Developing a Distinct Style

I’ve always been of the opinion that the main thing that makes a setting interesting and compelling is a distinctive style. You can have wonderful top notch stories set in the most generic settings with all the default elements, but in those cases it’s the plot and characters that are compelling, not the setting. It works, of course, but when your goal is to make a setting that is a fascinating and exciting place, then you really have to think about a distinct style. Planescape, Dark Sun, and Star Wars all being great examples.

I’ve been playing around with different campaigns and settings for years now, and over time I discovered a couple of stylistic elements that keep coming up again and again, and that just really work for me. With this new setting, I want to build them into the fabric of the world not just accidentally, but deliberately.

Towers

I don’t really remember where the idea originally came from, but several years back I had made the decision that in my fantasy, I want environments to be awesome. This means things that are huge, but in the modern world we are used to cities that stretch to the horizon and buildings with hundreds of rooms. But what still impresses us ars things that are really tall. And here I admit taking an idea directly from Tolkien. That guy put massive towers everywhere in Middle-Earth. Because giant towers are awesome. Why make a dungeon underground when you can have it in a tower?

Another thing that is thin and tall, and can get incredibly big, are trees. And this world is primarily a forest setting with just a bit of forest and the sea. I think associating towers with the tree motif is perfect for the setting.

Really not much deeper thoughts to that. I like steep spires, and I can not lie.

Masks

The idea of making masks a prominent stylistic feature of the setting wasn’t so much a decision but really a discovery. I get easily distracted by whatever cool things capture my intention and want to include them in what I am working on, but that only dilutes the strong initial premise and leads to a generic mush of random components. To counter that impulse, I regularly go back browsing through my image folder to remind me of the cool initial concept I had. I’ve shared a couple of them in previous posts about the setting to get my idea across. And at some point, a few weeks ago, I realized that of all the pictures of characters that represent the visual style of gear and clothing, a good majority of them were wearing mask, or some kind of heavy warpaint. And I quickly decided to take this purely visial element that I just thought looks cool, and turn it into an actual major component of the culture of the setting.

Masks are fascinating objects. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think simply of “mask”, is something that obscures the face. But specific masks also replace the wearer’s appearance with an alternative face. And in addition to that, many types of masks also serve to protect the face. They represent a barrier between the self and the outside world more than any other kind of armor does. In an antiquity, and to some extend medieval cultures, we encounter masks both with priests and shamans as part of rituals to contact the gods, and also with warriors as part of the helmet, the most critical piece of armor after the shield, often displaying a fearsome appearance to the enemy. I think everyone will immediately agree that masks are extremely complex cultural objects with deep and layered psychological meaning when you start thinking about them.

One idea that I got quite early on was that priests and shamans are wearing masks because the spirits they are dealing with have extreme difficulties with distinguishing and recognizing mortal faces. A problem they don’t have with crafted masks. When dealing with spirits, a mask enables the spirit to recognize the shaman as an individual. This has to very interesting consequences. The first is that by switching between masks, one becomes completely unrecognizable to spirits. The other is that stealing someone elses masks is an absolutely foolproof disguise as spirits are concerned. I think this has great potential for very interesting things to happen in a game.

Annother idea for the setting is that in certain very specific situations, while wearing a specific type of special mask, you are allowed to get around certain social restrictions. Because by wearing the mask and putting on a different face, you are assuming a new identity. And it is enforced by cultural tradition that your actions can not be held against you once the mask is taken off. As society is concerned, you did nothing objectionable and it’s a grave social offense to not respect these ancient cultural traditions. I have not put much thought into specific social tabus for the setting, but as society is concerned, the wearing of certain masks in the right circumstances makes you a different individual.

And finally there’s of course the many fun things you can do with enchanted masks. Masks that do hide your identity with unfailing reliability. Masks that shield your mind from intrusions or protect against other harmful effects. And they make of course great identifying features for special NPCs, or iconic helmets for elite soldiers.

