That’s no Moon

It’s a gas dwarf.

I never made any secrets about how much I love the worldbuilding of Morrowind. (It’s gameplay is a different matter.) And I never let an opportunity pass by to tell everyone how much I love Star Wars. I also liked the world of the old videogame Albion and the whole old Planetary Romance genre in general. When I wrote down my Project Forest Moon concept paper to spice up the Ancient Lands with more mythic and puply atmosphere, that title was just a name referencing the visual style of Endor in The Return of the Jedi. But that phrase stuck with me until I recently decided to have the Ancient Lands be set on an actual moon. I know a fair bit about astronomy and while I think scientific accuracy is vastly overrated in fantasy worldbuilding, I think no creator likes to create stuff they know to be wrong within the rules of their fictional world. So I sat down to figure out a configuration that is at least somewhat plausible if you’re not getting too specific about the exact numbers involved. Or in other words, I feel pretty confident that planets like this can exist if you just find the right numbers for masses and distances to keep everything in semi-stable balance.

Having an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant (like the Rebel base on Yavin 4 in Star Wars) would have all kinds of “interesting” effects that would make any kind of Earth-like environment on it vastly implausible. And you’d also end up with all kinds of funkiness regarding day length and daily solar eclipses lasting for hours. To keep things much simpler and more familiar, I chose to make the big ball in the sky a gas dwarf instead.

So what is a gas dwarf?

Gas dwarves are the most recently discovered type of planet that exists in other star system, which look very much like gas giants but are much smaller than those. In their center is a solid rocky core like a common terrestial planet which is then surrounded by a massive atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. Planets like Earth or Venus have not enough gravity to hold on to these very light gases in significant quantities, but if you go just a little bigger in size gravity is strong enough to keep these huge balls of gas together. The total mass of gas dwarves is between 1.7 and 4 times the mass of the Earth and it appears that they are one of the most common types of planets in the universe. It’s just a random oddity of the solar system that we ended up not having any of these. Being so much smaller than a gas giant the gravitational effects and its magnetic field would be much smaller than what you have in a behemoth like Jupiter or even Neptune.

I recently got myself Universe Sandbox 2, which I’ve been fascinated about for a very long time, and made a quick simulation of what it might look like if you take Earth and switch the Moon for smallish gas dwarf. I started by taking Neptune and changing its mass to 2 Earth masses. The program then did the recalculation of it’s actual size automatically. As expected, two bodies of such similar size would actually form a binary planet, both orbiting about a point between them instead of one going around the other, with the world if the Ancient Lands not being actually a moon. But it’s close enough. The screenshot at the top of this post is taken directly from the simulation I made with everything being at actual scale, with the gas giant being the same distance away from Earth as the Moon. But it’s a lot bigger and the little black dot next to the bigger blue ball is what the Moon would look like from this perspective. At 8.5 times the radius of the moon the gas dwarf would take up an area in the sky 72 times bigger. Hydrogen clouds would also reflect light much better than moon rocks, so the light of a full moon would likely be hundreds of times brighter than what we get here on Earth. However, human eyes are actually really amazing at automatically adjusting to light levels to give the brain the appearance that everything is normally lit. We did measurements of light levels in greenhouses in school and rooms that seem to be evenly lit actually get several times the amount of light close the sun facing windows than at the opposite side. Sunlight is obviously brighter than the light of a full moon, but human eyes adjust so well that you probably wouldn not have suspected that it is actually 400.000 times brighter. So even with a full moon being 400 times brighter than on Earth, the nights wouldn’t actually look much brighter to the eyes of people.

This is the Earth and the gas dwarf seen side on at actual scale. This shows the actual relative sizes and distances of the two bodies.

Tidal effects would obviously be much more severe as those caused by the Moon. However in practice, the actual rise and fall of the water is influenced much more significantly by the shape of coastlines than the gravitational pull of the moon. While there would be some bays experiencing absolutely astonishing tides, it should not be too dramatic for most coasts to completely change life near the sea. The time between high tide and low tide remains roughly 6 hours since the day is 24 hours in length. The orbital speed of the gas dwarf is marginal compared to the rotation of the forest planet.

