Category Archives: worldbuilding

Know what you don’t want

Not much of a big revelation, but it feels like a somewhat important step of my own worldbuilding work.

My favorite design paradigm is “Perfection is not reached when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.” (My second favorite one is “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”) While it has led me to very good results so far and the Ancient Lands are now much tighter and sleeker, I still frequently find my mind wandering off into wrong directions when making up new details. And what I realize now is that many times I end up following the same paths that didn’t lead to anything satisfying before. There are many fantasy ideas that I really like but which are not fitting for this particular setting.

  • Stone Age Fantasy: The Ancient Lands are a world in which civilization is small and short lived, which is mostly wilderness and ruled by spirits. This is a setup that lends itself very much to Stone Age cultures and I frequently find myself thinking of cultures and settlements in a Stone Age context when trying to define them more sharply. But now I realize this is really not what I want. The original concept was of a time where elves and dwarves rule and are at war with dragons and giants. That would be much more like small Bronze Age kingdoms. While it’s tempting to go that route to distinguish the setting, I don’t want to do a Stone Age hunters game. No need to explore this direction any further. What I want is more Morrowind and Kalimdor.
  • Weird Horror: I’ve found myself coming back to pour over Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures and Patrick Stuart stuff many times and most of them are great. And there’s a good number of ideas in them that I think will be of great use to me, but I don’t want my campaigns to be like them. There’s a lot of great images and effects to be found, but the setting doesn’t really have a place for bleak dispair.
  • Classic Demons: I love demons in D&D. They are one of the greatest parts of the whole generic D&D mythology. I am also quite intrigues by the demons from Dragon Age. But my setting doesn’t really have a place for such embodiments of evil. What I a, going for is something much more like Daedra or Quori, with a lot more weird and less obsession with destruction. If I find myself thinking about evil destruction spirits, I should get myself to stop and instead work on something that’s more on the point.

Creativity isn’t something to just turn on and off as needed but more of a bubbling of ideas that for some reason feel right. But good design needs focus and direction. Knowing what you want is great, but knowing what you don’t want, even though it’s a great idea in general, also might help quite a bit.

The Old School Basic forum is still up and runnin but getting it off the ground has turned out to be slow start. There are two users now, but that’s of course notwhere near enough to make it a proper forum where people would go to to get a wide range of opinions on questions regarding the Basic editions of D&D. For this forum to really work, much more people are needed. At the very least to make it look like a place where actual discussions take place and one could hope to get any replies to a question. So even if you’re only remotely interested in a Basic foused forum or have no intention to post regularly, making an account and looking by on occasion would be a real help. Yes, it’s totally lame now but every additional user would be a real contribution in making it a properly active forum.

Time is an Illusion, and so are Pants

While I’ve been thinking about Morrowind, Planescape, Glorantha, and Tekumel (and why Dark Sun doesn’t seem to feel fully right as being in the same category) I came to the conclusion that beyond Asian and pre-medieval stylistic influences they all share a considerable amount of metaphysics and religion and have some esoteric aspects that are a big part of their appeal. (Dark Sun doesn’t, which is what sets it apart.) It’s something that I frequently pondered and has always been in the back of my head since I first wrote about the subject two years back. And while thinking about what elements with philosophical and metaphysical aspects I already have, I came up with a pretty decent list.

Most of these things started with me wanting to hav certain aesthetic and narrative elements that turned out to be conflicting with each other. Attempting to solve these conflicts by making various small changes and adaptations led to the discovery of numerous new ideas that are all not entirely original but make everything come together in a distinctive way that gives the world a unique character and opens interesting venues for exploration.

The Mythic Otherworld

This is an extension of Philotomy’s concept of the Mythic Underworld, which treats dungeons as places outside of the regular laws of nature and working by their own unfathomable supernatural rules. In the Mythic Otherworld this idea is extended to entire lands, or in case of the Ancient Lands the Spiritworld. The wilderness is a place of mostly mundane dangers that simply try to eat you. But the Spiritworld and its native creatures are not bound by the normal rules that make the civilized lands and wilderness make sense. Being inherently supernatural,the Spiritworld is a realm where things can seem illogical or outright impossible. There are castles and landscapes that defy gravity, fires that burn forever, underground labyrinths that never run out of breathable air, and creatures encountered in places they couldn’t have possibly reached. There are rules that govern the Spiritworld, but they are often quite different from those of the physical world and rarely make sense to mortal minds.

