Monthly Archives: June 2015

Reworking the Ancient Lands: The Red River

One of the major changes I made when I shuffled around some parts of the Ancient Lands earlier this month, was the completely removal of the grass covered plains of Senkand on both sides of the Red River, which formed the border between the more classic fantasy style North and the Southeast Asian inspired South.. One reason was that it broke up the single continous, world-spanning forest I had in mind for the setting, but I also learned that you usually don’t have any large dry regions on the eastern coasts of continents. (Arabia and Texas being exceptions because both Persia and the Southern United States are somehow interfering with oceanic winds going from the equator to the pole, as they would have to go over land instead of following the coast.) I wasn’t really sure what to do with this region instead, and in a way that supports the style and the themes of the setting. But I think I got it now.

coloradoThe Grand Canyon seems like a perfect match for the kind of environment I need. It’s huge. It’s impressive. It’s exotic looking. And it also is majestic while still being quite desolate and quiet. At least it looks like that in pictures. Not quite sure if would be actually possible to have vast forest growing right up to the canyons edges, but I don’t think there are a lot of people who would know that either. And it looks cool. So what? It also makes for a nice homeland for the Ruyaki dark elves, for which I still didn’t have a lot of ideas other than somehow basing them on the Redoran from Morrowind.

morrowind_fan_art_-_5Another change I decided to make is to drop the idea of an overland route from the Falden lands on the Inner Sea to the Eylahen lands in the North. Since it would cut directly through the giant, mystical, and unexplored forest of the northern lands, it wouldn’t really seem that giant, mystical, and unexplored anymore. Not a big loss, since I didn’t rally have any ideas what to do with this huge major highway stright through pretty much blank space on the map.

This means that all contact between the Falden and the Eylahen would now have to happen by taking ships all the way around the ocean coast. It also means that the Kaas tribes would only have any contact with the rest of the Ancient Lands through the Eylahen territories, which is an interesting new development for me. One could reasonably say that I am way overthinking things here and putting way too much detail into things nobody will ever notice, but I really like it when I have such high degrees of consistency. And it also happens to help me come up with ideas. Working with complete freedom is quite hard. Once you have several geographic and cultural limitations in place, good ideas actually come a lot easier, as you can build on something that is already there. Where there used to be a white void on the map, staring up and you and waiting for you to do something, the map now is starting to ask specific questions that it wants you to answer. And that’s usually when I come up with my best ideas.

Simple Treasure table for B/X

While I am generally a fan of having characters gain experience based not only on the amount of enemies they defeat in battle but also on how many treasures they retrieved during the adventure, dealing with individual gold pieces always seemed too fiddly to me.

My preffered way to handle treasure both in regard to wealth and encumbrance is to use a simple unit of “1 treasure”. As long as characters still have 1 treasure, they can buy any items and services of trivial costs, such as food, drink, a room in an inn, most weapons, and so on. Anything that is too expensive for most common people to affort cost 1 treasure, such as a horse, chainmal armor, or a boat. As a rule of thumb, every treasure is worth about 100 gold pieces and can consists either of a bag of coins, a large golden cup, a crown, or whatever else the GM wants to describe it like. It also counts as 1 item for calculating encumbrance. (A character carrying items numbering up to their Strength score are unencumbred and can carry twice as much being lightly encumbred and three times as much being heavily encumbred.)

The treasure tables in the Basic and Expert sets of Dungeons & Dragons give various chances and amounts for different types of coins and gems, so using this alternative treasure system while retaining the same rate of experience gain requires some conversion work.

Which I did. Here’s the result.

snapshot123Type J and type P to S are not on this table as their average results are way below 100 gp.

Zeb Cook on Sandbox campaigns

While doing a full readthrough of the 1980 Expert Set, I came upon this little paragraph in the Introduction chapter. (Which probably a huge number of people never read.)

