Vampire: The Masquerade: Northeast Passage

On the Reeperbahn, late half past one
If you got a girl, or got none
You will have great fun, that’s the way it’s done
On the Reeperbahn, late half past one

Who never in one cozy night
Strolled past the Reeperbahn’s lights
Is a sorry sod, ’cause he knows you not
Oh my Saint Paul’s, my Saint Paul’s by Night

Basically as soon as I started considering working on a Vampire campaign, I decided that it would have to be set in Hamburg. The premise of the game requires that it’s set in a major city (unless your deliberately want to run a nonstandard campaign), and every time I start worldbuilding on something, I always take a few moment to think if there’s anything from the Baltic Sea region that I can use. We almost never get to see our regional history an heritage make an appearance anywhere. The only thing you ever get is Vikings, and even those seem to always be shown far away from home. Hamburg is the biggest city in Northern Europe between London and Saint Petersburg, and it also happens to be where I was born and lived as a kid for 10 years (and I still pass through there pretty regularly). So it really was the obvious choice with no other contestants. And it turns out to actually have a lot of recent history that is great material for a Vampire campaign.

Hamburg

As a major city with a metropolitan area of 5 million people, Hamburg obviously qualifies as a perfect setting for a Vampire campaign. But once I started looking up various barely remembered details from places I remember from my childhood, I rediscovered so many things that not only make it suitable but amazing for that task.

While not nearly as old as the Roman cities in southern Germany, Hamburg has a long history that stretches back over a thousand years. The city really came into its prime with the rise of the Hanseatic League in the 13th century. Merchants from many important port cities on the Baltic and North Seas formed an extensive network of relationships that eventually grew into something akin to one of the world’s earliest megacorporations. In many of these cities, the Hanse merchants formed their own aristocratic class that often came to govern the ports as independent or autonomous republics. The capital of the League was in nearby Lübeck, which with modern city growth and transportation infrastructure is now part of the Hamburg metro area. In the Holy Roman Empire, Hamburg and Lübeck were among a small number of cities that had no lords and owed allegiance only to the Emperor himself. This arrangement lasted until the 1920s, and even today the city of Hamburg is one of the 16 states of Germany, only one administrative level below the Federal Government. The merchant aristocracy of Hamburg was so proud that they would not accept any medals or join any orders of foreign powers, as they would recognize no authority other than their own. There really is no doubt: In the World of Darkness, the Hanseatic League was undisputed Ventrue territory.

Early on in the 30 Years War, Hamburg invested heavily in new massive fortifications to surround the entire city, and it was one of the few major cities in the Empire that were never besieged or pillaged, but still had the war come right to its doorsteps during Wallenstein’s campaign against the Danish king Christian, whose possessions included the northernmost parts of the Empire. Hamburg and Lübeck marked the greatest extend of Naploeon’s empire in the North at the start of the 19th century. After a great fire in 1842, the rebuilding of Hamburg led to a great industrial boom. Growing into the third largest port in Europe and becoming the gateway for emigrants to America and where exotic goods from around the world would come into Germany.

24 Then the Lord rained sulfur and fire out of the sky from the Lord on Sodom and Gomorrah, 25 overthrowing those cities, all of the plain, and everyone who lived in the cities. He also destroyed the plants that grew out of the ground.

– Genesis 19

Ruin of St. Nicholas’ Church, destroyed in 1943.

In 1943, the British Royal Air Force launched Operation Gomorrah, and for a full week they attacked Hamburg with incendiary bombs. One night the relentless bombing exceeded their wildest expectation, with the inferno turning into a giant tornado of flames that incinerated much of the city. Later the amount of destruction and deaths from the atomic bomb in Nagasaki would be rated as “not nearly as bad as Hamburg”. Along with tens of thousands of humans, the fire destroyed a majority of the city’s vampires, including many elders of many centuries. There are few things that scare ancient empires, but this night haunts those who survived to this very day. Not even 20 years later, Hamburg suffered a great flood that devastated the poorest parts of the city in the South, there the old dykes had still not been properly repaired. Since then, things have been looking upward for the city.

Hamburg by Night

The classic style of Vampire: the Masquerade is one of urban decay and street gangs. While this was a very contemporary style in 90s America, it just really doesn’t make any sense for Hamburg in the 2020s. You could do such a version of Hamburg, but it just wouldn’t reflect the character of the city, even in a darker and more twisted way. With most of the historic buildings being completely destroyed by the two fires in 1842 and 1943, most of the current city only 70 years old. And with the hastily constructed concrete blocks from the 50s now showing their age and being considered eyesores, the city is giving itself a makeover of shiny glass and gleaming lights. It just looks very modern and crisp, with a booming economy. Industrial ruins and burning cars simply don’t fit into this place.

But even with such a shining exterior, there is absolutely room to fill it with evil and corruption. There are persistent stereotypes and jokes about German society and culture, which are so persistent because they are not exactly wrong. They don’t get it quite right and miss many of the finer nuances, but there is a lot of truth to that. And even with Germany as a whole, the “Northern Lights” have a reputation for being dour, joyless, and lacking in courtesy. In my experience, “Germany” is really just a language area. Culturally, people in Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Mecklenburg are Scandinavian. When we look South and see the Rhur Area with its Karneval, and Bavaria with its Oktoberfest, we just think they are all mad and an embarrassment to the whole county. It’s not that we mean to be rude or have no sense of humor or enjoying fun, but our regional culture puts a much greater emphasis of giving other people their space and being unobtrusive. We like not being bothered and extend that common courtesy to others.

Hamburg City Hall

But even so, it does take very little to go from courtesy to callousness. There is only a small step between not being nosy and willful ignorance, and between not rocking the boat and complacency. It’s easy to find yourself kicked out into the freezing rain. And the 1930s were not our proudest moments. This version of Hamburg that I am going for is one of order and oppression, but not enforced by police with clubs, but by social pressure. The police is not the hand of the oppressor, but the foot of the people, put down on those trying to disrupt a good thing. Corruption is not a serious concern of the people, as you don’t see it unless you want to. It’s not the drugs that bother people, but the junkies passed out on the sidewalks. Fighting crime is not about dealing with the causes, but removing it from sight.

Hamburg is an old Ventrue city. Shaped just as much by the vampires who infest it, as they are shaped by it. It is orderly, efficient, and makes a whole lot of money. It’s running smoothly, and the masses just hovering ever so slightly above poverty is by design. People who can’t afford to lose their job don’t ask questions or make demands. With Ventrue pulling many of the leavers that control the city, “Human Resources” take on the full horrific meaning that the term implies. The city and its industry does not serve the people. The people are the fuel and the grease that make the city run.

A City of Steel and Sin

While Hamburg is generally not considered to be among the fancy global cities of Europe, like London, Paris, Berlin, or Moscow, it is still a quite impressive place of its own.

The port of Hamburg is the third largest in Europe, after Rotterdam and Antwerp. Aside from its massive container terminals, it also includes several shipyards and oil refineries on the south side of the Elbe. Hamburg is also the site of the largest copperworks in Europe, an Airbus production site, and countless machine factories. It also has a major airport and a main train station with 12 platforms inside a single 150m long and 75 meter wide hall of steel beams and glass.

Hamburg is also home to the second largest cemetery in the Old World. Most cemeteries have a but stop. Hamburg Ohlsdorf has its own two bus lines with 24 stops. Right nearby are the Fuhlsbüttel prison and the Ochsenzoll Asylum, making for a quite unique neighborhood.

