Look at my Works, you Mighty, …

When I wrote my first post outlining the purpose and goal of my latest worldbuilding efforts, I got a lot of replies, including this interesting link from Oliver Simon to a great academic article about the role of the environment in Conan: Exiles. .It gave me a couple of great ideas for Planet Kaendor and I made some notes for a new post, and then completely forgot about it for the next six years while writing other posts I had already planned. Of my three notes, I only remembered the meaning of the first one, and I had to reread both the entire article and my post that led to ot being recommended to me to figure out the second. And I still have no clue what idea the third note was supposed to be about. Don’t be me! Take better notes when you get great ideas for your own work.

The article takes a look at the open world survival game Conan: Exiles as a horrifying analogy of the cruel exploitation within human economic activity. While many of these survival games have the killing of other player characters and the looting of their equipment and resources as a key gameplay element, this game uses the well established and accepted norms of the Hyborian Age to take it to a much more grotesque level. Not only can you loot the possessions of your slain foes, you can also butcher their dismembered corpses for meat and crafting materials. Nonplayer characters can be taken alive and made slaves, that are a hugely important resource for expanding your own base. And some magical powers require human sacrifice to attain. Other people are reduced to “human resources” in the most literal sense. They are commodified as tools to be exploited for your own quest for wealth and power.

Being basically a sociological paper, it’s not an easy read, and the first part is crammed full of attributed quotations of other writers that don’t really add to the topic and mostly seem to be there to pad out the references list at the end to boost academic credibility. But after that it goes into how the environment with its ruined buildings, abandoned weapons and tools, and human remains also tells a story of how economic exploitation build the fallen civilizations as well.

I didn’t expect Marx and Derrida to contribute to my worldbuilding, but I guess stranger things have happened. One passage in particular really got me thinking about how I can give the ruins that fill the environment of Kaendor a more meaningful presence in the actual game instead of being irrelevant pieces of lore in some file.

Faithful to Howard’s original Conan stories, the landscape is one which Derrida would have recognised as being distinctly hauntological; it is a world scarred by its past. This environment is shaped by forces which still have agency but no agent, generating effects which exert great power over the player’s experience of and interaction with their surroundings.

Agency without an agent. Now that’s an expression that really appeals to me. In this case, we have to treat agency as different from the concept of player agency in roleplaying games, which is the ability of players to make choices about the actions of their characters that meaningfully affect the outcome of the developing story of the game. Without an agent, there are no choices that are being made or actions that are being taken. Instead we have the idea here of choices that were made and actions that were taken long ago by the long dead builders of the ruins that led to the creation of the current environment. The choices were made many centuries ago, but their consequences still affect and constrain the options that are open to the player characters in the present. The idea is that the ruins are not simply featureless and inert stones that litter the surroundings, but active entities that challenge and threaten the intruding explorers.

(At this point I want to apologise for falling into academia speech and getting abstractly philosophical. Four years in cultural studies do this to you. It comes automatically and leaves it marks on you forever.)

As a simple example, take an ordinary arrow trap that shots an arrow when someone steps on a certain part of the floor. To quote the endlessly poetically and quotable Darkest Dungeon:

Curious is the trap-maker’s art… his efficacy unwitnessed by his own eyes.

A trap is not simply a feature of the environment, even though many games treat them like that. An actual trap is not simply just there. It is there because someone made a choice and took action to put it there. With an intent to kill. The builder of the trap does not know who will fall victim to it, and the people it injures will most likely have no idea who caused them harm. In a ruined dungeon, the builder will have died centuries before the victims were born. But still, one person exercised agency to cause serious harm to another person. The agent is long gone, but the effects of the agency are present in the present.