Most important, the characters in the wilderness campaign do not exist in a vacuum. The DM should have events going on elsewhere that may affect (or be affected by) the actions of the players. There may be any number of “plots” going on at once, and the DM should try to involve each player in some chain of events. These should develop logically from the actions of those involved. It is important not to force the action to a pre-determined conclusion. The plot lines can always be adjusted for the actions of the players.

Emphasis not mine.

This isn’t any world shattering wisdom here, but you could easily call it the most condensed explanation of the current consensus regarding sandbox campaigns, especially among OSR grognards. Even with all the dozens of articles written on the topic and probably thousands of forum posts, it doesn’t really seem like we’ve discovered anything truly new about the understanding of how these types of games work. It’s all aready there, 35 years ago. This quote even predates the release of X1: The Isle of Dread by a few months, so he was talking about something most people actually hadn’t heard of before.

Strange that I’ve never seen this quote in any discussions about sandbox campaigns before.

Ancient Lands: Factions

As much attention is usually given to races, cities, and countries when it comes to fantasy settings, I think the most important thing that has a much bigger impact on the overall feel and dynamics of the world are the power groups and other factions that inhabit it. You rarely have dealings with a race or a country, and these don’t really have any shared goals as a whole. In a work about the politics and wars of kings and other rulers, you kind of have things happen between countries, but in practice it’s almost all happening between members of different courts, which really are just one of many types of factions. There are many classic types of generic organizations in fantasy, such as thieves guilds, wizard colleges, great churches, lorekeepers/spies, or medieval megacorporations (Forgotten Realms has a lot of those.) For the Ancient Lands, many of these standard factions don’t really work, as it’s a bronze age setting primarily inhabited by tribal people living in remote villages in the wilds. Can’t really have a thieves guild in a 200 people village or a continent spanning state church when everyone is worshiping the spirits of the land they live on. Coming up with ideas for factions that do work in such a setting was a bit challenging at first and I had been creating a number of groups that I’ve since discarded again. But taking a count of the groups I already have, I realized that this is already quite extensive and easily enough for a setting of this scale.

Druids

Probably as close as you can get to a real good guys faction. The Druids are a lose and informal association of hundreds of shamans north of the Inner Sea. Most of them belong to the elven Falden, but the influence of the group reaches to all the neighboring tribes, which includes the Eylahen, the northern and southern Skeyn, the human Vandren, and even some Brana kaas and Takari dark elves. The goal of the Druids is to fight the spread of sorcery. Sorcery is a very potent form of magic that can defy the normal rules of nature, but its use sickens the lands and all creatures that inhabit it. To the druids that price is much too high for all the great wonders sorcerers can create, and they are doing everything in their power to prevent the sorcerous arts from spreading and if possible end the practice of all sorcery in the Ancient Lands forever. While in some regions almost all shamans are affiliated with the Druids, their actual numbers are relatively low. But all of them can call upon all the warriors of their clans if they feel the need is great enough to risk the protection of their villages, which makes them potentially one of the greatest powers in the Ancient Lands. But usually most druids simply exchange information with each other and only deal with sorcery that directly threatens their homes. However, when the threat seems great, they often call together druids from neighboring clans to face the danger together, before it grows too big to be able to destroy them one by one.

Sorcerers

Sorcerers are even fewer in numbers than the Druids and have even much less organization or shared goals. Most of the time it’s just a single sorcerer and his apprentices working entirely alone, with perhaps some friendly but distant contact with other sorcerers to compare their work. As most people fear them and the Druids have a strong presence in many regions, sorcerers are usually very secretive, living in isolation from the rest of society or practicing their art in secret. Few people are able to tell the difference between a sorcerer and a reclusive, but ordinary witch, as long as they keep the destructive effects from becoming too apparent. Sorcerers are not inherently evil, but all of them are highly ambitious and at least to some degree reckless, and very well aware that many people would prefer to see them dead if they could get an opportunity. Fear of their sorcerous powers is what keeps most common people from turning against them, and most sorcerers cultivate a reputation of being very dangerous opponents.