The Reeperbahn in the St. Pauli neighborhood is probably the second most famous Red Light District in Europe after Amsterdam. Originally the area started as a shanty town outside the walls of the cities Hamburg and Altona and became the home to all trades that were forbidden inside the cities. In the 1920s it fancied itself to be a glitzy and glamorous entertainment district the likes of Berlin, but after the war it was never properly redeveloped and turned into a crime-infested slum. In recent decades great efforts have been made to straighten it up and return it to its glory days. But it never lost its pride in its self proclaimed title as “The most sinful mile in the world.”

Synthwave-Noir is the new Gothic-Punk

Vampire: The Masquerade was created at the start of the 90s, with the first rulebook explaining it’s stylistic and aesthetic vision as “Gothic-Punk”. Some years ago, I had a long discussion with several people about the very question if this overall dominant style dates the game so much as a product of the 90s that it would no longer work for current groups of players unless you deliberately aim for retro-nostalgia. I think it was when I saw something or another about Bloodlines 2 (a Vampire videogame currently in development), that I had the thought whether the Synthwave aesthetic of recent years could be a viable way to transform Vampire into something that evokes very similar conceits in the present day.

Synthwave is a electronic music style that came to prominence in the late 2000, which makes heavy use of synthesizer sounds that strongly evoke the sound of 80’s electronic pop, and was hugely influenced by the music from the movie Blade Runner. But it uses these references and influences as a starting point for something that is new and actually quite different rather than being actual 80s retro music. For reasons unknown to man, Synthwave also has an extremely distinctive aesthetic for album covers, dominated by abstracted vector-graphic shapes in bright pink, blue, and orange.

While I personally think it’s very cool music, it also has a strong overlap with various visual arts. Probably the two most influential places where Synthwave got mainstream exposure are in the movie Drive from 2011 and the videogame Hotline Miami in 2012, both of which combine extremely brutality with detached coldness in a world of extremely evocative colors and lighting. Again, it is a style that is very reminiscent of Blade Runner, which also just got it’s own return in 2017, again with stunning visuals and sound. A similar style was also used earlier in Collateral from 2004, and in the super successful John Wick movies.

I think Neo-Noir and Synthwave in 2020 are really the spiritual successors that Gothic and Punk where in 1990. Back then, the name of the game was radical extravagance. Clothing, hairstyles, and makeup all carefully crafted to the smallest detail to be as eye catching and provocative as possible. Punks look dirty and sit on the curb with broken beer bottles, but their outfits are as deliberately designed and customized as the most dolled-up goth. Make no mistake, goths are totally aware that their outfits with full war paint makes them look like lunatic weirdos to most people. That’s entirely the point. And I think this is something that doesn’t really translate properly into the 21st century. It no longer comes across as edgy, just silly. Street gangs are no longer the boogeymen of the middle class, and today’s youth has more serious concerns than rebellion without a plan against the establishment. Maybe society has become more open to individual expression as well, and when your outfit can no longer provoke the boomers, then what’s the point of spending all these hours on it?

But while the typical Brujah and Gangrel styles may no longer be considered the cutting edge of what is cool, I think we’re currently at a point in popular entertainment that gives the stage to Ventrue and Tremere. It’s now the time of nice suits and Mercedes. When you can’t beat them, joining them starts to become attractive. Even if you first tell yourself that it’s to beat them at their own game. You also have that look in Kingsmen and the current James Bond movies, which despite being about public servants leaving carnage across the world in service for their states, really don’t have any love for authority.

And look: It’s our old friends pink and blue again.

It’s probably not quite an aesthetic you can go for with an Anarch campaign. But for a campaign centered around Ventrue, Toreador, Tremere, and Lasombra, I think this is perfect! And when you think about it, John Wick and his pals are living in their own Camarilla. And vampire society in the World of Darkness has always been filled with endless parallels to organized crime.

But Vampire is not only a game about politics. While it often seems to be forgotten and glossed over, it also presents itself as a game of horror. Big influences on me for what I imagine horror in my campaign to feel like are True Detective (Season 1, of course), and also Twin Peaks. I’m probably not able and also have no intention to make something as funny as David Lynch, but I really like the sense of eerie wrongness and malevolent evil in that show.

What’s so horrific about being a vampire anyway?

So in my old days, I actually started getting interested in Vampire: The Masquerade. Who would have thunk? It actually was one of the big games when I first came into RPGs at the tail end of AD&D, along with DSA, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, and Legend of the Five Rings. I would have been too young for it when it came out, and already felt too old when I started looking at other games. By that time I already had it filed away as the game of leather jackets, frilly shirts, and terrible makeup. I leafed through a rulebook once, but didn’t find anything of interest back then, and basically forgot about it after that.

I don’t know how I got to that, but a few weeks ago I somehow ended up hunting down a rulebook for the 1998 Revised Edition and the 1992 Storyteller Handbook to get a glimps of how the game was originally presented, and then got the pdf for the 2012 V20 edition to have all the basic info and crunch for all 13 clans in one neat package. The game always proclaims itself to be “a storytelling game of personal horror”, but in no point in any of the three books is there any mention of what that means. Or what horror in general looks like when you play as a vampire. It says existence as a vampire is horrifying, but does not mention why. Like virtually all RPGs (except d6 Star Wars), Vampire assumes that it is completely obvious to every new gamemasters how you run a campaign, and that the setting is self-explanatory. You have superhuman powers and are immortal. Go and be scared.

But if you really comb through the text with arduous care, and keep pestering people on the internet what this game is about and what you’re supposed to do with it, there is indeed sufficient implication that it is a game about keeping hold of your humanity in the knowledge that you will turn into a monster that destroys everything still dear to you eventually, and that you’re stuck being a pawn of much more powerful people who will still be your uncaring asshole bosses centuries down the line. The game then sabotaged itself by getting sucked up in its own metaplot hype about the world ending next week, which would completely negate it’s own premise. But that’s one of the reasons I wanted to start with really old rulebooks. The initial vision and concept for games and game setting is universally much more interesting than the lore snarl that build up over time. Those are stuff for novels, but not playable game material.

But after a way too long introduction to the topic, here now my actual ideas how the premise of Vampire: The Masquerade can actually be used to make it a horror game. A fundamental part of being a Vampire is that the vampiric instincts called the Beast are completely inhuman, and that any humanity still left in a vampire is really just force of habit. Vampires act and think like people because that’s what they are used to and they are actively forcing themselves to repeat the familiar patterns of their life. But over time, keeping up these appearances becomes less and less important to a vampire, as they become nuisances and their original meaning forgotten. At the end, all that remains is a monster that has no concept of friendship or affection and exists only to kill. Not sure if the creators were thinking about it this way 30 years ago, but what this is is fear of dementia. The understanding that you will become something in the future that is horrifying to your current self. Something that you can do nothing to prevent it even while you watch it happening, until in the end you don’t even understand that anything is wrong. And on top of that you will also kill and destroy everything that matters to you and you hold dear.

But this is a very long and slow process that will stretch for centuries, unless you get killed before that. Not really something you can play out during the game. But what you can do is to have the players be confronted by the the things that await their characters in the future. You can show the players how other vampires lose the remainders of the humanity at different stages, making it clear that “this will be you”. Here’s a couple of ideas I’ve come up with myself. (Which totally should have been in the books from the start.)