Lamps

Once I had noticed that I really love the look of masks on character images, I went back to see if there are other common motives in the reference pictures I had collected. And a less striking but still noticable pattern was the frequent appearance of unusually colored lamps. The use of striking lighting in visual arts has long fascinated made. Primarily in natural environments, but also the highly stylized urban environments of Cyberpunk and Neo-Noir in general. Over the last years I have frequently been thinking how neo-noir aesthetics and sensibilities could possibly be integrated into bronze age fantasy settings. But the neon lighting was something I had always dismissed as being obviously incompatible. But there is actually one important exception, which is the fantastic visual design of Morrowind. I’m not really a fan of The Elder Scrolls as games, but the worldbuilding and design of Morrowind is hands down the most amazing I have ever seen since Star Wars. And part of the visual design of Morrowind is the heavy use of colored lamps and luminescent mushrooms. And the result is neon lighting. I knew I had to have that in the setting!

The first time I encountered a magic lamp in fantasy was in Baldur’s Gate II, where you first have to find the magic lamp that shows you the secret path to reach the hidden elf city. In the game it was just a key item that lets you click on a new area transition, but I still found the idea fascinating and was always disapointed that I never found any other cool lamps in games or RPG books. But there’s actually a lot you can do with magic lamps once you free yourself from the d20 paradigm of magic items giving you special attacks or stat bonuses.

What I find particularly interesting about lamps is how they are a natural counterpart to masks. Masks hides faces from sight, while a lamp reveals things that are unseen. This realization was what really made me want to build certain iconic elements into the structure of the setting.

The obvious uses for special lamps is to reveal invisible supernatural things to the normal eye. Lamps that make spirits visible, reveal undead creatures, and dispel illusions. But as in the example I gave above, lamps can also be used to show the way to different certain things. A lamp can attract certain beings to it, but its light might also keep various creatures at bay. And though it dilutes the contrast with masks, lamps could also be used as a means to fool the eye and hide certain things in their glare or the shadows they cast.

Fungi

One of the various thing that made the world of Morrowind so amazing and exotic to me was the use of giant mushrooms that are growing side by sides with trees that are about the same size. That imagery has always stuck with me for all the years, and it’s something I often thought of as one part in making a wilderness setting feel exotic and alien.

The last two years I’ve been training as a gardener (soon to upgrade to studying horticulture at university), and fungi are a thing we constantly have to deal with. They are perhaps the most important type of pests plants have to deal with, but fungi are also an extremely critical component of the biosphere within the soil. Mushrooms are well enough known as a vegetable, but on a closer look, fungi are an utterly bizare form of life, completely different from plants or animals.

Unlike plants, fungi don’t use photosynthesis. Instead they get their energy to grow frm, the chemical energy released in the breaking down of organic compounds. They digest the remains from other living things just like animals do, which allows them to live in darkness, subsisting on organic material brought in by animals or wind and running water.

But what’s really bizare about them is that the mushrooms that grow from the ground on on trees are really just the flowers of much larger organisms that live in the soil or wood as huge networks of microscopic strands, often too fine to see with the eye. And the underground networks of fungi can be absolutely massive, covering many hectares of forest.

Then you also have the fact that many fungi are toxic to humans, some even deadly. In a fantasy world, the spores and secretions released by fungi could have almost limitless strange effects.

I actually can not remember ever having seen depictions or descriptions of real glowing mushrooms. But in popular perception they do exist, and I think are well enough established in fantasy. And exotic but believable light sources are something I can never have enough of. Bioluminescens is the perfect solution to get a nonmagical underwater light source for flooded caves and dungeons, though I am not going to tell this to my players.

Overall, I think there is massive potential to use fungi as both monsters and environmental effects.

Worms

This is another thing I noticed only after it had already become a pattern, though this one goes back a couple of years. But at some point I realized that the majority of monsters I have created in the past are some kinds of worms, both directly and in the most abstract sense.

As a fan of Robert Howard, I of course love big giant snakes. What for Lovecraft was his fish and for Tolkien is spiders, was for Howard his snakes. It’s impossible to imagine ancient fantasy or Sword & Sorcery without giant snakes. Snake men are also super cool. But then there’s also giant centipedes. And giant eels. Giant grubs and caterpilars, And on the mammal side, I think the coolest group of predators are weasels. Which also have a generally similar body shape. And then there are various river monsters around the world that occasionally have been interpreted by artists as giant monstrous otters. And damn, I do love carrion crawlers.

So if half of all the monsters I come up with are various forms of worms, so what? It’s not something you have to fight, so why not embrace it? I can always live happily with more wormy critters crawling through the setting.

There’s an OSR survey going on

Necropraxis and Questing Beast are doing a survey of what people associate with the label OSR.

