I’ve started to love the Darkest Dungeon

When I first got Darkest Dungeon about a year ago, I had a really hard time with it. I’m the kind of player who never uses potions and hoards all the money because “I might really need them later”. And then never using any of them even in the final fight. This became a big problem and led to me getting almost completely stuck. When I tried to get back into the game, I went to look up for advice on how to really play the game, and I learned two very important lessons. “Don’t waste money by trying to make all your characters recover immediately after a run.” I always spend almost all my money on recovery. “The most important thing is to use all your money to upgrade skills and equipment.” I never put any resources into unlocking equipment or any money into buying equipment. My reasoning was that any weapons and armor I bought would be lost when that character dies and all the money wasted. And this is the kind where it’s “when the character dies” and not “if the character dies”. But it seems leveling up a character does not actually increase the stats, or at least not in any substenntial ways. Increasing stats is done through upgrading weapons and armor. So yeah, I was trying to play the whole game with effectively level 0 characters. It explains a lot. Now that I learned my mistake I actually managed to defeat my first boss in week 81 and it’s all been so much easier from there.

Now that I am no longer treading in place, I got the chance to finally fully enjoy the things other than the combat that the game has to offer. It’s actually a fairly simple game without any plot. I think you could describe it as somewhere halfway between X-Com and Rogue. Pick your team of four characters from your barrack and send them into a dungeon to get money to buy upgrades and level them up, while every so often some of them die and have to be replaced with new recruits. Until at some point you can form a party powerful enough to beat the Darkest Dungeon. But a lot of praised has been heaped on the game for its presentation and I think it’s entirely justified. It looks great, and it sounds great, and it actually has some very interesting worldbuilding going on. This game does not have “lore” in any way that I have discovered yet like an Elder Scrolls or Dark Souls game for example. There is no history, no characters, no places, and things like that. Instead it has the kind of worldbuilding that consists of consistent repeating imagery and symbols, and various simple rules of what is what in this world. It’s not even terribly original. It’s basically Lovecraftian Gothic Horror. But the way it’s put together is very appealing to me. There is very little substance, but it’s all so evocative that it forms into something much bigger in my mind that keeps me deeply engaged.

The first story I want to share is that of Stafford Jr. After my first couple of runs through the dungeons, I recruited my first character of the Leper class. Who happened to be named Stafford. The leper is perhaps the most one dimensional class in the game. He hits really hard with his big sword and seems to have high resistances, but can’t do much else and doesn’t even hit very consistently. But when he hits, it’s massive. I really liked having Stafford in my team but unfortunately he was in my first group that got completely wiped out in an attempt to fight a boss. Every single one of them died, and it was such a grueling and epic fight that Stafford was done in by a heart attack from massive stress. It was awesome, but also sad. So when I recruited a new leper a bit later, I gave him the same brass and red armor style and renamed him to Stafford Jr. Stafford Jr. ended up becoming even cooler than his predecessor. From his descends into the maddening dungeons he gained a couple of quirks. First he decided that he would refuse any kind of stress recovery except for praying at the chappel. He also started to believe that he is possessed by demons that make him touch strange and highly dangerous things the party finds in the dungeons. It’s all randomly generated and was in no way planned by the developers. But it just so happened. A man in a decaying body covered in brass armor, who carries a massive swords and spends a lot of time in prayer at a church because he’s convinced he is possessed by demons. I normally very much support the advice that you shouldn’t put any of your characters from games into your stories, but I know I just have to use Stafford Jr. in some way.

Another thing I love about the game is the Occultist, which is perhaps my favorite type of wizard I’ve ever seen in a game. An occultist was one of the very first characters I recruited in addition to my starting crusader and highwayman and I stil have him around as one of my highest level characters. Unfortunately he has a strange name that I don’t recall right now. The best thing about him, as I said, are his spells. I primarily use him as a secondary healer, using his wyrd reconstruction spell. Perhaps the oddest but also most awesome healing spell I’ve ever seen. Any time it is used, it heals between 0 to 13 points of damage, and in addition the target has a chance to suffer a bleed effect, regardless of the result. This is interesting because all his other powers consists of cursed and summoning tentacles that attack your enemies. There is no lore about this power, but it’s clearly implied that there’s some kind of barely controlled body horror going on. It can end up not healing any damage at all and even causing additional damage through bleeding, but it also has the potential to heal a lot more damage than the healing of a priestess. Or it heals a lot of damage and also causes continuing bleeding at the same time. This kind of implied worldbuilding really works for me.

