Exorcists For Hire

Three months back I wrote about giving quest givers some kind of existing relationship to the PCs to make adventures more personal and to create a stronger sense of the party having their own place in the world, and also make it feel more plausible and natural that of all the people they get picked to deal with the situation. Hiring some random dangerous vagabonds to deal with very sensitive matters always feels forced to me, and even more so that said vagabonds can make a career out of these jobs.

What I didn’t really adress back then however, was what exactly the PCs do as their day jobs. How did they become qualified to deal with roaming monsters, hauntings by spirits, and demonic artifacts? Since the Kaendor setting is designed from the ground up to provide opportunity for encounters with spirits and supernatural forces, and I deliberately avoided adding military conflicts or endemic banditry, I feel that the setting is really lending itself to to parties that are well equipped to deal with spirits, demons, and curses. While a campaign about adventurers who make their bread and butter with exterminating bandits and goblins, with the occasional evil wizard or giant thrown in, does feel implausible to me beyond the point that I am happy to ignore, a group of specialists who are called upon when their services are needed, does feel more believable. It’s not even much of a stretch that they might go on extended “patrols” beyond their home turf now and then, to see if more remote settlements might be in need of their services.

Armed travellers looking for opportunities to make money through violence shouldn’t really look that different from the bandits and raiders they are regularly fighting to most villagers. But groups of clerics and druids with their retinues of guardians present a completely different picture from demons or other supernatural horrors. It feels much more justified that people would welcome them with relief and approach them to plead for their help.

It does actually change very little when it comes to how adventures are prepared and played out. Just avoid having regular bandits, monstrous raiders, or normal wild animals as threats. The rest would be very much the same. But it’s the context that changes.

The Mythic Fantasy campaign style

Mythic Fantasy frequently gets mentioned in passing in listings of various fantasy styles. The Dungeon Master’s Guide for D&D 5th Edition describes it like this:

A mythic-fantasy campaign draws on the themes and stories of ancient myth and legend, from Gilgamesh to Cu Chulainn. Adventurers attempt mighty feats of legend, aided or hindered by the gods or their agents – and they might have divine blood themselves. The monsters and villains they face probably have a similar origin. The minotaur in the dungeon isn’t just another bull-headed humanoid, but the Minotaur – misbegotten offspring of a philandering god. Adventures might lead the heroes through a series of trials to the realms of the gods in search of a gift or favor.
Such a campaign can draw on the myths and legends of any culture, not just the familiar Greek tales.

Sounds good, makes sense. Barely anyone ever seems to use it. And when you see it show up somewhere, the vast majority of it seems to be indeed mashups of Greek gods, heroes, and monsters. What you get is a fantasy version of Greek myth, sometimes with names switched up, but you will have a really hard time to point out original fantasy that is inspired by mythic themes, motifs, and narratives. There is of course The Lord of the Rings, that was specifically written to be mythic in style, but even though elements of it have been copied thousands of times, the mythic aspects seem to have been lost to the imitators. If you dig in really deep, you might have some luck with lesser known novels, but it seems to be very much absent in movies, RPGs, and videogames. It’s an idea that sounds really good, but I never was able to identify good references for how that could look like. Except of course for the fantasy versions of Greece.

But today I was seeing a trailer for the new From Software game Elden Ring and took a glance at what some people think about it so far, and I finally got it! The whole Soulsborne series is mythic fantasy. This is how it can look like in practice. Is Lord Gwyn a bit like Zeus? Yes, of course he is. And he brought the Age of Fire to humans, like Prometheus did. But other than that, nothing about Dark Souls feels like a retelling of Greek myth. Bloodborne of course does nothing to cover up its imagery that is taken from Gothic Horror and Eldritch Horror, but it doesn’t feel like a Lovecraft story or a Lovecraft setting. It still is it’s very own thing.

But what is it that makes these games and their setting feel mythic, and how is this different from other types of fantasy?

I think the first thing that stands out are the boss monsters. They are not simply just boss fights. With some exceptions like the Capra Demon, most of the prominent ones are unique beings with a specific backstory and context. And equally important, they have powers that make them stand apart from other monsters and a very different kind of threat. When you take our own everyday world as your frame of reference, then a minotaur, centaur, or satyr would be an amazingly strange creature and great threat. But when you are already in a fantasy world, then even a minotaur doesn’t have anything supernatural or divine about it.

The other main thing that contributes to the mythic feel is that these are stories that explain how things came to be the way that they were and the transformations that the world is currently experiencing. They are stories that lift the veil from how the world works. They give you insight into the powers that control the world, why they do what they do, and how they are limited in restricted in what they can do.

Perhaps mythic fantasy is ultimately about the supernatural and divine forces that shape the world, and the potential and limitations of human agency. It’s about dealing with situations that are beyond anyone’s fault or control, with mortals having no choice but accepting the changes forced on them and somehow finding ways to live with them. That isn’t to say that heroes would be passive. Far from it. But fate plays a huge role and heroes often have very little choice in playing their part in events that are inevitable. Even when the ultimate outcome is not predetermined, there often can be only two ways for things to end, and it is up the heroes to make the one decision that makes all the difference.

There surely is a lot more to it than just this, and I am not even certain that these first observations are fully accurate. But I feel like this is a first insight into what this particularly elusive form of fantasy storytelling might actually be.

Conflict on the Horizon

As my focus is turning away from the basic worldbuilding for the setting and towards the practical work of preparing an actual campaign and adventures, I’ve been noticing that the setting is still very much lacking in the way of plot hooks. Poking around in strange ruins in the wilderness and dealing with alien spirits and dangerous sorcerers is all fun and well, but why are the characters doing that? What greater purpose do their activities serve? Having stories emerge from the players’ choices and actions is fantastic, but you can’t have something come from nothing. Which is why great settings almost always have some form of underlying tension. Which so far Kaendor has been lacking. There is this concept of civilization being under pressure by the erratic and volatile forces of nature, but I found out that this is too fuzzy to really build adventures on. There is also the idea that sorcery creates terrible environmental damage which most people fear and oppose, but it raises the question why anyone would turn to it other than for moustache twirling evil.

