape. Can’t really justify not having tree villages as one of the regular types of defensible settlement.
  • Pack Animals: In a world that is all forest, mountains, and water, carts and wagons aren’t really that useful. First you need to clear a wide path and then get it level, and the distances between places will often be huge. The only practical way to transport goods over land is by having them carried. By something like a droha or an oget. I actually would even go a step further and make the Old World a world without wheels. The Americans had to deal with a lot of forest and had no suitable draft animals and did very well without wheels. The loss of handcarts and wheelbarrows is not going to make a big impact on fantasy villages and I think it might give the setting some unique character. If anyone would actually notice their absence.
  • I’m on a Boat: I had mentally filed away a note that most settlements should be on rivers or coast to make it possible to trade goods with ships and avoid reliance on caravans slowly crawling along small forest paths. It’s clearly the ideal solution to moving large bulks, but there’s also the classic adventure tale of exploring a river with a boat and getting deeper and deeper into a strange wilderness. And if Star Wars can teach us one thing, it’s the great effectiveness of relying on classic and recognizable motives from fiction to get the audience immersed into a new and fantastic world. You could go on adventure by foot or riding heors and ogets, but I think whenever an excuse can be found to make part of the journey on water the opportunity should be taken. The oared river boat should become as ordinary a part of adventures as a horse.
  • Elementals with personality: I’ve always been a big fan of elementals. Or at least the idea of elementals. But their execution in Dungeons & Dragons leaves much to be desired. They have low intelligence and only speak very obscure languages and generally go straight for attack. That’s the most boring kind of encounter you can have once you get past the first joy of fighting something that is made of fire. They are just big heaps of hit points that attack with their fists. I think mechanically they are okay. Big brutes are okay. But they are also nature spirits so there should be much more interaction with them than just combat. What they need are some kind of motivations and patterns of behavior. Not sure what exactly I will do with them, but that’s one of the next things I want to work at. The older and more poweful they are, the more I’d like them to be like nymphs, treants, or elemental weirds from D&D as local guardian spirits of the land.
  • No satellite view map: I think I’ve wrote about my preference for point maps some months back and that I don’t like the sense of cartographic precision implied by hex maps. But for a forest world I think any kind of crisp and clean map would be a disservice. Except for mountains that rise above the forests or out on sea, there are almost no places from which you could observe the area for more than maybe a few hundred meters. And even up on a mountain you would not be able to see any landmarks that are hidden below the trees. People in such a world would not be able to make any kind of map that even roughly approximates the actual shape of the land. This would require very sophisticated surveying tools and methods and the amount of work would be incredible and unbelievably slow. Characters in the setting don’t have landscape maps, they only have landmark maps. Like in a pointcrawl map. And so the players should be limited in the same way. I believe this helps establish the notion that the wilderness is huge and people are small, and when you go beyond the familar surroundings of your home you are stumbling blindly through the forest, hoping that following a trail or a river might lead you to civilization. This probably also requires creating a system for getting lost and finding back on a point map. Not looking particularly forward to that, but it seems necessary and might hopefully add a lot to the campaign.
  • Nature Shrines: Instead of having religion being covered by priests and temples, I really like the idea from the D&D Companion Set of giving priest abilities to villages through relics. The idea was created as a workaround for elves, dwarves, and halflings not being able to take the cleric class, but I think this solution is even better. The elven relic is a Tree of Life and its keeper can draw on its power to cast healing spells without being a cleric. It also repells all undead in an area around it. The main change I make to this is that a relic is not a magical object, but instead a fixed location in which the local spirit of the land manifests itself to communicate with shamans. Mechanically it’s the same thing, but the god can also give advice and instructions to the shamans or withhold its magic power whenever it pleases. This natural shrine does not have to be a tree, but could also be a cave, a hill, a monolith, or a lake very close to the settlement.

Looking really good so far, I would say. Collecting these things over the last days made me once more very excited about seeing this world continuing to take shape.

Setting Modules

In a discussion about The Maze of the Blue Medusa, one person mentioned that despite many highly positive reviews for OSR “settings”, there seem to be barely any people who say that they actually ran a game in Red Tide, the Red and Pleasant Land, Qelong, or Yoon-Suin. Despite the praise and the money people pay for it, they seem to be barely getting used by anyone.

Which wouldn’t really be that surprising as the people who enjoy this kind of content tend to be people who also create a lot of their own custom content for the campaigns they run. The main draw seems to me, and probably many others, to salvage these books for ideas. I regularly buy books for games I don’t have or know the rules for, or ever have any intention to play. It’s always all idea mining for me with everything I get for RPGs. I don’t think I ever used anything out of the box since my earliest hears with D&D 3rd edition.

