Records of Inixon, Day 1 and 2

Inixon is a D&D 5th Edition campaign based on the classic adventures I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, and X1 The Isle of Dread. This record covers the first two sessions.

For over a hundred years, a seemingly unending series of typhoons and thunderstorms has been plaguing the lands of Kaendor, slowly but inevitably weathering away the old Bronze Age civilizations with floods and landslides. Fields are turning into marshes, bridges and mountain paths are being destroyed and never rebuild, and whole cities are slowly crumbling into the sea. Towns and cities are being deserted as people flee into the vast forests of the hinterland to survive on wild plant and animals and roads are being blocked by fallen trees and quickly overgrown by the always encroaching wilds. Villages become isolated and depending only on themselves, and what trade still exist is limited to the coasts and rivers that are reachable by ships.
The wilds of Kaendor are littered with the ruins of cities, but scholars know that many of these have laid empty for thousands of years, and that their own civilizations are not the first ones to fade from the face of the world. Floods and landslides reveal previously hidden vaults and tombs beneath the empty cities, drawing to them scavengers who are searching for the riches left behind when their owners abandoned their homes.

The Party
Tarani, Murya Wizard, acolyte of the Moon goddess Temis.
Haren, Yao Fighter and Tarani’s travel companion.
Finan, Fenhail Rogue in service of a corrupt harbor master.
Karim, Murya Cleric of the Storm Lord.
Day 1 (11th Day, 7th Month, Year 507): The Inn

Tarani and Haren were visiting to the small town Orlane, searching for a man named Brian who has not been responding to any messages for the past weeks. They are joined by Finan who was send by his boss to find the whereabouts of a shipment of poisons that never got delivered by a merchant from Orlane.

As they reached the town and asked some locals for the home of the elderman, they discovered many of the people to be weary of strangers and a mood of uncertainty being over the town. Even the elderman was not very forthcoming with any information and merely let them know that people have been leaving in search for a better life elsewhere for many years. That some seemingly left over night without telling anyone is certainly strange, but people have been quiet about their business for some time now.

The inn made a shady first impression, with a suspicious inkeeper and unfriendly locals quietly sitting with their drinks in the common room. Haren decided to get beds for the night anyway.

As they explored further through the village they visited a small trading post for traveling merchants, where they got another offer for beds for the night. Which was an option to consider, but they decided to decline.

Tarani searched the northern parts of the town for magic and discovered traces of abjuration coming from a path leading into the nearby woods. Tarani and Haren came upon the hut of an old woman named Remi who described herself as a herbalist and gave them advice to be careful around the inn, as the innkeeper is hanging around with other unpleasant people like the smith and the carpenter, and shady looking strangers that have come to the town a while back.

In the east part of the city, Finan discovered that the store of the merchant he was looking for had burned down and none of the locals seemed to know anything about his whereabouts. The smith next door turned out to be an excessively angry man who threatened them with violence if they don’t leave him alone immediately. The carpenter across the road had his workshop in complete chaos and seemed barely able to follow the conversation with the strangers asking him questions about the town.

They headed over to Brian’s house near the temple and found it empty, but it appeared like Brian’s family had left almost everything behind.

Clearly something was very wrong with this town, and it seemed to have something to do with the Inn. So Haren and Tarani decided to return there and stay for the night, while Finan set himself up in an abandoned house across the road to monitor the comings and going throughout the night. Late in the night, three men came down the road from the eastern part of the town and went into the darkened inn, so Finan decided to follow them inside.

Haren and Tarani had been expecting trouble, but Haren had a very difficult time staying awake. Five men were bursting into their room with clubs, but Tarani took half of them out immediately with a sleep spell. Finan heard the fighting from the common room and ran into a woman in armor in the hallway. The woman’s mace hit him with magical power and injured him badly, and the innkeeper and the cook came from their rooms to join in the fight. Haren was able to overwhelm the remaining villagers in the room and with Tarani’s magic attacked killed the woman. The innkeeper was subdued quickly and the cook was caught trying to climb out a window.

While Haren and Tarani were tying up the unconscious men, Finan found a box of poisons in the kitchen and searched the upper floor, where he discovered the smuggler Nazim in a locked room, who told him he was captured by the innkeeper’s men a week ago, and all his goods stolen.

Tarani used her ability to detect magic on the tied up attackers and discovered than all but one of them were under some kind of enchantment.

The Storm Priest Karim was found trapped in another room, having been captured by the people in the inn the night before. He joined the others in their attempt to find out what is going on in Orlane.