In practice, larger scale conflicts come in just two basic forms. Competition for a resource of which there isn’t enough to cover the amounts that everyone wants, and contradicting opinions on what shape society and culture should take. Whatever reasons and justifications people give for why they fight or oppose others, it almost always comes down to one of these two as the root cause. Both the themes of a permanent struggle against a hostile environment and the lure of the powerful but dangerous tool of sorcery are closely connected with competition for vital but scarce resources.

In the lands of Kaendor, the omnipresent forests keeps growing back exceptionally fast and populations of animals are almost impossibly difficult to control. The climate makes storms, floods, draughts, and wildfires extremely unpredictable, and earthquakes, blights, and pests are a constant threat. Maintaining the small and limited areas of farmable land is a constant struggle and claiming more land almost impossibly difficult. This makes maintaining a stable supply of grain and access to large amounts of salt for the preservation of food a primariy concern for all rulers. A third resource that is almost as critical for the survival and prosperity of the domains is tin for the production of bronze.

Because civilization in Kaendor is both small and scattered across great distances, invasions and conquest are not practical approaches to securing access to these vital resources. Armies arriving on ships have little means to assault or besiege fortified strongholds far away from home, and even when a distant domain can be taken it is almost impossible to hold. The distances involved make it very difficult to control whoever is put in charge or to respond to rebellions once the conquering armies have returned home. Raiding is a much more common form of warfare, but with most resources being stored within the walls of well defended strongholds, this approach is very unreliable and carries great risks, and is usually taken only out of desperation.

The most common, and most effective way, in which strong rulers and powerful city states secure their access to vital resources is by controlling the trade with the smaller domains. All the domain rely on trade across the Endless Sea and the Southern Sea for resources they don’t have themselves, and even the Wilders have extensive trade relationships among their tribes. With their great riches and large numbers of merchant and war ships, the larger city states have a great amount of influence over all trade. They have the power to dictate who can sell which goods and for which prices, and make demands that serve their own continued interests. Domains that have such power over others are always trying to maintain and expand it, while those who are under the influence of more powerful domains are constantly searching for ways to escape it. This is the primary source of conflict between domains in Kaendor.

The specifics of commerce and the intricacies of trade power aren’t of any greater relevance to either the setting or the activities in which players are involved. Instead, the purpose of this background is to provide motivations for people in power to set events into motion in which the players can become involved. Rulers are always interested in finding ways to weaken the influence of their enemies or the means to reduce their dependency on trade for certain resources with their rivals. Much of it is politics that does not involve the players, but in the world of Kaendor there are also always many opportunities to gain support from the spirits of the land and the gods of the forest and the sea. Similarly, the spirits are the only ones able to stop changes to the environment that threaten the prosperity and survival of a domain.

Both desperation and ambition can also be strong motivations to turn towards the lure of sorcery. The chaotic magics of sorcery can bend nature to its will and can be a source of great power and riches, even though it is well known that its practice drains the land of life and in time warps and corrupts that which remains. When times are dire, this steep price might appear worth paying, but even more often prideful sorcerers believe that they have found ways to contain the corruption and prevent or at least limit the spread of the blight. Some are motivated by greed and others by the more noble goal to ensure the survival of their domains. But among the common people and the servants of the gods, hardship and abandoning their homes for new lands are far preferable to this madness.

Another aspect that naturally follows from this underlying tension is the emergence of crime. When the larger city states control access to certain goods and determine prices that only benefit themselves, smuggling becomes a major part of trade. Smuggling in Kaendor is not simply about some men rowing to shore at night to unload a few boxes of goods outlawed by the lord of the domain. It’s a vast network reaching from Var Sharaz all the way to Nevald in the Northern Sea, consisting of wealthy merchants, pirates, and corrupt officials. There might well be not a single palace anywhere in Kaendor that doesn’t have two or three people involved in smuggling, and many of their biggest customers are minor lords who wish to be doing business without knowledge by the city states. Most smugglers trade in bulk goods, but their connnections and secrecy enable them to get hold of almost everything for the right price and when time not a pressing issue. Pirates rely entirely on smugglers to sell their plunder and many leaders make some additional money at the side with blackmail, extortion, and bringing in debts for their associates. Smugglers make for great sources of information and rare magic resources, and questionable allies. They can also serve as antagonists who are introducing new trouble by threatening befriended merchants or lords, accidentally angering or awakening spirits while hiding out in forbidden caves, working with sorcerers, or bringing in disrupting magic object from distant lands.

None of these things are exactly material for adventures in strange woods and mysterious ruins. But they do make a solid foundation for why the players have to go out into the wilderness, either to find something that can help solving a conflict, or to stop a threatening disasters that has been set into motion by the desperation or ambition of influential people.

Exploration System, Part 2: Practical Encumbrance

Encumbrance in D&D has always ranged from bad to terrible. The idea behind encumbrance is actually great. The default assumption for the first decade or so had been that the party enters a dangerous place, gets their hands on valuable stuff, and gets back out again, preferably with their loot and without anyone dying. When wandering monsters are a thing (look forward to part 3) and fighting battles is a negligible source of XP (look forward to part 4), then getting in and out quickly is of the essence. The longer it takes you, the greater is the risk of anyone dying with no benefit in trade. So as you keep delving deeper into the dark unknown, you are using up some of the tools and supplies you have brought with you, but at the same time get weighted down by the treasures you find. Which leaves you with two choices. Slow down and risk fighting more opponents and reducing your odds of being able to run away. Or reduce your weight, either by choosing to leave some of the treasure you’ve found behind, or by dropping some of the equipment that you hopefully won’t be needing on your way back to the surface. Hang on to all your potentially life saving tools and weapons as you slowly crawl back to the exit, or make a mad dash to safety? Or play it safe and leave some of your hard fought for rewards behind? This is a real question that players will have to face. There is no right answer which two out of these three you should choose and will greatly depend on the constantly changing situations. To me, this is one of the big things that make exploration adventures so exciting.