Similar things are going on with the environments and enemies. Again, the enemies are nothing really that new. There are a lot of skeletons, bandits, and various tentacled thing, and then there are also various typed of humanoid pigs, which are encountered on runs into the Warrens, one of the four main dungeon types in the game. There’s also a normal dungeon with mostly undead, a creepy forest with bandits and mushroom men, and a watery cave with fish men and various sea creatures. Where the narrator once gave this awesome line after I successfully finished a run.

At last, wholesome marine life can flourish – if indeed there is such a thing.

This game knows where it’s roots and inspirations lie. But I find the warrens to be the most intriguing ones as the implied worldbuilding goes. Visually it’s a generic dungeon, but the majority of enemies you encounter are pig men. And the entire time you’re there, you can faintly hear them squealing in the distance. Dozens of them, maybe hundreds. Al ready a good start, but then I noticed this line from the narrator at the start of exploration missions.

To prosecute our war against the Swine, we must first scout their squalid homes.

“War against the swine”. As far as I am aware, this is only a throwaway line with no narrative meaning. But I find it really evocative. The raids into the dungeon are a war? Somehow this makes me imagine a really different type of background story than a simple dungeon crawl to get loot and level up. It’s such a tiny thing, but it implies a much bigger and detailed world than there really is. Which I don’t consider cheating at all, but as a fan of horror techniques as really very elegant design. What you feel that probably should be there is always much more fascinating than anything you could ever actually spell out. Darkest Dungeon is really good at that, or at the very least it really manages to put out just the right hints that get my own imagination racing.

Fantasy novels suck at selling themselves

I love reading fantasy novels. I barely ever read fantasy novels. Not because I can’t make the time or any such excuse. It’s simply because I can’t find any books I want to read anymore. Thousands of fantasy booksmust have been written this century, but not one of them has me even the least interested in reading it. And I can’t imagine that it’s because there isn’t a single one that I would enjoy. Even with my somewhat not mainstream preferences, there still must be dozens or hundreds that would very much entertain me.

But I’m completely incapable of finding any of these. And I’ve started to blame this on the writers and publishers who are describing the content of the books on their backs. Nothing that I am reading in the descriptions sounds even remotely interesting to me or creative or original. It all blurs together in the same standard generic mush. A mush that looks different now than it did 20 or 30 years ago, but a still a mush. What I like to call the “Assassins & Politics” genre. (By the way, who had this idea of making “assassins” a description for likeable young protagonists?) It’s frequently said that a book needs to make a promise to the readers of what they are going to get from it within the first 50 pages. Readers have to know whether this is a story that has the kind of stuff and themes that they enjoy or if it’s a kind of book that isn’t for them by that point. But I think any book should give at least some kind of impression of what it’s selling points are and who it might appeal to. When I look at the back of a book or look up a description online, it should make a quick elevator pitch to me. But I don’t feel like I am getting any of that.

And it’s not like fans are helping much either. When I asked in two different fantasy forums what people think are the most creative and original books they read in recent years and why, I got a lot of replies. Which almost entirely consisted only of titles but no real information on what is actually in them.

Two of the most praised books from recent years are The Fifth Season and Prince of Thorns. I doubt that so many people can be completely wrong and so I am sure The Fifth Season is a great book. But from all my brief research, the only information about what is in the book is that it’s about a mother searching for her daughter and that it’s set in a world where wizards can predict earthquakes. Okay, but how does that help me knowing if it’s a book that I would enjoy reading? The sales pitch for Prince of Thorns and the rest of its series is that the protagonist is a psychopathic boy who leads a gang of bandits murdering and raping their way across the land. I fully admit that a truly evil child is an interesting idea to explore, but would anyone want to read three books of attrocities? The book is super popular and so I assume that this isn’t actutally what makes up the majority of its content. But then what is the content?