  • Some vampires in the city have been killed one way or another. An elder tells the PCs that a moving company will be clearing out their places, but before that they need to get over to the dead vampires homes and kill their ghouls. Can’t have mortals with knowledge of vampires out in the street uncontrolled, with a terrible craving for vampire blood. If possible, the players should know the dead vampires, and perhaps met and talked with some of the ghouls as well.
  • A human friend of the PCs gets killed by another vampire. He apologizes that he didn’t know the person he killed was connected to them. He would have murdered someone else otherwise.
  • A young neonate calls the PCs because he urgently needs their help. He had a little accident while feeding and now has remove a corpse before it is found by humans, and really hopes to keep the whole thing from his sire.
  • The PCs are visiting another vampire at home, and as he lets them in, he apologizes that there’s still empty bodies lying around in his living room that he hasn’t cleaned up yet. Maybe rolling a corpse from the couch before offering them a seat. Or it’s wrapped in a tarp in the hall, next to a garbage bag that needs to be taken out next time he leaves.
  • If you want to take it a gear higher, a vampire could have a half-empty and half-conscious vessel around that he’s keeping for later.
  • The PCs are called to take part in a blood hunt for a vampire that has lost its last humanity and now threatens the Masquerade. This will be them at some point. For bonus points, make it a vampire the players know and have recently talked to.
  • Diablerie is considered the most evil and horrible crime that vampires can commit against each other, as drinking all of a vampire’s blood to gain his power is believed to also devour his soul. (And it can only be done by younger vampires against older vampires, and the old vampires make the laws.) A good introduction of this concept to new players would be to show how everyone is in a frenzy because a vampire friend of the PCs has been diablerized. For bonus points, the murderer was one of their friends as well.
  • During a blood hunt, a vampire the players consider to be quite decent gets really excited, because he assumes there won’t be any punishment for diablerizing the outlaw, and he has always been waiting for an opportunity to do it.

Planet Kaendor

I just discovered that I never actually finished writing this post that I had started five weeks ago. I guess better now than never.

So, Planet Kaendor. I used the name in several posts last two months ago as a tag for a new campaign I am planning, which is set in the same world as the Green Sun campaign I ran for the last half year, but with a very different approach. The world Kaendor is undergoing constant evolution, changing after every campaign to reflect what I learned from my experiences. Mostly this consists of throwing out stuff that I put into the world because I considered them regular staples of fantasy campaign settings, or I saw it somewhere and thought it is cool, but I realize as being either useless baggage or stuff that actually conflicts with the core ideas rather than add to them. The world started basically as “everything in fantasy that I like and could work in a Bronze Age setting”. But since then I moved on to the paradigm of “perfection isn’t when there is nothing left that can be added, but nothing left that can be taken away”. Better have a setting that does three closely related things very well than a dozen things that somewhat randomly sit side by side. Of course this frequently leaves gaps that need to be filled in, but that’s always also a potential to bring in great new elements.

Why Planet Kaendor?

While I always intended Kaendor to be purely a fantasy setting, many of the aesthetic influences I am aspiring to evoke come from the Planetary Romance genre and pulp stories that made little distinction between fantasy and science fiction. Going all the way back to A Princess of Mars and its world of Barsoom, and also including the Zothique stories, the movie Wizards, the visual style of Moebius, various adaptations of Dune from the 80s and 90s, and of course also The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. And I always loved reading about Planet Algol. The working title “Planet Kaendor” is meant to be a constant reminder for me for what the ultimate goal of the setting is.

Many worldbuilders really like to just head out into the unknown and see where the process leads them. But in my own experience, this approach of adding whatever feels cool and like a good fit in the moment always leads me down to follow the established generic paths of the Standard Fantasy Setting. And there are more than plenty of those already, and I am doing worldbuilding primarily because the kind of setting I really want to see doesn’t exist yet. So ending up with another version of Fantasyland would completely defeat the purpose.

The Basic Premise

Kaendor is a world inspired by the continent Pangea during the Permian period, before the age of the dinosaurs, the Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean Sea (Mycenaeans, Hittites, Egyptians), and the Hellenistic Period (Macedonians, Achaemenids, Mauryas, Scythians). But the focus is on “inspiration”, not “adaptation”. A fantasy version of the Persian Empire surely exist somewhere, but Planet Kaendor is nothing of that type. Instead they are references for what kinds of animals can be found in the world, what technologies are available and what forms of social organization exist, and what kinds of sounds are used in personal and place names of the different cultures.

Two fictional settings that were hugely influential for me in inspiring the tone and aesthetic I am aiming for are from the videogames Morrowind from 2002 and Albion from 1995. Morrowind is really the gold standard for me for how alien you can make a fantasy world. The one thing that I found most disappointing about it was that the Dunmer, Drakonians, and Kajiit are sharing their amazing world with Romans and Vikings who live in English villages and castles on the southern coast of the great island. Their presence always broke the spell of having a unique fantasy world that isn’t like the regular generic stuff. Not too much to say about Albion, other that it made a huge impression on me with its alien jungle world. And again, it’s actually a sci-fi story about human astronauts crashing on an alien planet, which turns out to feel a lot like a fantasy world.

“Humans” Only

In the early years when I came up with the idea for Kaendor, I had the goal to make it like a classic Sword & Sorcery world. In hindsight, I think this desire held me back by years, as many of the elements that are rightly considered “classic” are not actually things I much enjoy in games. In particular the personality and motivations of Sword & Sorcery protagonists are not exactly what I consider fun to play for prolonged time.

One of these aspects that many people adamantly insist on as being essential is that a Sword & Sorcery world must only have humans. Which I disagree on, and creating an archetypal Sword & Sorcery setting is no longer a priority for me. But after my recent experience with planning encounters for a D&D 5th edition campaign, I really see how it’s not just dwarves and halflings being tonally out of place, but also orcs, goblins, lizardmen, and githyanki becoming a real crutch to pad out content with meaningless fights. Following the D&D encounter model is also something that has stopped being relevant for the Planet Kaendor campaign, but it still had me thinking about the subject.

Now because I really like the idea of a fantasy world that also is an alien planet with its own unique life forms, there are no people on Kaendor who call themselves humans and who look like humans. But for all intends and purposes, the Kaendorians are identical to humans. In the same way that Red Martians, Arkanians, or Quarians are virtually indistinguishable from the humans of their settings, except for exotic looking colorations. I also like about this approach so that you can’t say that these guys are the Europeans of the setting, these guys are the Africans, and these guys the Asians, and so on. As with their cultures, it doesn’t make much sense that you have direct analogs to human phenotypes on a planet that is meant to have evolved completely independently from Earth.

But in the end, I decided that the Kaendorians are still just like humans in all the ways they count. I did at some point consider making them like alien species in a world with no humans, but in the end we are dealing with a medium that is entirely verbal, and where the characters are played by people who are stumbling around trying to improvise a person more or less on the spot, which does include the GM, and so they all will act like humans anyway.

Mystical Magic

To some degree it lies in the nature of roleplaying games as systems of rules and mechanics that the applications of magic become formalized and follow regular structures. As someone who really got into RPGs with D&D 3rd edition, which is quite possibly the most mechanical and structured game that ever reached the market, this has been something that’s really been bugging me for a very long time. Magic does not feel magical when it consists mostly of math and geometry. The magic that you encounter in stories (which are not based on RPGs) is much more elusive and uncertain. You rarely have spells where a beam of light shots from the finger of a wizard and a breastplate of glowing light appears on the person it hits. What you have is sorcerers mumbling strange chants and throwing powders into a fire, and there might be hints of images in the flames or the shadows surrounding the clearing, and the sorcerer says that the deed has been done and whatever had been your problem or your wish has been taken care of.

