Category Archives: Ancient Lands

Or an AL-Series perhaps?

A few weeks ago I’ve been pondering what kind of format to use to turn all my ideas for the Ancient Lands into a single unified document. A task that turned out to be more daunting than I anticipated and as of now progress is still negligible, to put it diplomatically. One particular source of grief would be chapter two, after the section on classes and special rules. The races and cultures of the world. Right from the start I knew that I didn’t want to continue the lamentable practice of having a dozen human cultures, three or four elven ones, and then one dwarf culture, one orc culture, one gnome culture, one lizardman culture, and so on. Aside from just being lazy it’s blatantly using the silly racist mode of thinking that all members of a group of foreigners look the same and are the same. Diversity doesn’t just mean that you need a few African and Asian looking humans in your Anglo-French fantasy land. You need to consequently carry this mode of thinking through the whole setting. The problem that arises from this is that when you already start with 7 different humanoid species, giving each one of them multiple ethnic groups leads to really large numbers very quickly. At my last count I was at 15, which is already way too many for a semi-lightweight setting, even when you give them only one page each. And I’d actually want to diversify them even further. This would be much too unwieldy and not result in the kind of content I want to deliver.

Similar problems have been troubling me with the geography aspect of the setting and how to present the different regions and the vast amount of efectively empty space between them. Thinking about this conundrum led me to consider a different kind of format to present the setting to readers. I’ve frequently been praising the Forgotten Realms sourcebook The Savage Frontier as a really good way to present setting information in a useable way to GMs, and it’s actually only one entry in a series of 10 or so setting modules. The same approach was also used in the Gazetteer series that comprised the Mystara setting of BECMI. While I think that doing 12 region books of this scope would be both too large a project for me and also an overload of information for readers who actually want to play the setting at the table, presenting each region as a semi-contained and complete setting on 10 to 20 pages would have some real merit to it. It’s something that I should be able to do in a reasonable time scale (even if it’s only one or two per year), that would be compartmentalized in small projects that would result in regular accomplishments even if I don’t end up completing it but also could be expanded to additional regions added later, and that would also set a low entry barrier for people who are interested in the premise but don’t want to invest the time of reading a 200 to 300 page tome.

A regional module would allow me to present the local people as tribes specific to that region, with maybe three or four of them per module. In the end I might very well end up with 40+ tribes, but they would be spread around over the different modules and readers would only be faced with the descriptions of those tribes relevant to the region. Regions would probably be rather small and even when taken together not represent the whole world and all it’s people. I find it difficult to really get this aspect across in a continent book, but it would be quite easy in a region book. Instead of a book that covers The North, it would be a module about Icewind Dale, one about the Moonlands, and one about the Fallen Lands, and the other 90% of the broader region just wouldn’t be covered at all. This approach obviously only works in settings where populations are widely scattered in small clusters. And it really lends itself to making effectively sandboxes in different parts of the world. But since that’s the type of setting the Ancient Lands are and the kind of game they are made for, this isn’t an obstacle in any way.

Once more with feeling

This is another post that started out as a way too rambly first draft and that I completely rewrote to make it something more readable. For about the last two months I’ve been occupying myself with thinking about ways to give the Ancient Lands some greater depth and making it more compelling by adding a stronger emphasis on mystical elements and some kind of subtext that is woven into the world itself. To make it more than just another make belief land and something which feels truly wondrous and magical. Something that isn’t just a servicable tool for running campaigns but an artistic expression of my own personal creativity.

When I look at fantasy in books, movies, and videogames, I am always most fascinated when I come across elements that are strange and unexpected and that seem to invite you to think about their meaning within the story. But it is important that “strange” in this context is something very different from “random”. In a lot of old RPG material, or recent material that embraces the old tropes, you can find a lot of crazy stuff with very little rhyme or reason that seem to be there only for the sake of being funny. (Which in Jeff Rient’s threefold model probably would be “retro-stupid”.) While I am totally on board for a short blast of campy fun, this is not something that I would want to deal with when going down to serious business. The strange gives a work a greater depth and makes it more intriguing when its presence has meaning and stands for something.

Very often the strange and weird in fantasy takes the form of monsters. The very concept of monsters in western culture goes back to the Romans who traced the origins of the word monstrum back to either the verbs “to show” or “to warn”. And the original meaning was the occurance of violations of the known natural order – in particular the appearance of creatures of unnatural appearance – which were believed to be the manifestations of something greater and supernatural going on. Seneca described the concept of monstrum as “a visual and horrific revelation of the truth”. And all the things in fantasy and horror that we today consider to be “weird” are forms of such monstrums. They don’t have to be creatures, but can also be objects, environments, events, and phenomena.

What does this mean for the creation of fiction? How can this be translated into an artistic method? For this purpose I want to point to Christopher Nolan’s seminal work on communicating messages and making a point in narrative art.

