Group Initiative and Spell Declaration

While I am a very big fan of Basic Fantasy, one of the things in which I believe it needlessly departs too much from B/X is the move away from the original group initiative. Which perhaps might have been a decision based on uncertainty about what you could get away with with the OGL and old TSR content back in the day when the first retroclones made their appearance.

Group initiative is a system that I really love. One of the main reasons is that I have always struggled with asking and recording every player’s initiative count and sorting them into the correct descending order, while at the same time everyone was chattering excitedly about the combat that has just brought out. On paper, this step seems like a trivial mental task, but it’s one of the situations where my ADD overwhelms my brain and I mentally freeze up. It’s stressful and it takes long, which only makes the players chatter more among each other, creating more distraction and more stress, which makes everything even worse. Group initiative neatly avoids this entire problem by reducing it all to me and one player rolling a d6 and the higher number goes first.

The other nice thing, which is even more significant, is how group initiative speeds up play. If you used the common “each player takes a turn in order” system, you’ll have seen countless times how this plays out: One player takes five minutes to decide what he wants to do with his turn. The other players get bored and find other distractions to keep themselves occupied while they wait. When the player finally makes his turn, the next player is totally surprised that it is his turn now. He has no idea what happened during the last three players turns and now has to spend five minutes taking up the completely new situation of the fight and then start pondering his options. Repeat for the next hour until the four goblins are dead. That does not happen with group initiative.

The Basic Combat Sequence
  • 1: The party and the enemies roll 1d6 for initiative.
  • 2: The side with the higher initiative takes their turns.
    • 2a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 2b: All characters do their movements.
    • 2c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 2d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 2e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.
  • 3: The side with the lower initiative takes their turns.
    • 3a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 3b: All characters do their movements.
    • 3c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 3d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 3e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.

In this system, all players have “their turn” at the same time. The moment when the most significant decision for the round has to be made is 2b/3b All characters do their movement. If and how you want to move really depends mostly on what you plan to do after that. But unlike with sequential initiative, all players have to think about their choice at the same time. Whichever player comes to a decision first performs the movement first. While this happens, the other players still have a bit of time to think about their own choice. The whole thing only takes as long as the slowest player needs to think. Not as long as the thinking time of all players combined. The actual execution of ranged attacks, spells, and melee attacks is really quite fast and uncomplicated in comparison.

There is however, one major hitch with this whole setup, on which Moldvay Basic, Cook Expert, BECMI, and Rules Cyclopedia are all in disagreement. Which is the handling of casting spells:

In Moldvay Basic, things are simple and just as I described them above.

However, Cook Expert, which is an addendum to Moldvay Basic and expands and adds to it. “The caster must inform the DM that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the initiative dice are rolled. If the caster loses the initiative and takes damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost.” Thankfully, the explanation here is very clear on how it is supposed to work. But I do not like it. It negates the neat feature that all players think about their actions at the same time, and instead you have everyone at the table wait on that one wizard player to decide if he wants to cast a spell before initiative is being rolled for that round. It also makes our poor vulnerable d4 HD wizard a target for all enemy combatants and introduces a considerable chance that the spell will be lost with no effect. Given how few spells the poor guy has to begin with, that is just sad.

Things get only messier with later editions, though. In BECMI, the combat sequence is printed in both the Players Manual (twice) and the Dungeon Masters Rulebook, but they are numbered differently. The Players Manual begins with Step A: Roll for initiative. The Dungeon Masters Rulebook begins with Step 1: Intentions: The DM asks each player what the character intends to do in the coming round, followed by Step 2: Roll for initiative. Bad, bad editor! As far as I am able to tell, the topic of the players declaring their intentions is never brought up anywhere in the actual text of either book, so there is no explanation of how it affects anything. My guess would be that the idea of declaring stuff before rolling initiative was thrown out during development, but that one line in the combat sequence in the DM’s book was not properly deleted before printing.