(This concept started as an attempt to make sense of the illogical layup and keying of many early dungeons, but actually turns out to be a really good paradigm for designing fantastic places with a mythical atmosphere and making spirits alien.)

Life Energy

Anything that exist is infused by energy. Energy allows living creatures to move and think, gives spirits their powers, and is also what makes fire burn and even seemingly unliving stones roll down cliffs and crush things underneath it. Energy is everywhere and while it appears in different looking forms it is ultimately all of the same essence. This life energy of nature has no boundaries and all things and everything that happens is part of the same whole. But within this universal energy is a vast multiplicity of wills, and each will has seemingly complete control over different bodies. But all the wills of each animal and plant within a landscape also make up the spirit of the land and this spirit can manifest a body of its own, even though it simultaneously exists in all the other beings within its realms.

To great spirits it comes naturally to share control over all the things in its domain with the individual wills of each being. People and animals are not normally aware of this touching and merging of wills. But it can be learned to extend the will beyond the own body into other things and other beings, which is then known as magic. Once control is released, things again follow their own natural behavior, which is why all mortal magic is impermanent.

(This originally started by thinking about the actual mechanics by which the Force makes things happen, but it ended as something that also very well explains spirits and divination.)

The Wyrd

Time is always flowing and things constantly changing, so it is impossible to accurately foresee the future before it happens, even with the most powerful magic of ancient spirits. But things never happen without a reason and all beings behave according to their nature, which makes many things that happen predictable. As the life energies of nature and magic flow through everything, great spirits and powerful magical beings have the ability to see what is hidden to the eyes and sense the paths that all creatures are following. This infinite network of paths is the Wyrd, and it is always in motion as creatures make choices and accident happen. But while paths are constantly changing, they rarely change by much and can be highly predictable to those who are experienced in watching them and knowledgeable in the hearts of men and beasts. Divination is the art of reading the everchanging wyrd and recognizing where paths are about to cross. Since all beings tend to follow their nature, great spirits and old shamans can tell which future encounters are fated to happen. They also can make predictions what choices people will make, but these become more unreliable the more unusual their circumstances are, and no power in the world can foresee the great differences that can be made by a loose stone or a serpent in the grass.

(Divination magic is always limited to predicting encounters and obstacles that are likely to happen, but can make no accurate statement of how they will play out. Telling the future without negating player agency and dice results lets me eat my cake and have it too.)

Drifting Time

Time is something that seems simple and straightforward in everyday life, with things changing and moving forward. But this is only because people are mortal and always only see short stretches of time and the physical world is followed by seemingly regular cycles of the seasons. But spirits have a much different perspective that allows them to see mountains rising and lands sink beneath the sea, yet at the same time nothing ever really changes and all the efforts of mortals are never getting them anywhere. On sufficient scales time is not a straight river that runs from the mountains to the sea but endlessly meandering without source or destination. Within the Spiritworld even the passing of seasons and years loses most of its meaning and both the weather as well as preservation and erosion are ultimately depending on the moods of the spirits of the land.

Whether days have passed or centuries makes very little difference in the Spiritworld. Ancient castles can be found in pristine states while solid castles may have crumbled to rubble after returning to them a month later. And while spirits may forgive, they rarely forget, and will honor both ancient agreements and avenge slights that happened generations past.

(The benefit here lies in having a good explanation of why there are so many ruins but little current civilization without having to rely on a Tolkienian decline of magic. It also justifies how magical creatures seem to be waiting fo centuries in inhospitable lairs for adventurers to find them. From their own perspective they and their lairs simply exist in a temporal limbo until outsiders interact with them.)