They took the one man that showed no signs of magic to another room and began questioning him. He told them that the other people who were with him were members of a cult that worships the Great Serpent. He was taken from his bed in the inn two months ago and taken down the river in a boat to a hidden underground lair. There he was kept with other villagers until they were brought before a priestess with a golden mask. Some stopped to fight and argue when she started them in the eyes, while those who continued to resist were dragged back to their cells. He decided that it would be better to play along, but he does not have any of the fanatical devotion to the priestess and her deity like the others. Getting a free room, food, and drink simply for kidnapping some villagers now and then seemed like a pretty good deal to him, but now that the game is up he just wants to be on his way and never get close to Orlane again. Whenever they captured travelers in the inn, they would keep them there until a dark night and then take them in a boat across the lake to the temple on the other side of town. He assumes they are taken down the river and to the priestess later, but he doesn’t known and never asked.

Tarani and Haren got Remi to come to the inn and take a look at the captured men. She confirmed Tarani’s suspicion that they were under some kind of spell, but a regular charm spell would not be able to control that many people for such a long time. Some much more powerful magic must be behind it.

They then explored the basements of the inn and discovered a hidden meeting room that connected to a small series of tunnels where they were attacked by several snake, one of which dropped from the ceiling on Finan and almost managed to strangle him. They came to a small underground shrine with a bronze serpent idol and Haren threw his cloak over it before Tarani checked to see that there was no magic on it.

It was decided that they would rest in the inn for the rest of the night to regain their full strength and go talk with the elderman the next day. The smuggler Nazim asked if he could go and seek shelter at the trading post, as he didn’t want to get involved in whatever dangerous business they were planning.

Day 2 (12th Day, 7th Month, Year 507): The Temple

As they went to the house of the elderman, some of the villagers were watching them from the distance, but it was impossible to tell if this was any different from the reactions they had gotten the day before. When they knocked on the door, Tarani checked the elderman for magic but found that he wasn’t affected by it. They told him that some kind of cult was behind the recent disappearances and that the innkeeper was part of it. The elderman told them that the armored woman was one of the two priestess of the local temple of the Three Keepers of Fields, House, and Herds, which supported the information they got that the people were being taken to the temple.

Hoping that nobody at the temple would recognize them, the group walked up the hill and straight through the gates into the main temple hall. The acolyte they encountered eyed them suspiciously and a present servant quietly disappeared through a door soon after their arrival. While the others claimed to be praying at the altar, Finan snuck out to take a look around the temple grounds. He found the gardener who told him to stop snooping around and either return inside the temple or leave. Tarani quickly excused herself to the outhouse to prepare herself to search for magic in the temple and the people who were present, and found the acolyte to be enchanted as well. She let the others know that they were leaving and outside the temple building they decided to split up and attempt to silently take out the gardener and search his shed. Haren and Tarani went around the back, but they discovered that the gardener had disappeared when they ran back into Finan and Karim. As they searched the shed they discovered the gardeners room and the cages for two large arags.

Arag

Assuming the gardener went inside the temple building through a small side door, they decided to try to follow and came into a small store room just as the gardener was coming back with three other men. A fight broke out at the side door, just as the acolyte came around the corner of the building with more men. The group all rushed inside and killed and knocked out the men. Finan quickly bolted the door shut behind them and then raced through the temple building to get to the main temple doors which he blocked from the inside as well. Three more man with clubs were quickly defeated and the group headed up the stairs to the upper level.

Quickly searching through the rooms, the found the other priest and another acolyte who were waiting for them with protective magic in place. Haren and Finan rushed in and quickly knocked out the acolyte, while Tarani and Karim hurled magic at the priest. Haran ordered the priest to get down to the floor, but the priest told him “No, you all get to the floor!” with a command spell. Haren went down, but the others continued their assault. Haran quickly rose back to his feet and fought with the priest, deflecting his magically charged mace with his shield and knocking him out as well.

Inixon – Against the Dwellers of the Isle of Dread

I returned to university last year and right now it doesn’t look like classes will resume until may at the earliest. So I really can’t pass up on the opportunity to get a new online campaign off the ground.

And this is as good a time as any to finally make use of my old idea to combine I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, and X1 The Isle of Dread into one big B/X campaign. Combining my three favorite modules is really quite easy. The Forbidden City replaces the ruins in the volcano on the Isle of Dread, and the Reptile God is an emissary of the Dwellers trying to establish a foothold on the mainland.

All of this will be set in my Green Sun setting, which I recently decided to give a little update to make it more interesting and conductive to adventures. I finally overcame my aversion to post-apocalyptic settings and decided to take inspirations from the Bronze Age collapse. The world of Kaendor is now set in the days after a century long period of increasing storms and rainfall, that has caused much of the farmland to become too swampy for local crops and many of the coastal cities to be lost to erosion. There are now only a dozen city states left with most people living scattered in small villages in the forests, where they can get by with hunting, fishing, and foresting.