The Rules Cyclopedia doesn’t mention declaring any intentions anywhere. But it does still mention how spellcasting can be interrupted if the caster is being injured.

The only version that actually does what it seems to want to do it Cook Expert. But as I said, I really don’t like that procedure. So here, finally, is what I consider the best way to do it:

  • If a character has moved during the movement phase, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. (“spells cannot be cast while performing any other action such as walking or fighting.” Moldvay Basic.)
  • If a character got hit or failed a saving throw during the enemy phase of the round, he can not cast spells during the party phase of that same round. (Assuming the enemies rolled higher initiative than the party.)
  • If the party and the enemies roll the same initiative number and the movement, ranged, spell, and melee phases of both sides happen simultaneously, and the character gets hit by a ranged attack, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. Both PC and enemy spells all go off at the same time.

In this take on the rules, spellcasters can never be interrupted and lose a spell that they already started to cast. Which is fine with me. Not being able to cast a spell when there’s a perfect opportunity is already annoying enough, given how few spells wizards have and how it makes waiting for exactly the right moment a big part of its efficiency.

Descending into the Crypt

There’s a new invitation on False Machine to collectively share the oldest fragments of oldschool roleplaying that we still remember fondly, and just for once I’m actually aware of it while it’s still happening. So I can actually reply to it before everyone else has moved on from two weeks ago’s news.

As far as I can remember, the oldest oldschool roleplaying thing on the internet that I became aware of was Ben Robbins’ West Marches. That was something that even made a splash in the D&D 3rd Edition circles that I was exclusively frequenting back in those days. It was something people were aware of and talked about, and for me really was the first time I got any perspective on what D&D was like before Dragonlance paved the road to hell with good intentions. It was also the first time I encountered the idea that a campaign could be open world instead of following a fully written script that the GM had already at hand. But I think for the following couple of years, nothing much really came from this first encounter.

I think what might have actually started my initial interest in oldschool play might very well have been Chris Kutalik’s Pointcrawl. I might have linked to that post a dozen times now on this site since I started it in 2013. By that time I must have already been a frequent reader of RPG sites of this kind to consider making one of my own, and I think even more so than today, oldschool roleplaying completely dominated the environment. And in one of my first post, I did start trying to properly read the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, which was regarded as scripture coming from the prophet’s hand himself. I bounced off that one pretty hard and still have no real love for AD&D myself. But Pointcrawl, that stuff was awesome! While West Marches had been a curiosity, Pointcrawling was something that really got me hooked. I think that’s really the thing that made me want to actually understand this whole oldschool roleplaying thing. When I first saw Spriggan’s Den appear in the link list of Hill Cantons, that was probably the biggest day for this site. I was being considered relevant by one of the revered sages. Of course, Hill Cantons is still in my link list and will remain there until the very end.

Other very important sites from that time were both Delta’s D&D Hotspot and Jeff’s Gameblog. Both are still very much alive and kicking with no signs of going anywhere, though I actually look at their new posts only very rarely these days, and they never were such a regular thing for me that I put them into my link list. I don’t remember any specific post, and I certainly am not going to try sieving through the archives, but it was something written by Delta that first made me appreciate the math and mechanics of the original D&D system. I think it was something about randomly generated monster encounters, which made me understand that those giant monster hordes are not just oversized battles against trivial critters, but actual seeds for entire spontaneous adventures. That was big for little old 3rd Edition GM me. Probably even more so than West Marches had before, appreciating Numbers Appearing was what really opened my eyes to a completely different way that games could be played and run.

I also want to shout out to Trollsmyth and Goblin Punch. With these two pages I can’t really point out any specific posts that stuck with me, but it was rather the particular styles of imaginations I encountered there. Both have played big parts in inspiring me to work on more creative and original material myself.