I think that books also need something that works similar to trailers. Some kind of highlight reel that says “If you like this, you will love this story. There’s plenty more where that came from.” Though the current fad of making stories all about central twists that can only be enjoyed if you have absolutely no idea about anything that is happening in the story is a completely different rant.

Where Blizzard went wrong

I first played Diablo and StarCraft very late. Diablo a while after I had played Diablo II at its release, and StarCraft only when it was already over ten years old. I found Diablo to be somewhat simplistic but still a lot of fun playing through it once. StarCraft on the other hand is an awesome game that has aged really well. It’s just as playable today as it was 20 years ago.

But when StarCraft II came out, I couldn’t really get into it. I only finished the Terran campaign after the Zerg campaign was released, and I only got a third through that one before I lost any interest in the game. Diablo III I never really felt like playing from all I’ve seen about it before and after its release. The problem with these games for me isn’t gameplay. From what I can tell, gameplay in StarCraft and StarCraft II is identical. Not a fan of the main base menu and dialog cutscenes addition, but that’s something that can be breezed throught quite painlessly without disrupting the actual game much. And Diablo III at least looks like it plays the same as Diablo II.

These days I’ve started to realize that the main problem I have with these games is their overall style, or perhaps more fittingly their feel. StarCraft II and Diablo III just don’t feel right. They look wrong. WarCraft III is one of my favorite games that I think I played almost every year since its release. The graphics took a bit to get used to, but for the slightly quirky fantasy setting, it worked. The same colorful cartoony style isn’t working for StarCraft and Diablo. WarCraft has always been colorful, but these two had graphics that were grainy and dominated by washed out grays and browns. I wouldn’t say they are pretty, and in fact I’d even say they are kind of ugly looking. But the games had a clear visual style that is matching perfectly with their dark themes and stories. The new cartoony laser beam spectacle creates a feel and overall style that is quite different from the older games. It’s hard to say which one came first, but the new graphics are matching the new tone of the stories. Blizard games have always been somewhat pulpy, but Diablo and StarCraft were very earnest at being grim and gritty. The cutscenes in the first Terran campaign had some campy humor to them, but that quickly disappeared as the story progressed. WarCraft III on the other hand is overly dramtic, but at least in a somewhat charming campy way. But in these recent games, this aspect is lacking. Instead of being more sedate, the stories and cutscenes turned out to the point of being cheesy. Overall this leads to a completely different appearance, in which drama and spectacle take center stage and genuine gloom and bleakness are thrown out the window.

Fantasy cliches I don’t like

There are good reasons to not dismiss something out of hand simply for it being commonly regarded as a cliche. Something being a cliche does not come from it’s inherent flaws, but from the flaws of numerous inferior immitators. Every cliche once started as an original idea that served a meaningful role that was highly important to the work it appeared in. But that being said, there are still real problems with making use of cliches. When an element is included in a fantasy work because the creators believe that it’s expected and a default component, then you have exactly the situation where the element is present without any context that makes it relevant and meaningful. Even more so, when you keep doing things the way it’s commonly expected, you end up just retelling the same bland generic stories that have been worn down to be without any distinguishing features. And so, back when I first started to create a fantasy world, I made a couple of choices what common fantasy elements I really don’t want to include. Not for the lofty goal of being original, but to protect myself from blindly going with the flow and end up in places I never wanted to be.

