Category Archives: Ancient Lands

The Deep Blue Under

I frequently see well meaning critics demand that more writers should include their own “cultural heritage” in their works. To get more diversity in fiction, particularly in fantasy, als also share new ideas and perspectives with the global audience. Does this also apply if you’re a writer from Northern Europe? We have lots of cultural heritage here. I am sure there’s lots of people who would really be into fantasy inspired by vikings.

But to be honest, we do have a bit more history than that here in “the land between the seas”. (No, not Denmark. Schleswig-Holstein.) And it’s all about sailing and the sea. Some time after the Viking Age, Lübeck became the gateway to Northern Europe and central hub of the whole Baltic Sea trade. While I mentioned once before the whole story of Margarete I, the Kalmar Union, the Battle of Visby, and pirates is excelent Game of Thrones level material, the history of the Hanseatic League is mostly a story of commerce and diplomacy, which lies somewhat outside of my own field of interest when it comes to fantasy. If someone would write it, I’d totally read it, but I’ve got other things to do with my own writing efforts.

But still, there’s the sea…

If you’d want to condense the culture of Schleswig-Holstein in just two images, it’d be dairy farming and the sea. Those are our things! (We don’t have anything else.) Including sea travel has always been a priority for me in my work on the Ancient Lands and it has remained so even after I gave the setting a tighter focus as a forest world. Forests and the sea, that’s the two worlds of the Ancient Lands. Today I was thinking about the role of sea spirits within the setting and I didn’t have a lot on my list. Mermaids that can shapeshift into humans and like to eat people with their shark teeth was about the full extend of ideas I had about it. That and Deep Ones, but those fishy friends are not actually spirits but more in the league of trolls and harpies. I had stopped worrying about sea monsters a good while ago, because when are you really going to have players fight those. I certainly don’t want to do fantasy kingdoms on the bottom of the sea, as throughout the past four decades those have always universally sucked. And when you’re on a ship, most sea creatures can’t actually fight with player characters. So what to do about the sea as an element of the Ancient lands?

Here’s where all the talk about cultural heritage comes into it. When you think about fantasy and the sea, you probably first think about pirates on tropical islands, and maybe Odysseus in the Aegean Sea as a distant second. But here up north, the image of the Sea is a very different one. The Baltic Sea is pretty tame (and boring), but the North Sea and particularly the North Atlantic Ocean are a different story altogether. There is very little romantic about how they are seen in local folklore and there aren’t any pretty mermaids in coral castles and friendly dolphins. The beach is a nice place to take walks and think about going for a swim if the weather were just a bit warmer. But the sea itself is a vast, black, cold void of watery death.

In Northern German folklore, the North Sea is given some degree of personalty, so you could think of it as a kind of spirit. But a more accurate word would be demon. Yes, the sea has always been a provider of food and the source of our wealth through trade, but that’s only as long as you stay above it. Below the surface there is only darkness and death. If the sea is worshipped, it’s not to ask for plenty or good fortune. It’s begging it to spare your life. The sea can swallow everything that floats on it or that is close to it, and what it devours is never heard from again. It is literally forever vanished from the face of the Earth. Only very rarely do things come up from below, and these are the massive corpses of things unlike any creatures seen on land or in the air. Things with no resemblance to what can be found in rivers and lakes. Below the waves lies a world that is not meant for people. A world in which people can not exist.

While I like the idea of shapeshifting cannibal fish ladies, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are actually much too human like for a place like this. Instead of making the sea part of the Spiritworld, I am going to assign it to the Underworld. It’s not the world of spirits that seem related to people, but the world of alien demons. I had not really decided on any details about the Ocean God yet, but going with Dagon would be a much more interesting choice than some happy dolphin god. Another interesting aspect of the sea in the Ancient Lands is that aside from the highest mountains, it’s the only part of the world that is open to the sky without any cover. For people used to life under trees, this would be a very alien environment.

Of course, there are still some major sailing peoples in the Ancient Lands and I am going to keep sea travel an important part of the setting, But sailors will be a much more odd group of folks. Even staying close to the coasts, they are always living on the edge to the Underworld, much more so than any other people. And their own culture should be influenced by this proximity to demonic influences. Discovering remote islands will also take on a somewhat different character. I have not thought of any specifics yet, but reaching such a place should have some traces of feeling like arriving in a different world after having passed through an alien and malevolent otherworld of the open sea.