Sadly, one thing that Universe Sandbox can not simulate is tidal locking. Tidal locking is when a smaller body slows down its rotation to the point where it matches its orbit around the larger body, causing it to always show the same side to the larger body, while the larger body would remain stationary in the sky of the smaller one. I think this is boring and want my wandering gas moon, which is why I gave it such a low mass to reduce this effect. In reality, the effects that cause tidal locking are working on every smaller body orbiting a larger one. The only question is how long it will take for the rotation to slow down before a true lock is reached. For the Earth and the Sun, tidal locking actually takes longer to reach than the Sun is going to live. One number I’ve found is that the Earth actually had days of only 6 hours when it first formed. So the fate of my world is sealed and it will eventually tidally lock to the gas dwarf. But the gas dwarf has only twice the mass of the forest planet while in comparison the Earth has 80 times the mass of the Moon. So I see it as completely plausible that a after three billion years the forest planet still has a nice 24 hour day and is a very far way from getting locked and the gas giant keeps moving in the sky.

Another interesting number is the length of a month. That is time from one full moon to the next full moon. In this particular configuration of masses and distances that I uses this turned out to be almost exatly 16 days. That would be 4 days from new moon to half moon and from half moon to full moon, and the same back of course. 16 is a very attractive number, being a square of an even number, so I keep that for the days in a month. For the number of months in a year, 24 would also be a very attractive number, being a multiple of 12. If a month where exactly 16.0 days and a year exactly 24.0 months, it would lead to a year of 384 days. Very close to what we think of when we are talking about “a year” as a unit of time. But such a perfect synchronisation would seem vastly implausible to me, so in the tradition of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi I am setting the length of the year at roughly 381 days, with the occasional leap day now and then. And sometimes a year happens to have only 15 months. Since I am lazy with such things and calendars show up rarely in practice in campaign, I’m not making any names for months or days of the week. It’s simply the first day of the eleventh month. With each month beginning at the new moon.

Another cool subject is solar eclipses. Because with a diameter 8 times larger than the Moon, the gas dwarf has a really easy time completely covering up the sun. In reality the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun once every month during the new moon. However in most months it will pass actually above or below the sun in the sky since all orbits are not perfectly flat. How often you get solar eclipses depends on the tilt of the orbit, the size of the moon compared to the sun, and the length of a month, but they will be most common during spring and fall. There are 16 opportunities for an eclipse every year and a 50% chance for any place on the planet to be on the sun facing side when it happens, resulting in a total maximum of 8 if the orbits where perfectly flat. I really don’t want to worry about the exact math of this, so I am just arbitrarily setting the number of total eclipses a place experiences in a year at 1 or 2. However, I am pretty sure there is an orbital tilt that would lead to this result. I just don’t want to calculate that number as it will never come up in a game. On Earth a solar eclipse can last up to eight minutes. With the gas giant being eight times wider but it going around the planet at double the speed, this gives us eclipses of up to 30 minutes. So to streamline the numbers for practical use, a total eclipse lasts for 10 to 30 minutes.

So that’s the sky and the resulting calendar in the Ancient Lands. I actually tried to simulate each of the two planets having a small moon of their own, adding Deimos and Phobos to the system. When I ran the simulation, the Earth immediately flung its moon on a course to the sun while the gas dwarf threw its moon straight at Earth, leaving a huge crater lake in Morocco. I am pretty sure it should be possible to have two minor moons in the sky as well, but I am not going to include these into the simulation. They are just there in the sky looking pretty and not having any noticable effect on the planet below.

Dark Sun Sandbox

No, this is not a pun.

I wrote about sandboxes and taking the idea of default goals from megadungeons on monday, and how it finally made sandbox campaigns click for me.

And it finally made me understand how I would properly run a Dark Sun campaign. A sandbox is a perfect match for it. One issue with the setting as described is that all the interesting possible oponents are fabulously powerful. If you want to engage in the current public affairs of Athas, you’re facing immortal sorcerer kings with limitless resources and whole armies of seriously dangerous minions. Yet doing regular bandit killing and caravan guarding would be just way too bland for a setting like this. Even being an ordinary adventurer looking for gold in dungeons would be kinda meh.

But as a sandbox it all makes so much more sense. The default action in a Dark Sun campaign is “don’t die”. When you’re in a city, then the templars of the sorcerer-kings are everywhere and looking to kill or enslave you for the slightest reason. If you’re not in a city, then it’s a constant fight to not be killed by the desert. Sitting around idle is never an option, you are always facing a threat. If you don’t have any specific goal for now, then simply staying alive and free will always keep you occupied. It’s a world that really comes to life through random encounters. Random encounters are not the hand GM nuding the players to do certain things. They are the setting itself being hostile to the players, which really is one of the big selling points of Dark Sun as a setting.