Random Encounters, XP for treasure, and Encumbrance are really a single unified system. They really only work together as a unit. When you ditch one of them, the other two stop serving any purpose as well. And I think most of the time, Encumbrance is the first one to go. Because the way D&D handles it is just so annoyingly tedious that almost everyone very quickly, if not immediately, decides to just not bother with it at all. Whether you calculate your character’s equipment load in pounds or in coins, every time you pick up an item or drop an item, you have to adjust your current encumbrance load value. And inevitably you will sometimes forget it or make mistakes, requiring to make a complete recount of all your inventory and calculate all the different weight again. Nobody thinks that’s fun. To really do that, you need to keep your inventory on spreadsheets, and playing the game with everyone having a computer open can’t be the way to go. So out the window Encumbrance goes, making the whole exploration system pointless.

But there is a solution, and it is brilliant in its simplicity. It also isn’t mine. This idea is taken pretty much straight from Papers and Pencils. I don’t really add anything significant to it, I am just aligning it with my exploration system here. What this system does is to say “calculating loads by weight doesn’t work because nobody uses it, let’s drop the idea of doing it ‘realistically’ and use a much simpler system of inventory slots”. Yes, it’s a greater degree of abstraction, but as I always keep saying all of the numbers in these mechanics are make believe anyway, and a system that people would want to use is always better than a system that always gets ignored.

The basic, and really very simple idea is that any items have a weight that is either “insignificant”, “significant”, or “especially heavy”. Insignificant weight means the item has an encumbrance value of 0, significant weight means it has an encumbrance value of 1, and especially heavy items have an encumbrance value of 2 or higher. To assign an encumbrance value to an item, my rule of thumb is round up the weight in pounds to the nearest multiple of 10, then drop the last 0. Items with a weight below 1 pound have an encumbrance value of 0.

The amount of items a character can carry is as follows:

Speed Max. Load Effect
Unencumbered STR x 1
Encumbered STR x 2 Speed -10
Heavily Encumbered STR x 3 Speed -20, disadvantage to Str, Dex, and Con

And that is the entire system. But you can even simplify this even more by setting up your inventory sheet in the right way. I recommend making a dedicated inventory sheet like this, but you can try squeezing it into the inventory space on your character sheet.

There are two columns for items. One for items with significant weights that add to encumbrance, and one for items with insignificant weights that don’t. On the left side you have all the rows numbered. When you now put all your items with significant weights into the left item column, and make them take up as many lines as its the encumbrance value, you no longer have to calculate anything. Your current load value is right there to the left of the last item on your list. To make things even easier for you, you can mark the lines that match your Strength score times 10, 20, and 30. In this example, the character has a Strength score of 13, so he is unencumbered with a load up to 13, encumbered with a load up to 26, and heavily encumbered with a load up to 39. The line below 13 items is marked green here, the line below 26 items marked orange. When you add or remove items on your inventory list, you immediately see when your current encumbrance category changes. The column with the items of insignificant wight doesn’t matter, I just thought it fits conveniently in the place where it is here.

Next to the numbers, I added another column as a recently added new feature. In this column you can mark if the items are part of your Arms, Exploration Gear, or Travel Gear. If you keep them sorted like this, it becomes trivial to say “I put down the backpack with my heavy travel gear and continue forward with only my arms and my tool pouch”. Again, no new calculations are needed. In this example we immediately see that the Arms and Exploration Gear cross below the green line, but stay above the orange line. That means when I drop my backpack with my tent, food, and spare clothing, my encumbrance will be Encumbered.

I did play around a bit with an idea of keeping track of various pouches and sacks characters might be carrying, but that just ends up disrupting the neat simplicity and easy of use of this system. So again, I just said eh!, and went for the more abstract option that requires the least amount of bookkeeping and rearranging your inventory. Though I admit I still don’t have a perfect idea what to do when characters go into a dungeon with empty space in their Exploration Gear pouch that later gets filled with treasure that they pick up. Right now, this still requires you to move an item from the top of your T-items to the bottom and adding the new item as an E-item. Maybe this can be improved as well, but I think so far this is a really damn good inventory management system, far better than anything you find in almost all versions of D&D.

Turning any map into a hex map with GIMP

There are a number of programms out there that allow you to make a hex map out of hex tiles. I used one of them to make this map of the Savage Frontier five years back. However, I am not a fan of these maps, at least not as something to put into the hands of the players. I feel it creates too much abstraction in the minds of players that works against them mentally visualizing the setting of the game as an actual world. As a setting creator, I see even myself getting affected by that and it significantly hampers my work on the world.

But hexes are very useful as tools to keep track of the party’s position as it is moving through the wilderness. In most situations you want to have separate maps for the players and the GM anyway, so you can keep track of where hidden and unknown sites are located without giving it away to the players. You can also overlay a hex grid on top of the GM version of the map along with the hidden sites and other notes. The terrain type of each hex won’t always be completely clear, but that’s not really an actual issue. Make a best guess which terrain on the background image dominates, and when you don’t stay consistent between different occasions the players are passing through it nobody will notice.

Finding an image of a hex grid on a transparent background to simply slap on top of a map you have in Photoshop or GIMP has been a huge pain in the butt for most of this afternoon. But at least for GIMP I found a great solution to add a grid on top of any image.