The Blight

The magic used by spirits, shamans, and witches utilizes the natural life energies within the environment and all the things in it and as such is limited to doing things that are naturally possible. But there is a space beyond the borders of reality which is filled with the energies of raw Chaos. Chaos energy has the potential to change the fabric of reality and through this allows sorcerers to do things that are impossible. This makes sorcery an extremely potent force that can be used for both great works and terrible destruction. But Chaos can never be fully controlled by mortals and every use of sorcery or the mere presence of demons weakens reality around them. This Blight warps and poisons the natural world and all living things touched by it. First it causes weakness and feelings of supernatural dread, but long exposure leads to deteriorating health and eventually turns living things into twisted monstrosities. Sorcerers learn to adapt to the changes of the Blight and consider it a price worth the unlimited potential sorcery offers. But most people see them as madmen who are laying the world into ruin in their thirsting for power. Druids and Demon Hunters stop at nothing to destroy sorcerers and demons wherever they can and while their methods are often extreme most people welcome their continual battle against further spreading of the Blight.

(This one started with my fascination of the idea that heroes fighting dark magic accept that this effort is exposing them to its power and eventually changing them. The Dark Side from Star Wars and the Darkspawn Blight and demonic possession from Dragon Age were both big influences on this.)

Red and Black Hearts

The peoples of the Ancient Lands do not think in the concepts of Good and Evil, or even such dualities as Order and Chaos. When judging people’s character, they distinguish between those whose actions bring peace and those whose actions bring suffering. Those who bring peace are usually higher regarded than those who bring suffering and are regarded as better or worse people accordingly. But there is no such thing as a concept of cosmic divine law which people can live in accordance with or violate. Not everyone who brings suffering needs to be despised or be made to stand justice, but they are all dangerous and often feared.

Most people who spread suffering are regarded as having a Red Heart. They are prone to anger, rage, hatred, and violence. While courage and strength are greatly admired by most peoples, those who have no control over their fury and lash out against others without thinking or restraint are seen as very dangerous people. While many redhearted people are regarded as thugs, this quality is also often found in those who have many other admirable traits. Their rages are often seen with sadness by those close to them, but if they prove to be to violent and unpredictable they need to be taken care of, one way or another.

People with a Black Heart are quite different in character and are much more unpredictable. They are not driven by rage, nor do they seek any satisfaction in the suffering of other. Rather, blackhearted people do not concern themselves with the suffering of others at all. They simply worry about their own goals and needs with no considerations about the wellbeing of others. They don’t go out of their way to spite or harm others but don’t hesitate when their plans will made others to suffer. For those who are more foresighted consider the social consequences of harmful actions on their longterm goals, but when they think they can get away with it there’s little that keeps them from sacrificing anyone.

Some people are seen as having both a red and a black heart and most of them are quickly regarded as monsters in humanoid form or being possessed by demons. Many of them are madmen who soon find an end at the hands of vengeful pursuers, but some end up among the most feared warlords and bandit leaders.

(Calling something evil is an ancient shortcut in western culture to not having reflect on an opponents motivation and reasons and get an instant moral justification to destroy them without further questions asked. Anytime I come across fiction that avoids this lazy simplification (usually Japanese but often also European) I really enjoy it a lot, and it makes interactions with supernatural and inhuman beings much more fascinating. So eventually I found this solution to have people “who just need killing” without giving the players an instant excuse to enjoy it. This is also why there are no orcs, goblins, or gnolls in this setting.)

Honor

While honor is an endlessly complex field, it’s role in the Ancient Lands primarily manifests itself in the two concepts of hospitality and vengeance.

Hospitality is the idea common in most cultures that everyone is obligated to offer food and shelter to travelers within the means of the host and according to the station of the guest. In a world with few travelers there are no places where one could rent a room outside the handful of major trade cities and there are no other places to stay the night or winter indoors than in the homes of locals. While the forests and mountain valleys are not as deadly as the open sea, it has become accepted that offering hospitality to travelers is an adequate price for seeing the same kindness extended to oneself or your relatives when similarly in need of shelter. There are limits to hospitality though and the guest is expected to offer a gift of gratitude in exchange, which again is according to the means of the guest and the station of the host. Overstaying ones welcome or not presenting sufficient gifts, let alone abusing the kindness of the host, is as much a violation of hospitality as not offering travelers a place for the night and just as much damaging to ones honor and reputation.

In a world where visitors from outside are rare, hosting guests is often much more of an honor than a burden to the host. Hosting esteemed guests is a great boost to ones reputation and in most places it is understood that only the mosy powerful families will get this honor. While refusing hospitality when requested is highly dishonorable, offering it freely to travelers can make the lesser families of a village very powerful enemies. Since the most powerful families are usually also the richest who ca best afford hosting guests in considerable comfort for extended time, this is an arrangement that mostly suits everyone involved just fine. Traveling adventurers coming to a new village will usually stay at the hall of the chief or another of the great families.