And I believe many of the people who make OSR settings are very much aware of that. Vornheim and Yoon-Suin can’t really be considered settings in the traditional sense and are really all about being toolboxes for creating your own content. My impression of Red Tide is that the setting of the islands and the backstory of the setting is really mostly a practical example for how a world using the tools in the book could look like.

My previous Ancient Lands setting was very traditionally designed like the many settings of the late 80s and the 90s, but when I started all over with a blank canvas to do the Old World I abandoned that approach pretty much entirely. It’s not practical for running my own games and I doubt there would be more than two or three GMs in the world who would actually run a campaign if I would get it into a releasable form.

I recently looked into One Page Dungeon after talking somewhere about my frustration with typical D&D settings being so vague on adventure locations to be practically useless. As all dungeons are made independently by completely different people and the only format restriction is that it has to fit on a single page, people have been trying out a lot of different things with that idea. And I think this could be a really good approach for small scale campaign setting writers in the coming years. Completely abandoning the idea that a setting is a single world and instead providing collections of thematically matching but mostly stand alone pieces of content.

Retainers as local guides

Today I was watching Matt Coleville’s latest video (even as a GM of 15 years I still find them really helpful) and he mentioned that he prefers to answer any questions the players have about the world through NPCs. In fact, he finds it annoying when the players end up in situations where they have a lot of questions but he didn’t arrange for any cooperative NPCs to be around to ask. As a GM running a game, you really are the only channel through which the players can perceive and experience the world around their characters. Trying to trick the players into making mistakes based on false assumption is both trivial and cheap. There is nothing clever about it since the players can only know anything based on what you tell them and how to tell them.

Even when you have no intention to trick the players that can still be a problem. Unless the group is particularly screwed up, most players will always take their GMs by their word. Otherwise you can’t really effectively play. But very often you want the players to doubt what seems true and speculate about what’s really going on. That’s a major part of giving the players agency, which I consider the primary goal of anything a GM does. But it’s often not easy to clearly distinguish between what the characters actually see, what the characters know about their world, what the players have heard about the world, and what the GM declares to be factually true about the world. And having the questions of the players answered by an NPC is indeed a really wonderful method to clearly distinguish between what the characters have heard and what the GM is explaining to the players. Even when it’s something that is common knowledge in the setting and should be known to the PCs, having an NPC deliver an answer might often be preferable to telling the players what their characters already know. It establishes that whatever answer you give them comes from an in-universe source whose reliability the players have to judge for themselves. Very neat little trick, I think.

But always having a GM controlled sage around to interrupt the players when you think they are making errors would be a terrible idea. There are no such things as DMPCs. It’s a terrible practice that greatly interferes with the players’ agency. Because as I said, the GM is implicitly trusted unconditionally and when you have a guy following their characters everywhere and mention helpful things to them or provide assistance, it sends the clear message that you think the players are playing the adventure wrong.

But the last two weeks or so I have been rethinking my position about retainers. Named NPCs with some kind of personality who are servants of a specific player character and accompany the party on adventures and gain experience (As opposed to faceless mercenaries and laborers.) Who actually controls these NPCs has always been left largely open to interpretation. I personally think that they should be controlled in combat by the player who brought them in the first place, since the GM is already controlling enough combatants who are working against the PCs. They are also great in situations where it becomes narratively practical to split the party and one or two PCs would be gone for a good while. The players could either play a retainer for the while or perhaps a retainer could take care of the errand off screen.

But at other times it might be more practical when the GM plays a retainer so they don’t simply become a second PC for the player. And any time the players have a question about the world would be a perfect situation for this. What do the inscriptions in the Cave of Caerbannog say? Brother Maynard might know. Is there a way to disable the tractor beam? Ask R2-D2. Not only are retainers great to explain things the characters should already know, they can also provide helpful information on things the PCs would be very unlikely to know. I find that a much more elegant solution than making an Intelligence check or putting points into a Knowledge skill. It also provides a good reason why players would want to take an NPC they meet as a retainer and why the party should attempt to get a diverse team with various different backgrounds that don’t directly translate to additional firepower. The five Skullcrusher Brothers and Reverend Healbot don’t really add anything to the game that some magic items couldn’t do as well.

The Green Hell and the Circle of Life and Death

Today someone mentioned the idea to me that most decent pulp settings appear to have some cool major distinctive feature that also works as a kind of source for all manners of conflicts within the world. For example in Dark Sun, the magical technique of defiling was what killed most life on the planet, is what gives the sorcerer kings their power, and allows them to keep the few surviving cities from being burried by the desert as well for the time being. In Star Wars the Dark Side of the Force created the Empire, drove the Jedi to extinction, and also is the main reason why the Jedi exist as an order of knights in the first place. In Morrowind the Tribunal and their belief to be living gods led to the creation of the Dunmer, their extreme conservatism and hostility towards outsiders, and the existance of the Ashlanders. And in the vast majority of stories of Conan the whole trouble comes from sorcerers desiring power. I think to make my Old World setting more pulpy than my old Ancient Lands setting, some kind of similar universal driver of tension could possibly be a great help.