The old trade networks that enabled the large scale production of bronze have collapsed, but fortunately old bronze can be recycled very easily. When the first cities were abandoned by their people, nobody saw how great the scarcity of bronze would become, and much of it was left behind for being too heavy. Now these forgotten stockpiles of bronze ingots are worth their weight in silver and a draw for many treasure hunters. But buildings that have collapsed in typhoons or landslides also uncovered large numbers of previously hidden vaults and tombs.

In the jungles of the south, the ancient serpentmen are sensing the fall of the younger civilizations, and many of them remember their old dreams of their return to power and reclaiming the lands of Kaendor for themselves. Currently there seems to be little chance of that ever happening again, but that doesn’t stop ambitious snake sorcerers from sending their minions north.

And deep beneath the sea, the primordial aquatic horrors and the fishmen are watching the events in the world above.

And given the source material, I need to have an NPC cook named Zeb. :p

Exorcists For Hire

Three months back I wrote about giving quest givers some kind of existing relationship to the PCs to make adventures more personal and to create a stronger sense of the party having their own place in the world, and also make it feel more plausible and natural that of all the people they get picked to deal with the situation. Hiring some random dangerous vagabonds to deal with very sensitive matters always feels forced to me, and even more so that said vagabonds can make a career out of these jobs.

What I didn’t really adress back then however, was what exactly the PCs do as their day jobs. How did they become qualified to deal with roaming monsters, hauntings by spirits, and demonic artifacts? Since the Kaendor setting is designed from the ground up to provide opportunity for encounters with spirits and supernatural forces, and I deliberately avoided adding military conflicts or endemic banditry, I feel that the setting is really lending itself to to parties that are well equipped to deal with spirits, demons, and curses. While a campaign about adventurers who make their bread and butter with exterminating bandits and goblins, with the occasional evil wizard or giant thrown in, does feel implausible to me beyond the point that I am happy to ignore, a group of specialists who are called upon when their services are needed, does feel more believable. It’s not even much of a stretch that they might go on extended “patrols” beyond their home turf now and then, to see if more remote settlements might be in need of their services.

Armed travellers looking for opportunities to make money through violence shouldn’t really look that different from the bandits and raiders they are regularly fighting to most villagers. But groups of clerics and druids with their retinues of guardians present a completely different picture from demons or other supernatural horrors. It feels much more justified that people would welcome them with relief and approach them to plead for their help.

It does actually change very little when it comes to how adventures are prepared and played out. Just avoid having regular bandits, monstrous raiders, or normal wild animals as threats. The rest would be very much the same. But it’s the context that changes.

Honey Caves Harvesting

One of the major parts of food production in Kaendor is the harvesting of honey from giant bees. Giant bees construct their hives in cave systems and abandoned burrows of large animals, but in some places have been successfully lured into artificially dug tunnels. Hives generally consist of a small number of brood caves where larvas are being raised, and several storage caves where honey is being kept.

Giant bees are highly protective of they honey and quickly attack any intruders they perceive as a threat. To safely harvest the honey, workers protected by armor take buckets of honey contaminated with a fungus that is deadly to giant bee larvas and pour it on the floor of a storage cave. Worker bees quickly detect and identify the fungus and use chemical markers that make the entire cave off limits and abandon all the honey stored in it. Within a day or so, the cave becomes safe to enter and the honey can be harvested, with the giant bees having no more interest in it.

While seemingly easy work, harvesting honey is a highly skilled occupation. Not only is preparing a storage cave for harvesting extremely dangerous, with death a constant threat, but the leader of a harvesting group also has the great responsibility to prevent the fungus from accidentally being spread to other caves, potentially killing off the entire hive in a matter of weeks. As such, giant bee keepers are often highly respected people in their towns, like millers, smiths, and shipwrights.

Giant Bee

Small beast

Armor Class 11
Hit Points 4 (1d8)
Speed 10 ft., fly 40 ft.
STR 8 (-1), DEX 12 (+1), CON 10 (+0), INT 1 (-5), WIS 10 (+0), CHA 3 (-4)
Senses passive Perception 10
Languages
Challenge 1/8 (25 XP)

Actions

Sting: Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 3 (1d4 + 1) piercing damage, and the target must make a DC 10 Constitution saving throw, taking 7 (2d6) poison damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. If the poison damage reduces the target to 0 hit points, the target is stable but poisoned for 1 hour, even after regaining hit points, and is paralyzed while poisoned in this way.