While sorcerers usually live in secret or are feared enough to become untouchable, the elven Neshanen of Senkand are one of the very few tribes where sorcerers have some form of acceptance and often wield considerable respect and power. Almost all sorcerers come from noble families and are frequently involved in local politics and and members of courts. Unsurprisingly, the Neshanen have a somewhat doubious reputation among the other tribes, but are also among the most educated and sophisticated people who produce many of the finest goods in the Ancient Lands. And since some of that knowledge comes from the work of sorcerers, the common Neshanen are much more willing to accept their presence in their towns and cities. Continue reading

Why so little love for Group Initiative?

Among the many great things of Basic D&D, one that stands out the most for me is the initiative system. I find it so much better than the commonly used by other editions and even most B/X clones.

A wonderful thing about group initiative is that it completely removes the whole work of remembering the initiative order. I absolutely hate it to scribble down a list of all the PCs and enemies in the correct order at the beginning of each fight. That’s always a minute or so of interruption doing something tedious, right at the most exciting moment of the game. The alternative is to write down the names in advance and make a row of numbers with the initiative counts, but then you easily skip someone by accident all the time. (At least I do.) With group initiative that doesn’t matter. You roll two d6 at the beginning of each round and then everyone goes in whatever order they want.

But I think something even much more important is happening on the player side. Everyone is paying attention all the time and taking turns much faster. Nobody is sitting around three numbers until their number comes up.
The players who decide the fastest what they want to do go first, and those who take longer do their thinking while everyone else is taking their turn. And everyone needs to pay attention during the whole enemy turn, because the next turn is always their turn.

I’ve been using this system for a while, and it’s just so much more fun to run the game, and I believe for the players as well. Why doesn’t everyone use it and most games go with individual initiative counts instead? Even such otherwise great games as Basic Fantasy and Lamentations of the Flame Princess and wonderful ones like Spears of the Dawn and Barbarians of Lemuria (not a B/X clone, but still) go with the cumbersome initiative count system. Which to me really has always been one of the most annoying thing about running games.

Ancient Lands: The Sakaya

The Sakaya are a group of people from many different tribes who live countless small villages in the Vestanen Mountains, regarding all of each others as equals, regardless of their birth. They are lead by mystics who preserve and spread the teachings of their founders, which emphazise equality, humility, self-sufficiency, and excelling at ones talents. They have no nobles and no slaves and also do not worship any gods or spirits, but they make regular sacrifices to the local spirits as tribute for beeing allowed to live and work on their land.

zvezda-6408-1-72-japanese-warrior-monks-archersThough the Sakaya regard each other as equals and all their villages and monasteries are forbidden from fighting among themselves, each community has its own warriors to defend against raiders and stealing of their land by other clans. Some communities consists entirely of warriors known as Sakaya-kera, who were founded to come to the aid of villages under attack by superior foes. The Sakaya-kera often take work as mercenaries for other clans, as fighting is their profession and it is not appropriate for them to seek other work when their talents are not needed by the Sakaya. Sixty years ago a commander brought many of these groups together to fight not for some foreign lord, but for their own glory and to capture wealth for the Sakaya. Since then the Sakaya-kera have become one of the strongest and most feared armies in the Ancient Lands. Usually they are spread out as individual companies doing mercenary work, but will often come together as groups of many hundreds or thousands for a raid against a wealthy city before dispersing again. If the High Commander sends out a call, he can gather an army that rivals the troops of the Mayaka king.

Warrior_monks_02The Sakaya are intended as one of the major power groups in the Ancient Lands. The original order plays only a relatively minor role, being mostly confined to small villages and monasteries in the Vestanen Mountains, where they live relatively isolated from the rest of the world. The Sakaya-kera on the other hand are one of the big military powerhouses. They have a headquarter and a commander, but just like the villages and monasteries, each company is highly autonomous and follows the teachings of the founders as they see fit. Since they often recruit new members wherever they find promising candidates and usually have no mystics among their numbers, many Sakaya-kera only know the principles of doing what you do best and not submitting to the rule of any nobles or priests. The other villages and monasteries, including their own warriors, don’t approve of the Sakaya-keras plundering of rich towns and cities, and few of the loot ever actually makes it back to them. But as there is no single ruler who could rein in the High Commander, they are not able to do anything about it. Since most people outside the Vestanen Mountains only have encounters with Sakaya-kera, the Sakaya as a whole have a rather low reputation throughout the Ancient Lands and often don’t use their traditional armor and symbols when visiting other lands.