It is not just traps. Every artificial obstacle that characters encounter is there because someone put it there with intent. Every constructed tool or weapon they find is in its place because someone made it for a purpose and put it in its present location as a consequence of choices and actions. And this even carries over to much larger scales. Planet Kaendor is conceptualized as a world in which the natural environment is outside of the control of mortals. Whatever they do in their attempts to shape the world that surronds them will quickly be negated once the wilderness returns. But things look very different when it comes to the marks left behind by unnatural sorcery. A charred wasteland of ash haunted by ghouls attacking cateless travelers surrounding a ruined city does not exist randomly. Its existence is the consequence of choices mafe by a sorcerer long ago. A consequence that directly affects the characters in the present. And the natural world in Kaendor is often directly controlled by spirits, who can exercise their own agency as well. Though being essentialy immortal, this does not fall under the agency without agent. They are merely agents with an invisible presence, but I think the overall effect is quite similar.

The key idea that is presented here (indirectly) to worldbuilders is to create environments for adventures that are not simply passive and interchangeable backdrops that maybe have a couple of unusual but random backgrounds in them. Instead, they should give indications that obstacles and useful finds are the result of someone’s deliberate exercising of agency. Bad things don’t exist in the present at random. They exist because someone in the past wanted it or did a careless mistake. There was a purpose behind it and it was someone’s fault. And that someone’s presence should still be felt as a malevolent force seeking the destruction of any intruders, or a shade lingering among the ruins of its crumbled dreams. Of course this might not be a universal requirement for all fantasy environments. But I had written about looking for ways to give ruins and magical places are more active role in my world, and this article provided great insights on how I could be moving closer to that goal.

All the mentions of cannibalism also got me some interesting idea for ghouls, which have been a favorite of mine since I encountered a new take on them in Dragon Age, and have held a very important position in my deliberations about the nature of the supernatural in Kaendor basically from the start. But those deserve an entire post of their own.

The MEGACHURCH!

I am not usually a fan of megadungeons. Or to be more precise, I am not a fan of the concept of mega dungeons.

Dungeons that are on a colossal scale are a different story.

In a moment of inspiration, I got an idea for an awesome buildings to put somewhere in the forest in the Green Sun campaign and while I was doodling around with possible floor plans, it turned into something increasingly more concret and fun. It’s an absolutely enormous temple that looks similar to this.

But scaled up to this.

And on the inside, I think it would look something like this.

The floorplan consists of 29 vaults that are 30 x 30 meters at the base and between 120 to 180 meters in height. To not go insane with the maps, the platforms and bridges are arranged into 5 levels.  To hold up the roof, there are also 4 solid “towers” of 30 x 30 meters in the corners, which have 10 internal levels of rooms, and 4 in the center of the building that have 12 levels.

That’s just shy of 200.000 square meters of floor space. Or 5,350 5-foot-squares. However, in practice most of that will either be open air for the vaults or solid stone for the towers. That’s still something like 400 “rooms”.

This should be fun.

Pointcrawling in a Dungeon!

Formulating my thoughts on a subject always helps my putting my ideas into focus. And so after writing yesterday about the challenges of using a pointcrawl map for a large dungeon I came up with some new ideas for how this problem might be solved.

Pointcrawling really is all about navigation by landmarks or travel along marked paths. During overland travel this is usually the only way there is to pick where you are going. This makes is very easy to take a hex map and convert it into a point map by simply removing all the hexes that don’t have keyed sites or encounters or lie along a path that connects two of the keyed locations. And you can easily convert a point map back into a hexmap by simply overlaying a hex grid on the chart of sites and paths.

But with dungeons this is not the same. As people discovered very early on in the history of RPGs, dungeons are very different environments from outdoor landscapes. In a dungeon you don’t chose your path or destination, you can simply go forwards and backwards in a corridor and pick from a fixed number of other corridors at junctions. When you want to go dungeon crawling with a point map, you can’t just take any grid map dungeon and convert it to a point map. This doesn’t work and you only end up with nonsense that has the same complexity as you started with. Instead, you have to design the entire dungeon from the ground up with a point map in mind.