The Mythic Fantasy campaign style

Mythic Fantasy frequently gets mentioned in passing in listings of various fantasy styles. The Dungeon Master’s Guide for D&D 5th Edition describes it like this:

A mythic-fantasy campaign draws on the themes and stories of ancient myth and legend, from Gilgamesh to Cu Chulainn. Adventurers attempt mighty feats of legend, aided or hindered by the gods or their agents – and they might have divine blood themselves. The monsters and villains they face probably have a similar origin. The minotaur in the dungeon isn’t just another bull-headed humanoid, but the Minotaur – misbegotten offspring of a philandering god. Adventures might lead the heroes through a series of trials to the realms of the gods in search of a gift or favor.
Such a campaign can draw on the myths and legends of any culture, not just the familiar Greek tales.

Sounds good, makes sense. Barely anyone ever seems to use it. And when you see it show up somewhere, the vast majority of it seems to be indeed mashups of Greek gods, heroes, and monsters. What you get is a fantasy version of Greek myth, sometimes with names switched up, but you will have a really hard time to point out original fantasy that is inspired by mythic themes, motifs, and narratives. There is of course The Lord of the Rings, that was specifically written to be mythic in style, but even though elements of it have been copied thousands of times, the mythic aspects seem to have been lost to the imitators. If you dig in really deep, you might have some luck with lesser known novels, but it seems to be very much absent in movies, RPGs, and videogames. It’s an idea that sounds really good, but I never was able to identify good references for how that could look like. Except of course for the fantasy versions of Greece.

But today I was seeing a trailer for the new From Software game Elden Ring and took a glance at what some people think about it so far, and I finally got it! The whole Soulsborne series is mythic fantasy. This is how it can look like in practice. Is Lord Gwyn a bit like Zeus? Yes, of course he is. And he brought the Age of Fire to humans, like Prometheus did. But other than that, nothing about Dark Souls feels like a retelling of Greek myth. Bloodborne of course does nothing to cover up its imagery that is taken from Gothic Horror and Eldritch Horror, but it doesn’t feel like a Lovecraft story or a Lovecraft setting. It still is it’s very own thing.

But what is it that makes these games and their setting feel mythic, and how is this different from other types of fantasy?

I think the first thing that stands out are the boss monsters. They are not simply just boss fights. With some exceptions like the Capra Demon, most of the prominent ones are unique beings with a specific backstory and context. And equally important, they have powers that make them stand apart from other monsters and a very different kind of threat. When you take our own everyday world as your frame of reference, then a minotaur, centaur, or satyr would be an amazingly strange creature and great threat. But when you are already in a fantasy world, then even a minotaur doesn’t have anything supernatural or divine about it.

The other main thing that contributes to the mythic feel is that these are stories that explain how things came to be the way that they were and the transformations that the world is currently experiencing. They are stories that lift the veil from how the world works. They give you insight into the powers that control the world, why they do what they do, and how they are limited in restricted in what they can do.

Perhaps mythic fantasy is ultimately about the supernatural and divine forces that shape the world, and the potential and limitations of human agency. It’s about dealing with situations that are beyond anyone’s fault or control, with mortals having no choice but accepting the changes forced on them and somehow finding ways to live with them. That isn’t to say that heroes would be passive. Far from it. But fate plays a huge role and heroes often have very little choice in playing their part in events that are inevitable. Even when the ultimate outcome is not predetermined, there often can be only two ways for things to end, and it is up the heroes to make the one decision that makes all the difference.

There surely is a lot more to it than just this, and I am not even certain that these first observations are fully accurate. But I feel like this is a first insight into what this particularly elusive form of fantasy storytelling might actually be.

Swamp Sage

I saw this picture and had to turn it into a creature. Took just an hour to create this.

The swamp sage is a spirits that lives in swamps, marshes, and other wetlands. Its body consist of a large shell that often looks like a boulder overgrown with moss and lichen and can easily be mistaken for such when its small crustacean legs are tugged in below it under the water. There is a small opening in the shell at the creature front that houses its face, which consists of four small black eyes and its maw. Swamp sages are reclusive and rarely seek interaction with people, but are of a calm and nonthreatening demeanor and occasionally come together to consult with each other when something is causing disturbances in their territory. They usually try to avoid fights and use their fetid cloud and entangling plants abilities to retreat from attackers. If forced to defend themselves, they can spit a spray of acid from their mouths and strike out with one of their four long tongues.

Swamp sages know almost everything that is going on in their homes and know much about a swamp’s or marsh’s history and inhabitants. If something is threatening their territory, they usually prefer to advise others on how to deal with the situation than engaging threats themselves.

