Almost a year ago, I made up a list of great villains from fiction that I want to use as direct inspirations for my own antagonists. Even though this setting is very different in style and tone, I found that this list is still representing my top picks for great antagonists to emulate. They need to be human in their desires and limitations and failings, but also absolutely dispicable. This is what great enemies look like.
Silly title? Probably. It’s not easy being both snappy and clever all the time.
The first step in creating a new setting is always to think about which existing works you draw your main inspirations from and serve as your primary references. It may be fully unconcious for many people, but you can’t create something new from nothing. The second thing that I think everyone should do, but a great many number don’t, is to give it some thought what your new creation is supposed to be about. Lots of fictional worlds, especially in RPGs, are not really about anything. And that’s the main reason why they are bland, boring, indistinguishable, and ultimately forgettable. With past settings I did make this crucial step, but then I immediately went ahead creating lots of content without really paying any attention to the themes. And the campaigns ended up simply being okay, not very memorable, and feeling somewhat generic. (Though I also partly blame this on sticking with D&D-derivative systems.) Self-awareness being the first step towards self-improvement and all this, now is another opportunity to do better.
I’ve already been doing a good amount of preliminary work on the setting, and out of the many ideas I came up with and threw out, some general overall themes did emerge. The core idea, that has fascinated me for years, is that complex human cultures throughout all of history have regarded themselves as the pinacle of creation. Beings so far above all other living things that they exist outside of the natural order and nature in fact exists to serve man. Above them are only the gods, who are immortal and live in realms removed from the world. But among the living things on Earth, man stands above everything, and man will live on even after death, in the realms of the gods. This seems to be almost universal among civilizations, with exceptions being small isolated cultures that live in places where the environment has not been transformed into farmland and cleared of most dangerous predators. Yet for the last generation or two, there has been a growing awareness and understanding in western culture that we can’t bend nature to our will, and it’s not a matter of developing better technologies. Instead of adapting to local environmental conditions, we have tried to force the environment to change to suit our needs. But nature doesn’t care about or needs, which directly led to many of the worst natural disasters of human history. Some people even go so far to say that there are no “natural disasters”. Nature just does what it always did, disasters only happen when people put their houses in the paths of natural forces or think they know how to improve the environment for their own benefit. We’ve had plenty of fiction over the last decades about a world altered so much by humans that it became inhospitable to humans. And now the survivors have to learn to live with the new conditions. Or they don’t. My idea for the main theme of this setting is a world with natural forces so strong, forests growing so fast, and beasts getting so big that it was never suited for civilizations. The spirits that rule over nature don’t care about what happens to people any more than to any other creatures, and people are far from the top of the food chain. It is a forest world with numerous small areas suitable for farming and free of most dangerous predators, but the limited space does not allow for growth or expansion beyond some tens of thousands of people. Beyond these small islands of relative safety lies a true primordial wilderness, a world that is majestic and wondrous, but also terrifying and cruel.
One major difference going into this setting compared to my previous ones is that I don’t approach it from the perspective of Dungeons & Dragons, with it’s levels, spell lists, and monster books, but from the perspective of Apocalypse World. Structurally, a world in which the environment restricts human societies from growing large is very similar to a world in which catastrophic changes to the envrionment reduced human societies to a very small scale. The situation in which people live, the needs they have, and the threats they face are mostly the same. Post-apocalyptic fiction often features extreme or even exagerated conflicts and violence because it takes place in settings of extreme or exagerated scarcity. It takes the complex and often abstract conflicts that are part of our own world, and human history as a whole, and reduces them to the very basics where everything gets much simpler. I don’t want to make this a dystopian setting where people live in misery and constant fear, but I find it very useful to approach the overall social situation, with its conflicts and factions, from the perspective of fundamental scarcities. What do people need but do not have? What motivates them to behave in certain ways that are typical for the setting? What makes them act agressive and foolish?
The first, and most simple scarcity, is a scarcity of farmland. There are only a limited number of places where the ground is suitable for growing crops, the vegetation not spreading too agressivly to clear fields, and the wildlife not too dangerous to settle downn. With farmland being limited, there is only so much food that can be produced. But even when you have enough to feed all the people, you also need to have surplus to store for bad years and to trade with other settlements. Farmland is the primary unit of wealth, and while the distances between major settlements make generally unfeasible to conquer land from neighboring settlements, it is the main source of conflict within communities. A settlement can not increase its amount of farmland, but families are constantly trying to get more land from their neighbors. The scarcity of farmland is the underlying basis for most local politics and power structures and affects who could be a potential ally or enemy to the players, and who they would have to approach to get things done.