A Book? What kind of book?

Pretty early on in my work on the Ancient Lands I began considering the possibility of making the material publicly available. The comments on the early ideas I shared showed that there clearly is some kind of interest for the kind of setting I have in mind and have continued throughout the years. And since I started reading a wide range of OSR releases and seeing with how little resources and just a good amount of creativity they have been made, creating some kind of book started looking like a real option. Now that the world has reached a pretty clear shape in my head and I more or less finalized the rules I want to use for it, it’s getting time to get started with some actual writing.

The most important decision before even starting with putting words on a screen is to chose what kind of book it’s going to be and what is going to go into it. I am all for making whatever creative work you want to do, but what I want to make is a world, not some kind of special or innovative book. So I find it useful to consider who would be the intended target audience and what kind of book they would find useful to have. In my very early worldbuilding days I used to look at the table of content of the Forgotten Realms and Eberron books, or the old TSR box sets and try to cover all the items they had listed. The results were not satisfying and it’s pretty clear that I won’t be having an audience like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Golarion anyway. I’ve actually come to dislike such books myself and consider it a format that just isn’t really useful for GMs. With whatever I am writing being effectively a homemade book using a retro D&D system, the main audience I might reach would likely be mostly GMs running oldschool game, plus the odd person who follows me to this site through one of my forum signatures. And these people wouldn’t be interested in a big encyclopedia of a complex world with a detailed history and intricate webs of NPC relationships. And neither am I really interested in developing or writing such a world.

I read a good number of RPG books of which many are setting specific, but with no intention to run campaigns in those worlds. What I am really after is ideas that I can incorporate in my own campaign. Almost the whole creation process of the Ancient Lands consisted of collecting ideas and concepts from everywhere and integrating them into the setting with barely more than a fresh coating of paint. The book that I want to make is a collection of humanoid cultures, settlements, adventuring sites, creatures, and one concept of a cosmology unusual for a D&D world. It is all content that I created for use in my own campaign and it all can be used together if someone wants to play in my world as well. But I expect that to happen rarely and so the primary design goal is to make it a collection of working stand-alone pieces that GMs can scavenge to create their own bronze age wilderness Morrowind-esque worlds.

The main problem i had when first getting into RPGs and deeper into Forgotten Realms was that I felt the main book not providing me enough information to actually run a game, It was full of hints for what is hidden in many of the dungeons, teased at the resources and plans of various organizations, and gave brief glimpses at the goals and motives of important NPCs, as well as announcing big historic events to come. And I knew that at least for some of these there were actual definitive answers to those questions and much more detailed descriptions of the brief summaries. And as a young GM I felt that I would have to know these things before I could use all those elements in a game or otherwise I would later discover I did things wrong. And that’s a big problem with settings that have these big progressing timelines and continous releases of sourcebooks. You can actually  run them wrong and contradict the officially established facts. The second major problem with Forgotten Realms in particular is that all the cool content is for high level parties and completely out of scope for the most common groups of 1st to 5th level. Which means the majority of content you get isn’t even going to see any use for most of the time. What’s the point of NPCs I can not use because my party is not powerful enough and that have to be kept out of any danger because I don’t want to contradict their official description in future releases? The second edition box set and the third edition book are prime examples of how to not make a campaign setting. The Planescape and Dark Sun boxes were much better, but the revised edition of Dark Sun made all the mistakes the first one managed to avoid. Again, the main purpose of a campaign setting is to be used by GMs to run games for their players. They are not for reading fiction. Most big published campaign settings don’t appear to understand it but have a big enough brand behind them to not make it matter.