  • Save the World: This is the lowest common denominator of motivations. Seeing yourself killed and anything you ever loved destroyed is something everyone wants to avoid regardless of circumstances and context. It’s lazy, and that makes it bland. Also, once the world is saved, you really cut off any chance to continue from there in a satisfying way.
  • Dark Lords: Yawn. Vader is interesting because he’s a lackey. The Emperor is interesting because he’s so unassuming and his sorcerous powers come as a surprise. Lord Death Knight Demon Warlocj isn’t.
  • Demonic Invasion: There are a couple of cool ones, but I just don’t want to use it myself.
  • Chosen Ones: I find these intelectually offensive. The idea that a person is perfect and will automatically succeed because the powers that be decided it will be so is not just dead boring, it also implies that effort is irrelevant and some people are just better than others with no doing on their own.
  • Prophecies: There are two types of cliche prophecies. The one type that tells you in advance what will happen with complete accuracy and as such remove any hope of tension from the story. And the type that can only be understood after the the prophecised event has already happened and is therefore completely useless. I actually did end up coming up with an idea to make supernaturalinsights into possible futures interesting, relevant, and non-spoiling, but that came out of my wish to not do either of those cliches.
  • Lost Golden Ages: Like chosen ones, this one just doesn’t sit right with me ideologically. It’s the idea of “everything used to be better in the past”, which in reality always only means “I miss being previleged and getting unfairly advantaged over other people”. Not all development is automatically progress. But this feels way too close to wishing to restore a past that never existed in which the person felt previleged, so I don’t want to touch it.
  • It actually is post-apocalyptic Earth: Get out and never talk to me again.

Writing more interesting characters

The majority of all supporting characters outside of movies are really bland. “Barkeep”, “Guard”, and “Thief” are fully comprehensive summaries of their entire personalities. Even worse when it happens to main characters. And it’s not that movie are immune to it. There are movies with characters written like that. Generally bad movies.

But think for example of any other characters from Conan stories. If you are a commited fan, you might be able to give a name to “the princess in People of theBlack Circle” or “the sorcerer from The Tower of the Elephant“. But it would be close to impossible to describe them as characters instead of the specific things they did. The Lord of the Rings is even much worse. Describe anything about the characters of Legolas and Gimli in the book. One is an elf and son of Thranduil, the other a dwarf and son of Gloin. That’s about all their is to them. I think this is not just wasteful writing, but also lazy.

My solution to this is to draw up a character sheet for all characters that are added to a story. Not defining them by various numbers or parameters, but making a list of traits that could distinguish them from others and make them memorable in some way. Unusual physical features, iconic pieces of clothing, quirky habbits, notable forms of speech, a special weapon or tool. Anything that could make the audience remember the character as “that guy with the thing” instead of “the guy who did that”.

Awesome future novel idea #5: Scouts of the Eldritch Wilds

Unlike previous awesome future novel ideas, this is one I actually plan to give a try very soon. It’s something I am still bouncing around in my head but intend to give a shot as soon as I have more of the basics figured out. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’m impulsive and have a very poor track record of completing long term hobby works.

The idea is a synthesis of the conceptual work I did on the Ancient Lands and Dark World settings that also incorporates my love for the great neo-noir and wuxia movies from the mid-90s forward. At the center stands a world that is full of life, but hostile to people. A world in which the spirits of the land rule, with civilization confined to small enclaves along the coasts where priests and sorcerers maintain a tenuous state of stability. It’s a world in which the forces of nature are particularly powerful and unpredictable, as are the spirits who control them. Civilization is in an eternal state of siege and to keep the constantly encroaching wilderness at bay, the priests and sorcerers need to know what is going on beyond the borders of civilization.

Within this context exists a special class of scouts, who are knowledgeable in eldritch lore and accustomed to the ways of the barbarians who inhabit the lands of their wild gods. The scouts are not soldiers, though most of them are mercenaries of a sort, offering their skills and knowledg to the courts and temples for pay. They are a society of their own, at home both in the wilds and civilized lands, but set appart from either population by their delvings into esoteric things. Violence is not their trade, but alone among barbarians and magical beasts, they are highly skilled with spear and bow. Among each other, knowledge is the main currency of their trade and connections worth more than gold. Yet there is also great rivalry and competition and out in the wilds they are beyond the laws of either kings or tribes.

C6?

While it’s really well made, I’ve always been thinking that making a Conan RPG based on the d20 system was a really odd and unfitting choice. The extremely steep power gradient between 1st and 20th level just doesn’t seem right. But running the Conan game in an E6 variant? Now that seems like a really interesting thought.