Swamp Sage

Large fey
Armor Class 15 (natural armor)
Hit Points 78 (8d10 + 24)
Speed 20 ft.
STR 17 (+3), DEX 8 (-1), CON 16 (+3), INT 15 (+2), WIS 17 (+3), CHA 14 (+2)
Skills Stealth +2
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing
Damage Immunities poison
Condition Immunities charmed, poisoned
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 13
Languages telepathy 60 ft.
Challenge 4 (1,100 XP)

Special Traits

Amphibious: The swamp sage can breathe air and water.
Magic Resistance: The swamp sage has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.
Innate Spellcasting: The swamp sage’s innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 12). It can innately cast the following spells, requiring no components:

At will: dancing lights, druidcraft
1/day each: commune with nature, confusion

Swamp Camouflage: The swamp sage has advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks it makes in swampy terrain with ample obscuring plant life.

Actions

Multiattack: The swamp sage uses either its Acid Spray, Entangling Plants, or Fetid Cloud, then makes a tentacle attack.
Tentacles: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d8 + 3) bludgeoning damage.
Acid Spray (Recharge 6): The swamp sage spits acid in a 15-feet cone. Each creature in that cone must make a DC 13 Dexterity saving throw, taking 10 (3d6) acid damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
Entangling Plants (Recharge 5-6): Grasping roots and vines sprout in a 30-foot radius centered on the swamp sage, withering away after 1 minute. For the duration, that area is difficult terrain for non plant creatures. In addition, each creature of the swamp sage’s choice in that area when the plants appear must succeed on a DC 13 Strength saving throw or become restrained. A creature can use its action to make a DC 13 Strength check, freeing itself or another entangled creature within reach on a success.
Fetid Cloud (Recharge 6): A 15‐foot radius cloud of disgusting green gas extends out from the swamp sage. The gas spreads around corners, and its area is lightly obscured. It lasts for 1 minute or until a strong wind disperses it. Any creature that starts its turn in that area must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned until the start of its next turn. While poisoned in this way, the target can take either an action or a bonus action on its turn, not both, and can’t take reactions.

The Realms of Reality

Two months ago I wrote about an idea of one day running a campaign in a downsized Planescape setting that has only 8 outer planes and 4 inner planes. Planescape has been a major influence on the Green Sun setting in general, and my ideas for the Spiritworld in particular. And so soon after writing that post, I went ahead to try out combining the two ideas for a campaign. While I had some good idea what I want the realms of the spirits to look like for a long time, I never actually got around to nailing them down into something tangible and specific. The planar system that resulted from toiling in the dark for many nights takes ideas and concepts from the planes of the Outlands, the Beastlands, Arborea, Pandemonium, Carceri, and Gehenna, and is tied together by a combination of the Plane of Shadow and the Ethereal Plane with several influences from the Gray Wastes of Hades. There are no dedicated elemental planes and no Astral Plane. Perhaps most curiously, there is no dedicated Material Plane either. As a result, the arrangement of the different realms is quite different from the way they work in Planescape.

Nature of the Realms

The world consists of an indeterminate number of realms that fall into two primary categories. The Spectral Realm and all the other realms. The other realms can be thought of as Corporeal Realms and people often divided them into Wild Realms and Underworld Realms, though that distinction is a subjective judgement and not based on specific distinguishing traits. The Wild Realms tend to be more similar to the Realm of Mortals, while the Underworld Realms are generally more inhospitable and their creatures more alien.

While the Corporeal Realms are generally separate from each other, all of them overlap with the Spectral Realm and are inseparetely tied to it. Mortal beings are native to the Corporeal Planes, while all spirits, which includes fey, elementals, and fiends, are native to the Spectral Realm. Mortal creatures can physically leave the Corporeal Realms and travel into the Spectral Realm. For spirits it is quite different. Spirits have the ability to project themselves into a Corporeal Realm without leaving the Spectral Realm. In fact, it is impossible for spirits to leave the Spectral Realm.

The Spectral Realm

The Spectral Realm mirrors all the Corporeal Realms, though there is a perpetual gloom and all colors are faded to almost gray, with the landscape appearing more like shadows than actual physical matter. It mirrors all the Corporeal Realms at the same time, resulting in a landscape as if someone had cut the maps of the Corporeal Realms into countless pieces and assembled them together into a single giant map at random. By travelling through the Spectral Realm one can reach any place in any Corporeal Realm. The difficult part is to find it. Fortunately for spectral travelers, the nature of time and distance seem to be very different in the Spectral Realm and if the right path is known seemingly every destination can be reached in just a few days.

However, keeping track of time in the Spectral Realm is difficult and its hard to determine how much time one has actually spend there. While staying in the Spectral Realm, mortal creatures are unable to fully fall asleep and gain no nourishment from food, making it impossible to take a long rest. They soon start to feel slightly tired and hungry but it never becomes unbearable, though for every day spend in the Spectral Realm they gain one level of exhaustion. If the exhaustion kills them, their physical forms fade away and they turn into shadows.

