You’re a Hero, Willy!

Or “I hate rat quests”.

As I mentioned previously, my attempt at building a sandbox for LotFP had hit a wall and I went all the way back to square one to go on a spirit journey and find out why my campaign never turn out as I imagine them. And it really comes down to me accidentally locking all the good content that is meant to be the main feature of the setting away until the PCs have become powerful enough heroes to be able to face them. Looking back it was incredibly stupid, but… Well, there is no real but. It was stupid. It happens, and I believe it’s a pretty common mistake people make. I’ve seen it often enough and warned other people about it. Why I still did it I have no clue.

In my previous post I talked about finding what it really is that the Ancient Lands are about and what needs to be part of every adventure and dungeon in the campaign. But even with that knowledge I was still struggling with coming up with ideas for dungeons that characters at 1st to 4th level could explore without running into unbeatable and highly lethal opponents. And I think I found the solution for that as well.

I took the first step towards oldschool gaming and laid the groundwork for my current worldbuilding when I first looked into the E6 variant for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, which basically comes down to PCs and NPCs being capped at 6th level but monsters keep all their abilities. It allows you to play low powered campaigns without all the 4th to 9th level spells while still being able to play with the rules system you’re already familiar with. It got decently popular and saw great praise, but the one big question the original creator left open, somewhat on purpose, was what it means to be 6th level? Is a 6th level character a legendary one in a million hero, or is he still just as impressive as a low mid-level character in a 20 level D&D campaign and there are hundreds like him all over the place?

When I switched to B/X based rules and leaving the terrible d20 system behind, the question still remained. B/X has 14 levels instead of 6, but like OD&D and AD&D 1st Ed. it has this idea of adventuring being 1st to 9th level and the game then turning into something else. Nine levels plus a handful of legendary figures of world fame beyond that seems like a good yardstick to find the appropriate class level for NPCs based on their powers and accomplishments. But I still was thinking in the categories of low-level, mid-level, and high-level characters. And that was the source of all the problems. A low-level character is a guy with inferior equipment who goes on rat quests in noob dungeons. Whether a character reaches mid-level by 8th, 5th, or 3rd level doesn’t matter. You’re still forcing the players to begin by spending a good time doing things that are “safe” and for “ordinary people”. The whole concept of D&D is extraordinary people doing extremely lethal things, and in LotFP even more so!

Again, like so often, I blame 3rd edition for putting this stupid idea into my head and it did it with the idea of NPC classes. NPC classes are similar to ordinary character classes but are weaker and have fewer abilities, but they still let NPCs go from 1st to 20th level. And that’s just stupid. It’s not just the 20th level commoner that is stupid. Even the 5th level expert or the 7th level adept are stupid. Why do you need a carpenter that has more hit points and fights as well as a 4th level fighter? Why is that powerful orc spellcaster not a sorcerer or a cleric? Even just the harmless looking 2nd level warrior town guard or 3rd level expert blacksmith fly in the face of the idea that PCs are extraordinary people. 6th level PCs are noteworth people and 1st level PCs are noobs who barely can keep up with the plot relevant civilians.

That’s bullshit and I established quite some time ago the paradigm that in the Ancient Lands any NPC without a proper name is automatically a level 0 character. NPCs who are not noteworth warriors or spellcasters are also 0 level and have 1d6 hp and +0 to attack. But even with that I still had that meme in my brain that proper adventures start only once the players have fought their way up to mid-levels. (Basically the content of the first scene in Inception.)

Understanding how I went all wrong very quickly solved my problem with not having any content that can appropriately scaled to 1st level parties. I am just taking a lot of content that I had planned to be suitable for 4th or 6th level parties and adjust the monsters so 1st level parties won’t be instant-splatted. And when you’re playing in a B/X context that’s actually not that hard. Most pretty big monsters are not that well protected and often meant to be encountered in groups of sometimes considerable size. I am still very much in love with the idea of the Nameless Dungeon and to adapt it to the Ancient Lands it will be inhabited by shie, a custom fey creature with 4 Hit Dice. My logi went: 4 HD is meant for 4th dungeon level, whicb is meant for 4th level parties, so if the dungeon is full with them the party should be at least 5th level before getting anywhere near it. But that’s actually not needed. A dungeon build around the shie does not have to have lots of rooms with groups of shie in them. It can still be about them if the players only rarely run into one or two individuals. Or take for example the famous Steading of the Hill Giant Chief: To have an adventure about hill giants you don’t need a party that is able to fight 20 hill giants at once. The most famous giant story is Odysseus and his men in the cave of th cyclops. Only one giant that had the heroes outmatched all by himself. Foreshadowing that the master of the cave is a giant can make exploring a cave full of goblins and giant rats still a giant adventure.

No more “Mr. Kimble I don’t like this Noob Dungeon…” There is no Noob-Dungeon!

And that’s what it’s all about

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.

I think some people would call coming across this image while writing this post syncronicity. I call it coincidence.

My Sense of Place in the Ancient Lands

I was actually going to write about something completely different but while I was gathering my thoughts I kept doing some researching that I’ve been doing for the last days at the same time (the wonderful exciting world of ADD) and came across an old Hill Cantons post on the Sense of Place in fantasy. While my mental image of the Ancient Lands doesn’t come from one single place I actually can think of a number of environments that hugely impacted my own image of how I see the perfect fantasy world in my mind. All the pictures here can be clicked to embiggen.