And going on more specific adventures with a defined goal can always be treated as a means to accomplishing the default goal of staying alive. Helping others is not something you do out of kindness, but because they will give you resources and assistance in return, which then can help you to survive the deserts and stay ahead of the templars for a little longer. And in the long term, the players can make allies and gain the friendship of slave tribes or bands of elves, or can call in a debt from thri-kreen. Or even somehow get the gratitude of a clan of halflings. Lunatic canibal halflings who live in the one forest in a desert world that everybody else stays way clear of. As they grow in personal power and gain allies, players can eventually get into a position where they can mean actual trouble for any of the sorcerer-kings. Whichever one of them the players decide to hate the most.

The Tyr Region is perfect for a sandbox, and not just because it’s full of sand. However, given that the setting was created for AD&D 2nd edition and that the really cool concept was quickly turned into garbage by a heavy handed metaplot that had NPCs do all the things that would have been cool for players to do, I very much doubt that this was the intention. But that’s clearly how I would run it.

Quicksand Sandbox: What are we going to do tonight, Brain?

One thing I am constantly struggling with as a GM is making up my mind what kind of game mode I actually want my campaigns to run in. The linear plotted adventure went out the window years ago, but since then it’s ben an endless back and forth between enthusiasm and disdain for sandboxes and dungeoncrawls, social games and exploration games, ongoing campaigns and episodic one-shots. Which I think ultimately comes down to a  disconnect between the kind of narratives I am dreaming of and the realities of running a game with other people. I want Conan, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, but these are all tales written by a creator who controls the thoughts and actions of all the characters and has full control over the past, present, and future of every scene at the same time. You can not replicate a book or a movie exactly in an RPG. You can only work towards running a game that will look like just as great a story in hindsight.

Of the many possible open-ended game modes to chose from, the two I know I am not interested in are hexcrawls and megadungeons. Which happen to be by far the most popular, or at the very least the ones that have most been written about. But the discourse about these two modes has led to the articulation of a valuable and important concept: Default Goals and Default Actions.

In a game that has a group come together at regular or irregular intervals and ask the immortal question “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?”, there needs to be a default goal. If nobody has any special plan, then the whole group should be in agreement to default to one standard activity. Otherwise they just keep akwardly sitting around in confusion and are likely to start wrecking things to get any response to their presence from the game world. In the case of the hexcrawl and the megadungeon, these default actions are exploring new hexes and going to the dungeon respectively. Or simply “explore”. But as Matt Colville pointed out quite correctly I believe, “explore” is not a good goal. Exploration is walking around blindly and waiting for something interesting to fall into your path. It’s still waiting for the world and the GM to give them a task to deal with. Without understanding why, I think this is really the issue that always had me feel very uncomfortable about the thought of running a hexcrawl or megadungeon. It just doesn’t seem to have the potential for the kind of narratives I want my games to produce.

My work on the Ancient Lands setting began as an attempt to create a more realistic portrayal of tribal societies in a fantasy world that wasn’t as distorted as the nonsense you get about life in “warrior cultures” in movies and books. But while I think that it’s a fascinating subject and some elements of this will greatly help me making the Ancient Lands feel like an actual world, I have come to really appreciate minimizing exposition and player buy-in. Instead relying strongly on familiar archetypes to allow players to correctly guess what is what in this fictional world. However as part of it, I found one solution to letting PCs go on adventures and being indispensible for the survival of the clan, which was to define PCs as hunters for magical artifacts that can help defend the clan against their enemies and hostile spirits. Somehow this got stuck in my mind as the paradigm that all adventures in the Ancient Lands have to be treasure hunts and that all PCs have to be treasure hunters. After all, treasure hunting is what makes characters progress in B/X, so it seems to be a perfect match, right?

But in hindsight I really just handicapped myself with this approach. Without the addition of “return it to your clan to defend it against attacks”, the default goal of “find treasure” is just as hollow as “explore”. But while reading Kevin Crawford’s excellent Spears of the Dawn, I finally came to the realization that default goal does not have to be the only goal. It’s the goal that you can always go pursuing if you don’t have anything else planned right now. I believe the key to a successful sandbox campaign is to make it a hybrid campaign of exploration/treasure hunt and player-initiated story adventures. On their own, neither can stand by itself. At least not in a way that I want to run it. Pure exploration is aimless. And sending the players to do whatever they want in a world they know nothing about is a recipe for getting them stuck in the quicksand of unlimited options.