That’s magical.

Magic in Kaendor is not quick, easy, convenient, and reliable. There is no magic to fart lightning or make a lantern hovering over your shoulder and following you around. Magic in Kaendor is mostly invisible and concerns itself with knowledge, the manipulation of minds, and the control of spirits. There is limited transformation of living things, but a wizard won’t turn into a huge dragon in a puff of smoke or turn a pumpkin into a luxurious carriage.

This elusive uncertainty also extends to magical creatures. The world of Kaendor knows only one kind of supernatural creatures which are simply spirits. No complex system of opposing cosmic armies with detailed hierarchies modeled after human societies. While spirits in physical shape resemble people, animals, or even plants, in their minds they are truly alien beings with incomprehensible thoughts and unknowable reasons. They are not helpful guides or protectors to mortals or demonic slavers and conquerors, but wild forces of nature whose reasons and motives are their own, and who generally care very little for the affairs of mortals.

Ruins of the Past

Something that has always been central to the concept behind the world of Kaendor, but never really became important in any of my past campaign, is the dominant presence of ancient ruins. The final act of the Inixon campaign played out in the ruins of a naga city, but in the end it really was just a backdrop and not an actual story element in itself. Nothing was learned about the city and there wasn’t really anything to learn about it. This is perhaps the biggest element that really needs to get a very different treatment as I am going on with Planet Kaendor.

Kaendor is a world drifting in time, with no clear understanding by the people currently alive about its ancient history, and no real sense of a meaningful future that lies ahead. As the people of Kaendor are concerned, the world now is the same as it has always been, and as it always will be. Evidence for this is found everywhere with countless ruins covering the forests and islands, lining the coasts, and sitting atop mountainous peaks. In fact, almost all major cities and towns are build on the ruins of older forgotten civilizations, with even older passages and halls being found beneath them. Constant slow changes of the environment regularly force people to abandon their cities as rivers dry up and fields turn into swamps, and castles fall into the sea. But they also open up new places that become suitable for farming and habitation, and each time new settlers arrive in these places they find that they are not the first ones to make them their homes. It is impossible to say for how long this cycle has been going, and the inevitability of all mortal achievements falling into ruins and being forgotten is an accepted fact of life.

Yet even when the people abandon a place that is swallowed up by the forests or sinks beneath the waters, there are always many things that are left behind. Vaults that were sealed by lords fleeing disasters, but who never returned to claim their riches. Treasures hidden away whose secret locations died with their owners until they  are revealed again by crumbling walls and eroding hills. As well as ancient evils trapped where no one would disturb or free them. Sorcerers are notoriously secretive about their arcane knowledge and rarely share their discoveries with others. Countless magical secrets were discovered and their knowledge shared only among a handful of people to be lost to the world with their death, but still exist on ancient crumbling scrolls beneath overgrown ruins in the wilds, waiting to be found by whoever stumbles into these old places that have seen no mortal feet for centuries.

Planet Kaendor is being written specifically with searchers of ancient magic in mind. Outside and beneath the major cities, ruined tunnels, castles, temples, and towers make up the majority of important places.  The various factions playing major parts within the politics of the setting are all greatly invested in the rediscovery and control of lost magic. These take the center stage in the design of the world, with other elements like economics, religions, and the everyday politics of the various city states fading into the background. The politics that are important to the setting are the relationships between powerful sorcerers and high priests who have the wealth and armies of their cities at their disposal, but whose conflicts are centered around the control of magical power.

Describing Consequences and Resistance Rolls

One thing that I always felt somewhat ambivalent about with PtbA games is how much they stress that the GM isn’t preparing the story for adventures and campaigns, but that everything is collaboratively decided by all the players. Apocalypse World  takes it to the extend that the setting is not defined at the start of the game but procedurally generated as the players get to come up with theit own answers about the world that they ask the GM.

Now I absoutely understand where this approach comes from and the motivation behind it. It is all too easy as a GM to get fixed on a specific idea how things should play out in the campaign, how everything looks and works in the setting, and how characters in the setting talk and behave. Players can’t read the minds of their GMs to understand the setting in the same way they envision it (unless the camapign is set in Fantasyland), and so their characters will never act quite like their culture is supposed to be, and they create backstories for their characters and declare that the do things which include technologies, institutions, and customs that don’t match the GM’s vision. Not getting too attached to the specific details of your setting and adjusting your plans to what the players do is good practice for all GMs. Creating the entire setting collaboratively during play certainly is one way to deal with this, but I consider it overkill. I think even when running a PtbA game, you don’t strictly have to do everything collaboratively and can have a perfectly good game by simply being accomodating  and working with the players’ initiatives instead of shutting them down.

It’s not how these games are supposed to be run, but it’s something where I am putting my foot down and assert that I know better than the writers. Giving the players considerable agency over their characters is important, but letting the players not only see how the sausage is being made, but participate in its production, is detrimental to the experience of discovery and mystery. In the case of Blades in the Dark, I am really not sure when the author intends for a question about a ruling to be considered internally by the GM, or openly discussed among all the players. But many sections make it appear like you’re supposed to discuss with the players the entire consequences that will happen if an action roll comes out as a failure or partial success. That’s collaborative storytelling to me, but seems antithetical to roleplaying. As a player in a roleplaying game, I want to experience the world and events from the perspective of my character, not as a member of the writing team.

I am fully on board with discussing with the players how they imagine things to play out of they succeed on the roll for their action. That’s perhaps my number one favorite piece of advice I like to give new GMs asking for help: “Always make sure you understand what a player is trying to accomplish.” The mental picture of a situation in a player’s head is always somewhat different from the picture in the GM’s head. Almost every stupid, random, and suicidal action that a player announces makes complete sense in the situation that the player envisons. When a player randomly start to fight a gazebo to the death, it’s almost always because the GM did not successfully communicate the situation for the current scene. As GM it’s your job to first solve this confusion before having the players make hopeless rolls that make them upset about being randomly punished by the consequences. That part of the BitD action resolution system I get fully behind.

But the way the game explains the handling of negative consequences seems actually utterly bizarre to me. To quote the game itself:

The purpose of threatening harm is not always to inflict it, it’s to describe it. The threats become manifest in the minds of everyone playing, even if they’re avoided.

The bad outcomes are spoken aloud. They hang there in the room as horrible potential. They’re scary. Then the player gets to roll their resistance, look you in the eye and say, “No. It’s not that bad. I take the stress instead.” It’s empowering.

If you do it like this, then you are already describing the entire scene and stating it as fact. And then you ask the players if they want to use their option to rewind the scene, make a Resistance Roll, and have the scene play out less severely in exchange for taking stress.

That just feels completely wrong. Again, this is collaborative storytelling. This is not putting yourself in the role of a character who is actually experiencing these events. This approach creates distance between players and characters, the opposite of what we want in a roleplaying game.

And it’s completely unnecessary to implement the existing mechanic in actual play. Instead, you can simply phrase it like this:

You slip off the roof and fall down to the street below, crashing onto the stones which causes a terrible pain going through your leg. Is it broken?

Now the player can decide to say “Yes, it’s broken” and take a level 2 injury “broken leg”. Or declare “I roll on my side and check my leg, and realize that fortunately it’s only a twisted ankle” and make a resistance roll to see how much stress he takes and a level 1 injury “twisted ankle”.