I grew up in Hamburg, which really isn’t a place to inspire fantastic landscapes. (Though it does have a fantastic zoo with lots of big animals from all over the world.) However, my grandparents lived on the edge of a village just about an hours drive away until recently and me and my brother were staying with them over weekends about once per month. And this is what we had right out the door.

Northern Germany clearly doesn’t make it high on anyone’s list of fanciest places in the world but this is what we got and I think it’s actually pretty cool. That river used to be the Iron Curtain. The far shore is Eastern Germany. But you couldn’t see it from the west shore because all the border fortifications were a good distance futher back for secrecy. (You could occasionally hear land mines going of, though.)

When I was in first grade we had our first school trip to the Lüneburg Heath, which I don’t think many people suspect to start right outside of Hamburg. We did five day trips and fortunately had amazing weather which really made it a huge experience that stayed with me forever.

I think the pictures aren’t really doing justice to the real place. Or at least to my memory of it. But it doesn’t really matter if I remember it as much more impressive than it really was, since in a fantasy world I can make it as amazing as I want.

Then there was this place:

I can not overstate what an enormous influence The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had on me. More than anything else, seeing these movies on a friday night and saturday morning on a tiny TV at a friend’s place when I was 11 defined what my creative imagination is today. Only playing Baldur’s Gate when I was 16 comes close, as it introduced me to the whole world of fantasy RPGs.

I think it was in summer 2000 when we went on vacation to Norway. (Because I remember being excited for Diablo II which would be out when we got back). And what forever stayed with me wasn’t the fjords, but the mountain tundra of the Dovrefjell.

I instantly loved this place and it’s still easily my favorite place in the world, even though we stayed in that area for only two or three days. There isn’t really anything to do, but it just looks amazing. And I think it might have reminded me of having seen the Lüneburg Heath. It doesn’t really look like you’re high up in the mountains because everything has been flattened by glaciers during the Ice Age, but even in the middle of summer, when you got something like 20 hours of daylight, it still gets really cold even that relatively far south.

The next year we had a one week vacation to Denmark, which isn’t really much of a deal when you’re from Northern Germany and we’ve been there before, but this turned out to be one of my favorite vacations ever. I’m not completely sure, but I am pretty certain that we stayed in Løkken. While looking for pictures I came across several that showed old World War 2 bunkers and a paragliding club, which I both remember being nearby.

While thinking about what kinds of pictures to hunt for, I became aware of a consistent trend that goes through most of these places. And you’ve might have noticed it from looking at the pictures. I really like dried yellow gras. And looking at it now, also huge open skies. But I guess the later comes naturally when you grew up in cities in Northern Germany. Once you get out of the city you immediately get this vast open view.

There’s also something else I got reminded of by the aesthetics of these pictures:

Dinosaur Books!!!

The love for dinosaurs is in my genes. (I am pretty sure it’s the y-chromosome.) What could possibly be more awesome than dinosaurs?

Dinosaurs with freaking laser beams attached to their heads!

Okay, getting a bit overboard here. (But seriously, was there ever a toy line more awesome than this?) But still, I’ve always been a big dinosaur lover, and I think even more so than the average 6 year old boy. And the landscapes shown in dinosaur books from the 80s always had a certain style that I think really had an enormous impact on my sense of environmental aesthetics. And all these places I love share some resemblance with it. I originally planned to write about the finding emotional core of my plans for the Ancient Lands (which I’ll hopefully get to tomorrow) and this environmental aesthetic is a major part of it.

Senpai noticed me!

I just found my site in the links sections of another RPG site and this time it’s one of the old and famous ones. This is so cool. :D

Hostile environments not meant for people

My Ancient Lands setting never felt like I wanted it to when I ran adventures in it, and I think I know understand why. Even though the whole concept of the world is one about dealing with alien spirits and witches, almost all my adventures were pretty generic empty ruins inhabited by animals and bandits. There’s some wisdom in the claim that the unnatural only feels unusual if it’s set in contrast to a very natural world, I took it much too far by making the normal stuff dominating the campaigns.

I am still not sure how to give the supernatural otherworld the center stage that it should have, I think it really starts with the idea that there are places and environments where people are not meant to be. Not just are the native creatures are great direct threat, the environment itself gets in the way of the characters and puts them at an even greater disadvantage to the native inhabitants.

Here are some generic factors that make an environment work against the players even when it does not actively try to harm them.

  • Don’t let the party have rechargable magical light sources. When torches and lamps run out they are completely blind when underground (or at least some of them) until they can find something to light on fire or glowing worms or something like that.
  • Track food and make edible plants really hard to find in dungeons and spiritworlds. Leaves and grass won’t feed people and fruits might not be healthy.
  • Use a lot of water. Even when the party has magic to breath underwater their torches and lamps won’t be working there.
  • Little weak monsters that wait to attack the party until they are weak and need to recover. And not just once, but repeatedly.
  • Great differences in height and monsters that can fly.
  • Huge open spaces and monsters with ranged attacks.
  • Fog that blocks sight and creatures that are sneaky.
  • Ground that slows characters down or hurts them when they trip. But not the native creatures.
  • Wind that can make characters fall and interferes with ranged weapons.
  • Low ceilings that force characters to fight crouched or narrow passages that make large weapons unusable and keeps parties from fighting as a team.