When conflicts happen, Vengeance is the most common institution to maintain stability. While there often is a desire to see an offender punished, avenging an offense is primarily a means to ensure that nothing of that kind will happen to the offended family or clan again. By getting revenge, a familiy is showing its strength and the severe consequences to anyone who might want to try attacking them. The point is not to get even but to make everyone afraid to cross the familiy again and because of this it is often impossible to let an attack go unpunished, even if the family has no desire for blood. To let an offense pass shows that the family is weak and an easy target for further attacks. Most of the time vengeance can be satisfied by payments of reparations. Paying reparations is safer for both sides and allows the conflict to become forgotten much faster than if someone got killed or maimed. If the reparation is sufficiently high, it means a significant loss for the offending family and it has been established that the attack has cost them. If the offer of reparation is considered insufficient or the crime too grave, the offended family will be after blood. In any such feud both sides come out much worse than they were before and it’s not uncommon that the offended family ends up losing more people and wealth than they inflict in damage on their enemies. Killing is not always necessary and in some cases causing injury will be regarded as acceptable if both sides aren’t eager for a long and deadly feud. But deaths can always happen and sometimes an injured member dying from wounds weeks later can reignite a stalled or solved feud. Feuds can continue for week or months until both sides are too exhausted from the constant state of warfare to continue. If the offended family believes it has shown that anyone attacking them will pay dearly for it, a truce will usually be negotiated though neutral mediators.

Vengeance is almost never between individuals but between families or clans. In tribal societies nobody is ever acting alone and any offense that is being commited is usually done in the presence or at least with the knowledge of a relative. These relatives also share responsibility for the offense, but part of the blame also lies with the elder siblings and older relatives who are responsible for properly raising the children of the family. The responsibility for every offense lies with the whole family. Most people own little personal items and most wealth in the form of land and animals is shared by the whole family,so any reparations automatically affect the family as a whole. The same goes when crops and buildings are destroyed or animals stolen or killed. When an offense is avenged with blood, there are also other practical considerations to attack relatives of the original offender. It is often easy for a family to protect a single member inside their home indefinitely, making it impossible to get at him. In theory all members of a family are valid targets, but many families hesitate to attack children or old women unless the other sides starts doing it first. But when arrows and torches are flying accidents happen and this escalation is not uncommon. Also, even if an offender manages to survive a feud unharmed until a truce is agreed his family will have suffered greatly and they know exactly who was responsible for bringing this suffering upon them. Even if they feel obliged to protect the offender, they will often see that he sees punishment for his offense themselves.

(I’ve long been intrigued at how vengeance and hospitality really worked in practice as their portrayal in fiction always seemed just as dodgy as that of warfare (which is mostly sensationalist nonsense). I’ve spend years researching social organization and public order in pre-civilization societies as a cultural studies student and it’s a very fascinating alternative to the typical medieval fantasy approach. While it’s a highly complex subject I think breaking it down to these two key concepts lets the players gets the most out of it while being pretty easy to grasp.)

I think nothing here is really new and ha been seen in one way or another several times before. But I doubt that all these elements and ideas have been used in this particular configuration and I am feeling very happy with the setting getting my own unique stamp because of it.

Baroque Fantasy?

My view of creativity is very much in agreement with the thought that great ideas come from filling a mind with lots of fascinating concepts and evocative images and letting them ferment until one day something new comes growing out of the compost heap. A considerable amount of my creative “work” consists of looking for more ideas to add to my heap by reading lots of stuff remotely related to what I am working on (professionals call it “researching”) and pondering of what use they could be to me. It’s totally not slacking!

Morrowind

One thought that has occupied my recently is that many of the fantasy worlds I find highly inspiring for the Ancient Lands seem to share some common features or at least aesthetic. The two biggest influences are Morrowind and Planescape, and I know that the former was directly inspired by Glorantha. And I was actually surprised that Glorantha came into existance completely independently from Tekumel. I had assumed that there’s a direct link between the two, but both appeared in the world of fantasy games in 1974/1975, the very dawning days of RPGs. I’ve been wondering if there’s a name for the style shared by these worlds but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

Planescape

Looking further into it I also remembered additional settings that seem to share at least some similarity. There’s the Young Kingdoms from Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, Dark Sun, and what I’ve seen also the RPGs Talislanta and Exalted. But it might all have started with Clark Ashton Smith’s proto-Sword & Sorcery tales set in Hyperborea and Zothique (though I admit only having read the former).