  1. Open your image file of your map.
  2. Add a new layer: Layer > New Layer > Press “Okay”. Make sure the new layer is above the layer with the map.
  3. Open the Mosaic dialog: Filters > Distortions > Mosaic.
  4. Make sure Tile Geometry is set to “Hexagons”.
  5. Set Tile Size to your prefered size of tiles.
  6. Set Tile Height to 1 (to remove reflection effect).
  7. Set Tile Neatness to 1 (to make orderly hexes).
  8. Set Tile Color Variation to 0 (to make all tiles blank).
  9. Set Tile Spacing to 1 (or higher, if you want wider grid lines).
  10. Joints Color: This will be the color of your grid lines.
  11. Light Color: To remove shiny reflections on each hex, click on the color to open the “Light Color” dialog. Set the value for “A” to “0” or move the slider all the way to the left. Click “OK” to close the dialog. (You can’t disable the reflection, but this makes it completely transparent and therefore invisible.)
  12. Click “OK” in the Mosaic dialog to apply the grid to the player.

And that is the entire process. The tricky part is to find the right value for “Tile Height” to get the tile size that matches the scale of your map. But if the map has scale markings on it, move the view of the image to that corner of the map and try out different sizes in the Mosaic dialog until the hexes line up with it. (The “Preview” box has to be checked to see how the grid would look like with the current settings.)

The only issue I noticed is that with hexes of sizes below 20-30, the hexes tend to get a bit squashed as a result of the image consisting of pixels, but I think you’d get this with any other method to get a hex map as well, unless it uses vector images (which I doubt any map software does).

How do I use mount?

I think in the almost 20 years now that I have been playing D&D, I’ve not seen any PC or NPC ever use a mount in combat. It’s always been on foot. I think a main reason for this is that I’ve been playing almost exclusively 3rd Edition and Pathfinder, and one of the many, many big flaws with that system is that it’s always too much of a bother to learn a new combat subsystem for a single encounter. So it never came up, and I never used it as a GM myself.

5th Edition does most things in much simpler ways and so I gave mounted combat (and grappling) another look. And using a mount effectively turns out to be actually really easy not requiring learning anything new. It’s just that once again, the PHB does not make the effort to explain how this works and you have to go hunting for four or five different rules in different parts of the book to piece together how it’s done.

Being up on a horse or other mount doesn’t give you any practical advantage. When you park your horse next to an enemy and then keep hacking away for a couple of rounds, the horse is not doing anything for you. Where the horse comes in really handy is when you use it in the way that actual cavalry charges were historically done. You race towards the enemy, make a single strike, and then be gone before they counterattack. And then you keep doing that round after round after round.

You could theoretically try this on foot, but with a mount it becomes much more effective because you get one additional action. When you are on a mount, you get your mount’s movement, your mount’s action, and your own action all on the same turn. The mount can only dash, disenngage, or dodge and not attack itself, but this serves you just fine here.

  • Direct your horse to use its movement (60 ft.) to move past the enemy you want to attack. (No action.)
  • Your mount takes the disengage action so it does not provoke any opportunity attacks from any of the enemies it moves past this round.
  • When your mount has moved you into range of your target, you make your attack.
  • The mount continues its movement until it has moved 60 ft.

What makes this work so well is that in 5th Edition, you don’t provoke opportunities when you are being moved by another creature. And when your mount disengages, it does not provoke any opportunity attacks either. The only way enemies can get a shot at attacking you as you ride past is to ready an action to make an attack when you come into reach of their weapons. However, they will have to ready that action before you start your charge. If your movement doesn’t bring you into their reach, their action for that round is wasted.

Enemies could try to run after you and make an attack at the end of their movement. But if you are dealing with a pursuer that has a speed of 30 ft., simply make sure you end your turn at 40 ft. away from it. If it pursues, it can either dash to get next to you and not take any other action, or move its 30 ft. and take its action still 10 ft. away from you. Then in the next round you move 10 ft. towards that enemy, make an attack, and have your mount continue to a position that is again 40 ft. away from your enemy.

This all works even better when you have other allies on mounts with you. If your enemies try to pursue you, you can scatter them over a larger area, making it harder for them to work together and gain the benefits of a being in a group.

Of course you need a good amount of space to pull this off, which is probably another big reason mounted combat rarely shhows up in D&D. But it’s a nice way to give encounters a new dynamic and have to players fight in a new situation. Because everything the players can do, their enemies can also throw against them.

The Truths of the World

Last week I watched a video by Matt Colville that as a short side note had him mention that from the perspective of a writer, a major part of making the game compelling is “the ability to convey the truths of the world in an easy to grasp manner”. He didn’t go much more into detail than that, but this stuck me as something very close to my unconscious motivations to create a setting like this to begin with. There are of course the aesthetic things. I think huge forests, dinosaurs, giant insects, giant mushrooms, ruined towers, and dramatic weather are cool. But they are not just cool in themselves, they also mean something to me. They are not just elements of a surface picture of the world, but also components of a deeper character and identity of the setting that fuels my inspiration and sense of purpose for all this work. “The truths of the world”is a great phrase to describe it. Maybe you could also call it the internal dynamics or logic of a setting. I think this is where settings really start to shine and become something special. Like Planescape, Dark Sun, Morrowind, and Star Wars. People in these worlds approach the things in their environment in a unique way, and think in concepts and a logic that make sense only in this particular setting. When you get the players to internalize this unique way in which the setting ticks and start to think in its logic without conscious effort, then you succeeded in conveying the truths of the world.

I have written about basic concepts for the serting before, in the very first post. And of course there mostly is an overlap with this post. But those concepts were rather abstract, and don’t answer what they actually mean when it it comes to creating adventures for the setting and running the game with players. “Conveying the truths” was a very useful phrase for me to figure out how to translate it into practice.