The beautiful worlds of E6

At the very end of the run of Dungeons & Dragons’ 3rd Edition, someone came up with an idea to turn the game from one that covers heroes who start as complete nobodies to become practical demigods into one that emulates a more grounded style of fantas with a single very simple modification. In Epic 6, player characters can only advance up to 6th level, instead of up to 20th level and possibly beyond. Characters can still advance, but instead of getting new levels with everything that includes, they only get further customized through gaining one additional feat in place of additional levels. Numbers remain relatively small and within a range that has proven itself to work really well in practice, and most of the powerful spells remain outside of the players’ hands. It’s about getting characters to the level that is considered to be my many the one where they best represent the common image of a proper fantasy hero and then staying there. No new rules need to be learned and all the existing material of the game that is available to 6th level characters can still be used just as it is. As a rules hack, it is incredibly neat and elegant.

But to me, the really amazing consequence of E6 is not on the side of the players. In my own experience, very few games ever had characters reach 7th level and beyond. The great power of high level characters never became an issue in any of the games I played and ran. The reason I got so fascinated with E6 back when I still played 3rd Edition is the many implications that it has for the world around them. It’s not just that player characters are limited to 6th level, the same limitation also applies to NPCs as well. This means you can’t simply go to a big temple or wizard school and pay someone to cast 4th and 5th level spells for you and you won’t be able to buy scrolls of these spells as well. A considerable portion of magic items also can no longer be crafted by either PCs or NPCs either. Even if magic is as widely available as the game seems to assume by default, the limitations of what spells are available to the wizards and clerics of the setting lead to a rather different “high magic” setting with a lot of low-power magic and an almost lack of high-power magic.

But where it gets really interesting is the fact that these limitations on the powers and abilities on PCs and NPCs don’t apply to monsters, as those don’t normally have levels. Many people seem to prefer to adjust the world of their game accordingly by limiting the monster population to creatures that are considered appropriate challenges for 6th level parties by the rulebooks, but I’ve been much more a fan of keeping all those big critters around as they are. This way you get a world in which even the most powerful mortal heroes are incapable of taking on directly. If an older dragon or greater demon needs to be dealt with the players will have to work out different strategies to face than other than straight up challenging them to a fight in their lair. At the same time, powerful magical creatures are the only source of access to higher level spells which they have as inborn abilities rather than learned through advancing in levels. If you need powerful magic, you need to find a powerful magical creature and convince it to provide it for you. A world in which “high level” PCs stand head and shoulders above the common rabble but are still dwarfed by magical monsters is something I’ve not really seen much in fantasy. Something that I find very fascinating from a worldbuilding perspective. While I like the mechanics of Symbaroum, the way it is written it only makes advanced PCs vulnerable to common soldiers and bandits, but at the same time it also lets them take out the most powerful monsters just as quickly. Limiting the possible strength of monsters the way they are feels somewhat disapointing to me. There is a space for fantasy in which fights can take almost the form of Russian roulette by making engaging a powerful foe a great danger. But setting things up in a way that a head on assault isn’t really a viable option strikes me as much more interesting.

Magic & Religion for a Dark World

Building on a previous post from two months ago and somewhat revising it.

I always want to do more with magic than it simply being there and wizards casting spells as if it’s a simple science. For me it also needs a mystical element that waves it into the nature and origin of all reality. To come up with something for this setting, I looked at what the primary role of supernatural forces in the world would be. Which clearly is the effect of different regions becoming more or less magical or magically corrupted and this affecting how civilizations develop and decline. There are also gods of the land that have some control over it, and priests and sorcerers who want to take that control for themselves. The casting of spells by mages as a weapon or to do useful things is still very much a secondary thing in the worldbuilding and I don’t have any real plans for how that should look yet. So I’ve been looking at magic as a divine and natural force first and build a metaphysic model for the world before going deeper into available spells and magical items. As of now, I am working with the magic sytem of Symbaroum in mind, from which the three magical traditions are directly taken.

Magical energy is both the source of the life force in all living things and the power behind all natural forces. It’s the energy of earthquakes, volcanoes, and storms, and as such also governs flooding, droughts, avalanches, and wildfires. In its primordial state the world is raw Chaos, just the basic elements without any structure and order. It is the will of spirits that makes the primordial chaos take form and give it structure. All the lands exist because they are given shape by the Gods of the Land. There are countless spirits of greatly different power, but they all together form the environment that exists around them.