Anathema

Naming things in a fictional world is a terrible and most unenjoyable task. It’s bad enough when you do personal names and place names, but when it comes to more abstract things like organizations or types of creatures, finding a name that is reasonably acceptible (it’s never good) can take a very long time. I think I wanted to have a kind of creature similar to the abominations from Dragon Age from a very early point in working on the Ancient Lands, over 4 years ago. In the meanwhile, I added more ideas from other creatures, like folding the roles of both lichs and vampires into this new creation, and taking some elements from the Inspired from Eberron and the Eternal from Spears of the Dawn. But when it came to naming these things, nothing ever came close to fitting. But now I sat down and clicked my way through a thesaurus (they are actually good for something) and came on this wonderful word:

Anathema

A word that probably most people interested in fantasy have come across once or twice. Probably always refering to something blasphemous and unholy, and just the sound of it sounds ominous, even if you don’t know what it means. I had to look it up myself and it turns out to be ancient Greek meaning “offering”. (In this case, the a- at the beginning is not a prefix meaning anti.) However, in early Christianity it was used in the sense of “offered to the devil” or “devoted to evil” and referred to an early form of excommunication. Even though I made some efforts to weed out technical and religious terms that don’t really make sense in the world of the Ancient Lands, which is very different from a standard western-christian universe, anathema seems to be a word that still works.

So what is an anathema exactly? You might recognize some of these guys. That’s what you have to expect.

anathema1anathema2anathema3anathema4anathema5anathema6anathema7Anathema are mortals who have become possessed by a demon from the Underworld, their own spirit consumed in the process and all their memories, knowledge, and much of their personalty absorbed into the demons mind. While the mortals mind still exist in some way, all the ideals, values, and desires it once had become irrelevant as the demons original personalty dominates the mind of the anathema. It usually has very little interest in the good of the mortals clan or family, but may often retain some affection to people who were close to it in its previous life. Most anathema are greed, desire, or sloth demons and almost immediately set out to some ambitious plan to sate their craving. Usually  with very little reagrd to those around it, but often enough cunning to keep their new nature a secret. At least for the time being. Demons can possess any mortal whose body and spirit have been corrupted by demonic magic and all anathema are very dangerous creatures. But the most terrible ones are those created from sorcerers who willingly summoned a demon to join with it and gain immortality and great magical powers. Many anathema note that their new nature is very different from what the sorcerer expected it to be, but at that point whatever the mortal once wanted is longer of any real relevance. The demons desire to visit and explore the physical world overrides any plans the sorcerer might have had and they never feel any remorse or despair about their new nature.

So even though there are no Gods and no church in the Ancient Lands and not even true afterlives, anathema are still creatures that have turned away from mortal life and society and now exist entirely to pursue their demonic craving. They are “devoted to evil” and in the case of sorcerers “offered themselves to demons”. And they also “excommunicated” themselves from all mortal communites and their spirit will not join the clan shrine to give strength and courage to future generations. So the name fits in both its literal and proverbial meaning and it also sounds cool and ominous. What more can you want for a big bad monster?

Funny coincidence

I was just reading through Kevin Crawfords Exemplars & Eidolons and noticed that it’s using a treasure system almost identical to mine. Since it was released fairly recently I checked the release date and look at that: It was released the same day I posted the first version of my treasure system here.

So we could both claim simultaneous invention. ;)

(Or being simultaneously inspired by The One Ring, that’s also a possibility.)