The World is huge

Of course, every world is world-sized. For all intents and purposes, all non-multi-dimensional fantasy worlds have the same planet size. But in practice, we never think of a world in planet-scale. Most of western society exists in the modern cities and towns located in the cultivates coastal lowlands. Our native environment consists of landscapes heavily modified or purpose build for humans. The plants around us have been cultivated to grow to sizes that are convenient for the purposes humans intend for them. They only grow in the places and the amounts humans have decided to be the most convenient to them. If you see a very large tree in or near a city, it’s because city planners have decided that a very large tree is perfect for their plans for that spot. We also have no more sense of distance. Flying from Europe to Australia is an 18 hour flight? Wow, that’s long. No! That’s not long! We think of any place in the world as being reachable within a day.

Of course, nature isn’t that way. Nature does not care a single bit what environments would be convenient for human use. Nature is not human-scaled. The world is absolutely massive in scale. This does not mean that the setting needs to have large amounts of content, but for the purposes of player characters, everything in nature is just really inconveniently big. In practice, this means that overland journeys should always be long. On how to make this fun and not a chore, I plan to write some ideas later. But no simple leaving in the morning and being back before sunset. In most cases, I would say getting there should take at least a day, with exploration only starting the next morning at the earlierst.

When it comes to environmental features, everything can be big. Maybe the single biggest influence on the style for this setting is Endor in Return of the Jedi, and those are the biggest trees found anywhere in the world (and quite probably of all time). But that’s just visuals. Tree height has little practical impact. But whenever something would be a serious problem of major inconvenience if it were bigger, that’s a great occasion to make it bigger. When cliffs become really high, gorges really deep, and rivers really wide and strong, they become obstacles that the players have to come up with solutions for to get past. Or monsters could be making their lairs up in trees, but the lowest branches are really high up. Fallen giant trees can be included in ambush sites, serving as 3 meter high walls that affeft the tactics of a fight.

If it were inconvenient if it were bigger, make it bigger.

The World is ancient

Very ancient civilizations like the Sumerians and Egyptians are fascinating. 5,000 years ago is an incredibly long time and most people couldn’t even imagine that. It seems like civilizations have been around for practically forever. But what would things have looked like to the ancient Egyptians and Summerians? Their records and historical accounts would go back maybe 400 or 500 years, and then what? Of course there had been people before that for hundreds of thousands of year, but how much would they have known about them? To them, as for us, 99% of humanity’s past would likely have been unknown. But the amount of known history for them would have been much smaller and a much shorter timespan than it is now for us. In a similar way to how we don’t really perceive the size of the world anymore, we are also ignorant of how tiny a fraction the history of human civilization makes up in the full history of the Earth. Unless you are into early Bronze Age cultures like me, you can pick any culture or period from history, and always see how it’s the continuation of something that came before. You can always ask what came before that? My intention with the setting is to make it feel like whatever civilization exists now is just a drop in the vast ocean of time.

One way in which this is already worked into the setting is the lack of a historic timeline. The currently existing cities have an age since their founding, and the most recently ruined cities have have an age since they were destroyed, but those are all mostly in the last 400 years with the founding of the very oldest existing city being 800 years ago. Before that, nothing is known. No stories, no names.

Without a history of the wilderness and the spirits, it’s pretty much impossible to convey their age. But what can be done is to show practically how civilizations come and go, but nature always persists the entire time. While barely anything is known about the most recently destroyed cities, other than stories of how they were destroyed by one of the still existing cities, and nothing about the cities that came before them, there are still plenty of ruins left behind by the Ancient Builders. When showing how much these have been overgrown by the forest, you get some vague implications about the timescales in which the wilderness exists. Imagine a giant ancient palace that has its roof collapsed long ago, and the through the hole get trees growing that are a hundred meters tall and 20 meters in circumference. These giant trees must be ancient, and they only started to grow after the palace had already be turned into rubble. Or you could have the remains of ancient harbors, a hundred miles away from the coast. Occasional signs that there was a large city in a place a long time ago, but there are only the faintest of hints left. Which does come with the implication that there could be even more even older cities pretty much anywhere that have already been completely erradicated by the forest. I also like to put large underground halls under simple unassuming grounds holes in the ground where the ceiling has collapses, burried by several meters of dead leaves that have build up over the centuries. Corral growth on coastal ruins are also fun, showing that the area was at one time beneath the sea and at some point rose above it again. (I’ve seen one such case in Italy, which was the evidence for the discovery of plate tectonics.)

It’s impossible to convey the sense of millions of years of past ages, but showing the short lived nature of current civilizations and how the forest completely erases any of their traces might perhaps evoke some feeling of incredible age.

The Material Realm is not the full world

I’ve been somewhat undecided about how the Spiritworld and other planes are supposed to work in this setting, and I am still not fully commited to any specific solution. But thinking about the truths of the world, I believe that this definitely should be one. The world that mortals perceive and interact with is only the surface of true reality. The specific mechanics might still change (probably), but the wilderness through which characters are travelling when they go beyond the borders of settled and explored areas should be full of magical phenomenons that have causes that are invisible to them. When they enter the domains of particularly powerful spirits or descend into the Underworld where the distinction between the natural and the supernatural is no longer as clear as it seems to be in settled areas.

One way in which I think this can be done in practice is to have areas in which the passing of time is inconsistent with what they think of as normal. The length of a day could be considerably longer than 24 hours, or the sun and moons appear to not be moving in the sky at all. Spirits don’t get bored staying in the same place for ages and people could be trapped for decades or centuries without growing hungry, old, or completely insane. Castles could collapse into rubble within minutes, or wildfires burn in place for decades without consuming the trees. And of course, a journey into the wilderness could have you be away for considerably longer than the time you thought you had spend there. (Though in practice I think I want to keep the lost time in months or a small handful of years at the most.)