Or take this:

He deflects your blade with his shield and you see his sword hitting you right in the hip. Did the blade impale you?

Again, the player can say “Crap, that got me, I am done for” and take a level 3 injury “impaled”. Or he can say “There is a lot of blood and terrible pain, but my armor just deflected it enough to save my life” and take a level 2 injury “slashed side”. (No stress because armor allows you to resist one hit for free.)

You can do this with any consequence that a player can chose to resist. Describe the consequence to just before the “point of impact” and ask the player if it’s really as bad as it looks. You still describe it, you still speak it out loud. You still get the effect of all the players knowing “this is what would have happened if he had not resisted”. But by phrasing it as a question first you don’t need to retcon something that was already described as having happened. Yes, you could have described in gruesome detail how a PC has his head sliced off and fountains of blood cover all the other PCs nearby before asking the player if he wants to resist. But you don’t need that to make the players feel the gravity of what was just avoided. Movie directors and comic artists figured out a century ago that you don’t need to show all the gory details. It is often much more effective to merely imply it and let the audience fill in the blanks. Telling the players “you swing wide and suddenly see the heavy axe blade falling right on your neck” is completely sufficient.

Instead of calling Cut! and winding back the action, you have the player right at that moment where you felt the impact but are not yet sure how bad it is. It’s the moment between your hand getting caught and feeling terrible pain,  but not yet having it pulled back to see the state and remaining number of your fingers. These are the moments where the adrenaline kicks you righr in the chest. It’s the exact moment in a story when the tension is highest. Why would you cheapen this with a tension deflating retcon?

I think it might actually be more memorable to let the players hanging with “what could have been”. It’s up to their own fears and anxieties to fill in that gap with an undefined feeling of dread, which is much more unsettling than telling the players the details of what did not happen.

When it comes to players having the option to use a mechanic to alter the outcome of an event on their characters, simply phrase it as a question. No need to make it a statement and then having to undo it.

The Other Guys

Some other great characters who don’t really fit the general adventurer type but still end up in them.

Doctor McCoy (Star Trek), snarky starship doctor.
Vir Cotto (Babylon 5), good-hearted aide to a horrible diplomat.
Samwell Tarly (Game of Thrones), scholar conscripted into an undead-fighting army.
Tali’Zorah (Mass Effect), starts as an apprentice engineer.
Zayne Carrick (Knights of the Old Republic), failed Jedi apprentice.
Anna Volovodov (The Expanse), nurse, charity worker, and Methodist minister.

(What is it with all these doctors?)

I also remembered last night that I’ve been at this place before. Four years ago I already wrote a couple of posts about turning high fantasy adventures into the opposite direction of murderhoboing. In A Case for Hope and Heroism I was still thinking about making slight adjustments for how adventurers could be part of their world, but it came out of the same general idea.

Back then, I lined out nine points for how high fantasy campaigns could possibly be less confrontational and focused on violence:

  • The heroes seek to restore peace and order over destroying evil.
  • The heroes get involved when witnessing injustice.
  • The heroes aim to be examples to others.
  • The conflicts have sources that won’t go away by killing the enemy leader.
  • Mercy and offerings of peace will pay out in the long run.
  • Violence can help to get out of a tight spot but will always mean more trouble down the line.
  • The antagonists have various reasons to fight and at least some of them can be persuaded to change to other methods.
  • Heroes will sometimes fail, but having tried is what matters.
  • The heroes give and risk more than can be reasonably expected of them.

I think all these points still apply when you have a party of player characters who don’t qualify as traditional adventurers. Certainly a line of inquiry to follow.

The more I think of it, the more I feel like a campaign like this should be run with a system based on the core principles and mechanics of Apocalypse World. (Or something else, but I’m somewhat familiar with AW.) The main thing on my mind to start with is the choice of basic character attributes. Having stats like Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution wouldn’t really reflect the defining traits of such PCs.

What I think most probably should be an attribute is Courage. That’s what it would be all about in the end. Though I am not fully certain what this would mean for characters with a low Courage score. I also think that something like Sanity in horror games is a bad idea, because fear and panic is something that the players feel for their characters. Not something that the GM tells them their characters are feeling. Courage might run into similar issues, depending on what such an attribute would be used for.

Persuasive is also a no brainer. And I think Athletic would also be a good one, for when you have to rely on your strength, endurance, and agility to do what is needed.

But, being a game of high fantasy, I feel that a combat system still is a must. Not necessarily something that you’d want to use, but something that the situations will sometimes require.

This is all a very long way from being anything like an actual game, but I’m feeling quite motivated to see where this could be taken to.

I used to want to be an adventurer, like you…

Since my last D&D campaign wrapped up, I’ve been thinking about where to go with fantasy campaigns in the future. The campaign always felt the most fun and entertaining to me as GM, when it was the least like D&D, and I didn’t really enjoy running it during the parts that were conventional dungeon crawling. These past weeks I’ve been spending a good amount of time with researching and working on ideas about fantasy campaigns that are not either “kill lots of monsters to get rich” or “kill lots of monsters to stop the Dark Lord”.

This hasn’t been a completely new thing for me, as I’ve been coming back to the questions of what fantasy RPGs could look like if they are not mostly fighting for the sake of fighting. But after running D&D 5th edition with a group of mostly other D&D GMs as players, and often talking with them about how certain things worked out, it’s become really noticeable for me how much “kill lots of monsters” is baked into the most fundamental assumptions of most fantasy RPGs.

One new idea I was pondering was to make a campaign that is all about exploration, revolving around characters who are explorers driven by curiosity instead of greedy treasure hunters or killers for hire. Almost everything that is written about exploration in RPGs really is about mechanics for overland travel and wilderness survival. Which to me isn’t exploration. That’s a resource management minigame. The remaining part about exploration is discovery of wondrous places, things, and phenomenons. This can be a very considerable draw and player motivation in videogames, but visual art to be experienced at your own leisure doesn’t translate to a almost entirely verbal group activity. To really play a roleplaying game, you need interactivity and you need a story. And exploration and discovery in itself is not a story. They are elements to support and embellish a story, but the story itself still needs to be about dealing with obstacles. “Exploration” is not the answer. It’s something that I definitely want to be a major part of future campaigns, but I think it does not work as a simple replacement for “treasure hunting” to achieve the shift that I want.

After making the choice to step back from exploration as the main goal and focus, I had some talk with other GMs and players about what a fantasy campaign could also be, which led me to looking at and thinking about games like Blades in the Dark, Pendragon, Ars Magica, Legend of the Five Rings, and Call of Cthulhu. Which all are very much not dungeon crawling games. And something they have in common is that the player characters generally don’t fall into the category of “adventurers”. There is fighting in these games and there are plenty of ancient abandoned places, but adventuring is not the profession of most PCs. Now I don’t have any interest in playing an anthropomorphic toad in a waistcoat that drinks tea and debates human rights with a giant talking mushroom. Or even a nobleman discussing strategy and the justice of their fight against evil neighbors in a throne room. I still want the adventure, with spooky caves and weird monsters. But perhaps stepping back from the idea of the PCs being full time professional adventurers might be a step into the right direction. Instead of facing constant violence and threat of death as a way of life, it can be an extraordinary event in the lives of the PCs? And something that is dispreferable, not just ethically but also mechanically.

Okay, now after this very long preamble, I come to my actual point: I’ve been browsing though my favorite works of fantasy/adventure fiction to look for characters who could make interesting templates for PCs in a fantasy RPG without really fitting into the adventurer category.