Spirits

Spirits come in three types. Fey, elementals, and fiends. Celestials and intelligent plants have their creature type changed to fey, while aberrations have their creature type change to fiends. Generally speaking, fey are only encountered in Wild Realms and fiends only in Underworld Realms, as well as in areas of the Spectral Realms that correspond to them. But since there is no hard distinction between the two there are some of the Corporeal Realms where one might encounter representatives of both. Elementals are neither fey nor fiends and they can be encountered in all the Corporeal Realms and anywhere in the Spectral Realm.

The Wild Realms

The Wild Realms are Corporeal Realms with environments quite similar to that of the Mortal Realm. Most are dominated by forests, mountains, and oceans and are full of life in many forms, much of which appearing very familiar to mortals. For some reason the Mortal Realm is rarely visited by physical manifestions of spirits, which many scholars believe to be in some way connected to intelligent humanoid mortals being native to it. In the other Wild Realms, fey and elementals are much more frequent and the forces of nature appear to be even more powerful and unpredictable. People have told tales of realms where it is always night or where the sun never sets, where it is snowing all year or the mists never dissipate. While many of the Wild Realms are majestic to behold, all of them are considerably more dangerous than the wilderness of the Mortal Realm.

The Underworld Realms

Compared the the Wild Realms, the Underworld Realms tend to be much more barren and desolate. Many of them appear to exist entirely underground without any surface, which gives them their name, though there are also numerous realms that appear as barren hills or deserts. Most tend to be dark or gloomy, but again this is not a universal rule. Storms are just as common as in the Wild Realms, often driving before them clouds of dust or ash from constantly errupting volcanoes.

Borders between Realms

While the Corporeal Realms are generally separate from each other, they do occasionally touch and form border regions between them, through which creatures can travel from one realm to the other without going through the Spectral Realm. Border regions are not really in one realm or the other, and the environment blends traits of both of them. Often these regions are difficult to notice and the change in environment only becomes fully apparent once travellers have crossed fully into the other realm. Border regions generally have two edges that allow passage to the two realms they connect. Often these edges are found at the entrances of mountain passes, cave mouths, or at different points along a river that runs between two realms. But in many cases they just exist in completely unremarkable spots in the forest. Some known edges have been marked by either mortals or fey, which can take the form of lines of unusual trees, thickets of brambles, or carved posts made from wood or stone. Border regions also exist out at sea, but these are particularly difficult to locate and map.

While many border regions stay in place for a very long time, they are not entirely permanent. Some might in fact be quite short lived, but are never discovered or their locations shared among scholars and hunters. Other border regions are only accessible during specific times. These could be specific months of the year for example, or only during night at a full moon. There are stories of islands of the mainland coast that can be reached only for a single night every year, or ships disappearing without a trace along routes where no signs of a border had ever been noticed.

Conflict on the Horizon

As my focus is turning away from the basic worldbuilding for the setting and towards the practical work of preparing an actual campaign and adventures, I’ve been noticing that the setting is still very much lacking in the way of plot hooks. Poking around in strange ruins in the wilderness and dealing with alien spirits and dangerous sorcerers is all fun and well, but why are the characters doing that? What greater purpose do their activities serve? Having stories emerge from the players’ choices and actions is fantastic, but you can’t have something come from nothing. Which is why great settings almost always have some form of underlying tension. Which so far Kaendor has been lacking. There is this concept of civilization being under pressure by the erratic and volatile forces of nature, but I found out that this is too fuzzy to really build adventures on. There is also the idea that sorcery creates terrible environmental damage which most people fear and oppose, but it raises the question why anyone would turn to it other than for moustache twirling evil.

In practice, larger scale conflicts come in just two basic forms. Competition for a resource of which there isn’t enough to cover the amounts that everyone wants, and contradicting opinions on what shape society and culture should take. Whatever reasons and justifications people give for why they fight or oppose others, it almost always comes down to one of these two as the root cause. Both the themes of a permanent struggle against a hostile environment and the lure of the powerful but dangerous tool of sorcery are closely connected with competition for vital but scarce resources.

In the lands of Kaendor, the omnipresent forests keeps growing back exceptionally fast and populations of animals are almost impossibly difficult to control. The climate makes storms, floods, draughts, and wildfires extremely unpredictable, and earthquakes, blights, and pests are a constant threat. Maintaining the small and limited areas of farmable land is a constant struggle and claiming more land almost impossibly difficult. This makes maintaining a stable supply of grain and access to large amounts of salt for the preservation of food a primariy concern for all rulers. A third resource that is almost as critical for the survival and prosperity of the domains is tin for the production of bronze.