Contrary to popular believe, Inception is not an illogical heist movie but actually a lecture on communicating abstract concepts to an audience through the telling of an entertaining story, rather than preaching from a soap box. That’s the very concept of “Inception”: You can’t make someone believe something by telling them that they should believe it. Instead you need to show them examples that make them see the issue from your perspective and then let them draw their own conclusions from that experience. And if you’re setting it up right it wil be the same conclusion that you made about the issue. Yes, it’s totally and blatantly manipulative. But that’s what all narative and visual art has always been. The whole point of artistic expression is to communicate ideas.

My goal with the Ancient Lands is to create a world that is compelling and intriguing to explore because there are deeper layers and meanings to discover and experience. Now I am really not sure whether this is defeating the purpose when I am giving a guided tour behind the courtain and outright tell what I am trying to represent with the setting and what the symbolic meaning behind the various strange elements is intended to be. But I don’t regard it as a riddle to be solved and see it more like a method to give the setting a distinctive feel that is consitently evoked by numerous elements that are strewn throughout it. And this post isn’t just about my own setting, but about this approach to worldbuilding in general, so I find it a good way to better illustrate what I mean.

Now let’s get more specific: What are the underlying meanings that I want to be symbolically illustrate through the supernatural elements of the setting? I have some ideas about the meaning of life, the pursuit of happiness, and the structural flaws of western culture. You could perhaps call existentialist eco-socialism or something like that. But nobody wants to hear a critique of western capitalism in a fantasy game about exploring magical ruins. That’s a terrible idea! Instead let me quote Nolan here: “The subconscious is motivated by emotion, not by reason. We need to translate this into an emotional concept.” The best messages that art can communicate are not “do things this way!”, but “think about things this way”. Good fiction that is making a point doesn’t make a specific call to action (that usually just ends up preachy and alienates the audience) but attempts to encourage a certain perspective.

So how could my opinions that I would like people to adopt be translated into an emotional concept? After thinking about it for a few days, I’ve come to see it as “pride and greed are the root of all ills that plague the world”. To perform this inception through the world of the Ancient Lands, this concept needs to be visible within the things that make up the setting. As players are exploring the world and interact with it, they need to encounter threats that stem from pride and greed and see humility and compassion as the source of strength that allows heroes to oppose them.

Immediately two of my primary bad guy monsters spring into my mind. Naga and wights. The naga in the Ancient Lands are a race of serpent spirits from whose ranks the dark art of sorcery was developed. Sorcery is the power to ignore the rules of nature that limit ordinary abilities and regular magic. The naga are also few in numbers but rule over vast armies of slaves. They are the prime example of a hunger for power over both nature and people. They are the perfect candiate for a monstrous manifestation of pride. Wights are undead who have retreated into their crypts where they spend eternity with the riches they amassed in life that they guard fiercely against robbers. They can make for a very great manifestation of greed. Another idea I had today was the old concept of the cursed gold. Greed makes people turn against each other and the sudden possession of great wealth changes people and makes them feel elevated over others. Familair motifs and great showcases of greed being closely tied to pride. Rich people being bad people would be rather blunt and so obvious to make it offputting. But displays of opulent extravagance as indicators for self-destructive madness? That’s more subtle.

As a supporting counterpart to this, humility and compassion would be the sources of of good. This can be incorporated into the world by making the good rulers and helpful allies of setting humble people who don’t display their riches and don’t demand recognition from others. Reaching out to others should be a reliable way to gain powerful supporters and dispays of compassion should return to the players through unexpected aid. I am still at a rather early stage with this idea but it’s one I am very excited about further developing.

Another emotional concept I like to include comes from a realization I had from my university classes in cultural studies. Pretty much every major religion I know about regards bodily existance as hugely problematic. The body is the crude shackles of the pure and exalted spirit. If we could just exist without flesh, we would be gloriously divine beings of perfection. Christianity is one of the more extreme cases of body hating, but it has been a central element of Indian theology for thousands of years as well. And of course it’s everywhere throughout mythology and from there spread into fantasy. The flesh is impure and sinful and holds the spirit back. I find this very nonsensical. Sartre once condensed the central idea behind existentialism down to “existance preceds essence”, and while he probably wasn’t thinking about the body-mind duality I find it applicable to this situation as well. We are not preexisting spirits that become manifest in a physical body (essence precedes existance) but our minds are the result of the experiences made by our bodies. It’s a banal statement from a rational scientific perspective, but quite important in a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the meaning of life and the nature of existence. The relationship between physical instinct and rational morality has been of interest to me for a very long time and was one of the early philosophical problems of my young inquisitive self. In Germany in the 80s and 90s, I experienced an approach to raising boys that attempted to suppress their violent instincts to the point they would eventually be extinguished. But what I found was that boys some years younger than me appeared even more out of hand than boys of my age had been. Also, while I have been told that I’ve refused to retaliate to violence in a Ghandi-like fashion from a very early age (which actually got me through childhood and youth very smoothly), I still loved playing with toy guns and really enjoy violent movies and videogames to this day, even though that would have been seen as a big no-no in 80s pedagogy. My conclusion to this was that any attempt to teach responsible use of physical force has to aknowledge the instinct to violence instead of trying to suppress it. Same thing with sexuality. Attempting to suppress natural instincts only leads to a lack of control over those very same instincts. Therefore I regard the self as an extension of the physical instincts. “Instinct precedes reasom.” Yet I am not aware of any religion that puts the body at the center of being. I thought that there should be some religions of this type in fantasy well before I started working on my own setting.