Glorantha

One term I’ve often seen to describe both Smith’s stories and Barker’s Tekumel is baroque. Which is described as an “artistic style which used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, theater, and music” or “characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance”. Yeah, that seems to about fit.

Tekumel

What all these settings have in common is that they are clearly not an imagined ancient history of Earth, but set in worlds that are only distantly “earthlike” in having mountains, forests, and seas and populated by cultures and creatures that have no obvious earthly counterparts. (Glorantha and the non-Morrowind parts of The Elder Scrolls aren’t sticking too close to that.) It’s something you can also find in Star Wars that adds spaceships and lasers to the mix but otherwise plays it perfectly straight. This is what sets them apart from the Tolkienian mainstream but also Howard’s Hyborian Age, which tend to be close to alternate histories with magic set on Earths with the coasts and rivers redrawn.

Dark Sun

So: Baroque Fantasy?

It’s not a term that has really been used so far, but I think it is definitly a thing that exist and has regularly shown its face through the last 40 years, often to very high praise. (I’ve found it used once, for exactly the same idea.) When you say baroque it comes with the connotation of “elaborate” and “complex”, and often also “confusing”. But I don’t think that it’s really necessary to have worlds with giant piles of information to evoke this aesthetic. Glorantha and The Elder Scrolls are massive beasts of settings, I’ve heard Tekumel is not very accessible either, and fully grasping Planescape means a lot of reading. (Though if you can get your hands on the box sets, the later is not too difficult to understand.) Hyperborea, Elric, and Dark Sun are all kind of borderline or fringe examples, but they all make do with very little exposition. And as a player, both Morrowind and Planescape can be a total blast even when you explore them without having any clue what you’re getting into.

Elric

The key elements of the baroque that makes this term applicable to this style of fantasy are extravagant, flamboyant, and grotesque. And I think that few people would content these qualities in the worlds I named. There is a certain downside in that baroque also is the name for a time period in European history with a distinctive architecture, music, and fashion, which don’t have anything to do with these works of 20th century fantasy. But it’s certainly a term that would be quite fitting.

I’ve been quoted

I was browsing around looking for more monster ideas to improve the pulp lost world look of my setting when I came across this: Campaign Settings – Prehistoric/Lost Worlds

I quite liked reading it and unusually for me also looked at the sources at the end of the article where I saw ‘Paizo: “Ancient Lands”: Basics for a “tribal/prehistoric” campaign setting.’

That’s me!

This is so cool. I occasionally get messages from people telling me they like my ideas (so much they make the effort of sending a message), but this is clearly the most amazing validation that there are people interested in my ideas and that there is an audience for what I fancifully dream to publish one day. It’s been a long time in the working already and things like this are always very reassuring that it’s totally worth to keep going ahead.

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 two 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.

20 Questions for the Forest of High Adventure

Jeff Rient’s 20 Questions for campaign settings are somewhat famous and I think most people have probably heard of them at some point. While I was working on a full continent sized setting I didn’t find them particularly helpful, but for building a sandbox and introducing it to the players they are a really useful tool. I went over them again with my Forest of High Adventure sandbox and it’s a good way to flesh out some elements that you didn’t think of before but that might be of interest to the players.