A few weeks ago I read a post by someone writing about having seen a somewhat unusual nature documentary that showed life in the wilderness just how it is without overly dramaticising it. And it seemed to him to show that nature is not at all nice and pleasant, but really full of violent death. The vast majority of it being the deaths of children. Around the same time I’ve read a post by Zak S. about Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown being mostly a revulsion against life, which I found to be very convincing. Life means feeding and reproducing which in many cases, or perhaps even most, is neither pleasant not pretty.

In my years at university dealing with cultural studies I made the discovery that almost all major religions disapprove about the physical aspects of living and promote a detachment from bodily things and a focus on the purely mental. And it really made me wonder why all religions that praise and approve of living seem to promote having sex with the cult leader? I’ve been wanting to do something with a very body-positive approach in a non-creepy way in my worldbuilding for a long time but never really got around to it.


And I think here might be the perfect opportunity to adress all these things. I had often thought of the Old World as being “a lot like Dark Sun, but with forests instead of desert”. In Dark Sun the driving force behind all conflicts is magic that drains nature of life. How about a setting in which the source of conflict is an overaboundance of life?

Life is not just life. It is also death. The Circle of Life is also a Circle of Death. To actively live all living things have to consume. In the end everything dies, and then it gets eaten. The only way a species can survive is to reproduce faster than its members are getting killed. It’s an endless breeding and feeding. Breeding is feeding. And in the center of all this killing and reproducing are people. And nature doesn’t care for them a bit. Like it does for anything else. The cycle just continues and there is nothing that one could do to stop it. People simply have to arrange themselves with this simple truth. And this process of arranging is where ultimately all conflict comes from. The desire to feed yourself and your relatives and to avoid being fed upon for as long as you can is what all conflict ultimately comes down to.


I’m still not 100% sure if I really want to go with this. Things like these always take two or three days with me before I know how I really feel about them. But I think there’s certainly a lot of potential to give the setting it’s own distinctive character and quirks, which really is a major thing in Sword & Sorcery and pulp in general. Here are some applications I have already in mind:

Civilization is fragile: This is something I’ve had in my mind for a long time now. I don’t want to do the standard fantasy thing where the world was once great and then everything declined into some kind of post-apocalyptic world or another. Instead the Old World is a world in a constant cycle of growth and decay. Settlements are founded, grow, decline, and are eventually abandoned or destroyed to be reclaimed by the wilderness. This has happened countless times before and will happen countless times again. Abandoned and ruined settlements are found everywhere in regions that are settled by people. There are many great stone ruins as well, which had been build by the various fey folks. They are still found in many places and many of them hold magical wonders beyond the powers of mortals. But their builders were not killed by some kind of catastrophe. In truth their reign over the land came to an end when they realized that even with their great magical powers the attempts to build lasting kingdoms and empires was futile in the face of the power of nature itself. Shie, naga, raksha, and giants are still around, but they all live in the Spiritworld once more, as they did for countless eons before.


The Green Folk: I’ve long been a fan of both treant and spriggans (duh…) and also like the idea of shambling mounds and other big beasts made from vines, branches, thorns, and moss. All these walking plant spirits are collectively known as the green folk. There are many types of them and they are literally found everywhere not covered by water or ice. In a way they might be the true masters of the world but they normally care little for either mortals or fey.

The Swarm: It’s not only plants that dominate the Old World, but also animals as well. In particular insects which though small outnumber all the larger beasts combined. Though not all insects are simple tiny bugs. Every now and then huge swarms of big insect creatures appear from seemingly nowhere and by the time they start stripping the surrounding region of all available food they have already been building their nest to raise even larger numbers of young. The swarm is a natural disaster that can happen anywhere where there is food to be found, which is almost everywhere. The immediate surroundings of a nest are soon reduced to barren wastelands but drones swarm out for many more miles to hunt for any kind of meat they can find. The only protection is to bar oneself up in a cellar and wait for the swarm to move on, which can often take several days. Once the hunting stops, the nest is soon abandoned with the creatures seemingly vanishing into thin air again. Many believe that they are not ordinary animals but instead creatures from the Spiritworld, perhaps to forrage for food for their young before they return back to their home.

The Specialist class in the Old World

Probably the biggest oddity of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess system that makes it stand apart from any other versions of the Basic/Expert rules of D&D is the specialist class. It takes the position of the traditional thief class but attempts to be a lot more than this narrow character archetype. LotFP really only uses the rules of D&D but does not attempt to retain its style. In fact, it very much gets away from that to be a more generic system. (Which is part of what attracts me to it.)