Getting somewhat off-topic from Patrick’s original question by climbing back up the stairs to the antechamber, but I really can not talk about my memories from the oldschool crypt without mentioning Joseph Manola’s Against the Wicked City! Joseph started his site at the same time as I gave the oldschool thing another try by looking into Basic/Expert for the first time, I seriously started with Sword & Sorcery worldbuilding, and I was finally starting to actually know what I was doing with the page and feeling like I had regular readers. So in a way, it felt to me that we were the two new guys entering the arena. And his Wicked City was a setting with very similar notions as my own, except that his was way better than mine. What was even cooler was that senpai notices me, and we frequently exchanged ideas in each other comments. And if you haven’t read his stuff, there’s some of the best gold on his site that is around. Your Demon Lord doesn’t need that many Hit Dice is certainly one of the gems that we have and The Long Haul continues to inspire my ideas for new campaigns just as much as Pointcrawl does to this day.

Also shout out to Justin Alexander. That man has always been unapologetically writing about 3rd and 5th edition, but he’s one of the OGs when it comes to teaching good gamemastering to us pipsqueaks and regardless of the editions he’s covering, I think I learned more about oldschool gamemastering from him than from anyone else. Calibrating your Expectations was where it all started for me, laying the foundation for my later appreciations for more down to Earth and small scale, grimy fantasy roleplaying.

Planet Kaendor House Rules for Basic Fantasy

You know what the world really does not need? Another B/X retroclone. Well, I think it kid of does, but I know that nobody wants to see it. So instead, I am simply going to present my own adjustment to Basic Fantasy. BF has always ranked among my favorite retroclones of choice because it’s very close to the original B/X by Moldvay and Cook while at the same time using the sane rational system to attack rolls and armor class. I know the later is trivial to slap on any iteration of D&D, but I am petty about my hate for a resolution mechanic that is objectively bad and done wrong, so that’s counting a lot to me. BF is also very cleanly laid out and easy to read, and the whole thing is free so you can just hand out pdf copies to anyone you like.

Below is a list of all my modifications to Basic Fantasy that reflects my own impressions of actually having read Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, Moor, and Smith, rather than going by the grimdark Heavy Metal Album cover interpretation of what Sword & Sorcery is really about.