In the natural order of things, mortals are not the masters of the world, not do they have any preferential position in it compared to all the animals they share it with. The untamed wilds are a place that is harsh and dangerous and full of things much more powrful than people. But mortals always have the desire to shape the environment around them to be less dangerous for them and provide them with more prosperity. The oldest form of such attempts is Witchcraft, the practice of appealing directly to individual spirits of great power whose influence over the land can make an important difference to the farmers and hunters and their villages.

At some point Witchcraft was surpassed in many places by Theurgy. Instead of appealing directly to numerous indivdual spirits of the land, priests began to pray to greater gods of much greater power and far wider influence. In the End, two cults became dominant that worship gods that have become known to be sympathetic to the plights of mortals and responsive to their pleas. Nine in the North and Seven in the South. (Six of which are identical.) Their ability to influence the natural world is tied to the faith of the people who inhabit the lands and as such the building of temples and the performance of rituals is a very important element of society. The true power of the gods is found only where the faithful take it, while at the same time abandonment of the Gods of the Land diminishes their influence and power to cause disasters and other calamities that are cause of suffering for mortals.

But it is the nature of mortals to always seek to improve their lot and gain power that rivals that of the gods. All the prayers and rituals of the priests have their limitations and they are unable to make all the beneficial changes to the environment that are possible. Some think they know better than the gods what mortals really need and developed the art of Sorcery. Sorcery attempts to gain the powers of the spirits and reshape the surrounding world to provide greater prosperity, wealth, and security. However, the natural world is a fragile thing and witches and priests are both in full agreement that it should be left in the hands of the gods to reshape the lands to the greater benefit of their worshippers. Sorcery has achieved a number of marvelous wonders, but much more prominent in the minds of most people are the many disastrous catastrophies that turned whole lands into barren wastelands or regions haunted by nightmares. Except for a few places, Sorcery is feared in all lands, and in many places ruthlessly exterminanted by both priests and witches where discovered.

In the present day, worship of the Nine Gods and the Seven Gods is the dominant religion in allmost all settled lands. But Witchcraft snd the worship of Gods of the Land is still practiced in many border regions and isolated settlements that have almost no contact with the great cities that are the centers of Theurgy.

Once more with (more) feeling

I’ve realized that recently I have not been feeling really enthusiastic about working on the new setting and looking forward to seeing it in action. The last really cool thing where the 50 Cool Things two weeks ago.
I think I found out why that is and how to fix that.

The Problems

The first thing is that I took the idea of using a lot of elements from medieval Northeast Europe and it turned into something more like taking medieval Northwest Europe and adding fantasy elements to it. While I am a huge fan of The Witcher and Dark Souls, the medieval design isn’t really one of the things I love about them. The style that I really love is that of Planescape, Dark Sun, Morrowind, Star Wars, and evrything deawn by Moebius. Worlds that feel very alien and often somewhat surreal. Worlds that are more about representing ideals instead of realism.

The other thing is that I’m not really a fan of treasure hunting. What I really love is exploring magical places, but the material stuff you carry out of them doesn’t do much for me. It’s just such a central element in Sword & Sorcery and wuxia and a standard assumption in most RPGs, but the whole point of starting a new setting was to make something suited for more noir-style stories and adventures. Changing from gold to artifacts didn’t really do the trick.

How to fix it

With that in mind, I think I want to take the setting into a more alien and high magic direction instead of making it Earth-like and low magic. This mostly doesn’t actually change the things that I’ve already described here. The map remains the same, the people remain the same, and the factions remain the same. The magic system of priests, witches, and sorcerers and magical knowledge leading to loss of humanity probably will also remain the same. I will also stick to my plan on using Baltic, Finnish, Mongol, and Greek sounding names and have the trade networks be modeled after the Baltic Sea. And of course, it remains a temperate to cold region of forests with lots of swamps and heaths, full with dangerous and powerful spirits.