Spirits are powerful

I am not a fan of the fey from Monster Manuals for several reasons. One thing I realized is that they are pretty much always very weak. This is a world that is not at human-scale, and that also means that its spirits are on a different scale as well. Not much deeper philosophy than this. In practical terms, this means that most spirits that are encountered should be in the mid-range of difficulty, about CR 6 to 12. Alternatively, they appear in groups. I recently revised my naga and shie by downscaling them from their base stats as a yuan-ti from CR7 to CR 5, and a succubus from CR 4 to CR 3. Otherwise, even small groups could slaughter even 6th level groups of above average size.

Another modifications to creatures that serve as spirits is to give them both lair effects and perhaps even regional effects. The bigger spirits are the gods of the land after all.

One of the main ways in which spirits affect the world is in their control of the weather and climate. To show that the spirits are powerful, I want any weather effects to be big. When there are storms, they should be big storms. Not just background flavor, but actually impacting gameplay. And they should be used frequently. The Wilderness exploration system I am working on will have the current weather as one of the random parameters in the rolling of random wilderness encounters.

Spirits are alien

The other thing that I don’t like about fey from the Monster Manuals. They are too human. Fey should be dangerous, not just because they have great powers (lots of mortal NPCs do so) but because you don’t know what they might want to do to you. Even when a spirits does not intend to do harm, or feels actively hostile, there is a risk that they could do something that would be harmful for mortals. Even if they intend to help, they might make things worse, and then be unaware that anything is wrong. The concept for the shie is “they look like us, but they are not us”.

Complete random behavior is not desireable, though. To have meaningful interactions with anything, players need to have at least something to work with. My approach to this is to run spirits with “predictable patterns, but unintelligible motives”. Some spirits to certain things. That apparently make perfect sense to them, but not to anyone else. They are incapable of fully explaining themselves to mortals, and in most situations don’t see any need to. They have priorities that stay consistent, even extremely so, but the purpose of those stays completely mysterious. Spirits should never really make full sense, but they must never be random. Before players start to interact with them, their priorities and main behaviors need to be established and fixed into place.

People don’t really matter

This truth is a consequence of several other aspects. The wilderness is huge and ancient, and eventually will swollow up anything that people have made. Spirits are much more powerful and very inflexible in their wishes and as such pretty much always get their will, but what that will is is not only outside of people’s control but also understanding. In the big picture, at the end of the day, all the things that mortals do don’t have any meaningful impact on the world as a whole. Nothing lasts forever. Except for the forest.

The first way in which I approach this is to think that in the hierarchy of creatures, people are the weasels. They are predators who can be very deadly to most smaller creatures and even cause unpleasantness for several larger ones. But against determined bigger beasts, really the only thing they can do is to get out of the way. They don’t rule this world, they are really more at the smaller side of things, their impact not really that visible from a zoomed out perspective. Far from helpless, and far from harmless, but they aren’t anywhere where near the top of the food chain.

In practical terms, this means that players don’t have real hopes to defeat or even stop a god. When a change comes down from the top, the task of the players is to help the population to adapt to the new conditions or escape before it is too late. The only situation in which a coming disaster can be averted is when appeasing the wrath of a god. These things started with people trying to make a change and can only be stopped if the change is reversed and things returned to how they were. When people are the cause of a god’s wrath, then only removing the cause will end the god’s wrath. This builds on the concept of spirits being utterly inflexible in their priorities. It is not possible to prevent the god from using its power, or to change its mind while the cause still exist.

Whatever accoplishments the players might reach can only be important in the here and in the now. They can not fundamentally change anything in the big picture. You can not claim any new land for settling unless it is offered by the local gods. You can not remove a god or make any changes to the environment. You can not remove a type of dangerous creature from its habitat. You could kill a monster that has started to attack farms at the edge of the forest. But you can not clear the valley from which it origially came to make sure none will ever come again.

Adventures should be planned arounf this truth. At the end of the game, the players want to feel that they have accomplished something and have made a difference. When dealing with purely mortal opponents this is not an issue. But when the main threat is supernatural and unstopable, the adventure should be framed in a way that makes it clear that the goal is not to prevent the disaster, but to save the people who will be affected by it.

Overreaching is disastrous

This is part of the ecological subtext of the setting. I’m a trained gardener and was in cultural studies and geography at university, and all of this has given me a perspective on the relationship between people and the environent that “there are no natural disasters”, as one researcher put it. What we percieve as natural and ecological disasters are not random freak accidents of nature, but simple the environment doing what it always does. It’s just that people didn’t look at the patterns in a long enough scale, and build in places where they shouldn’t build, refused to move aside or adjust when a predictable and regular change was coming, and then had no plan what do if anything changes. Or when people made changes to the environment that benefit them in the short term, but didn’t consider that they removed important regulating and moderating from the ecosystem. When you get hit by a massive asteroid, that’s just bad luck, and when you drown in a tsunami that really isn’t your fault. But if you die from disease or starvation after a tsunami or an earthquake, that’s entirely on the people who build build your city. Humans are amazing creatures. In nature there are only a small number of creature that can threaten us and almost none of them want to get anywhere near us if they can avoid it. Pretty much anything else bad that nature can do to us is because people thought they had great ideas to improve the environment and were not aware of the full impact their modifications would have. This really is the underlying philosophy of the entire setting. If you try to make big changes, you get a huge risk. If you want to improve your situation, adjust and try to adapt to the environment. Don’t try to change the environment to suit your wishes.