Characters
  • Roll 3d6 six times to generate six ability scores, but assign the six numbers to whichever attributes you like.
  • There are no racial modifiers and adjustments. PCs from all peoples just use the character classes as the are.
  • Characters get the maximum possible hit points at 1st level.
  • The character classes are warrior (fighter), thief, scholar (magic-user), and wilder (see below). Characters can be warrior/scholar or thief/scholar as by the Basic Fantasy rules for elves. (The XP to gain a level are the same as the XP for both classes combined, and the character gets whatever hit dice, attack bonus, and saving throws are better, as well as all spells and thief skills for the level.)
  • Maximum level for all PCs and NPCs is 10th level.
  • The thief skills all use a d20 instead of a d100 (since it’s almost always 5% steps anyway). They also start with considerably higher success chances at 1st level, but increase slower to be again identical to the odds in Basic Fantasy at 10th level.
  • The wilder class has the XP requirements and attack bonus as a warrior, d6 hit points, the thief skills move silently, climb sheer surfaces, hide in shadows, and hear noise, as well as track, and exceptionally good saving throws. (Based on the B/X halfling class.)
  • All characters can use any weapons and armor. Scholars can cast spells in light armor, thief/scholars can cast spells in medium armor, and warrior/scholars can cast spells in all armor.
  • Characters can establish a stronghold at any level. Money is the only limiting factor.
Equipment and Encumbrance
  • Encumbrance is counted in the number of items a character carries instead of pounds. If the number of items is greater than the character’s Strength score, the character is lightly loaded. If the number is greater than three times the character’s Strength, the character is heavily loaded. (Light armor counts as 2 items, medium armor as 4 items, and heavy armor as 5 items.)
  • Up to 100 coins count as one item.
  • Shields provide a +2 bonus to AC instead of +1.
  • The default metal for weapons is bronze. Special blades made from iron function as silver weapons for the purpose of harming creatures resistant or immune to normal weapons.
Experience
  • There are no adjustments to XP based on prime requisite ability scores. (Neither 5% nor 10% makes any noticeable dent in the advancement speed and are just a cause of confusion and errors.)
  • XP for defeating enemies are based on the original numbers from B/X. Characters also get one XP for every gp worth of treasure they bring back from a ruin. (One of the few thing that Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Reward money for completing tasks in ruins also counts as treasure for calculating XP. Turns out this is not a house rule but a default mechanic of the game.
  • Magic items also count as treasure for calculating XP.
Combat
  • Combat is done using the B/X initiative system for group initiative. (The other thing Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Poison attacks do not kill instantly. Instead, a poisoned character makes a saving throw against poison every round or takes the indicated amount of damage. Once one of these saving throws succeeds, no damage is taken and the poison ends.
  • Energy drain works just as it does in B/X. You get hit, you lose one level.
Magic
  • Spellcasters do not have to announce the spells they cast before initiative is rolled for the round. (A rule that only exist in Cook Expert, but not Moldvay Basic, BECMI, or the Rules Cyclopedia, and really complicates things.) Spellcasters who were hit in the first phase of the round can not cast spells in the second phase, but otherwise act normally.
  • Spellcasters have separate “preparation slots” and “casting slots” in equal numbers. Spending a casting slot to cast a spell does not remove it from the preparation slot. The same number of spells can be prepared and cast as by default, but spells are not forgotten after casting.
  • The Scholar spell list combines magic-user and cleric spells, but does not include a range of different spells, such as cure light wounds, continual flame, raise dead, magic missile, fireball, fly, ice storm, and wall of fire, to make magic a more elusive and mystical force.

But why, tho…?

As I have whinged about here many times over the years, the biggest difficulties for me about the preparation for new campaigns has always been finding some kind of decent motivation for why the PCs should care about the main threat or antagonist of the campaign, in a way that gets the players invested beyond the basic “Well, that’s what the GM wants us to do”. I’m not a fan of this type of typical campaign and find it much more interesting and rewarding when the players take the oar and pick the direction they want to sail in next. Most often the excuses that pass as motivations are “we’re the heroes and that’s what heroes do” or “someone’s paying us to do it”. Both of these work, of course, for a basic game, but I always aspire to have my campaigns to be something more than that.

But you can absolutely overthink these things, too! After some not very impressive attempts at setting up campaigns in which the characters are motivated by a desire to rediscover the lost history and arcane secrets of the land, I decided to go back to the basics and embrace classic Sword & Sorcery instead of trying to do something clever and original about it. In the end, actually playing is the whole purpose of the entire exercise. Exploring new ways of what a hero can be in fantasy today and going is better left to other forms of creative outlets. What a game needs to be first and foremost is playable.

While conventional wisdom (that is, ultra-orthodox purists) tells us that Sword & Sorcery is never about assaulting the Dark Lord in his castle from where he is trying to conquer the world, an awful lot of classic Sword & Sorcery stories actually do conclude with the heroes assaulting a powerful evil sorcerer in his castle and putting an end to his plans to conquer the world (or at least the kingdom). It’s just that the hero doesn’t do it for the purpose of saving the kingdom or its people. (Unless it’s Conan, who literally does that in The Hour of the Dragon.)

I really quite like the idea of having a Sword & Sorcery campaign with the goal to defeat an evil sorcerer and had a very interesting conversation about how I could come up with decent motivations for the PCs. And the best suggestion I got was basically “let the players decide”.