A dungeon that would be very easy to do with a point map is a ruined castle with an open courtyard. In fact, Chris Kutalik’s ruincrawl is really an attempt to explore cities, not buildings. With an open castle, you can have the first area be the gatehouse that has one entrance and one exit. Once the players reach the exit of this area they can overlook the courtyard and see the various buildings that make up the interior. There may be a keep, a chapple, stables, a tavern, a warehouse, an inner gatehouse, and lots of uninteresting small sheds. The sheds and the patrol corridors in the walls have nothing interesting in them so they can be ignored and are not getting mapped. The other buildings each get their own small map and are marked on the point map as distinct areas. From their position at the exit of the outer gatehouse the players have a clear path to the stables, warehouse, tavern, and inner gatehouse, and if they go through the inner gatehouse they can also walk over to the chapple and the keep. What the paths in the courtyards look like is irrelevant. That’s a basic and simple pointcrawl.

This doesn’t work in a dungeon that is entirely underground, though. Simply because you can’t see other areas from a distance. You can’t say “let’s go over there” when you can’t see “there” and don’t even know that “there” exists. Ina grid map dungeon this is not a problem since you simply follow the corridors and then see where they lead to. With navigation by landmark being out of the picture, following marked paths is the only remaining option. But the whole point of pointcrawling a dungeon is that you want to strip out all the empty halls and chambers that make up the majority of the place and only have the players interact with the most interesting areas. I think the solution to this conundrum is to design dungeons for a pointcrawl along a network of highways. Coridors that clearly stand out from the rest and serve as main connective routes between major prominent area of the dungeon. Dozens or hundreds of minor side passages branch off from these leading to living quarter and storerooms, but they are not included in the map and can not be actively explored by the players. To look at a part of the dungeon in detail there has to be something that visible stands out and draws the attention of the PCs to the fact that there might be something worth looking at.

This is of course a few steps removed from the complete hands off approach you can have with grid map dungeons where the GM really only tells the players what they see and what happens as consequence of their actions. By designing a dungeon like this the GM takes the previlege to tell the players that their characters are not interested into exploring certain corridors and rooms and that they simply continue on their exploration along the provided path, which might not sit completely well with everyone. But really, this is exactly what outdoor pointcrawls do too. It’s an aknowledging nod towards the fact that games are abstractions of adventures and not accurate simulations. It takes away player choice, but really only choices that the GM knows in advance to be completely irrelevant. I don’t think many players would feel sorry about not having to explore 80 empty rooms in a room before they find a room that has something in it. When you look at fiiction this happens all the time. If you take a book or movie at face value, characters are instantly teleporting around all the time between scenes. But everyone is in agreement that the characters did walk between locations and that they probably talked during that time and perhaps even had some encounters that are completely inconsequential to the story. This is the underlying idea here.

A secondary issue I had been pondering is how to indicate the border of an area when each area consists of multiple rooms and is surrounded on all sides by more or less indentically looking rooms. What I think might be the best approach is to construct the whole dungeon not as one continous cluser of rooms but instead as multiple self-contained cells, which each cells having only two or three exits that lead to other cells. This is one of the things that makes it necessary to design a dungeon as a pointcrawl from the ground up. Grid map dungeons usually don’t have such clear cell structure and a great number of possible connections between thematically linked areas.

A system of self contained grid mapped cells connected by highways running through otherwise nondiscript cells is my solution to having huge dungeons that don’t involve long stretches of tedious searching through empty rooms or being implausibly cramme with treasures and monsters. Or at least my current attempt at a solution.

What about sub-mega dungeons?

When I started doing research about good dungeon design, I made an interesting observation. Pretty much everyone who is writing about the design of dungeons is talking specifically of the rather special case of megadungeons. I can understand the fascination with these massive places that can remain not fully explored even after multiple campaigns set inside of them. But when you start looking into the details of what people are writing about the design, you find a lot of recommendations that I don’t think carry over well into games of exploring multiple different dungeons over 1 to 4 sessions each.

The whole logistics are really quite different and the journey to and from the dungeon takes up a much bigger role in the campaign when the party constantly has to relocate their base camp. Like most advice that is around for worldbuilding, megadungeon advice mostly concerns itself with the really big pictures. But what seemingly gets overlooked is the small scale design of encounters and individual rooms. These are problems that a lot more GMs are having to deal with, yet it seems that nobody really has anything smart to say about this element. As a GM poorly experienced in running dungeon crawls, I’ve been doing a lot of searching for such information, but it appears to be curiously absent.