One of my favorite setting books, that I’ve been praising many times, is the first edition Forgotten Realms book The Savage Frontier. This book is what I want to do. It’s a collection of ideas that inspire GMs to create their own specific and detailed content. To me it’s one of the many old Jaquays classics. Unfortunatly that first version of the North didn’t last and became the quaint bloated mess it has been ever since. Another, and perhaps even better example of what it might look like would be Yoon-Suin. It’s not a book that gives you a world that can be played out of the box. It really is a book of ideas that you are meant to use to assemble your own personal setting, I already can say for certain that I won’t be having any considerable number of random tables or appendices (full of random tables) and will be going for more half-page dungeon descriptions and NPCs meant to be met by and interact (and perhaps get killed by) the players. But it’s an approach I very much appreciate.

I hope that this might have provided some general idea of what you can expect to get. Somewhere in the distant future. However, I am doing this purely for the enjoyment of creation and the intention of getting read and used by other people, so all the content will be available for free. Once everything has been written and the reception indicates that there might be a market for it I could very well imagine doing a very pretty print version with comissioned art sold at a modest profit. But again, this is for my own use first, to see it get used by others second, and with commercial success being a very distant third that is of no real priority.

10 Random Things about the Ancient Lands

Things are rather busy at work these days with our main season having started (we sell garden plants so everything needs to be fully grown before the actual planting season starts) and even on the days when I don’t get back home late and tired I mostly spend my time doing other things than working on the Ancient Lands. While admittedly I’ve been writing more here recently than I have for quite a while, most of it is spur of the moment stuff that just pops into my mind minutes before I write it. And even most of that is more theory than specific content.

But I am always more creative in spring and summer (it’s adventuring season after all) and I got quite a number of ideas in my head that are almost finished content that is only in need of being nailed down and locked. Which I always do best when spelling it out in writing. So expect more stuff that is ready to take and use in games in the comming weeks. For now I am hopping on to an idea that someone suggested over two years ago and share ten randomly selected interesting details about the Ancient Lands that make it a unique and distinctive setting:

  1. The Ancient City: Somewhere in the distant past there was a great city of sorcerers known as Sarhat (or Sahal) that rivaled all other realms in power and eldritch knowledge. Of all the legendary ruins in the Ancient Lands, this one is by far the most famous and most searched for, though almost nothing definitive is known about it. Many believe that the sorcerers of Sarhat were naga and that therefore it must be located somewhere in the Mahiri Jungles or Kemesh, but every so often the notes of slain naga sorcerers reveal that their hunts for the ancient city have got them no further than anyone else’s. Some treasure hunters and sages believe that the city actually lies somewhere in the Spiritworld or might even have moved far from its original location. Countless people have died or vanish on their search for Sarhat and among the common people there is a widespread doubt about what one might even find if the city could ever been reached. The search for the fabled city is widely regarded as an idiotic quest for fame without any hope of success or practical purpose, and leading people to Sarhat has become well established as the ultimate folly, both literally and figuratively.
  2. Verticality:Throughout the Ancient Lands and over the countless centuries of its existance, the builders of fortresses and castles have always shown a seemingly universal fascination with height. In a world covered in trees, reaching above the endless canopy and having an unlimited view to the horizon has become an ancient symbol of power. Castles are often build on top of rocky hills or take the form of massive towers, and some fortresses are carved into the sides of massive cliffs. Even in small villages with simple wooden palisades the highest point of the settlement is usually reserved for the chief’s hall or the village shrine.
  3. Truthspeaking: The future is always uncertain until it happens and there are no powers that could say for certain what it holds. Yet the actions and choices of both mortals and spirits are often very much predictable as long as one has sufficient knowledge of their motives and plans. Truthspeaking is the art of peering into the wyrd and observing the countless possibilities and paths that lie ahead of a person and finding the one that seems most likely. Truthspeaking is very accurate when it comes to predicting significant encounters that await a person in the near future if events have already been set into motion to send them and others down certain path. It can also predict how those other people will act according to their natures and motives and a warning of looming treachery can be of invaluable worth. However, while truthspeakers can predict a duel between two heroes before they even know about each other’s existence, they have no way to tell who will win if their skills are equal. And often it is tiny and seemingly insignificant details that decide the outcome of an encounter that even the most experienced truthspeakers can easily miss as being important.
  4. Serpentmen: The serpentmen are servants of the naga who are similar to elves in size and stature but with scaled skin, serpentine eyes, and almost featureless faces. They have never been encountered as anything other than soldiers or guards and seemingly always in the service of naga, which has many people believe that they have been created from elven slaves through alchemy or sorcery.
  5. Iron: While the raw materials for making iron are quite cheap and widely available, the process of refining them into a workable material and forging it into durable blades are much more complex and dificult than working with bronze. While iron pots and nails are common and its often used for making lamellar armor plates, iron blades are very rare and valuable. Even though they are no better than well made bronze blades (and often even less so), iron has the special property of harming spirits just as well as it does mortals. Pieces of iron can be used as wards against spirits and iron chains have the power to securely bind them and even prevent mortal witches from using their magic.*
  6. There are four moons in the sky: One large, one medium, and two small; one of which is moving very slowly in the sky in the opposite direction.
  7. The Old Gods aren’t gone: Nor are they sleeping. They are still around as they always have, since long before the gods of forests or beasts. They have only become almost invisible in this world since life took over the surface of the planet and established the familiar laws of nature. As one leaves behind these familar regions in the Spiritworld they can be found deep beneath the earth and among the stars that are still their domains.
  8. Time is irrelevant in the Spiritworld: While visiting mortals still experience time as they are used to it seems to have no real influence on the Spiritworld itself or its native beings. Castles can stand deserted in pristine conditions for many thousands of years or crumble into rubble within minutes after being abandoned. Some spirits sleep for eons or sit in silent contemplation for centuries without need for food or sleep. Fires burn without ever consuming their fuel and a single night may last for what seems to be months. The Spiritworld is a manifestation of the thoughts and emotions of the spirits and does not have to follow the patterns that govern life in the material world.
  9. Spears and Bows are the Hero Weapons: Swords and axes play a rather minor role in the warrior culture of the Ancient Lands. Since armor tends to be light and not highly sophisticated, reach and speed are the main things that keep warriors alive in battle. A properly armed warrior carries either a spear or a shield (or both if he has attendants to carry them) and short swords and axes are kept primarily as backup weapons or for use in tight spaces. When using one-handed weapons, the other hand always carries a shield if it’s in any way possible.**
  10. There are no horses or dogs: Also no bears, cows, or pigs. Horses and dogs are the two most significant animals in European culture as far as their role in hunting and warfare is conerned. Since I want to go with a style that is more Morrowind/Planescape/Kalimdor, these very familiar creatures are removed and replaced with more exotic creatures that are representative of the world’s unique ecology.