At first the whole thing felt a bit backwards, because it goes completely against the common storytelling conventions of RPGs, where you begin with the player as ordinary schmucks doing regular adventure stuff, and hopefully by the end of the first adventure the true nature and goal of the campaign will be revealed. But you really don’t have to. Nothing is stopping anyone from starting a new fame with the pitch “We’re going to play a campaign in which you play characters who have all sworn to find and kill Wangrod the Vile.” That actually sounds a lot more exciting than the usual “we’re going to play a game in which you play adventurers and the story will be revealed later”. Nobody will be disappointed that you spoiled something that would be revealed within the first 5% of the story. That’s what people in the business call “the premise”.

Doing so allows you as a GM to prepare a lot of material in advance, but also leave it up to the players to decide who their characters will be and what their motivations are. You set up the goal, but the players create the motivation. Motivations that they care about and that feel interesting to them. You could of course prepare what the motivations of the PCs will be and tell the players to create characters around that. But if a player isn’t really feeling the excitement for that motivation, that doesn’t work out that well. As it concerns the story and events of the campaign, the motivations of the PCs don’t really matter. As long as the players keep working on the goal to confront and kill Wangrod, things will play out the same way.

Conan the Barbarian might actually be a really good reference for how such a campaign could be structured. When Conan is freed and sets out to find Thulsa Doom, he has no idea where he is or even who he’s looking for. The only clue he has is the standard carried by the warriors who raided his village. First he tries to make a deal with a witch who seems to know something about the symbol, but that ends up getting him nowhere. Then he raids the snake temple looking for more clues, and finds the emblem which tells him he’s on the right track. After the raid, he’s taken to the king who reveals that he’s also an enemy of the sorcerer and finally gives Conan a name. Because he wants his daughter back from the snake cult, he provides Conan with the information where to find the sorcerer and things play out from there. I think that could be a really cool structure to be used for a campaign. The players make their character tailored to be seeking an evil sorcerer and defeating him for whatever reason. Information about who exactly the sorcerer is, where they can find him, and how they can defeat him can be very good motivations to go on all kinds of otherwise unconnected adventures. And information of this kind can be put into the possession of basically every NPC, which makes this structure very flexible. If one adventure doesn’t work out and they don’t get the information there were promised, they can always get it somewhere else. If they leave one adventure for later, you can always just switch around what specific information the respective NPCs have to share to keep the flow of the ongoing investigation. You’re also not strictly married to any specific length for the campaign. When things seem to drag on, you can always have the NPCs give out bigger chunks of information, and should everyone want to make the campaign longer, you can throttle down the rate of progress that is made with each adventure. And even with the sorcerer dead, it doesn’t have to be the end of the campaign. Along the way the players might well have made many friends and new enemies that can be worth coming back to once the original goal has been completed.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…

Back when I finished the Inixon campaign half a year ago, I wrote that I am done with Dungeons & Dragons and that it just isn’t what I am looking for in a game. I neither like the baggage of assumptions about the world that players bring to a new campaign (to no fault of their own), nor the encounter and XP treadmill. But even back then, I did leave myself a door open that I wouldn’t rule out running a game using some variant or another of the Basic/Expert edition. The mechanical problems are mostly something specific to the d20 system that no tweaks and overhauls ever manged (or even tried) to solve, and the worldbuilding baggage comes from the AD&D tradition. When I actually read B/X for the first time six years ago, the thing that stuck out to me the most was how different it all felt from all the D&D I had known.

When I was taking a break from the whole Bronze Age and Sword & Sorcery fantasy for a while, I always knew that I would be coming back to it. Do something that feels more like Conan and Elric than my last campaign, with stronger influences from Morrowind and Barsoom. My plan was to either go with Barbarians of Lemuria or some kind of PtbA hack. But here I am, and that thing is starting at me again.

Come on… You know you want to…

Level up your descriptions with this one simple trick

While many people have tried writing long, expansive pieces about advanced techniques to run games and improve your gamemaster abilities, most of the best and most useful suggestions actually seem to come from very short posts. They are things that are so simply that there just isn’t much to say about them and no real point in elaborating on them with complex examples.