I wrote about just that last month, and as someone who has taken classes on doing surveys of this kind, it makes a really good impression on me. It looks like they actually plan to do real statistical analysis on the data.

Somehow I only noticed it now, so its existence doesn’t seem to be much known. As someone who isn’t really an OSR creator (I don’t like D&D and not doing Artpunk material myself), posting it here might catch some people who are also not part of the inner circle. I think getting data from people on the sidelines also filling out the survey should be very valuable for an analysis of the phenomenon. Though if you never had any interest in OSR material, there’s probably not many answers to give.

The Map is not the Setting

When you try to look for advice on how to create a campaign setting, the most common answer you get is to start with drawning the coast lines. The possibility that the creation of a setting might not start with the geography is not even considered. My own opinion is that you should always start with a design concept that outlines themes and style and thinking of a map doesn’t come until step four or five, but that’s a discussion for another day.

For the last week or two, I have not been feeling really creative and so I turned to spend my time thinking about the theoretical aspects of the worldbuilding process. The initial spark to work on this setting has not really led to a full ignition yet. And after some pondering I found that all the work I did so far was really about creating a style, but this did not automatically lead to the emergence of something that feels like an actual place. I have put together a toolbox and constructed a lot of prefabs, but these are not yet assembled into actual structures. I actually do have a number of notes for settlements and places, but these feel more like tables of content than actual content. Intentions to make things but not actual things.

And this is something that I actually find in a lot of published campaign settings. They give you lots of things that are interesting to look at, but fail to give you any impression of what you could do with them. Just this week I was reading a discussion about Planescape. And pretty much everyone involved agreed that it is a wonderful setting but they have not yet found any good ways to actually use it for playing. I think that a good campaign setting does not actually consist of places, or even of specific people, but of things to do. You can describe a place with lots of details on the many buildings and their inhabitants. But if you describe a static place, then there is not really a reason for players to go there. Or if they get there, to stay there.

Perhaps it is actually much more useful to create gameable material by conceptualizing a place as a conflict first, and then creating the involved people and buildings second. As a GM, what I really want from a campaign setting book, or my own prepared notes, is to hand me material that I can use as the base to build my next adventure on. This had me thinking back to the Kobold’s Guide to Worldbuilding, which has its best pieces in the introduction. A good campaign setting isn’t an execlopedia, but a precarious stack of boxes of dynamite that you hand to the GM whose players are already fidgeting with matches. I had always though of this on the scope of whole worlds, applying to charged conflicts between contries or global organizations. But now I think it might really apply much more to the very small scale of individual villages. Because that’s where play does take place. That’s where players are personally involved and able to influence things. A big global conflict can be nice to have to tie individual adventures in different places together with a shared theme and common continuity. But it is not a substitute for adventure potential right before and around the PCs. You can have a perfectly fine campaign without a global conflict. But not one without conflict where the players are.

Was OSR ever “a thing”? Or always just an idea?

Coming home from work today, I did my daily browsing through my list of RPG links to check for anything new. (RSS is witchcraft.) And turns out today is another one of those days where some people are expressing their unhappiness about their own RPG related reading including confrontational things about non-RPG-related things written by certain other people. Certain people who are being a dick about their hateful right wing views, and certain people who are being a dick about their hateful left wing views. Some of who really seem to enjoy ticking people off and getting the attention that comes with it. If you’re reading this, you probably know exactly which people I am thinking off. And if you don’t know who they are, then I won’t be naming them because they don’t need any more special attention.

This time, apparently someone posted something on twitter, and someone else made a public statement that he does no longer collaborate with him on RPG material because of that. And now someone else is writing on his RPG site that he also doesn’t like what the first person did, but also doesn’t approve of the second person publically reacting like that. And another someone wrote on his RPG site that he doesn’t want to read RPG related content for a while now because he always gets stuff like this in his RPG reading and it’s really annoying him. To which he got a comment that “at least” he’s “not as much of a prick about it” as some other guy who quit completely some months back. (And it’s all guys. The only two women I know in non-professional RPG writing appear to wisely keep their distance from all this.)

That’s the news from today from a wide circle of RPG-related colaborations and internet discussions that at some point became categorised as OSR. Or rather “the OSR”. But this isn’t new. Nothing about this is new. As far as I can think back, it has always been that way. Since the very first days when I became aware that there is such “a thing”, the most creative and prolific creators were already very controversial and divisive figures. Unfortunately, because some of them create really amazing stuff that is consistently ranked among the best, but always comes with a sour taste because you feel uncomfortable with giving them any money.