Princess Leia (Star Wars), politician, diplomat, and rebel leader.
Lando Calrissian (Star Wars), smuggler, gambler, and scoundrel who tried going straight becoming a resource magnate.
Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), ignorant, self-interested rentier.
Sallah (Raiders of the Lost Ark), wealthy man in Cairo who knows stuff.
Naomi Hunter (Metal Gear Solid), Rhodesian doctor of genetics and ambiguous morals.
Olga Gurlokovich (Metal Gear Solid), which is cheating because she’s a hardcore badass, but her involvement in the adventure is very interesting.
Dandelion (The Witcher), who embodies every single cliche about bards but is still a great guy.
Shani (The Witcher), medical student.
Cedric (The Witcher 2), trapper and trader who probably does not participate in the terrorism of his associates.
Khan (Metro), Madman? Prophet? Wizard? Ghost?
Nux (Fury Road), cannon fodder.
Tanda (Serei no Morbito), physician.
Ginko (Mushishi), Exorcist? Pharmacists? Witch doctor?

The very first thing I notice with these is that more or less all of them are supporting characters, who provide primarily moral support to heroes who are legendary masters of combat. Indiana Jones isn’t really that known for his amazing fighting skills, and Bilbo counts as protagonist on grounds of being the point of view character, but I think you see what I’m getting at. (Ginko is clearly the hero of his story, though.)

They are people you wouldn’t pick as backup when planning to go into scary holes in the ground or face savage foes in battle. (Except Olga and maybe Lando.) But they all do end up in circumstances where this becomes a necessity and handle themselves very well, often ending up participating in the resulting violence.

What could a campaign look like in which all of the player characters are people like these? Where they are not following around a master swordsman, gunslinger, or elite special agent? Really more a hypothetical concept at this point than even work in progress, but a direction I really want to follow further.

It makes me think that perhaps some kind of Apocalypse World hack would be really well suited for such a game. While there a piles and piles of those, strangely enough almost none of them are high fantasy games. The only notable exception is Dungeon World, which I think completely dropped the ball by trying to recreate the experience of D&D. What’s the point of playing D&D adventures with mechanics designed to be a full anti-D&D? Unfortunately I am not familiar with the ins and outs of AW hacks, and the one that is the most similar to my idea is an example of what specifically not to do with the system. So I don’t feel like I should be the one to make it, but it certainly would be neat to have one.

AW moves in BoL campaigns

I believe that is the lamest title I’ve ever used for a post. But it does get across what’s inside: How about implementing some of the moves from Apocalypse World in Barbatians of Lemuria?

Now there is already a Sword & Sorcery conversion for Apocalypse World that basically just replaces all the names with S&S terminology, and simply using that for a fantasy campaign is an option that I did serious entertain some time back. But as cool sounding as it is, AW is a very strange game, compared to which BoL seems like a much “safer” choice for introducing new players to a new setting. Bur many of the concepts and principles of AW are quite fascinating and I’ve long been wondering how much one could adopt them for running other systems ad well.

The core mechanic of Apocalypse World is the move. There is no initativr system, instead players simply announce when they want to do something, and its up to them to share the spotlight, with some moderation by the GM if it becomes necessary. Hostile NPCs take their turns as reactions to the players making a move. Or more precisely, a reaction from NPCs or the environment is part of the various moves that the players take. If one player wants to push on the stage and take four moves in a row, he also can expect to be the target of four reactions and consequences, and with the way character endurance works you usually want to spread the return fire among the party. (In adition, the rules make it very clear that if the players are paralyzed with indecision, the GM can just throw a reaction at them at any time to shake up the situation and get the action moving again.)

It’s a pretty interesting system, and while the existing combat mechanics of Barbarians of Lemuria make the combat moves of Apocalypse World non-applicable, some of the more interaction oriented moves should be quite easy to incorporate. Both systems use 2d6 for rolls, with an attribute modifier that usually ranges from -1 to +3. AW generally requites a 7 to succeed and BoL a 9 before any other modifiers are applied, and a 10 in AW and a 12 in BoL results in a greater than normal success. This makes importing AW moves into BoL very easy.

In AW, characters can read a charged situation, that is any situation that looks like it could lead to conflict, and ask verious questions about useful information about the situation from the GM. Using this action in BoL, a Mind roll of 9 would be a success and allow the player to ask one question. A roll of 12 would be a mighty success and allow the player to ask three questions. These can be things like “Who is really in charge here?”, “Who is the most dangerous person present?”, “Where would be the best escape route?”, “What do these guys really think of us?”, and things like that. If the roll is a failure, the player still has to ask one of these question, but the answer will reveal a new complication that wouldn’t have been present if the player had rolled a success or not rolled at all.

There is also the move to read a person. The mechanic is the same, but the player can ask things like “Is that guy telling the truth?”, “What is that character really feeling?”, “What is he going to do next?”, and “What does he wanting me to do?” These are things that players might already ask in most campaigns, to which the GM would probably either reply to make a suitable attribute or skill check, ot that the character can’t know that. In games like D&D, where the core if the gameplay is the overcoming of obstacles with the powers and resources the characters have, GMs will probably go mostly with the later option, and when a roll is allowed, failure would simply mean that the player learns nothing or gets false information. BoL is not really a game like this, and letting players have generous access to information to make individual scenes more dramatic and exciting seems like fair game to me.

A third move that I feel should fit quite well is seducing or manipulating a person. In BoL, that would be an Appeal roll. On a 12 the roll will be a mighty success and the character will go along with what the player wanted. On a 9 and a regular success, the character agrees if the player offers something of comparable value in return. If the toll fails, the attempt will come to bite the player in the ass. Maybe now, or maybe much later. It could turn out to be something that no longer matters when it happens, and the NPC might still give the player what he asked for.

The beauty of these resolutions is that they provide an easy mechanic for failing forward. One of the biggest killer of momentum and cause of games stalling is when players come up with an idea or a plan, but a random die (or a GM who set an impossible target number) determines that “nothing happens”. From a gameplay perspective, nothing is the worst thing that can happen. It’s better to either give the players what they want, or something that they didn’t want. Either way, the situation has now changed and the players need to think of a new best idea for a new problem. Not of a second best idea for the old problem.

Apocalypse World also allows all player characters to perform a kind of basic divination at any time. Basically the player asks for some kind of useful hint related to the current situation  andthe answer from the  GM could be basically anything. In return, the higher powers ask something about the character. The player than has to share something of the character’s backstory or personality, or make up a new addition on the spot. The GM will then file away that information to maybe be exploited in some way at some point in the future. On a success the information will be vague, and on a mighty success something really useful. On a failure, something unexpected and bad will result. It’s definitely one if the weirder elements of Apocalypse World. (But by far not the weirdest.)

I am really wondering if this could also be incorporated into BoL. I could see it as a cantrip that could be performed by any characters with at least 1 point in the Magician career. That would make it unavailable to many player characters, but it also would contribute to making sorcerers dangerous and strange even to their allies. Really not sure if it’s a good idea, but I think it sounds too fun not to try it out.

All these moments will be lost in time…

Despite my expectations, I actually stumbled across a great idea for my Planet Kaendor reworking yesterday, shortly after writing the last post.