People don’t really matter in the bigger picture and what threy can accoplish is pretty strictly limited. This doesn’t just apply for the players, but for all NPCs as well. If people try to go beyond these limitations, they will always fail. And the harder they tried, the worse the resulting damage will be. Sometimes the opponents of the players can be villains who want to do evil things. But in this setting, the opponents can just as well be people who have put ambition over caution, setting events into motions that will have disastrous consequences. Not only is there a need to save people from these consequences, the players will also have to get the opponents to give up their ambitions and change their plans. Warlocks are great candidates to play both role, as their art of sorcery is all about getting around the rules of regular magic and the God Kings and Sorcerer Lords of Senkand all work on wrestling control over the environment from the spirits.

Humility will keep you safe

This is the inverse of the previous truth. To survive in the wilderness and deal with the spirits, the key is to aknowledge the limits of your powers and to adapt to the situations you are facing. But I think this approach should apply to all challenges that the players will encounter during adventures. Whenever the players use trickery or make offers of cooperation, this should increase the odds of leading to success. Taking great risks to themselves for the benefit of other should be held in their favor as well.

On the other hand, relying on force and threats, and acting selfish or with pride should not be doing them any favors.

This does not mean that all PCs are required to be humble and kind all the time. But use of force and intimidation will not quickly be forgotten, and the target numbers for success might be a bit higher. Bull headed characters can still succeed. They just are not making things easy for themselves. On the other hand, if such characters do show moments of humility and reserve, this should be held in their favor when deciding on NPC reaction and target numbers.

Exploration System, Part 1: Setting the hex-scale

While working on my wilderness setting it became obvious that running it would require a solid and easy to use system for overland travel. There are tables for Travel Pace in the Player’s Handbook and additional rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to deal with overland travel in 5th Ed., but just like the tables and mechanics in 3rd Ed., I find them very impractical to use in actual play. If you use them rarely, it’s difficult to remember how it all works, and if you use them frequently it’s way too much calculating and eating up too much time. I plan this to be a series that will put together a complete system that is easy and fun to use and covers all the relevant aspects that are part of wilderness travel. Which is movement speeds, resoure management, encumbrance, random encounters, and weather. All of this will be based heavily on the 1981 Expert Rules by David Cook. Those are a really good start and reference point, but they can be improved and require some tweaking to work with 5th Ed.

I have a long and very conflicted relationship with hex maps, which I attribute primarily for my distaste of hexcrawl campaigns and my appreciation of pointcrawls. But using hexes to measure distances and treating hexes as discrete areas are completely different things, and my dislike of the later is no reason to completely discard the former. One reason I don’t like hexmaps is the amount of time it takes me to make anything good looking. Another is the way in which it makes the players interact with the fantastic imagined world. Filling in little white hexes with as you move along really feels just plain wrong to me. But when you just want to measure distances and see whether the movement is along roads or through plains or not, then you can simply add a hex grid overlay to any existing map. In most situations, you are going to need separate maps for the players and the GM anyway. I recommend the GM-map with all the secret locations marked on it getting a hex grid overlay, while the player map does not. But ultimately, what made me decide to use hex grids for this system, was the issue of parties getting lost. This seems quite important for a system intended to be used in a giant forest without roads, and I just can’t think of any way in which this could be handled on a point map.

Using a hex grid to measure distances for a journey has been a long established tool, but neither 3rd nor 5th Ed. are designed for it. When you try to convert movement rates to hexes, you always keep ending up  with the party traveling 1/2 hexes over a full day, or 3/4 hexes. Which I think defeats the entire purpose of measuring distances in hexes in the first place. So I made the decision to not attempt doing that and instead begin the entire design process by creating a system in which movement can only ever happen in full hexes and everything else will be tailored to fit on top of that.

I decided to use the Travel Pace table from the PHB as reference, which has speed always being either fast, normal, or slow, and the terrain either being regular (easy) or difficult, with difficult terrain taking double the time to cross than easy terrain. 3rd Ed. also had terrains that would take 1/4 or 3/4 normal time to cross and while that may seem more “realistic” it really makes things needlessly complicated. All of this is pure make believe anyway, somewhat inspired by reality, but completely disconnected from it. Two types of terrain is enough, and I also don’t consider it to be useful to account for the different walking speeds of smaller and larger creatures. While there are significant differences in running speed that matter in tactical combat, when travelling an entire day we can simply assume that smaller characters have the natural stamina to walk at a faster pace to keep up with the walking speed of larger characters. Stamina is also the reason why horses generally don’t travel further in a day than humans. The important difference is that a horse can carry all your heavy supplies with ease without being slowed down by them as you would. So three movement speeds and two types of terrain it is. And I think there are really just two practical ways this resulting table could look like.

Simple System

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 6 hexes 3 hexes
Normal 4 hexes 2 hexes
Slow 2 hexes 1 hex

PHB System

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 8 hexes 4 hexes
Normal 6 hexes 3 hexes
Slow 4 hexes 2 hex

In the Simple System, we have movement speeds in the ratios 3:2:1. The Travel Pace table gives movement in miles per day, but these are in the ratios 4:3:2, which I replicated in the PHB System table.

The next question is now “how big is a hex?” I tried out different hex sizes, and again there are only two solutions that really make sense and get close to the distances in the Travel Pace table in the PHB. The following tables show how much distance would be covered when traveling the number of hexes given in the previous tables.

Simple System, 6-mile hexes

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 36 miles (+20%) 18 miles (+20%)
Normal 24 miles 12 miles
Slow 12 miles (-33%) 6 miles (-33%)

PHB System, 4-mile hexes

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 32 miles (+7%) 16 miles (+7%)
Normal 24 miles 12 miles
Slow 16 miles (-11%) 8 miles (-11%)

Both tables happen to have 24 miles for normal pace in easy terrain, which is exactly the same number as in the Travel Pace table. Using the Symple System with the speed ratios of 3:2:1 and and 6-mile hexes, we get significantly more miles covered at fast speed and fewer miles covered at low speed, when compared to the distances given in the Travel Pace table.