Two months ago, Patrick Stuart wrote about his experiences with colaborating on RPG books, which includes such lessons as “10. The scene is dominated by large personalities who all have massive flaws. Never be in a situation where you *need* someone, including me.” And I couldn’t help to immediately think that I know which past colaboration he is refering two. And I feel kind of bad for doing so, not actually having met those people or having had a conversation with them.

Now being a red-blooded idealist with the heart on the left side with very firm opinions about labor and gender rights, I completely buy into this “everything is political” thing. It’s true, progress starts at home and you educate best by example. When injustice happens in your presence, you have some obligation to speak up. But there are limits to that. If I feel that one of my colaborators is voicing believes that I find appaling and I feel uncomfortable about being associated with that person anymore, I consider it legitimate to publically state that you do so. It concerns you personally and you want to let others know what you actually think about a subject instead of people making assumptions about you based on people you get associated with. But when then other peoply try to join in who have no personal involvement at all, things are getting out of hand. Which is why I’m not naming any names here, even though I think lots of people have at least a guess who I am referring to or read the posts that I read today. But as I said, I have no personal involvement in any of that.

Now the actual topic here is the question of why plenty of people seem to feel that these things do involve them personally and they need to speak up about an injustice that happens in their presence. And that reason is “the OSR”. The idea that there is a confined group of people with a shared identity in which they are all equally engaged. Since I am part of “the OSR”, everything that happens in “the OSR” also concerns my personally. But I don’t see that. There isn’t one community. Instead there is just a huge mass of overlapping personal circles, to get all pseudo-sociological here. Two people enjoying the rules systems of Dungeons & Dragons from the 70s does not give them any kind of relationship. Even two people producing content based on these don’t have any relationship because of this. Now many of these creators do. Many engage with each other in extended discussions or personally colaborate on the creation of new content. But that’s again just their own personal circle. It does not involve any of us other bystanders, even if we have read and used some of their content. It’s when people assume that things that are happening in other circles are happening on their own turf that we get these childish bickerings. It’s neither news nor ongoing debate. It’s gossip. And I feel safe leaning out the window and making the claim that most of use are just anoyed by all of it. And by “us”, I just mean “we people who enjoy reading material related to the rules systems of Dungeons & Dragons from the 70s”. Which is all that OSR ever was.

Villains for a treacherous forest world

Almost a year ago, I made up a list of great villains from fiction that I want to use as direct inspirations for my own antagonists. Even though this setting is very different in style and tone, I found that this list is still representing my top picks for great antagonists to emulate. They need to be human in their desires and limitations and failings, but also absolutely dispicable. This is what great enemies look like.

Setting the Theme

Silly title? Probably. It’s not easy being both snappy and clever all the time.

The first step in creating a new setting is always to think about which existing works you draw your main inspirations from and serve as your primary references. It may be fully unconcious for many people, but you can’t create something new from nothing. The second thing that I think everyone should do, but a great many number don’t, is to give it some thought what your new creation is supposed to be about. Lots of fictional worlds, especially in RPGs, are not really about anything. And that’s the main reason why they are bland, boring, indistinguishable, and ultimately forgettable. With past settings I did make this crucial step, but then I immediately went ahead creating lots of content without really paying any attention to the themes. And the campaigns ended up simply being okay, not very memorable, and feeling somewhat generic. (Though I also partly blame this on sticking with D&D-derivative systems.) Self-awareness being the first step towards self-improvement and all this, now is another opportunity to do better.