The second scarcity is a scarcity of cooperation. Because communities are separated by often long stretches of wilderness, most of them tend to be fairly insular. Trade between settlements is a common thing, but nobody ever gets anything for free. And in times of trouble, most communities are entirely on their own. Their local trouble is not someone elses trouble. It might seem as a sensible course of action in the short term, but in the long term problems can grow into much bigger threats that endanger much larger regions. The indifference to the trouble of others is regularly a contributing factor to the rise of major threats. Cooperation is rarely given and never expected, but this also means that it is regarded with immense value when offered. Getting allies for their cause is a major challenge for the players, but the offering of assistance is a very strong bargaining chip and comes with great gratitude that may be invaluable in the long run. The difficulty in finding allies can be a frustration for players, but being persistent and taking risks will lead to immense rewards.
The third scarcity is a scarcity of understanding. It is in the nature of people to believe that they understand everything perfectly well and that they know all they need to know. But in reality, most people’s understanding of the wilderness and the supernatural is rudimentary at best and often outright false. But the confidence in their mistaken believes drives them to make decisions with terrible outcomes. Real dangers are being ignored and needless conflicts escalated because of people’s believes about how things work and what others want. Because resources are scare and the environment dangerous and often hostile, not all conflicts are caused simply by misunderstanding, and could be solved by explaining the truth. When there is not enough food, then there is not enough food. But every threat is being increased and every conflict escalated by people making decisions based on false assumptions. And it isn’t just that people are mistaken, but refuse to believe that they are mistaken. Understanding more about a situation and the creatures and spirits of the wilderness is always the most important part in dealing with a problem. Blindly charging in without a plan always makes things only worse. Attempting to communicate with the alien minds of spirits or gleaning information from the ruins and records of past settlements is always a crucial part in putting an end to threats that endanger communities.
Just yesterday I realized that these three scarcities very much overlapp with the three vices and three virtues that I picked as the basis for one of the most prominent religions of the setting. Greed, hatred, and pride are the sources of all ills. They are the reasons people do stupid things that lead to violence and disaster. Opposed to these are the virtues represented by the three gods of the religion. The God of the Fields, who represents generosity, the God of the Home, who represents hospitality, and the God of the Herds, who represents humility. The scarcity of farmland is connected to greed; the scarcity of cooperation is connected to distrust and resentment, and therefore hatred; and the scarcity of understanding is directly matching pride. Almost certainly not a coincidence, but simply the result of having thought about these and worked with them for several weeks.
Finally, it is critical to have a pretty good understanding of what kind of people the players will play, and what kinds of things they will be doing in the campaign. The themes I have decided on don’t really align with becoming powerful warriors through the fighting of many monsters and the amassing of great riches, and trying but ultimately failing to make D&D characters work in the Ancient Lands was probably the main reason that setting never led to the campaigns I envisioned. But Apocalypse World makes very different assumptions about what player characters are and what they do. Even though it’s never spelled out that way, AW is a system centered around being community leaders. Some of the character types lend themselves to loose canons, but the majority of them come with implicit or outright explicit ties to a home settlement. Three of them are leaders of large groups and two more are running essential services for the community. And all the others lend themselves to being very well known, either highly respected or feared. These ties to the community mean that the characters are automatically invested in the community. When the main defining trait of your character is running a temple or owning a tavern, ensuring the town’s continued existance is always going to be high on your list of priorities. And even if you play a character without such ties, you’re playing someone closely aqainted with the local priest or tavern keeper played by another player. In the past, my focus has always been on the wilderness and dungeons, and these are still where my passions lie. But having characters deeply tied to a home settlement does not mean that play has to be focused on that settlement. Most threats to the settlement come from outside and the people can’t afford to wait until they are clawing at the gates. To prevent trouble from reaching the settlement, the players have to go out and face them in the wilderness. Threats can come in many forms. Since I am a fan of the supernatural, spirits starting to act threateningly or monsters coming close to the village are always great options. But you can also have shamans and sorcerers trying to gain power and endangering the village in the process. And things can always be made more interesting by throwing some raiders into the mix. Raiders on their own are never very interesting to me, but they always make for a great complication in a charged situation.
My feeling is that this is a really solid fundation to building a setting with strong themes that run from the big picture down to the finer details and make it a world that has it’s own distinctive character that makes adventures feel and play out differently from what you can have in any other setting.
Good artists borrow, great artists steal. I plan on stealing from these ones very generously.
I admit not a lot of forests here. But that’s where the creative transformation into something new happens. I am such a genius. The shortest way I can sum up the concept is “Dark Sun in green”.
I think one thing to take away from this list is that the world and its inhabitants needs to be intense and surreal. It really has to be larger than life to evoke the styles of these reference works.
Work on the Ancient Lands setting more or less ended early last year because I just couldn’t get my dreams for a fantastic world fit together with the needs of fantastic adventures. Last winter I tried putting my creative energies somewhere else and started working on the medieval Baltic Sea dark fantasy world Dark World, but I lost interest in that pretty soon. Instead, I went back to making my alternate timeline for Knights of the Old Republic a reality. Which actually went quite well.
The idea of Bronze Age warriors riding on great reptiles through an endless forest dominated by strange magical beings just never completely faded from my mind.