  1. What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?
    All priests (mechanically identical to witches) are shamans. Shamans who are in charge of or are serving at a particular shrine or holy place see themselves as servants of the local guardian spirit that is watching over the surrounding lands. Clan shamans and travelling shamans see themselves as intermediaries between spirits and mortals, serving as messengers and interpreters to reveal the will of the spirits to the people within their domain and delivering requests and performing sacrifices to the local gods.
  2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
    If one is of need of weapons, armor, and supplies, it’s usually the best idea to petition the local chief or one of the other great families for assistance. Many of them are inclined to share their resources with those brave enough to dare the ruins in the wilds, but this help always comes with a price. Some are willing to trade for silver and gold, but more often they expect a share of what the brave heroes might find, or even worse, a return favor in the future.
  3. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
    To get unusually sized lamellar armor or other unique gear made, the craftsmen in the harbor of Tula are a good first station to try. If one finds no luck there, there is also the skeyn mine in the rocky hills far to the north, whose smiths are the best in the land by far.
  4. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?
    The elder druid of the Tall Trees is regarded by many as the most powerful master of magic in the lands along the two rivers. The shaman of the Blue Bear tribe is also a highly feared witch of terrible power, but if tales are to be believed neither of them would stand much hope to oposse the sorceress of the Demon Castle.
  5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
    Of all the warriors in the lands along the two rivers, none are as feared in battle as the chief of the Blue Bear clan. However, aside from his own warriors, very few people would consider him a great man in any other respect.
  6. Who is the richest person in the land?
    The Master of Tula claims a fee from any ships that come to trade in his harbor and that alone would make him a very wealthy man. But his family are also the biggest merchants in the land and control much of the local trade.
  7. Where can we go to get some magical healing?
    Each larger village has a shrine dedicated to the local gods of the land and the shamans who are their keepers often gain powers of healing in return for their services to the spirits. However, they might not always be inclined to share these with outsiders.
  8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, death, undeath?
    The corruption of sorcery and demons is very hard to remove but should it become necessary, the Druids of the Tall Trees would be the best hope to find help. There are also magical springs said to have healing powers hidden deep within the forests but these tend to be much harder to find. Dealing with undeath is easy. Any blade will do.
  9. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
    The Druids of the Tall Trees, but they are not a trusting lot and don’t often take outsiders into their ranks.
  10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
    The main port at Tula is by far the largest settlement within several hundred miles and home to a number of sages and alchemists. The high druid of the Tall Trees knows more about sorcery and how to fight it than anyone else but he is always weary about sharing this knowledge with those who might misuse it. Finally there is a great worm Elrem in the Caverns of the Great Worm, an ancient demigod of great power who has been alive far longer than anyone else in the land and knows much about its forgotten past.
  11. Where can I hire mercenaries?
    The harbor taverns of Tula are always a good place to find armed men looking for silver. Warriors of the Blue Bear clan are also always eager to get into a fight but while they are always fighting bravely they tend to not be very reliable when it comes to following orders.
  12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?
    Nobody is looking favorably on sorcery or the worship of demons, but the Druids of the Tall Trees have sworn oaths to destroy these blights to the face of the Earth wherever they encounter them.
  13. Which way to the nearest tavern?
    There are a few taverns in the two ports on the southern coasts, but in the villages of the forest drink and gossip are to be found in the great halls of the ruling chiefs.
  14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?
    There is at least one dragon lairing in the Endless Caverns in the mountains to the west. Rumor has it that it died some years ago but so far nobody has made any claims of having found its treasures.
  15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?
    The warriors of the Blue Bear clan are always looking for trouble and constantly skirmishing with their kin of the Tree Ghost clan, who went separate ways two generations ago. Savage Kaska from the Witchfens are making regular small scouting raids into the forests to the south and have become increasingly bold in getting closer to the villages of the northwest.
  16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?
    There are no treasures to be gained, but duels between great warriors are always a great source of fame and respect for the victors.
  17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?
    They are secret. Keep looking.
  18. What is there to eat around here?
    Aside from a wide range of berries and tough greens, food consists primarily of potatoes and wheat. Goat and rabbit are the main meat in the larger settlements but there are also large numbers of deer to hunt in the forests.
  19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?
    A group of explorers have claimed to have found an enchanted sword and armor from the Nameless Dungeon the previous year. They went back to get more a few months ago but have not been seen since. Somewhere in the eastern forests is the fabled Grandfather Tree that both the Blue Bear and the Tree Ghost clans are looking for. It is said that the shamans of the ancestors who lived beneath its branches kept many magical relics in hidden chambers of their shrine.
  20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?
    There is at least one dragon in the Endless Caverns who according to rumors died a few years ago but nobody seems to have found any trace of its treasures. There is also the sorceress of the Demon Keep who is believed to have amassed unimaginable riches and heaps of magical relics and artifacts.