In contrast, when using the PHB System with speed ratios of 4:3:2 and 4-mile hexes, these differences are much smaller. Exactly one third the difference we get in the Simple System. So when it comes to replicating the Travel Pace table from the PHB as closely as possible in full hexes without fractions, this one is the clear winner.

But in the end, I am still going to go forward into creating my additional travel mechanics using the Simple System with its speed ratios of 3:2:1 and 6-mile hexes. As a simple matter of practicality. 6-mile hexes are quite probably the most commonly used size for hexes by far. There are a huge amount of existing resources out there that have hex maps at the 6-mile scale. And there are other reasons why 6-mile hexes are really good. In contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever come across any map that uses 4-mile hexes.

Yes, if you would start from scratch in a vacuum, 4-mile hexes are clearly the better choice. But when dealing with hex maps in D&D, we are looking back at four decades of established customs and existing resources. And I really don’t want to muddle with that.

xkcd

My ideas for sea travel hexes aren’t worth a separate post, so I am adding them here:

While movement speed on land appear to be somewhat plausible when compared to reality, speeds for water travel are completely fictional. The numbers in the PHB seem considerably too low, but then you also get the complication that ships being propelled by wind depend on the wind conditions to move and because of the way sails work, going in a straight line is generally not the quickest path to get where you want to. Creating an even halfway decent approximation of ship speeds is way more complex than it would ever be worth it in a game like this, and so whatever system you are using will be a very basic abstraction.

For the same reasons that I prefer the 6-mile hex for land travel, I also like to go with the 30-mile hex for sea travel. 24-mile hexes would have more flexibility if you would want to have ships with many different speeds, but I am satisfied with ships being either “fast” or “slow”, with no further differentiation.

Speed is determined by the vessel and the water and wind conditions. Favorable Conditions means that the wind blows in the right direction at a good strength, or that the boat is going down a river with a significant current. Unfavorable Conditions means that the wind is weak and blowing from a bad direction, or that the boat is going up a river against a significant current. Average Conditions simply mean that the wind is neither particularly good or bad, or that the river does not have a significant current.

Ships out at sea can travel for 24 hours per day. By the PHB, rowboats are 50% faster than river boats. But a sailed river boat requires less work to move, so you can travel for more hours until it gets too dark. I say the two cancel each other out and the total distance per day comes out the same.

Water Travel

Speed Favorable Average Unfavorable
Boat 6 hexes (6-miles) 4 hexes (6-miles) 2 hexes (6-miles)
Slow Ship 3 hexes (30-miles) 2 hexes (30-miles) 1 hex (30-miles)
Fast Ship 6 hexes (30-miles) 4 hexes (30-miles) 2 hexes (30-miles)

From what I was able to find out, doing 36 miles rowing downriver is quite realistic, and for the sake of abstraction we’re ignoring that actual rivers aren’t straight. And again, the reality of travel speeds are much more complicated than this. This is the speed characters with light encumbrance would do in easy terrain. Since most wilderness in my campaigns isn’t easy and supplies for a long trip can easyily mean having heavy encumbrance, this is very good.

Going upriver would only be 2 hexes per day. Which is also what you get when travelling on foot through difficult terrain with heavy encumbrance. Since a long expedition is probably going to haul a lot of stuff with them and most wilderness will be difficult terrain, doing such a trip by boat isn’t going to be any faster or slower than doing it on foot. No change when going up the river, but huge advantage when going back down totally justifies the use of boats to travel deep into the wilderness for me.

So why don’t you use the regular guards? What do you need us for?

I’ve been playing RPGs for almost 20 years now, most of it as a gamemaster. And the one thing that has always bothered me the most, with every single campaign, was to find a way to get the first couple of adventures going in a way that doesn’t feel terribly implausible and forced. When a new campaign starts and the characters are more or less blank canvases, your only practical options are having a dungeon sitting right outside town and the players checking it out because they know that’s what they are supposed to, or to have a random stranger approach them and offer payment for getting a thing or rescuing someone. It just really doesn’t feel believable that people would trust this to unknown vagabonds instead of joining forces with others from the community. It is more reasonable at higher levels, but 1st level PCs are not much more capable than a posse with spears and bows led by a halfway capable leader.

I think to some degree, this is a personal problem. It’s something nobody else ever seems to worry about and players are completely happy to run with when they are dropped into a new campaign. But it always bothers me a lot and I feel it’s the primary reason why it always takes me so long to get a new campaign started.

But after all this time, I finally got the solution. And it’s really stupidly simple.

The characters may be more or less blank slates at the start of the campaign and completely new to the area they know nothing about yet, but that doesn’t mean they had no existence before the start of the campaign. Even if the players don’t know about them, the characters will have friends, relatives, and acquaintences outside their nondescriptive native villages.

It makes little sense to try to get help with very sensitive things from random strangers of dubious appearance. But things change completely when they come with personal recommendation. The letter from a distant relative might be a bit cliched, and I wouldn’t use it myself. But you can very well have the party arrive in a random, looking for a place to rest while making new plans, and randomly meeting people from their previous life. And these might just be the people who right now happen to need some tough and smart guys to help with a serious problem. To them, seeing their old pals showing up out of the blue at just this moment, would be a blessing from the gods.

I don’t know why I never thought of this before. It’s terribly simple, but compared to most generic low-level adventure hooks it’s amazingly elegant. The best thing about this is that it should work with every adventure ever written. You can always insert a minor NPCs whose only role is to introduce the quest starter to the players.

I really wish I had thought of this 15 years ago.

The most useless RPG advice ever

“If you want that, you really should be running a different game.”

That’s not advice. That’s just stupid. You might notice that it’s always “a different game”, never any actual specific game.

This is not helping. Never suggest this to anybody if you can’t recommend a specific system and explain why this might potentially be an interesting game to take into consideration for the campaign in question.