It’s a philosophical concept that has been part of my worldbuilding from the very start. The Ancient Lands have no afterlife and no ghosts. There are wraiths and shades, but these are not actually remnants of living people. They are distorted echoes of people who have ceased to exist, composed of sorcerous energy. It’s a simpler and more straightforward concept than pride and greed being the source of all ills, and I already got a couple of ideas how to represent it symbolically through supernatural elements within the world.

  • Powerful spirits are physically imposing. Feeble looking spirits have little magical power.
  • Magic items are not crafted, but the remains of powerful spirits and witches that contain traces of their original magical powers.
  • Sorcerers are in great physical shape, like Xaltotun or Kane, not frail and weak.
  • I always wanted to do something with blood magic. The body is the source of the mind and therefore the source of magic.
  • Places of natural magical energies are often invigorating or have healing powers.
  • Undead are always insane.

These are two examples of how you can take abstract concepts and turn them into motifs that you can use to create a consistent theme within the supernatural and also mundane elements of a fantasy setting. I hope some of this might be useful to someone and didn’t turn out too much of a rambling mess,

Ancient Final Fantasy Lands?

While the Ancient Lands that are floating around in my head is a pretty great place (yeah, the actual writing isn’t really comming along that well so far) it often feels to me like it’s still missing a certain something. Worldbuilding at the drawing board is a technical task of deliberate consideration and choice, and while it’s a wonderful assembly of parts, it is lacking life. What I really need is that spark of emotional value that can make it truly ignite.

“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

Project Forest Moon was my first attempt to really give the setting an aesthetic core, and seeing how often I am refering back to that post it apparently was a very successful one for me. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi both defined by inner ideal of fantasy atmosphere with Endor, Bespin, Dagobah, and also Jabba’s Palace. (While I also love the atmosphere in several parts of Mass Effect, those are actually just recapturing that Star Wars magic very well.) Obviously, I also love Morrowind as a main source of idea, but the actual game itself feels much more bland and lifeless than it looks on pictures, just like the other Elder Scrolls games.

But today I somehow ended up listening to some samples of the soundtrack of Nier: Automata (still have not even played the first game) and I really quite like it. It really very much reminds me of the music from the last Final Fantasy games, which now actually brings me to todays topic.

I only played Final Fantasy 10 up to and failing at the final boss, finished Final Fantasy 13, played a couple of hours of Final Fantasy 7, which I found very much lacking, and tried out the beginning of Final Fantasy 12. So in the eyes of true fans, I probably don’t actually know shit about real Final Fantasy games. But while I have not seen much of 12 and 13 has some really big problems in the gameplay and story department, from an aesthetic perspective I really like them and 10. Sure, they are cheesy and overly dramatic, and not in a fun camp way, but the visual and aural presentation of the world outside of combat and cringy dialogs is really working for me. It hits that Star Wars nerve and actually does so a bit stronger than even Star Wars.

These environments are like 70s Sword & Sorcery art brought to life with light and sound that you can walk around in. The games also manage to create the impressions that these worlds are vast and also almost uninhabited, which is another thing I really like and that you rarely find in contemporary fantasy anymore. Books have huge numbers of characters and countries, while videogames are forced to cram all their content into very dense spaces because of their technical limitations. By not having an open world like The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher 3, or Horizon, Final Fantasy games can show vast landscapes stretching to the horizon that only have to look good from one perspective. But the inherent flaws of the open world videogame concept are a completely different discussion.

But another thing I think Final Fantasy gets right is that these worlds don’t feel like they could have been alternative Earths if magic were to replace technology. You can buy them as alien planets on which magic doesn’t exist besides physics but is inherently interwoven with it. Magic doesn’t just express itself in spells, magic items, and demons, but also in the shape of the terrain, the growth of forests, and the anatomy of impossible animals. Which are all things that I’ve consciously decided to have being part of the Ancient Lands, but which in the past I didn’t really feel being part of it. When writing the setting as a readable text, this is something that really needs to be woven into the subtext and the style. A technical listing of the parts that constitute the setting won’t be enough to really make it what I want it to be.

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.)

Honor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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