The Ancient Builders

Ruins play obviously a great part in the Ancient Lands and someone has to have build them in the first place. While I don’t want to have a generic post-apocalyptic world I decided to keep things simple and focused and have the majority of ruins be from an ancient time and build by fey races instead of being build by past humanoid civilizations. Ruined castles can have signs of past inhabitation by people, but people-build ruins are going to be almost all abandoned villages. Mortals just don’t have the ability to build castles like spirits can, and never did. It’s not that mortals lost knowledge and abilities they had in the past, but simply that spirits are just much more powerful in every way. Fortunately for mortals, most fey castles have long been abandoned and only few of them are currently inhabited. The fey races are not particularly attached to stability and leave lots of stuff behind when they are done with them, but these tend to remain around for a very long time after that and over thousands of years those abandoned castles add up.

Naga

Of all the old builders, the naga are the ones that still have a strong presence on the material world and inhabit and maintain many of their ancient castles, particularly in the southern lands. Around the Inner Sea and the northern lands these are all long abandoned, though. Naga ruins often consists of steep, tower-like ziggurats surrounded by smaller buildings with flat stone roofa that housed vast numbers of elven slaves. They can easily be identified by their lack of stairs, with levels being connected by ramps. They are also generally found near coasts.

Tower Builders

The tower builders were a civilization of shie that built a large number of citadels throughout the northern parts of the Ancient Lands. All their castles have a square base and smooth walls that slighty narrow inwards until reaching a flat top. These towers are build from huge stone blocks that are very accurately fitted together and each have a completely unique shape. Inside, the ceilings are held up by massive supports that start close to the walls and lean sharply inwards to form a kind of trapezoid arch and provide a lot of cover and hiding spaces.

Rock Carvers

Ruins of the Rock Carvers are mostly found in the area of the Inner Sea, particularly the Akai and Tavir Mountains, but also in various places in the steep rocky cliffs on the coast. Rock Carver ruins are often seemingly low and bulky constructions compared to the other styles of castles, but are mostly located underground, which hides their frequently massive proportions. Often the only parts visible above ground are a steep and extremely thick wall and an only slightly higher citadel that guard the main entrance to the rest of the stronghold. Often these have very few windows that are barely more than arrow slits, but castles in well defensible locations high up in the mountains sometimes have large numbers of great balconies and tarraces overlooking the landscape below. Smaller ruins are often completely invisible from the outside and appear only as easy to miss caves that reveal themselves to be spectacular underground castles. While the working of walls and tunnels is always extremely precise and without any irregularities, many ruins include large natural caverns that have remained entirely unworked and kept in their magnificent natural form.

The identity of the Rock Carvers is a complete mystery to everyone but they have often left behind many enchanted stones and gems.

Tree Weavers

The Tree Weavers were another group of shie who created numerous castles and palaces in the Ancient Lands. Their ruins are widely regarded as the most magnificent ones and appear to have been grown from gargantuan petrified trees and living rock rather than build by masons. Except for floors and stairs, which are covered in tiles of polished marble, there are no flat surfaces or straight angles to be found anywhere in these ruins, with all walls slightly bulging outwards and all ceilings being domed. Many ruins consist of tall towers that often have smaller side towers branching off from them in seemingly impossible angles like enormous stone trees. Other buildings have large marble roofs made from a single piece that look like the shells of colossals turtles.

Tree Weaver ruins are often home to a great amount of plant life, much of it being dangerous and even deadly to people getting too close.

Glass Makers

Ruins of the Glass Makers are the most mysterious ones and widely regarded to be by far the oldest. Many even believe that they were build by spirits that have long retreated into the eternal dark of the Underworld. Ruins of this type are made or a very hard dark material that greatly resembles glass an comes in various hues. Surfaces require a great deal of force to damage and tend to merely chip rather than fracturing. Rumor has it that at least in some ruins such damages slowly heal over the course of decades and centuries but they are so infrequently visited that nobody has ever really seen it happening so far.
The architecture of these steuctures, if it can even be called that, tends to be highly bizarre and often seems to serve no discernable purpose. However, they all share in common that they contain large underground sections of which generally much less information is available.