The specialist is an attempt at greater versatility. You can easily make your specialist a thief, but you don’t have to. By focusing on other abilities you can also use the class to represent a range of characters who would not outright be considered combatants. Which I find very interesting as a possible character concept in a 16th or 17th century campaign that is more about being smart than fighting battles.

But in a setting like the Old World? This setting is very much Sword & Sorcery with a more hopeful outlook. And Sword & Sorcery is all about… well, swords and sorcery. What’s a noncombatant character to do in such a campaign?

One of the nice things about LotFP is that every character can pick up any weapon and put on any armor and use them. A specialist who is dressed in armor and has a spear or bow in hand fights just as well as any nonheroic warrior. Better actually, with a +1 bonus to attack rolls. And as the character gains more levels, hit points and saving throws keep improving, so even without the bonus to attack that fighters (and scouts) get, you’re still not completely useless in a fight. Quite far from that, actually. As a specialist you won’t be the big ass dragon slayer your fighter friends are, but you’re not limited to stand in a corner and wait until the fight is over. In the LotFP system, clerics, dwarves, nd halflings (which are not classes in the Old World) all fight only just that good as well.

But when does a specialist actually do shine in this setting? When is a specialist better than any other characters in the party? I spend a good amount of time thinking about characters from fiction with dynamics similar to what I have in mind who would make good examples for the specialist class. There weren’t a lot but the two main examples I found are Leia from Star Wars and Naomi Hunter from Metal Gear Solid. And no, it’s not a coincidence: Almost all specialist type characters from pulp-style fiction I could think of are women. That’s how competent female characters in the 30s worked and how it was retained by works that aimed to capture the style. Which is not really a bad thing for a single character. It’s only unfortunate when you end up with all the men as warriors and all the women as clever manipulators. Some sharing between the two is all I want to see. But I think it’s actually a very interesting and fun character archetype.

One thing that almost all these characters have in common is that they are smart and good at talking, which is generally their primary special power. OSR type games usually don’t address that. And I am mostly very much in agreement with that. When you have a group of people together verbally discussing and describing the actions of their characters, then it becomes necessary to rely on abstract game mechanics to represent combat actions, but it makes little sense to do the same thing when their characters are talking. You’re already talking so just say what your character is saying. However, the side effect of this approach is that it really comes down entirely to the players how a conversation with an NPC turns out with the players’ characters making no difference. Having some kind of Persuasion skill for the specialist class would be nice, but it should also be in a way that does not negate the need and purpose of talking with NPCs.

A potential solution to this mismatch of goals is the Angry GM’s advice to not let the players roll any dice when the result won’t make a difference. Say the players talk to a chief and make an offer of alliance which the chief likes. Why roll dice if the players can convince him, he already wants to agree! Or the players make an offer that goes completely against the goals of an NPC. Again,it would be nonsensical to have a player mae a dice roll with a chance of only 2% to succeed. Instead a die roll should be made in situations when the GM just doesn’t know what should happen. Say the players make an offer or demand that the NPC doesn’t really care for but also isn’t fundamentally opposed to. That’s a good situation to call for a roll. For regular characters, the odds to make such a roll is only 1 on a d6, which will mean mostly failures. 1 in 6 is really quite bad so it really makes sense to only have the players roll on these things when you think it probably won’t work but they might get lucky. But specialists have the unique feature of being able to improve the odds of any such skill by one every level and become really good at it.

One benefit of such an approach to specialist skills is that players don’t get to say “I make a Persuasion roll”. In any situation the players first have to talk with the NPCs and at the end the GM decides, based on how the conversation went, whether the NPC has been won over or refuses, or if he wants a player to make a roll for Persuasion.

This is also the same way I approach the Stealth skill. Any character can attempt to be sneaky and for as long as they don’t get close to any guards or stay out of sight this will usually work, no roll required. Sneaking up on a guard in a lit empty corridor while he’s looking in the character’s direction is impossible. But occasionally you might have a player who wants to sneak right up to a guard while there is no loud noises nearby and it would be a minor miracle to pull off. That’s when a role is made. For a fighter with only a 1 in 6 chance this is grasping at straws, but there are many situations where this has to be good enough. But a specialist with a chance of 5 in 6 this might actually be a decent chance to take even without great pressure.

However, I think for my own campaign I am going to remove the option to bring a skill to a chance of 6 in 6, which means that on a 6 a second d6 is rolled and only a second 6 means failure. That’s a chance of failure of only about 3%, which really is too close to being negligible for me. Getting people who are on the fence to come around 80% of the time is already really damn good. You don’t need to be able to impove it to 97%.