What changes will probably be the nature of the eldritch wilderness and also of the civilized lands. So far I had been working with the concept of Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird, based on the assumption of a very medieval Earth-like setting. But it doesn’t make much sense in an alien high magic world. Instead, I found some good guidance looking back into the introduction of the Planescape setting. Planescape is also about exploring wonderous places and collecting valuable stuff there, but it is meant to be so much more than a dungeon crawl treasure hunt. In Planescape, things are intended to get a much deeper meaning and provide more complex motivations by relying on the central theme that belief changes the environment. The factions have their ideological conflicts because each of them tries to make the universe work the way they think it should work and the only reason it doesn’t is because other people still believe that it works differently. This reminded me of my earlier but then discarded idea of powerful immortal sorcerer kings using their supernatural powers to create areas within the otherwise chaotic and dangerous wilderness where advanced civilization can develop and be sustained, protected from the wims of spirits and wild gods.

Now instead of giving this power to immortal sorcerer kings, I want to adapt the idea from planescape that belief can change the environment. Not so much that reality fundamentally changes because people believe it, but to make it so that magic can have meaningful effects over large areas that will affect the environment in a wide range of ways. Usually an area is influenced by the gods of the land, but many priests, witches, and sorcerers working together can subtly change it through complex rituals and the construction of great magical monuments. These are the occult societies like the Sorcerer Lords, the Moon Knights, or the Fog Witches, and of course the Northern and Southern Churches. All their plotting and hunting for magical tomes is not just for knowledge or for power, but it’s a permanent struggle to preserve and strengthen the societies of their homelands, and there are always those who wish to change them to be closer to their own ideals. Ultimately, all the plots and fights are about protecting their way of life or creating a better world. It’s not the ulta-lowest common denominator of the entire existance of the world being threatened by a great evil that wants only to end all life. But it’s still as important a long-term motivation for the factions as it can get. The players’ involvement in their affairs will matter a great deal to large numbers of people.

What is very important to me with this idea is to keep it all very subtle and mystical. The supernatural world is not a machine with dials to be turned and leavers to be switched. The goal is to weaken the influence of some spirit and to manipulate others. Magical constructions are not about building magitech devices, but about building temples from which priests project their divine powers, errecting shrines to claim spiritual ownership over a place, and to slowly enchant the waters of a lake to become a source of magical power that increases the strength of sorcerers near its shores.

Adding Theme

Another thing that seems appropriate to mention here, as it’s closely related and derives from these thoughts, is the subject of theme. A problem with my Sword & Sorcery setting was that I always had difficulties with making things feel meaningful and not just simple action fun. I really like Conan and Kane, but their philosophical concerns never felt like they could be applicable to a game of people playing together with limited time. They are much too brooding and inside looking. All my favorite stories that seem meaningful to me and where the problem requires direct action fall more into the Neo-Noir style. Stories that I find the most interesting are about failure and defeat, and comin to terms with the truth that in reality people are not heroe who can accomplish everything they want because they are determined. The most important questions are always how much you feel you need to accomplish and how much you are willing to give to accomplish it. And not the cliche of “I would give everything and will do anything it takes!” and then winning without actually having to pay anything for it.

I also have a bit of a fascination with prophecies, but really don’t like it when it predetermines the outcome and removes all tension, or when the meaning can only be deciphered after it already happened. A nice solution I found for this is to have divinations only tell the characters whose paths they will cross if they stay on the path they are currently on, and whether this fated meeting will lead to valuable help or to a confrontation. It can predict when a decisive moment will happen, but not determine the specific outcome. Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that he will have to face Darth Vader, and he already knows this to be true. But neither of them can tell what will happen when he does.

Now when you combine these two things with a setting in which powerful factions try to subtly alter the fate of whole region, a very strong theme emerges: Considering the consequences of your actions. Which is an important element in Noir. And which also happens to be a central theme in The Witcher. When you are a poweful warrior or sorcerer, your actions can have very large consequences. You can not simply charge into a place and destroy the evil and except that this nicely wraps everything up and will be happy ever after. This is what happens in a simple adventure story, but it’s not how things work in reality. Not ignoring the fact that sometimes things don’t go as planned and then having to find ways to deal with the consequences as best as they can is something that I feel adds a great deal of depth and meaning to a story.