Glass ruins often have areas of high corruption and are sometimes haunted by trapped demons. Sorcerous relics can often be found in them and they are highly sought after by naga and sorcerers.

Three videos on level design from which adventure writers could learn something

I know, snappy title.

Bonus content: Three articles on dungeon design that I also found very eye opening.

Jaquaying the Dungeon

Four Things You’ve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck

Battlefields and BattleFEELS

If you’re interesting, bring some time. This might take a while to get through.

What does an Ancient Lands adventure look like?

In the end, a campaign setting really is just a stage for adventures. And adventures are generally the only way through which players are interacting with it. This really deserves an article of its own, but when it comes to designing a campaign setting you really need to start with chosing the kinds of adventures that will be set in it. I believe the fact that I am only explicitly making such a list now has a lot to do with all my worldbuilding work only really taking shape in the last half year or so.

So here you go. When I think of the Ancient Lands as a stage for adventures, these are what I have in mind:

  • The Lost City
  • The Isle of Dread
  • Quagmire!
  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God
  • Dwellers of the Forbidden City
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Deep Carbon Observatory
  • Slumbering Ursine Dunes
  • Aliens
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Dark Souls
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Red Nails
  • Stalker
  • Super Metroid

You could say a microsandbox. Or a mesodungeon.

Veins of the Earth

So Lamentations of the Flame Princess has released a new book by Patrick Stuart that is about weird adventures in the Underdark, and it’s almost 400 pages long, and starts with a big monster section, and has special rules for light, and a system for food and cannibalism, and random 3D cave environments, and…

It’s looking really good so far. Though most of it is so weird that I am not even sure what I am looking at. Many times it is more tell than show, but it still works quite effectively. Not sure what I might be using from this book, but it sure gives me ideas what I want to do in my game.

The darkness is following them, surrounding them. It infiltrates slender claws behind shadowed columns, reaching towards the lantern, hungering to snuff it out. It backs away reluctantly before the light, it follows carefully and relentlessly, creeping as close as it can. It leaves chew marks in the corners of your sight.

The darkness is a character. It only wants one thing. Rules are hard to remember and details are easy to forget under stress. Intent is not. Intent is easy to recall and unlike detail it actually grows more powerful under stress. You remember who hates you. The more stressed you are, the more you remember it. The dark hates the players; you play the dark. You will probably forget that a candle has a ten foot radius but you will never stop waiting for the candle to go out.

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!

Hostile environments not meant for people

My Ancient Lands setting never felt like I wanted it to when I ran adventures in it, and I think I know understand why. Even though the whole concept of the world is one about dealing with alien spirits and witches, almost all my adventures were pretty generic empty ruins inhabited by animals and bandits. There’s some wisdom in the claim that the unnatural only feels unusual if it’s set in contrast to a very natural world, I took it much too far by making the normal stuff dominating the campaigns.

I am still not sure how to give the supernatural otherworld the center stage that it should have, I think it really starts with the idea that there are places and environments where people are not meant to be. Not just are the native creatures are great direct threat, the environment itself gets in the way of the characters and puts them at an even greater disadvantage to the native inhabitants.

Here are some generic factors that make an environment work against the players even when it does not actively try to harm them.

  • Don’t let the party have rechargable magical light sources. When torches and lamps run out they are completely blind when underground (or at least some of them) until they can find something to light on fire or glowing worms or something like that.
  • Track food and make edible plants really hard to find in dungeons and spiritworlds. Leaves and grass won’t feed people and fruits might not be healthy.
  • Use a lot of water. Even when the party has magic to breath underwater their torches and lamps won’t be working there.
  • Little weak monsters that wait to attack the party until they are weak and need to recover. And not just once, but repeatedly.
  • Great differences in height and monsters that can fly.
  • Huge open spaces and monsters with ranged attacks.
  • Fog that blocks sight and creatures that are sneaky.
  • Ground that slows characters down or hurts them when they trip. But not the native creatures.
  • Wind that can make characters fall and interferes with ranged weapons.
  • Low ceilings that force characters to fight crouched or narrow passages that make large weapons unusable and keeps parties from fighting as a team.