Awesome future novel idea #1: Not all is quiet on the Western Front

Here’s a potentially cool idea for a horror storie or adventure: Lovecraftian horror set on a World War I battlefield. Usually this style of horror doesn’t work when the characters are highly armed and there are lots of other people around. But the battlefields of the Western Front are probably as far removed from normality as it can possibly get. You could have creatures stalking the muddy bogs of artillery craters and barbed wire, murdering men left and right. And while there are lots of armed soldiers all around who would hear the screams and gunshots and stumble upon the corpses the next day, nobody would think anything to be out of the ordinary. The protagonist of the story would doubt his senses and wonder if he is simply going mad, and even if he told others what he saw, who would believe him? Either he went a bit mad or he is pretending to be mad to get out of the battle.

Maybe the creature is a werewolf, or it’s a group of ghouls who come crawling out of a crypt burried below a shelled cemetery that is no longer recognizable as such. It could go on for weeks or months, with only one or two man noticing that those attacks are not normal raids by the enemy. And the during artillery bombardment the bunkers would be deathtraps for all inside if a monster gets in.

I’d read something like that.

Encumbrance and Treasure

I am not usually someone who does any kind of accounting for fun, so dealing with treasure and equipment generally is done very quick and simple in my campaigns.

The encumbrance system is almost taken directly from the one created by LS at Papers and Pencils, which I really like. (Yes, when you post mechanics on your website, sometimes there will actually be people using it.) The treasure system is my own creation, as far as I can recall. It’s a slight variant of the one I came up with for tying character advancement to loot in Barbarians of Lemuria.

Encumbrance

Encumbrance works very simple. All items have a weight of either 1, or 2, or none. A character can carry a number of items equal to his Strength score with no penalty. He can carry a number of items equal to twice his Strength score while being lightly encumbred, and up to three times his Strength score while being heavily encumbred.

A character who is lightly encumbred has his movement speed reduced by one category and has all the penalties from wearing medium armor. (Penalty to physical ability checks and magic point cost for casting spells.)

A character who is heavily encumbred has his movement speed reduced by two categories and has all the penalties from wearing heavy armor.

If an object is so large and heavy that it would take both hands to hold and carry, it counts as two normal items and has a weight of 2. Objects lighter than a dagger are not counted towards encumbrance. It’s left to the GM to decide when a larger number of smaller objects counts as one item. A pound or half a kilo of stuff probably is a good limit.

As they are likely to come up often, a quiver with 12 arrows, food for one day, and water for one day should all be treated as having a weight of 1 each, regardless of how they are stored.

To track encumbrance, a good idea is to have an inventory list in which all the rows are numbered. You can then mark at which row the limits for light encumbrance, heavy encumbrance, and maximal load are reached, based on your characters Strength. For items with weights greater than 1, simply cross out the line below it. When you get over any of those limits, you simply see it immediately as the list passes over the marked lines.

Treasure

The standard unit of wealth is “1 treasure”. A treasure could be many things, but generaly has a weight and a value of 1. A small bag of silver coins being the standard example. But it could also be jewelry, gemstones, golden cups, or whatever. For special occasions you can also have special treasures which weigh nothing or have a value greater than 1. The huge diamond from the crown of the heigh priest may easily have a value of 5 or 10, while a gold ring with a saphire might have a weight of none. But these are not usually found lying around in ruins or in the pockets of bandits.

There are no price lists. As long as you have at least one treasure with you, you can get whatever weapons, shields, food, rooms, and other small expanses you want. If you have no treasure with you, you’re broke and have to either get some valuables somewhere or get creative in acquiring equipment and supplies. Greater expanses usually cost 1 treasure. It could be a horse, a lavish feast, a cart, or other mundane by expensive things. Armor is more expensive and costs 1 treasure per point of Armor Class bonus (an AC +5 armor would cost 5 treasure).

Magic potions also generally cost 1 treasure each and are probably one of the most common expenses. More powerful magic items don’t come with a fixed price. They are almost always given as rewards, taken from defeated enemies, or stolen from treasure vaults.