Forest of High Adventure: Putting the parts together

It’s been a while since I presented my first idea for my planned Forest of High Adventure sandbox campaign, during which the barrel of ideas had a good amount of time to ferment. Recently I’ve got several replies of “That sounds great, I’d really like to play in a game like this” and guess what: It’s going to be a West Marches style open online campaign in which everyone can play on and off. If you really want to, you can play in this campaign. (The schedule is planned to be every sunday 6 pm CET/12 pm EST for about 4 hours, hopefully starting before next summer.) This puts me in a position where I don’t want to reveal too much of the actual specifics that players will encounter in the game.

But I already talked about the main sources I am using to build the sandbox and I think most potential players won’t have the first clue about what is happening in Against the Cult of the Reptile God and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun and wouldn’t be able to tell that they are currently in it until pretty far in. So I am going to keep things somewhat general and won’t go deeply into the specifcs about what the parties will discover in their explorations.

All in all my current plans have not changed a lot since my first concept draft. The four “main attractions” and small megadungeons (kilodungeons?) are still the Endless Caverns, the Nameless Dungeon, the search for Grandfather Tree, and a castle inspired by Hellgate Keep and the Palace of the Vampire Queen.

I will also be including my own interpretations of the Fountains of Memory from the Lost Peaks, the Lonely Tower, Gauntlgrym, Tall Trees, and the Cavern of the Great Worm. The last one wasn’t on my first map draw, but I think an ancient giant reptile that is shaman to a barbarian tribe is just a wonderful NPC who can be a major source of information, but would have a perspective on things that might make him reluctant to simply tell everything that reckless treasure hunters are asking him.

The Dire Woods and Ruins of Decanter won’t make it in becauseI’m not getting any interesting ideas from their descriptions and I still don’t know if I’ll include the Citadel of the Mists. As written the Mistmaster is just this super powerful good wizard who leads the fight against the demons in the forest from his magic castle. Not really what you want in a player driven dungeon crawl game.

Other adventures besides Reptile God and Tharizdun I’ve incorporated in my plans are Escape from Meenlock Prison, Raiders of the Black Ice, Come to Daddy, and the infamous Death Frost Doom. Contrary to common belief it does not have to lead to a total party kill and the destruction of the campaign setting. I think higher level PCs can actually survive the horror they might unleash and fixing up the aftermath, even if it’s with new characters, should be quite fun.

I also got several ideas for refinement of my original plans. Instead of having a large lake between to mountain ranges as the southern border of the sandbox I am going to set it directly at the coast. That will put the Witchfens in the northwest closer to the sea than I originally had in mind when making the Ancient Lands map but given the size of the sandbox that’s still plenty of distance and over the years I’ve been increasingly moving away from the idea of an accurate world map. A loose collection of local maps is entirely sufficient for a barely inhabited Points of Light wilderness. I’ve actually come to see large scale maps as a hindrance to making a world feel like magicalwilderness.

Also, am going to turn the paper of the map to the side to have it be more wide than high. The effect of this is that the large town in the center of the southern edge is now much closer to routes between the western and the eastern parts of the map. I originally had planned to keep the players deep in the wilderness and specifically put the town away from all the interesting locations but then I started getting all kinds of cool ideas for dungeons on the lakeshore or on islands. With the map paper sideways I can have the lake, that now turned into a coast, much closer to the rest of the action without having to completely redo the landscape from scratch.

Another thing I realized that having half-demon elves and fey’ri is redundant in a world that has sidhe. Thinking back, my original concept for these fey in my setting was based directly on the fey’ri in third edition Forgotten Realms. Just make them corrupted by sorcery and done. I can keep demonic influence limited to special occasions and at the same time have setting specific fey as a major part of the campaign. Double win.

I am very happy with how everything is taking shape. I’ve long been very sceptical about megadungeons and hexcrawls, and the Forest of High Adventure really isn’t either. But this is a dungeon crawling sandbox that I am really exited for to run and I feel that this is by far the campaign I am best prepared for yet. I still don’t have any dungeon maps, NPCs, encounters, or puzzles down on paper, but I think once you start to understand sandboxes they really are a way of running games that is pretty easy on the GM but promises a great return for players. The biggest challenge seems to regularly be getting players goingwith exploring and keeping the campaign going, but in that regard my researches have also provided a lot of good ideas that I am currently turning in my head.