*I really like this one from a mechanical perspective. It’s a simple replacement of the common silver weapons and makes the imprisonment of spellcasters very easy without convoluted magical prison setups. All while reviving the old image of iron having power over spirits.
** This is partly “historical accuracy” but primarily a desire to see these weapons of ancient mythological figures back in their deserved spots. The reach advantage of spears can simply be represented as a +1 bonus to Armor Class, as in practice it makes it harder for an opponent to get close enough to attempt a strike at the body.

Am I done?

Certainly feels like I am done. Despite saying just a few weeks ago that I felt I barely had made any real progress over the last six years of working on the Ancient Lands, I think that I now have all the pieces togther. Not ready for a publication by any stretch, but you could say the setting has reached the beta stage, where it’s completely playable.

Some monsters still need proper names and a handful still needs their stats written down, but I got a 100 entries bestiary. The gods still need naming, but I have them all together and religion properly worked out. The four character classes are all ready to play and the magic system is complete. I got all the races and an outline for the culture, and good sounding names for almost all of them. The map is an ungly sketch but it has all the countries that I want to include.


This thing can be played.

This week I was reading through the older posts I’ve written here about the Ancient Lands in more detail, and while it is true that almost all major elements of the setting where already in place in early 2011, the vast majority of them had a sometimes quite significantly different shape and appearance back then. Based on what I’ve been writing about the process, the setting really grew into the world I want it to be in the last 8 months. Many things I now consider crucial to the theme and style of the setting I wrote about only last summer. Looking back a full year before now, there’s still a lot of stuff that now seems completely out of place to me. Deserts, empires, trade networks, criminal organizations, humans! What was I thinking?!