A much more appealing approach to sandboxes is “come for the plunder, stay for the people”. The treasure hunt is a device to get players to start interacting with the world in an easy to grasp and straightforward way so that they get opportunities to form connections with the setting and the NPCs and get dragged into local conflicts. The platonic ideal for player initiated adventures always seems to me best represented by the classic Kurosawa movie Yojimbo. There is no quest giver and barely even a hook to get the hero into this adventure. He is just passing through a village when he sees that local gangs are making trouble. Even though the locals tell him to just be on his way, he is intrigued and stays to see what happens next. At this point he has no plan and not even a clear goal and completely plays it by ear, but once he has established some connections to the village it very quickly grows into a complex web of cunning deception and daring swashbuckling that simply is a blast to behold. This is what I believe player-initiated adventures in a sandbox should be like.

But in an RPG, walking down the street until the players run into something that grabs their curiosity is not feasible. If they currently have nothing to do, they need a default goal to fall back on that will keep them entertained until they find something more interesting to do instead. Putting the limitation on character creation that all PCs have to have a drive to look for magical wonders in ancient places seems like a perfect solution for a wilderness sandbox.

Idea Looting: John Carter

Yesterday I was watching John Carter again and it really is a corny B-movie with an awful script and badly acted protagonists. But that’s the case with pretty much all fantasy movies except for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings (which often are corny blockbusters with an awful script and badly acted protagonists). And while I think that it could be argued that it’s a bad movie, it certainly is a really nice looking movie with a lot of cool ideas. Basically the ideas that are taken directly from A Princess of Mars and are not new additions for the movie. You know, the ideas  that Star Wars ripped off to huge success.

And some of them I think I really want to grab myself:

White Apes kick ass! They eat puny rancors for breakfast.

That Petrified Giant Tree Thingy Shrine. The only problem I have with this design for a dungeon is that it’s not nearly big enough in the movie. It needs to be ten times bigger and then it totally has to be an adventure site for my campaign.

Helium looks awesome. It just needs a thick forest in the canyon below the cliff and can go straight into the Ancient Lands. (As a Tree Weaver castle, I would say.)

Those meddling sorcerers. Don’t really have a clue how, but I like the idea. And I really like that their powers are mostly illusions and mind control but that they absolutely suck when having to fight themselves, which makes them much more interesting as actual antagonists. big open question is what they would try to accomplish in the Ancient Lands.

And since we’re at them, the Warhoon tribe is really gnarly looking. I said I need some better ideas for the raksha. I think this could be it.

Not appearing in the movie, but I really like this design for Banths. I think this is what I’ll make my arags look like instead. (My original inspiration were varren from Mass Effect, which really look remarkably similar to this, just more fishy.)

Here I am still really conflicted. Airships are totally awesome! But I feel like they would be a huge change to the setting as a whole. The concept for the world is one of wilderness adventures in a somewhat more primitive world and having the ability to fly over the forests instead of slowly crawling through the underbrush and paddling along rivers would be a drastic departure from that.

But they are really, really cool.

And they would not actually be a radically new idea for B/X-BECMI. Elves and Halflings have been given the ability to make airships very much like these in the Companion Set way back in 1983.

And it’s really, really cool…

I guess what would be needed is to make these things incredibly rare and put some severe limitations on how far and long they can fly before requiring a stop to resupply. But I guess that’s worth a whole post in itself.

Forest Moon 2: Knights of the Frozen Throne

About a year ago I’ve sat down and wrote a list of elements that would evoke the atmosphere and style that was really at the heart of my inspiration for the Ancient Lands, which over the many years of working on it had regularly strayed off into other, more generic direction. Writing these ideas down as Project Forest Moon started probably the most productive phase of my whole work on the setting and in hindsight feels like a second moment of the settings inception. When I looked back at the original first outline I made, pretty much all the important elements were already there and the following five years were spend on toying around with various mechanics and researching background information on society and technology. Much of which ended up being discarded as irrelevant and uninteresting for campaigns. Figuring out what doesn’t work and why is a major and important learning experience, but It was only in the last year when I finally learned how much atmosphere is actually much more important than lots of methodical detail.

Project Forest Moon turned out to be an astonishing success for myself which lead me to declare the setting as basically complete three months ago. Well, at least so far as having reached the beta stage. And to focus my efforts on the final push to smoothen out the remaining rough edges I made another list with the elements that still are not as prominent as they should be and the ways I want to deal with them.