A hazy idea for a new OSR magic system

Work hours have been a bit chaotic this month, with frequent evening hours and weekend workdays, so I have not really spend much of the long hours of tinkering with ideas that usually lead to me writing things. But all the overtime hours will get me a lot of shorter workdays after Christmas and there’s not really much to do in a gardening store in January anyway. There’s a lot of ideas floating in my mind that I want to pursue further on lazy afternoons and loudly proclaim my conclusions.

Right now I am occupying my free periods during the day with thinking about adapting my new idea for a magic system to an OSR rules system. Which actually turned out a bit more tricky than I thought.

The main concept is that all characters have an amount of spellpower that is calculated by adding the modifier from Wisdom to the number of levels in the mage class. A 4th level mage with a Wisdom of 16 would have a spellpower of 6 (4+2). Any time a spell is cast or a ritual performed, there is a chance for a missfire based on the character’s current spellpower score. At the end of the casting the spellpower score is reduced by a certain number. Dabblers in magic have a high chance of misfires when performing rituals (which does not require any specific character class) but so do even experienced mages who have already cast several spells that day. I like the concept but don’t have any good idea for how to calculate the chance of failure and how to make a die roll to check for a missfire.

I also think about having three categories of magic. Spells, which take one round to cas; incantations, which take 1 minute to cast; and rituals, which take 1 hour to cast. Only characters of the mage class can learn spells and incantations of limited numbers, but rituals are open to anyone who gets his hands on the instructions. However, I found that I have really very few ideas for traditional spells that would fit with my image of how magic performs in action.

One interesting oddity I noticed a few days ago is that all the effects I wanted my old magic system to do no longer fit with the new system. And a good number of things I deliberately chose to exclude seem highly appropriate for the new system. (Except teleportation, which is still out.) My old approach was highly inspired by Star Wars and Avatar, which spells being extensions of the body and mind. Now I feel much stronger drawn to witchcraft and sorcery that focus on dealing with external supernatural beings. Having just read Hellboy again (a review is one of the things I want to write) probably had a huge impact on that change of mind.

Background Lore is Secondary Stories

A good number of fantasy works, and in some cases science-fiction, have accumulated a huge corpus of background information that is not directly part of the plot or even relevant to it but still a source of endless fascination to dedicated fans. This isn’t new and has been a big thing in RPGs since the 90s. But it has gained an increased prominence in longer running videogame series and some of them, like The Elder Scrolls as perhaps the most famous example, deliberately focus a considerable amount of the development work on this aspect. And huge numbers of fans love it and enjoy going hunting for clues and trying to figure out the connections between seemingly unrelated bits and pieces of information.

I’ve long been wondering how this stuff really works and how one could deliberatey build it into the worldbuilding for books and RPGs as well. And I believe what’s really going on with all this lore information is that the creators are telling secondary stories within the gaps of the main stories. It’s not uncommon for writers to overdo it with the worldbuilding and tell the audience about things that are ultimately irrelevant and don’t connect to anything else in meaningful ways. But bodies of lore are different. The small pieces of information that are scattered around to be discovered do not stand by themselves for their own sake. They are puzzle pieces for the audience to collect and assemble into more or less complete stories. Often very small stories with very simplistic plots, but it’s the act of finding the pieces and interpreting them that makes these background stories interesting and compelling for the audience.

An extreme case are the Dark Souls games, in which the lore of past events is all the story the players get. The actions of the player character are really insignificant to the story and the hero has absolutely no agency to influence anything. In Dark Souls games the whole story has already happened. What the player does is playing with fun combat mechanics and discovering the backstory, which really is the main plot. The actions of the player character are only a minor footnote or an epilog to the story.

When writing books or creating s world for an RPG with the desire to give the audience lots of background lore to discover (as the A Song of Ice and Fire books do very well), I think it is probably best to focus on content that constitutes stories. People are unlikely to care much about manufacturing, agriculture, or the legal system of a fantastic world. People respond primarily to stories snd stories are also the most suitable content for letting people fill in the blanks with their imagination or deduct the missing pieces from details that are already known.

If you want to create a world with interesting background lore that draws the audience in, focus on stories that happened in the past.