I think a big tipping point was writing the Project Forest Moon post. This was when all the ideas and things I liked really became one coherent concept. That’s when it clicked and I realized which of my many inpirations I really want to set the overall tone for the world. Endor, Morrowind, Kalimdor, and Planescape (Beastlands and Pandemonium). I want the Ancient Lands to feel like those, and everything that doesn’t have anything to do with bringing that style to life can go. No empire, even when it’s lizardmen. No deserts, no steppes, no tundra. Certainly no criminal organizations, multinational mining consortiums, or national borders. But as I now recently realized, also no stone age hunters. In my quest for making a more solid tribal society and animisitc religions in a largely unsettled world I regularly kept forgetting that it’s still supposed to be a Bronze Age level setting. But now it finally all looks right.

There’s still a good amount of things to be done. The first priority being the creation of a sandbox for my next campaign that I’ll hopefully be starting before the summer. The setting I have created now is a set of rules, monsters, cultures, and general geographic overview. Creating adventures for it is another step entirely. The other thing I want to do is to actually get all the ideas that mostly exist in my head and on some indecipherable notes into a coherent text that can be shared and used by others. I am still not putting any hope in any kind of commercial success with this setting, but I definitely want to release it to the public. Over the many years of working on the Ancient Lands I’ve been getting a considerable number of comments and also messages from people simply wanting to tell me that they really like my ideas and would love to play in such a campaign. And that’s really all the confirmation I need that this isn’t a completely pointless undertaking. Even if nobody else ever runs an Ancient Lands campaign, it can still be a useful sourcebook for material or at the very least a source of inspiration for GMs wanting to start making their own settings.

Amulet of Life Protection

I love wraiths. I also love wights. I love how their attacks can permanently cripple their victims who can get away with their lives. While this is all cool when dealing with one such creature in a campaign once or twice, this does cause a major problem if you want to use them frequently in large numbers. Thematically, energy drain is a nice threat, but it’s not actualy that interesting or fun if there isn’t really anything the players can do about it other than “don’t get hit”. Always running away and using only arrows and spells isn’t tactical fun. It’s just annoying.

Given how the XP requirements for gaining levels work in B/X, I consider level loss to not be terribly bad as a mechanic. Since the required XP for each new level are doubled, you will very quickly catch up to your companions who didn’t get drained while at the same time always lagging behind just a little bit. I just wish it could be more interesting instead of something that just happens to you more or less at random.

The Companion Set introduced the spell restore, that can heal the lost levels but requires a 17th level cleric. Which don’t exist in the Ancient Lands. It also does not add anything tactically and makes energy drain less of a threat and even more of an annoyance. There is also a new magic item called the ring of life protection, which is a ring of protection +1 that can negate a total of 1-6 level losses. That’s a start, but throughout a longer campaign with many PCs, you’d be needing a lot of these things and end up with a sack full of rings of protection.

Way back in my first Ancient Lands campaign I was trying out the Taint mechanic, which I think was from the 3rd edition Unearthed Arcana. It drained a character’s Constitution and Wisdom instead of levels (which I now think was needless redundancy) and had more complex rules, but was a very similar concept that filled the same role from a narrative and worldbuilding perspective. Now I just use energy drains with a saving throw for going into demonically corrupted places for long periods of time. The cool thing about Taint was that it came with a more mundane counter than magic items. If you’re carrying pieces of jade on your body they will absorb the corruption and keep you safe until they reach their limit and crumble. But carrying more Jade didn’t mean that you were better protected, since at some point it just acted like a magnet for corruption and burned out even faster. I think that last detail made things actually too fiddly (this being 3rd edition after all), but it holds the general idea that I think can make energy drain a much more fun game effect.

Amulet of Life Protection

This simple amulet is made from special minerals, branches, herbs horns, feathers, or vials of magical water, often tied to a cord to hang around the neck. It is relatively simple to make with the right ingredients and does not require and actual enchantments.

The amulet can absorb and negate the corruption of demons and sorcery. When a character is hit by an energy drain attack or other level draining effect it automatically negates the level loss. The player has to roll 1d6 (or 1d4 or 1d8, based on the quality of the amulet) and on the roll of a 1 the amulet crumbles and loses its power. If a saving throw is allowed a roll still has to be made, regardless of whether the saving throw might have succeeded or failed. When a character is wearing or carrying multiple amulets at the same time, a roll has to be made for each one individually. Amulets left unattended in areas where a creature would be exposed to regular energy drain effects also have to make a roll against disintegration at each interval.

