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.