Because civilization in Kaendor is both small and scattered across great distances, invasions and conquest are not practical approaches to securing access to these vital resources. Armies arriving on ships have little means to assault or besiege fortified strongholds far away from home, and even when a distant domain can be taken it is almost impossible to hold. The distances involved make it very difficult to control whoever is put in charge or to respond to rebellions once the conquering armies have returned home. Raiding is a much more common form of warfare, but with most resources being stored within the walls of well defended strongholds, this approach is very unreliable and carries great risks, and is usually taken only out of desperation.

The most common, and most effective way, in which strong rulers and powerful city states secure their access to vital resources is by controlling the trade with the smaller domains. All the domain rely on trade across the Endless Sea and the Southern Sea for resources they don’t have themselves, and even the Wilders have extensive trade relationships among their tribes. With their great riches and large numbers of merchant and war ships, the larger city states have a great amount of influence over all trade. They have the power to dictate who can sell which goods and for which prices, and make demands that serve their own continued interests. Domains that have such power over others are always trying to maintain and expand it, while those who are under the influence of more powerful domains are constantly searching for ways to escape it. This is the primary source of conflict between domains in Kaendor.

The specifics of commerce and the intricacies of trade power aren’t of any greater relevance to either the setting or the activities in which players are involved. Instead, the purpose of this background is to provide motivations for people in power to set events into motion in which the players can become involved. Rulers are always interested in finding ways to weaken the influence of their enemies or the means to reduce their dependency on trade for certain resources with their rivals. Much of it is politics that does not involve the players, but in the world of Kaendor there are also always many opportunities to gain support from the spirits of the land and the gods of the forest and the sea. Similarly, the spirits are the only ones able to stop changes to the environment that threaten the prosperity and survival of a domain.

Both desperation and ambition can also be strong motivations to turn towards the lure of sorcery. The chaotic magics of sorcery can bend nature to its will and can be a source of great power and riches, even though it is well known that its practice drains the land of life and in time warps and corrupts that which remains. When times are dire, this steep price might appear worth paying, but even more often prideful sorcerers believe that they have found ways to contain the corruption and prevent or at least limit the spread of the blight. Some are motivated by greed and others by the more noble goal to ensure the survival of their domains. But among the common people and the servants of the gods, hardship and abandoning their homes for new lands are far preferable to this madness.

Another aspect that naturally follows from this underlying tension is the emergence of crime. When the larger city states control access to certain goods and determine prices that only benefit themselves, smuggling becomes a major part of trade. Smuggling in Kaendor is not simply about some men rowing to shore at night to unload a few boxes of goods outlawed by the lord of the domain. It’s a vast network reaching from Var Sharaz all the way to Nevald in the Northern Sea, consisting of wealthy merchants, pirates, and corrupt officials. There might well be not a single palace anywhere in Kaendor that doesn’t have two or three people involved in smuggling, and many of their biggest customers are minor lords who wish to be doing business without knowledge by the city states. Most smugglers trade in bulk goods, but their connnections and secrecy enable them to get hold of almost everything for the right price and when time not a pressing issue. Pirates rely entirely on smugglers to sell their plunder and many leaders make some additional money at the side with blackmail, extortion, and bringing in debts for their associates. Smugglers make for great sources of information and rare magic resources, and questionable allies. They can also serve as antagonists who are introducing new trouble by threatening befriended merchants or lords, accidentally angering or awakening spirits while hiding out in forbidden caves, working with sorcerers, or bringing in disrupting magic object from distant lands.

None of these things are exactly material for adventures in strange woods and mysterious ruins. But they do make a solid foundation for why the players have to go out into the wilderness, either to find something that can help solving a conflict, or to stop a threatening disasters that has been set into motion by the desperation or ambition of influential people.

Exploration System, Part 2: Practical Encumbrance

Encumbrance in D&D has always ranged from bad to terrible. The idea behind encumbrance is actually great. The default assumption for the first decade or so had been that the party enters a dangerous place, gets their hands on valuable stuff, and gets back out again, preferably with their loot and without anyone dying. When wandering monsters are a thing (look forward to part 3) and fighting battles is a negligible source of XP (look forward to part 4), then getting in and out quickly is of the essence. The longer it takes you, the greater is the risk of anyone dying with no benefit in trade. So as you keep delving deeper into the dark unknown, you are using up some of the tools and supplies you have brought with you, but at the same time get weighted down by the treasures you find. Which leaves you with two choices. Slow down and risk fighting more opponents and reducing your odds of being able to run away. Or reduce your weight, either by choosing to leave some of the treasure you’ve found behind, or by dropping some of the equipment that you hopefully won’t be needing on your way back to the surface. Hang on to all your potentially life saving tools and weapons as you slowly crawl back to the exit, or make a mad dash to safety? Or play it safe and leave some of your hard fought for rewards behind? This is a real question that players will have to face. There is no right answer which two out of these three you should choose and will greatly depend on the constantly changing situations. To me, this is one of the big things that make exploration adventures so exciting.