I think this should make fights against wights and wraith much more interesting. You still want to avoid getting hit, but even if you do get hit multiple times you still might make it through unharmed (other than hit point damage). But you can never know in advance how long your protection will last. As the amulets are easy and inexpensive to make you can always stock up on them before going into haunted places and demonic lairs. But carrying multiple ones doesn’t mean that you can be sure to not run out either.

Time is an Illusion, and so are Pants

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

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

The Mythic Otherworld

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

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

Life Energy

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

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

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

The Wyrd

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

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

Drifting Time

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

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

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

The Blight

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

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

Red and Black Hearts

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve been quoted

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

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

That’s me!

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

You’re a Hero, Willy!

Or “I hate rat quests”.

As I mentioned previously, my attempt at building a sandbox for LotFP had hit a wall and I went all the way back to square one to go on a spirit journey and find out why my campaign never turn out as I imagine them. And it really comes down to me accidentally locking all the good content that is meant to be the main feature of the setting away until the PCs have become powerful enough heroes to be able to face them. Looking back it was incredibly stupid, but… Well, there is no real but. It was stupid. It happens, and I believe it’s a pretty common mistake people make. I’ve seen it often enough and warned other people about it. Why I still did it I have no clue.

In my previous post I talked about finding what it really is that the Ancient Lands are about and what needs to be part of every adventure and dungeon in the campaign. But even with that knowledge I was still struggling with coming up with ideas for dungeons that characters at 1st to 4th level could explore without running into unbeatable and highly lethal opponents. And I think I found the solution for that as well.

I took the first step towards oldschool gaming and laid the groundwork for my current worldbuilding when I first looked into the E6 variant for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, which basically comes down to PCs and NPCs being capped at 6th level but monsters keep all their abilities. It allows you to play low powered campaigns without all the 4th to 9th level spells while still being able to play with the rules system you’re already familiar with. It got decently popular and saw great praise, but the one big question the original creator left open, somewhat on purpose, was what it means to be 6th level? Is a 6th level character a legendary one in a million hero, or is he still just as impressive as a low mid-level character in a 20 level D&D campaign and there are hundreds like him all over the place?

When I switched to B/X based rules and leaving the terrible d20 system behind, the question still remained. B/X has 14 levels instead of 6, but like OD&D and AD&D 1st Ed. it has this idea of adventuring being 1st to 9th level and the game then turning into something else. Nine levels plus a handful of legendary figures of world fame beyond that seems like a good yardstick to find the appropriate class level for NPCs based on their powers and accomplishments. But I still was thinking in the categories of low-level, mid-level, and high-level characters. And that was the source of all the problems. A low-level character is a guy with inferior equipment who goes on rat quests in noob dungeons. Whether a character reaches mid-level by 8th, 5th, or 3rd level doesn’t matter. You’re still forcing the players to begin by spending a good time doing things that are “safe” and for “ordinary people”. The whole concept of D&D is extraordinary people doing extremely lethal things, and in LotFP even more so!

Again, like so often, I blame 3rd edition for putting this stupid idea into my head and it did it with the idea of NPC classes. NPC classes are similar to ordinary character classes but are weaker and have fewer abilities, but they still let NPCs go from 1st to 20th level. And that’s just stupid. It’s not just the 20th level commoner that is stupid. Even the 5th level expert or the 7th level adept are stupid. Why do you need a carpenter that has more hit points and fights as well as a 4th level fighter? Why is that powerful orc spellcaster not a sorcerer or a cleric? Even just the harmless looking 2nd level warrior town guard or 3rd level expert blacksmith fly in the face of the idea that PCs are extraordinary people. 6th level PCs are noteworth people and 1st level PCs are noobs who barely can keep up with the plot relevant civilians.

