This last week I have been doing a lot of thinking about my work on the Ancient Lands setting so far. Going by my oldest notes that I could find, the whole idea started pretty much exactly six years ago, give or take a week or two. And after all this time of expanding, revising, and discarding and two short campaigns I find myself with almost nothing concrete to show for. Almost all the major elements like races, classes, technology level, magic, and religion have been there from the very start and I don’t really have much more written down than I had back then. As of now there are no maps, no settlements, no dungeons, abd no NPCs. They all ended up discarded because they just didn’t work for what I really wanted to make.
But it’s not like the years had been wasted and all the work been futile. Rather the opposite. I’ve learned so much about running games and building settings that I had no idea of back then and that helps me know to understand what it really is that I want and what I have to do to get there. And this process has given me more insights and made me more capable at realizing my vision up to right now. Or three days ago, to be more precise.
Last month I’ve been working on my Forest of High Adventure sandbox and despite having a really good feeling about it I ended up once more realizing that I had made somethin that really isn’t at all what I wanted. Instead of going straight back to the drawing board, I’ve spend much of the past days thinking about what went wrong and hunting down what other people have written about the process of creating wilderness sandbox campaigns. A mind with ADD tends to wander all over the place and into multiple directions at once, but when it comes to exploration and creativity that’s not actually a drawback. I really don’t remember how I got there, but the first conclusion I came to was that I had once more lost sight of my goal. The Forest of High Adventure was an attempt to make a wilderness sandbox out of the material from The Savage Frontier, which I consider to be the best setting sourcebook I’ve ever come across. But really, the original spark that got me into worldbuilding was not the thought that the High Forest is a great place to set a campaign in. It was the idea that the ancient past of the High Forest always sounded like a much more interesting setting to play in than the actual material that is described in the books. Including The Savage Frontier. So what have I been doing preparing an Ancient Lands campaign by reconfiguring the building blocks of The Savage Frontier?
The second thing I realized is that I really have to nail down what the core elements and assumptions are that are defining the setting and give it its unique character that distinguishes it from other worlds. I’ve spend a lot of work on figuring out such things as the tradenetworks of key resources, the main political powers of the region, the histories that led to the major conflicts, and things like that, but these all reall have nothing to do with exploring ancient ruins in the widerness and encountering the strange spirits that reside there. Even though its meant to be the central theme of the setting, I did almost nothing with spirits. So I scrapped all that for now and instead begin the creatio of new content with defining the relationship between people, the environment, and spirits.
I’ve been asking people what it means for a setting to have depth. And the best reply, that really nailed it for me and many others, was that the difference between a deep and a shallow setting is that in a deep setting the world itself provides the reasons why things are as they are and people do what they do. In a setting with depth the stories and the characters are specific to that setting and really only work within that setting. They can not be simply ported over to another setting. My favorite examples of these are always BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age settings, but the Metal Gear Solid series also has strong elements of that. They all have a very strong and distinctive identity and they do that almost without any need for history, maps, and political and economic organization.
How do I do that for the Ancient Lands? As I said, the starting point for all of this was that I regularly found the lost realms of the distant past in many fantasy settings much more interesting than the present that is shown. The Lord o the Rings is a story about magic fading from the world and the end of the age of myth, to be replaced by our own world of rational progress. Which is a good story, but I would really love to also see a world in which elves and dwarves are not fading peoples and humans dominant, and in which dragons and giants still dominate. This idea evolved a bit further into a world that is animistic in nature and ruled by spirits, and I also like the atmosphere and aesthetics of exploring an almost uninhabited wilderness as in the D&D module The Isle of Dread, the continent Xen’drik in Eberron, and Kalimdor in Warcraft III. And yes, my favorite forest moon Endor also rears it’s green head again here. So I’ve been writing down notes for things that I thought are central to this vision and should be center stage in every adventure set in the Ancient Lands. And over the days they added up to a pretty decent list.
- Civilization exists only because spirits protect it from the threats of nature.
- Civilization ist precarious because spirits are alien.
- The Wilderness is threatening because people are small.
- The Spiritworld is not meant for mortal creatures.
- All mortal endeavors are fleeting and nature will swallow up everything eventually.
- Cities are unnatural. They are very unlike the way almost all people live and require the support of extraordinary powers.
- Spirits do not prey on people but generally are not concerned about their wellbeing or that of animals or plants either. Usually it’s safest to not draw their attention at all.
- Spirits have great control over their domains but can not act against their nature.
- Sorcery can do things that spirits can not, but it poisons the land and the creatures on it.
The idea that civilization can never grow big or last for a long time came as a solution to having a wild world full of ruins while having the stubborn conviction to not make it another post-apocalyptical setting. There was no real practical reason for that other than wanting to be different. But I think this idea of perpetual collapse and the resulting certainty that the future won’t be different results in a very interesting mood for the setting. It also meshes well with the fact that for the vast majority of human history people couldn’t see any progress happening to their societies. People often complain about medieval stasis in fantasy settings, but for thousands of years that was how things felt for almost all people.
The idea to make cities alien places came to me just yesterday. I always knew I wanted to have a handful of cities but often thought about perhaps not describing them or having them appear in campaigns at all. But I was looking again at Chris Kutalik’s idea for Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird in his Hill Cantons campaign and it seems like a very good approach to me. For the Ancient Lands, villages and towns and the small surrounding farmlands would be Corelands where everything is normal and adventures don’t usually happen.* The wilderness beyond the fields and pastures is the Borderlands, which are full of terrifying beasts and the challenge is to survive the treacherous journey to the dungeons. The Spiritworld and most dungeons are the Weird, where magical creatures can be found and the normal rules no longer apply. (*Adventures in the Corelands would mostly revolve around witches and cults, whose lairs are also Weird.) And cities in the Ancient Lands are clearly not places where you can rest in peace and safety and no real adventures happen,which disqualifies them for being Corelands. So instead of having the PCs be county bumpkins in the big city, why not make the cities outright strange and alien places? After all, they are kind of a violation of the natural relationship between people and the wilderness and it’s already established that sorcery is able to overcome the natural rules of the world. Making people believe that all cities are sorcerous places (and in many cases that’s actually the case) seems like a great way to make them fun in a wilderness campaign and it’s another thing to make the setting distinctive. I think I have to read Vornheim again. (And look what someone just did!)
So yeah, I am feeling really good about this whole worldbuilding thing. I have no gameable material right now (except for a 100 entry bestiary without pictures or typed out descriptions), but I feel like I have another major milestone reached. And perhaps now I’ll get a working sandbox put together.