Random Encounters, XP for treasure, and Encumbrance are really a single unified system. They really only work together as a unit. When you ditch one of them, the other two stop serving any purpose as well. And I think most of the time, Encumbrance is the first one to go. Because the way D&D handles it is just so annoyingly tedious that almost everyone very quickly, if not immediately, decides to just not bother with it at all. Whether you calculate your character’s equipment load in pounds or in coins, every time you pick up an item or drop an item, you have to adjust your current encumbrance load value. And inevitably you will sometimes forget it or make mistakes, requiring to make a complete recount of all your inventory and calculate all the different weight again. Nobody thinks that’s fun. To really do that, you need to keep your inventory on spreadsheets, and playing the game with everyone having a computer open can’t be the way to go. So out the window Encumbrance goes, making the whole exploration system pointless.

But there is a solution, and it is brilliant in its simplicity. It also isn’t mine. This idea is taken pretty much straight from Papers and Pencils. I don’t really add anything significant to it, I am just aligning it with my exploration system here. What this system does is to say “calculating loads by weight doesn’t work because nobody uses it, let’s drop the idea of doing it ‘realistically’ and use a much simpler system of inventory slots”. Yes, it’s a greater degree of abstraction, but as I always keep saying all of the numbers in these mechanics are make believe anyway, and a system that people would want to use is always better than a system that always gets ignored.

The basic, and really very simple idea is that any items have a weight that is either “insignificant”, “significant”, or “especially heavy”. Insignificant weight means the item has an encumbrance value of 0, significant weight means it has an encumbrance value of 1, and especially heavy items have an encumbrance value of 2 or higher. To assign an encumbrance value to an item, my rule of thumb is round up the weight in pounds to the nearest multiple of 10, then drop the last 0. Items with a weight below 1 pound have an encumbrance value of 0.

The amount of items a character can carry is as follows:

Speed Max. Load Effect
Unencumbered STR x 1
Encumbered STR x 2 Speed -10
Heavily Encumbered STR x 3 Speed -20, disadvantage to Str, Dex, and Con

And that is the entire system. But you can even simplify this even more by setting up your inventory sheet in the right way. I recommend making a dedicated inventory sheet like this, but you can try squeezing it into the inventory space on your character sheet.

There are two columns for items. One for items with significant weights that add to encumbrance, and one for items with insignificant weights that don’t. On the left side you have all the rows numbered. When you now put all your items with significant weights into the left item column, and make them take up as many lines as its the encumbrance value, you no longer have to calculate anything. Your current load value is right there to the left of the last item on your list. To make things even easier for you, you can mark the lines that match your Strength score times 10, 20, and 30. In this example, the character has a Strength score of 13, so he is unencumbered with a load up to 13, encumbered with a load up to 26, and heavily encumbered with a load up to 39. The line below 13 items is marked green here, the line below 26 items marked orange. When you add or remove items on your inventory list, you immediately see when your current encumbrance category changes. The column with the items of insignificant wight doesn’t matter, I just thought it fits conveniently in the place where it is here.

Next to the numbers, I added another column as a recently added new feature. In this column you can mark if the items are part of your Arms, Exploration Gear, or Travel Gear. If you keep them sorted like this, it becomes trivial to say “I put down the backpack with my heavy travel gear and continue forward with only my arms and my tool pouch”. Again, no new calculations are needed. In this example we immediately see that the Arms and Exploration Gear cross below the green line, but stay above the orange line. That means when I drop my backpack with my tent, food, and spare clothing, my encumbrance will be Encumbered.

I did play around a bit with an idea of keeping track of various pouches and sacks characters might be carrying, but that just ends up disrupting the neat simplicity and easy of use of this system. So again, I just said eh!, and went for the more abstract option that requires the least amount of bookkeeping and rearranging your inventory. Though I admit I still don’t have a perfect idea what to do when characters go into a dungeon with empty space in their Exploration Gear pouch that later gets filled with treasure that they pick up. Right now, this still requires you to move an item from the top of your T-items to the bottom and adding the new item as an E-item. Maybe this can be improved as well, but I think so far this is a really damn good inventory management system, far better than anything you find in almost all versions of D&D.