That’s bullshit and I established quite some time ago the paradigm that in the Ancient Lands any NPC without a proper name is automatically a level 0 character. NPCs who are not noteworth warriors or spellcasters are also 0 level and have 1d6 hp and +0 to attack. But even with that I still had that meme in my brain that proper adventures start only once the players have fought their way up to mid-levels. (Basically the content of the first scene in Inception.)

Understanding how I went all wrong very quickly solved my problem with not having any content that can appropriately scaled to 1st level parties. I am just taking a lot of content that I had planned to be suitable for 4th or 6th level parties and adjust the monsters so 1st level parties won’t be instant-splatted. And when you’re playing in a B/X context that’s actually not that hard. Most pretty big monsters are not that well protected and often meant to be encountered in groups of sometimes considerable size. I am still very much in love with the idea of the Nameless Dungeon and to adapt it to the Ancient Lands it will be inhabited by shie, a custom fey creature with 4 Hit Dice. My logi went: 4 HD is meant for 4th dungeon level, whicb is meant for 4th level parties, so if the dungeon is full with them the party should be at least 5th level before getting anywhere near it. But that’s actually not needed. A dungeon build around the shie does not have to have lots of rooms with groups of shie in them. It can still be about them if the players only rarely run into one or two individuals. Or take for example the famous Steading of the Hill Giant Chief: To have an adventure about hill giants you don’t need a party that is able to fight 20 hill giants at once. The most famous giant story is Odysseus and his men in the cave of th cyclops. Only one giant that had the heroes outmatched all by himself. Foreshadowing that the master of the cave is a giant can make exploring a cave full of goblins and giant rats still a giant adventure.

No more “Mr. Kimble I don’t like this Noob Dungeon…” There is no Noob-Dungeon!

And that’s what it’s all about

This last week I have been doing a lot of thinking about my work on the Ancient Lands setting so far. Going by my oldest notes that I could find, the whole idea started pretty much exactly two years ago, give or take a week or two. And after all this time of expanding, revising, and discarding and two short campaigns I find myself with almost nothing concrete to show for. Almost all the major elements like races, classes, technology level, magic, and religion have been there from the very start and I don’t really have much more written down than I had back then. As of now there are no maps, no settlements, no dungeons, abd no NPCs. They all ended up discarded because they just didn’t work for what I really wanted to make.

But it’s not like the years had been wasted and all the work been futile. Rather the opposite. I’ve learned so much about running games and building settings that I had no idea of back then and that helps me know to understand what it really is that I want and what I have to do to get there. And this process has given me more insights and made me more capable at realizing my vision up to right now. Or three days ago, to be more precise.

Last month I’ve been working on my Forest of High Adventure sandbox and despite having a really good feeling about it I ended up once more realizing that I had made somethin that really isn’t at all what I wanted. Instead of going straight back to the drawing board, I’ve spend much of the past days thinking about what went wrong and hunting down what other people have written about the process of creating wilderness sandbox campaigns. A mind with ADD tends to wander all over the place and into multiple directions at once, but when it comes to exploration and creativity that’s not actually a drawback. I really don’t remember how I got there, but the first conclusion I came to was that I had once more lost sight of my goal. The Forest of High Adventure was an attempt to make a wilderness sandbox out of the material from The Savage Frontier, which I consider to be the best setting sourcebook I’ve ever come across. But really, the original spark that got me into worldbuilding was not the thought that the High Forest is a great place to set a campaign in. It was the idea that the ancient past of the High Forest always sounded like a much more interesting setting to play in than the actual material that is described in the books. Including The Savage Frontier. So what have I been doing preparing an Ancient Lands campaign by reconfiguring the building blocks of The Savage Frontier?

The second thing I realized is that I really have to nail down what the core elements and assumptions are that are defining the setting and give it its unique character that distinguishes it from other worlds. I’ve spend a lot of work on figuring out such things as the tradenetworks of key resources, the main political powers of the region, the histories that led to the major conflicts, and things like that, but these all reall have nothing to do with exploring ancient ruins in the widerness and encountering the strange spirits that reside there. Even though its meant to be the central theme of the setting, I did almost nothing with spirits. So I scrapped all that for now and instead begin the creatio of new content with defining the relationship between people, the environment, and spirits.