  • That’s no Planet. It’s a Moon! Forest Moon was really just a name referring to one of my major inspirations for the style of the setting. But the idea has grown on me and I totally like the idea of switching the primary moon of the Ancient Lands to be the larger companion of the system. It changes absolutely nothing for the people living in the Ancient Lands, but it adds a little bit to reinforce the notion of it being an alien work very much unlike Earth in many ways. And I also just love the oldschool pulpy vibe that you get from works like the Barsoom series and obviously Star Wars.
  • Points of Light: While it comes from the development process of the most controversial edition that was widely seen as a major step in the totally wrong direction for D&D, Points of Light is a very fascinating paradigm for desiging settings, that is actually extremely oldschool but had to my knowledge never been put into words that well. The whole, and really pretty simple idea, is that the campaign world is a mostly untamed world without any real centralized power or organization and overall generally hostile to the mortal races. They have carved out their small islands of relative safety and stability that are only loosely connected by barely maintained roads, but around them these small villages and towns are completely surrounded by monster infested wilderness.  I’ve been working under these assumptions from the very beginning, but I feel that I’ve continuously drifted back towards something more conventional. One way to accomplish this is to completely banish the idea of countries from the setting. Geographic areas are defined by having a consistent landscape, like a mountain range, island group, or wetland. But there are no more cultural regions that give the inhabitants some kind of shared identity. Now every island of mortal inhabitation is reduced to being its own unique entity.
  • No More Cities: As a consequence of the stronger Points of Light approach I am ditching the concept of city states. These have always been problematic for me as they are meant to not be visited by PCs but always ended up being the focus areas of the worldbuilding process. I will keep the handful that I have, but they are reconceptualized as strongholds of particularly powerful warlords. They are fortified towns under a single leader. No longer a common space for a regional aristocracy.
  • Level 0 World: One paradigm I’ve commited myself to some time ago is that every NPC that is not considered important enough to be given a name and individual personality is automatically a level 0 character with no class. NPCs that are fleshed out as individuals only get classes and levels if they have extraordinary fighting prowess or skills or possess magical powers. If their power and influence is purely social then they are still only level 0 NPCs, even if they are very high ranking individuals.
  • More Focus on Journeys: I already had boat travel on rivers and coasts on the list the last time but have not actually done much to make this a more prominent feature of the setting. With a setting like this, the trip between town and dungeon is not enough to cover the wilderness aspects of a campaign. The journey between towns should be an adventure in itself. This is one aspect where I have to put some more thoughts into mechanics and it’s less of a worldbuilding issue. However, the connections to the river and overland path network is one important element in the description of settlements. This also includes creating some more river monsters.
  • More really big Beasts: Part of the concept is that the wilderness is dangerous and terrifying. With a more open ended, site-based approach to adventures and the ability to retreat from encounters or avoid them, I think I can get away with populating the world with more beasts that will be too tough to fight head on for most parties. More dragons and rancors.
  • The Fey Folk: There are three races of humanoid fey in the Ancient Lands. Naga, shie, and racksha. The naga already have a very prominent role in many aspects of the setting, but the other two are still mostly concept that exist more or less in isolation and are not really connected to anything yet. The shie are the creators of the Tower Builder and Tree Weaver types of ruins, but the raksha are more of a character design than a setting element so far.
  • Rituals: The Ancient Lands is conceptualized as an animistic world but so far there is little specific about how this element can be included in actual play. The consultation of shamans and witches and the use of elaborate warding and divination rituals needs to become more fleshed out. Given that divinations in the Ancient World work by predicting the crossing of paths of people with intersecting or conflicting goals rather than stating predetermined outcomes, I see a lot of potential here.
  • Sites of Power: I need to put a lot more thought into magical glades and springs that work as powerful stationary magic items.
  • Druids as Monks rather than Templars: My idea of the Druids was as an organization of shamans that work together to fight the spread of demons and sorcery but I realized that this actually makes them not very interesting as NPCs. If they are the best at fighting sorcery, why would they have to work together with player characters? It’s basically the old Jedi Problem, where one character type is the hero by default and everyone else really only gets in the way and should try to stay out of harm. Instead I want to reconceptualize druids as scholars who have the knowledge to fight sorcery but require warriors to actually do the heavy lifting and clear a path for them.
  • No Lizardmen: I already had lizardmen scrapped once but got them back as part of the setting some time in the last year. But now I realize that all my cool ideas for a lizard race have already been incorporarted in jungle elves and the naga slaves serpentmen. While a neat idea, the lack of a decent concept means the setting will probably be better of for the time being. Not having mortal lizardmen actually frees up a spot for an idea I have for lizard spirit-ogres as a fourth race of the fey folk.