I’ve had a long on-again, off-again relationship with Sword & Sorcery campaigns. I’m absolutely a huge fan of Conan and Kane, but generally enjoy reading them in small portions. For long term campaigns, the typical bleakness and violence seems like a bit too much for me, and when you descend down into the abyss of Sword & Sorcery fandom, you get quickly swept up in the currents of hyper-violent grimdark orthodoxy. Which in my opinion is considerably more extreme and intellectually hollowed out than the tales of the great masters ever where. Yes, they always were violent, reveled in (implied) debauchery, and had elements of horror. But the popular perception today is like a copy of a copy of a copy that only captures the most extreme expressions of black and white and losing all nuances.

But I digress.

The piece of advice for S&S campaigns that I came across was a reminder that the stories are usually highly episodic and the heroes begin each new adventure in a completely different place, with all the gains from their last undertaking already lost and forgotten. Which was put in direct opposition to the infamous quote from Gary Gygax that “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT”. I never was a fan of Gygax and his ideas of adventures and gamemastering (*boo*, *hiss*, I know…), but this piece of advice I always found very compelling. And I did rigorously apply it during the Inixon campaign, though that turned out to not have made any difference because we never went through with managing long expeditions into the wilderness from a fortified base camp.

But now that I think about it, this is really an approach to managing time that works in direct opposite to the aesthetic goal of making the world feel unmoored in time, with no real sense of either the past or the future. The rest of the world is not keeping track of what happened before, then why would the hero. The inevitability of all their deeds being forgotten and leaving no lasting legacy is supposed to be part of the setting’s tone.

To take it a step further, you could not just stop using a calendar (even though I made such a cool one) but also forgo keeping detailed records what the players did entirely. Taking notes about what is currently going on in the current adventure is of course still a good practice, but once it is wrapped up and the campaign moves on to the next adventure, you can discard them and rely entirely on your own fallible memory. When the players ask who exactly an NPC was who they supposedly had been talking to some adventures earlier, just shrug your shoulder and tell them that their vague memories of those encounters are probably reasonably close enough to what really happened. Don’t try to help them remember. At this point it doesn’t matter anymore anyway and whatever they can agree on now becomes the new reality. Even if as the GM, you still remember what really happened.

Same stuff, different destination…

So here I am, again, planning a new fantasy campaign, again, determined to make it so much better than previous attempts. Again.

Now my last fantasy campaign did end differently and sooner than I had expected. But it did finish with an actual conclusion. With the villains beaten and the day saved. Which by this metric makes it the most successful campaign I’ve ever been involved with. At 19 sessions in total, it was also the longest campaign I’ve ever been involved with. And in the early and middle parts, I felt that my performance as GM was leagues above anything I’ve ever done before. In part because I really learned quite a lot about gamemastering in the four years or so since I had last run a campaign, but I think at least to an equal if not even higher degree because I used a much more open-ended approach to what the story will be. Despite my initial plans, it wasn’t really a sandbox campaign by any stretch of that term, but dropping the players off in a place with only vague hints that there are some useful things in the area that could help them later on their journey directly resulted in the most fun sessions I’ve ever had as either GM or player.

It was only on the final leg of the campaign, when I made it into a more conventional dungeon assault to reach some kind of conclusion, that I felt myself increasingly fighting with the constraints of D&D and my enthusiasm for the game dropped considerably. The players still seemed to have a great time, but my heart really wasn’t into it anymore. I was already looking forward to try again with mechanics that work for me, not against me.

Down the Dungeon

One realization that I made during the later parts of the Inixon campaign is  that dungeons really don’t do it for me. I am a huge fan of the idea and the aesthetics of magical caves and ruined cities. But I really don’t like the gameplay concept of the dungeon.

When did this become…
…hotter than this?

Having a dungeon with a few dozen rooms which are inhabited by various groups of guards and creatures makes sense for a dungeon crawling campaign. But I found that when the players go to a place to meet a NPCs, be it to rescue, negotiate with, or fighting them, going through an entire dungeon really just becomes a drag and a nuisance that gets in the way of making progress with the game. A castle may well have hundreds of rooms, but the story of sneaking into one specific room in that castle does not require hundreds of scenes to play out. Look at books and movies that have cool locations that could be considered dungeons, and I think almost all of them come down to really just three or four rooms in which all the scenes play out. Jabba’s Palace: Main gate, throne room, rancor pit. Thulsa Doom’s Lair: Main stairs, cave passage, throne room. Fully mapped dungeons are for dungeon crawling games. For narrative focused games, they seem to be out of place.

From Crawling to Walking

Very much related to purpose of dungeons is the usefulness of resource management. Typical fantasy adventuring gear is mostly for dealing with the many obstacles that are encountered in dungeons. Most objects can be used in scenes in a narrative focused game as well, but there generally isn’t the expectation that you always have to carry around your golf bag of adventuring gear with you all the time because you know you’ll be needing most of it very soon. Tracking how much stuff characters can carry makes sense when you have an expectation that supplies will run out after frequent use and restocking won’t be easily possible before that happens. It also becomes relevant when the weight of all the stuff impacts how fast or how slow the characters can be progressing through the places they are in.

When I prepared the Inixon campaign, doing a traditional wilderness exploration based on long expeditions into The Isle of Dread had actually been my plan. But while we were playing Against the Cult of the Reptile God we already settled into dynamics and character motivations that were much more narrative focused. And it became even more so during the completely unscripted stay in the pirate town that went on much longer than the one or two sessions I had calculated for it.

The experience with these parts of the campaign had been amazingly positive. Not only did I get great responses from the players, I also felt like my performance as GM went up steeply and the workload both during games and when preparing new content seemed to plummet down to a fraction. You can of course set up a wilderness crawl completely blind and leave it entirely in the hands of the players to do or die. But I feel like this would only be fun with players who really want this style of game and who are quite decent at it. Otherwise making sure that the obstacles they are facing will be challenging but not too dangerous and keeping an eye on how much resources they have left and will need to find in the near future becomes quite a lot of work. Work that I now can absolutely live without. Resource management is another thing I want to leave by the side for the time being.

More Weirdness

When I am sitting by myself, coming up with great ideas for worldbuilding, the Sword & Sorcery setting I imagine is full of alien and exotic stuff like Tekumel, Barsoom, or Morrowind. But in every single campaign I’ve run in this type of setting, I always ended up describing a fairly ordinary generic fantasyland to the players. In this case it was generic pirates and serpents fantasyland, but that’s still just in a different climate zone in fantasyland.

And once again, I suspect a primary source of this might be D&D. In particular, it’s power gradient as monsters and other enemies are concerned. I tend to to create monsters of a style that makes them seem like they could potentially be actual animals that once existed somewhere on Earth, or which at least are not inconceivable as hypothetical branches that could have had evolved naturally. When statting such creatures for D&D, it usually is the easiest way to simply reskin some kind of monster that already exists, like an owlbear or rhinoceros. But when you do that, you already have locked in the relative power level of many of your new original critters. And in my case, the more exotic and stranger creatures are almost all more dangerous and powerful than the more mundane ones, so their D&D stats have to be correspondingly higher as well. And at that point I had already trapped myself, making a good portion of the more interesting creatures so powerful that PCs would have to have a good number of levels under their belt to face them with a real chance to win. Now the Inixon campaign ran over 19 games and at the end the PCs would have reached 6th level if the campaign would have continued. It was a long campaign with a not unusually slow advancement, but even so I never got an opportunity to show of many of the creatures in their natural environment without wiping out the party.