I’ve been asking people what it means for a setting to have depth. And the best reply, that really nailed it for me and many others, was that the difference between a deep and a shallow setting is that in a deep setting the world itself provides the reasons why things are as they are and people do what they do. In a setting with depth the stories and the characters are specific to that setting and really only work within that setting. They can not be simply ported over to another setting. My favorite examples of these are always BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age settings, but the Metal Gear Solid series also has strong elements of that. They all have a very strong and distinctive identity and they do that almost without any need for history, maps, and political and economic organization.

How do I do that for the Ancient Lands? As I said, the starting point for all of this was that I regularly found the lost realms of the distant past in many fantasy settings much more interesting than the present that is shown. The Lord o the Rings is a story about magic fading from the world and the end of the age of myth, to be replaced by our own world of rational progress. Which is a good story, but I would really love to also see a world in which elves and dwarves are not fading peoples and humans dominant, and in which dragons and giants still dominate. This idea evolved a bit further into a world that is animistic in nature and ruled by spirits, and I also like the atmosphere and aesthetics of exploring an almost uninhabited wilderness as in the D&D module The Isle of Dread, the continent Xen’drik in Eberron, and Kalimdor in Warcraft III. And yes, my favorite forest moon Endor also rears it’s green head again here. So I’ve been writing down notes for things that I thought are central to this vision and should be center stage in every adventure set in the Ancient Lands. And over the days they added up to a pretty decent list.

  • Civilization exists only because spirits protect it from the threats of nature.
  • Civilization ist precarious because spirits are alien.
  • The Wilderness is threatening because people are small.
  • The Spiritworld is not meant for mortal creatures.
  • All mortal endeavors are fleeting and nature will swallow up everything eventually.
  • Cities are unnatural. They are very unlike the way almost all people live and require the support of extraordinary powers.
  • Spirits do not prey on people but generally are not concerned about their wellbeing or that of animals or plants either. Usually it’s safest to not draw their attention at all.
  • Spirits have great control over their domains but can not act against their nature.
  • Sorcery can do things that spirits can not, but it poisons the land and the creatures on it.

The idea that civilization can never grow big or last for a long time came as a solution to having a wild world full of ruins while having the stubborn conviction to not make it another post-apocalyptical setting. There was no real practical reason for that other than wanting to be different. But I think this idea of perpetual collapse and the resulting certainty that the future won’t be different results in a very interesting mood for the setting. It also meshes well with the fact that for the vast majority of human history people couldn’t see any progress happening to their societies. People often complain about medieval stasis in fantasy settings, but for thousands of years that was how things felt for almost all people.

The idea to make cities alien places came to me just yesterday. I always knew I wanted to have a handful of cities but often thought about perhaps not describing them or having them appear in campaigns at all. But I was looking again at Chris Kutalik’s idea for Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird in his Hill Cantons campaign and it seems like a very good approach to me. For the Ancient Lands, villages and towns and the small surrounding farmlands would be Corelands where everything is normal and adventures don’t usually happen.* The wilderness beyond the fields and pastures is the Borderlands, which are full of terrifying beasts and the challenge is to survive the treacherous journey to the dungeons. The Spiritworld and most dungeons are the Weird, where magical creatures can be found and the normal rules no longer apply. (*Adventures in the Corelands would mostly revolve around witches and cults, whose lairs are also Weird.) And cities in the Ancient Lands are clearly not places where you can rest in peace and safety and no real adventures happen,which disqualifies them for being Corelands. So instead of having the PCs be county bumpkins in the big city, why not make the cities outright strange and alien places? After all, they are kind of a violation of the natural relationship between people and the wilderness and it’s already established that sorcery is able to overcome the natural rules of the world. Making people believe that all cities are sorcerous places (and in many cases that’s actually the case) seems like a great way to make them fun in a wilderness campaign and it’s another thing to make the setting distinctive. I think I have to read Vornheim again. (And look what someone just did!)

So yeah, I am feeling really good about this whole worldbuilding thing. I have no gameable material right now (except for a 100 entry bestiary without pictures or typed out descriptions), but I feel like I have another major milestone reached. And perhaps now I’ll get a working sandbox put together.

I think some people would call coming across this image while writing this post syncronicity. I call it coincidence.