One such piece I stumbled upon in Bryce’s review of Zaratazarat’s Manse.

The rooms tend to start with a brief descriptor like “crammed storeroom” or “cluttered library.” I like this sort of overloaded room title stuff. It orients the DM immediately to the type of room to come and puts them in the right frame of mind to receive the description information following. You’re already thinking about a cluttered library and imagining it when you start to scan the description and I believe that helps to leverage the description to more than it is.

Boom. What an insight! I’m probably not the only person who reads tenfootpole but never buys any published adventures. That dude knowns how to build adventures, because he keeps reading and reviewing hundreds of them even though almost all turn out to be pretty terrible. And I think he’s exactly right on this one:

Start the description of a new room with “This is a [adjective] [room].” and then point out the interesting and relevant features.

This is stupidly simple to the point of being trivial. But if it were obvious, then everyone would already be doing it, and it would be in the GM section of every RPG. But it’s not. There are so many examples both in published adventures and written advice for new GMs in which the GM goes down a long list of details that obvious make a room a kitchen, while going out of his way to mention the word kitchen. And then the players are supposed to go “Oh, I think this might be a kitchen” and the GM can smile smugly and say “It looks to you like it could be.” This whole exercise is pointless. It accomplishes nothing. All that it does is provide more noise to drown out the signal. It’s not like players stop caring after three sentences of description. It’s simply that the average human brain can only process so much verbal information to construct a mental image from it. As a GM, you have a limited capacity for information that you can communicate in a description of a room or NPCs. You want to get as much useful information into that as you can and not waste anything on useless data. A good description should have as positive a signal to noise ratio as you can get.

Starting a description with an evocative adjective is perfect for that purpose. That one adjective provides a context for everything that comes after it. If I begin the description of a kitchen with being “filthy”, then the players will envision every knife, pot, and plate that I mention to be grimy and dirty and covered in who knows what without having to waste more of my precious limited words. By establishing a general tone for the room first, the players are able to imagine an appropriate space to which they can then add any further features that will be mentioned. Listing all the important features first and then trying to establish an overall feel and tone for the whole scene in front of the player will require me to wax on poetically for much longer than simply using a single good adjective at the very start.

What you don’t want is to get six disconnected features that the players all have to hold in their mind and then bring together into a single image. Instead of blind people describing the part of an elephant they are touching, begin your description with the big picture and zoom in. Start with a terrifying giant beast charging at you, then bother with mentioning its grey skin, huge head, and giant tusks.

It’s generally frowned upon in RPG circles to describe things to players in ways that mention how the PCs feel or what they do. (Which still doesn’t stop this from happening way to often.) And while this is generally right, you can go too far and be needlessly obtuse. Yes, evocative adjectives generally include some kind of qualitative judgement. When you call something filthy, overcrowded, cramped, or lavish, this can be a subjective opinion. But to a large extend, such things are not particularly controversial to say. There generally is a pretty good consensus about these things, so using them in discrptions for what the characters see does not intrude on the players’ agency to a meaningful extend. Telling the players “This is a filthy kitchen” is a very different thing from telling them “This kitchen is so filthy that it makes you feel nauseous and wanting to turn away in disgust.” Players might envision their characters as someone who is unaffected by filth and gore or feels offended more than disgusted. But even in those situations, the characters probably would not dispute that the place is filthy. Stick to adjectives that describe what is materially present, rather than feeling, and you should be fine. “Filthy” describes the room. “Disgusting” is more descriptive of the observer.

What I really like about this method is how stupidly simple it is. When you plan out a location and make notes for the individual rooms, you can put the primary adjective right into the description. Don’t label it as the “kitchen” but as the “filthy kitchen”. And when it comes to the players reaching the room and you pull out your notes to tell them what they see, simply start with reading out the name of the room. “This is a filthy kitchen.” I don’t think there’s any other method to describe rooms, people, or important object that gives you this much payoff from just a single word.

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.