And how could I? Once you’ve seen perfection, how could you ever be content with less?
The problem was never with the elements I wanted to include in such a setting. The reason things never really worked and came together was that I had painted myself into a corner with what I wanted characters and adventures within that world to be like. Somehow I got that idea in my head that I don’t wannt to run campaigns that are about such banal things like permanently chasing after piles of gold, or seeking glory in killing piles of enemies. Which is a valid aesthetic choice, but it turned out to just not work when you still approach characters and adventures with the mindset of Dungeons & Dragons.
Originally, my idea to make some kind of wilderness warriors campaign started with a fascination for the E6 variant of D&D 3rd Edition that cuts the 20 level progression down to 6 and then has characters gain more low-level abilities instead of becoming increasingly more powerful. Later I moved on to Basic/Expert and from that to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and finally to Barbarians of Lemuria. with a short detour through Symbaroum. But even though the later two are classless systems with more flexible systems for experience, they still come with very similar assumption about what a fantasy hero is and does.
But this summer, I finally managed to understand Apocalypse World. I had to read the whole book end to end probably five times, but even when I first read it a year before, I immediately became aware that there’s a really fascinating game hidden in the unorganized heap of rambling and unexplained game terms. At some point I had looked into Dungeon World, which is based on the same mechanics adapted for fantasy settings, but it tries to use the mechanics to recreate the style of Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, it loses what makes Apocalpyse World feel different.
Last year, Mick Gordon gave a great presentation at GDC about how he created the soundtrack for the new Doom. His instructions were that he had to create music that nobody had ever heard before, that fit the game perfectly, and that would be instantly loved by fans. Which he actually did, with huge success. And one of the big lessons that came out of that work was “to change the outcome, change the process”. And since I started to really dig into the rules of Apocalypse World and working out how it is meant to be used, I discovered this to be a really significant realization. For several years I had tried to create something that is unlike D&D, while still approaching like creating content for D&D. When put like that, it really doesn’t seem surprising that the whole effort repeatedly bogged down, even though I tried to start over again several times.
To get a different result, you have to use a different approach. And Apocalypse World is indeed a very different approach. Without getting too deeply into the specifics of the rules, one difference that impressed me the most is the approach to the different character types that players can play. Character classes are defined primarily by a set of abilities, very often in combination with a narrow set of equipment. These are all in turn based on tasks. Fighters do the frontline fighting, thieves do the locks, traps, and scouting, clerics do protection and healing spells, and wizards do the artillery spells and various support spells. In Apocalypse World, the various playbooks all have their suits of specific abilities, but for most characters all there’s a free choice from all optional abilities, and pretty much all abilities can be learned by any other characters as well. (Though you’re limited to a total of two abilities from other playbooks in addition to four abilities from yours.) And all characters can use all equipment equally well if they get their hands on it. Instead characters are defined by their role in society. There’s a character who rules over a small settlement or compound. A character who leads a cult, one who leads a gang, and one who runs some kind of bar. One character is an artists with a captivating personality, another has access to abilities that goad players to stir up trouble any time they run into important or dangerous people.
Because of this, you completely avoid the situation of the characters sitting in a bar and waiting for an opportunity to use their swords or spells to appear. Many of the characters come with NPCs who depend on them, who have expectations of them, or who just don’t like their presence. This is a game that just doesn’t do lone wanderers without connections looking for other people’s problem to fix. In Apocalypse World, you’re always a prominent somebody and problems come to you. To make this work, Apocalypse World is designed as being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of dangers, where there’s always a scarcity of somethhing that makes people do stupid and dangerous things. Even if you don’t seek riches or glory, staying put in a quiet place isn’t an option. When you have no food, you have to get some. And when you have it, you have to keep hold of it. This really is not a radically new idea. But it’s a very different one from the D&D adventuring party.
My ideas for an ancient forest world have never been post-apocalyptic. But it has always been about the treacherous wilderness on the frontier, beyond which lies a vast unknown home to strange beings and phenomenons. It is in many ways and environment with a great deal of structural similarities, and I found that all the character types from Apocalypse World translate very well to a fantasy wilderness. You live in an insolated stronghold surrounded by hostile wilderness and it is up to you to take steps to keep the mundane and supernatural dangers that are lurking out there from getting in. I had actually considered something along this line some years ago, but still thinking about adventures in terms of dungeons, monster stats, magic items, and experience point I just couldn’t figure out how to make this work.
Learning how Apocalypse World approaches campaigns, player characters, and NPCs was a very fascinating and inspiring process. And all the while, I couldn’t help but think how all of it would translate to Bronze Age warriors riding dinosaurs through a vast forest ruled by strange beings. At some point, I had this image in my mind of “Dark Sun, but in a giant forest”. And with the default assumptions of Apocalypse World, this seems like a really good starting point for a redesign of that ancient forest that always keeps calling back to me.