What actually happened was that I filled the encounters that the players got up with the smallest and most uninteresting of critters. Mostly cultists and snakes, with the occasional wolf-reskin and yuan-ti boss. Total fail. It also didn’t help that so much time was spend fighting those little critters because you need to get plenty of fights under your belt to get to the higher levels. Time that wasn’t spend interacting with the local cultures. This really ties in directly with the issue of dungeons.

Hopefully I can avoid this mistake when I am converting my material to Barbarians of Lemuria.

More Desolation

This is something that I’ve never got to work. Not even remotely. The aesthetic and tone that this type of Bronze Age Pangea setting is meant to evoke the style of Dying Earth fiction. With a world that is huge and wild and covered in ruins, but barely inhabited by people at all. Nothing of that kind ever came up in any of my previous campaigns. I thought the solution to that would be to have long wilderness journeys on which the players have to chart their course along landmarks and manage their supplies and deal with the difficulties of transportation. Usually that never happened because the PCs never got a level where I thought they would be ready to deal with such a challenge. And with a more narrative focus for the next campaign and ditching resource management, that won’t really be an option either. No real clue how to work on that, but it’s one more priority in which I’ll have to find ways to include it.

Why are we doing all of this?

One thing that had really bothered my for several years when setting up new campaigns was with setting up situations and environments in which it would feel believable to me that the PCs are risking their lives to go on these adventures. Typically in fantasy RPGs, you get two kinds of characters: Murderhobos and magic boy scouts.

When you’re running a dungeon crawl campaign and the goal of the campaign is to overcome monsters and get their treasure to get XP for being able to overcome more powerful monsters to get their treasure, then there really is no need for anything more complicated than characters who are risking their lives for riches and don’t really concern themselves with anything else. But for something that has more focus on an unfolding narrative where more time is spend on conversations and making arrangements between various competing groups, such characters won’t work. They just want to know where the monsters with the treasure are.

On the other hand you have the shining heroes who have nothing better to do with their lives than permanently wandering around looking for any opportunity to risk their lives against terrifying foes for people they don’t have any connection to. These are characters that work for games where everyone knows the campaign is about brave heroes saving the world from evil. But I don’t feel them being suitable for campaigns where there is no black and white good and evil, and no obvious end goal that all PCs would automatically pursue. Which I think is where all the much more interesting stories take place.

I’ve struggled for many years with finding a good description of what kind of people “adventurers” are in my setting and what players should expect of their role in the campaign. But now I think I always made this much more complicated than it really needs to be. I think all you really need to get players engaged with a dangerous situations and get invested in the outcome is to tell them to make characters who are deep down decent people and put them in situations where they have the means to make a real difference for good. Most sane people really like doing good things but avoid being heroic in everyday life out of uncertainty and fear of doing something wrong or getting into danger. In a game, this isn’t really a factor. Games let you do the right thing without any actual risk or cost, and in these situations most people are more than happy to play the hero. Many videogames check off trophies and achievements for ending the game in a heroic or villainous way, and in most cases you see vastly more players who did save all the kittens instead of kicking the dogs. (And I believe large numbers of those who kicked the dogs did it on a second or third playthrough after having saved the kittens in their first run.)

And also take into consideration my earlier choice to drop the idea of regularly clearing out whole dungeons of all the monsters. This drops the total amount of lethal fights that PCs get into considerably and makes a much higher fraction of them actually directly matter. You get much fewer situations where the players would be killing bands of goblins or swarms of giant centipedes simply because they are there. This makes the life of an “adventurer” seem considerably less suicidal and makes it much more believable that relatively ordinary people would accept the risks that come with it. Think of the four hobbits for example. They didn’t sign up to clear out Moria or conquer Mordor. And the story doesn’t make them do that. I have no idea of their kill counts during their year long quest to reach the heart of their enemy’s power, but I think most of them would be able to count them on one hand. Or at the other end, my two favorite scoundrels Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. They aren’t selfless people full of endless compassion and driven to self sacrifice. But when they find themselves in situation where a terrible injustice has to be stopped, and they have the means to attempt it, they find their decency to not just stand by and ignore it.

Getting away from D&D’s class system probably might help with this as well.

And what is it all about?

Now we’re going to get really pretentious. When I was learning more about ancient cultures and their belief systems back in university, I got the strong impression that all civilizations with organized states and agriculture develop a belief that they are separate from nature and that humans are really much more similar to the gods. They are the masters of their environment, and in some cases the world really was made for them. Today it becomes obvious how that attitude leads to huge environmental problems and disasters, but to some degrees this has been going on for thousands of years. I thought it would be really interesting to come up with fantasy cultures in a world where there is absolutely no doubt that nature does whatever the hell it wants, the constant environmental changes are much faster to be more visible during a human lifetime, and people get inevitably crushed if they think they can make nature obey their wishes. There are no natural disasters. There are only extreme weather events. They only become disasters because humans build inadequate houses in high risk areas and have no plan B for when their human-build infrastructure is destroyed.

My idea for such a setting is to make it an extreme weather world, where typhoons, earthquakes, and active volcanoes are very common, and the nature gods in charge of these phenomenons pay no attention to the needs and wishes of mortals. This world is not made for people to live in and make use of. Going with my favorite Eldritch Abomination quote: “You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.” Except that the nature gods wouldn’t bother explaining themselves to mortals.

One analogy I came up with and that I quite like is that in this world, people aren’t the apex predators like bears or tigers, but sit more in the middle like weasels. They certainly are predators who have no trouble killing almost everything else in their weight class and can even take on other animals considerably larger than themselves. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do against a bear and their only option is to get out of the way. (Not counting wolverines and honey badgers. Those are just fury and madness.)

To bring in the Dying Earth tone, even though it’s a world that is full of life and going nowhere, my idea is for people to have an approach to history that nothing that they do will have a lasting impact in the long run. They can build cities that might grow into small kingdoms, but it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will topple their walls or destroy their farmland, and the people will return to the wilderness to live among the savages, with their descendants knowing nothing of their civilized origin. That’s how it always has been, and always will be. The broken ruins that stand as proof are found everywhere. Refusing to see the signs and abandoning the dying cities for a better life elsewhere will only make the inevitable end worse.

Of course, there are always some powerful people who don’t accept this fate and believe that they have the strength to avert this doom and create a legacy that will last forever. And some of them are turning to dark magic to pursue this goal or even seeking immortality. They always fail, but the terrifying results of their foolishness survive in infamy long after other kings and cities have been forgotten.

I think this is a really cool concept with some real solid substance to it. But it never really came up during low-level exploration adventures. But I think it might be more useful in a campaign with a more narrative focus, where the sorcerer king doesn’t have to be a 15th or 20th level wizard. As with many other things, I don’t really have anything definitive nailed down on this front yet. But it’s something I want to focus on much stronger going forward from here.

To wrap up this sprawling abomination of a past, this is where I stand right now in both my hindsight reflection on previous campaigns and with my lofty ambitions going forward. Currently I am feeling that I don’t really need to change much regarding the worldbuilding of the setting. I don’t think there’s any need to drop existing creatures or create new ones, alter the general geography, or come up with different ideas for the cities. I don’t seem to have to make any changes to my big box of toys. Instead, I feel this process will be a lot more about how I could be playing with them in different ways, and perhaps spend a lot more time with some of the stuff that’s so far been lying unused at the bottom of the box.

So yeah, rambling’s over. I worked three days on this without any real major revelation to share with the world. This is what I got right now, but there’s been quite some response from a number of people for this topic, so I hope it’s not been completely in vain. I’m looking forward to see where this is going myself.