I’ve already been doing a good amount of preliminary work on the setting, and out of the many ideas I came up with and threw out, some general overall themes did emerge. The core idea, that has fascinated me for years, is that complex human cultures throughout all of history have regarded themselves as the pinacle of creation. Beings so far above all other living things that they exist outside of the natural order and nature in fact exists to serve man. Above them are only the gods, who are immortal and live in realms removed from the world. But among the living things on Earth, man stands above everything, and man will live on even after death, in the realms of the gods. This seems to be almost universal among civilizations, with exceptions being small isolated cultures that live in places where the environment has not been transformed into farmland and cleared of most dangerous predators. Yet for the last generation or two, there has been a growing awareness and understanding in western culture that we can’t bend nature to our will, and it’s not a matter of developing better technologies. Instead of adapting to local environmental conditions, we have tried to force the environment to change to suit our needs. But nature doesn’t care about or needs, which directly led to many of the worst natural disasters of human history. Some people even go so far to say that there are no “natural disasters”. Nature just does what it always did, disasters only happen when people put their houses in the paths of natural forces or think they know how to improve the environment for their own benefit. We’ve had plenty of fiction over the last decades about a world altered so much by humans that it became inhospitable to humans. And now the survivors have to learn to live with the new conditions. Or they don’t. My idea for the main theme of this setting is a world with natural forces so strong, forests growing so fast, and beasts getting so big that it was never suited for civilizations. The spirits that rule over nature don’t care about what happens to people any more than to any other creatures, and people are far from the top of the food chain. It is a forest world with numerous small areas suitable for farming and free of most dangerous predators, but the limited space does not allow for growth or expansion beyond some tens of thousands of people. Beyond these small islands of relative safety lies a true primordial wilderness, a world that is majestic and wondrous, but also terrifying and cruel.

One major difference going into this setting compared to my previous ones is that I don’t approach it from the perspective of Dungeons & Dragons, with it’s levels, spell lists, and monster books, but from the perspective of Apocalypse World. Structurally, a world in which the environment restricts human societies from growing large is very similar to a world in which catastrophic changes to the envrionment reduced human societies to a very small scale. The situation in which people live, the needs they have, and the threats they face are mostly the same. Post-apocalyptic fiction often features extreme or even exagerated conflicts and violence because it takes place in settings of extreme or exagerated scarcity. It takes the complex and often abstract conflicts that are part of our own world, and human history as a whole, and reduces them to the very basics where everything gets much simpler. I don’t want to make this a dystopian setting where people live in misery and constant fear, but I find it very useful to approach the overall social situation, with its conflicts and factions, from the perspective of fundamental scarcities. What do people need but do not have? What motivates them to behave in certain ways that are typical for the setting? What makes them act agressive and foolish?

The first, and most simple scarcity, is a scarcity of farmland. There are only a limited number of places where the ground is suitable for growing crops, the vegetation not spreading too agressivly to clear fields, and the wildlife not too dangerous to settle downn. With farmland being limited, there is only so much food that can be produced. But even when you have enough to feed all the people, you also need to have surplus to store for bad years and to trade with other settlements. Farmland is the primary unit of wealth, and while the distances between major settlements make generally unfeasible to conquer land from neighboring settlements, it is the main source of conflict within communities. A settlement can not increase its amount of farmland, but families are constantly trying to get more land from their neighbors. The scarcity of farmland is the underlying basis for most local politics and power structures and affects who could be a potential ally or enemy to the players, and who they would have to approach to get things done.

The second scarcity is a scarcity of cooperation. Because communities are separated by often long stretches of wilderness, most of them tend to be fairly insular. Trade between settlements is a common thing, but nobody ever gets anything for free. And in times of trouble, most communities are entirely on their own. Their local trouble is not someone elses trouble. It might seem as a sensible course of action in the short term, but in the long term problems can grow into much bigger threats that endanger much larger regions. The indifference to the trouble of others is regularly a contributing factor to the rise of major threats. Cooperation is rarely given and never expected, but this also means that it is regarded with immense value when offered. Getting allies for their cause is a major challenge for the players, but the offering of assistance is a very strong bargaining chip and comes with great gratitude that may be invaluable in the long run. The difficulty in finding allies can be a frustration for players, but being persistent and taking risks will lead to immense rewards.

The third scarcity is a scarcity of understanding. It is in the nature of people to believe that they understand everything perfectly well and that they know all they need to know. But in reality, most people’s understanding of the wilderness and the supernatural is rudimentary at best and often outright false. But the confidence in their mistaken believes drives them to make decisions with terrible outcomes. Real dangers are being ignored and needless conflicts escalated because of people’s believes about how things work and what others want. Because resources are scare and the environment dangerous and often hostile, not all conflicts are caused simply by misunderstanding, and could be solved by explaining the truth. When there is not enough food, then there is not enough food. But every threat is being increased and every conflict escalated by people making decisions based on false assumptions. And it isn’t just that people are mistaken, but refuse to believe that they are mistaken. Understanding more about a situation and the creatures and spirits of the wilderness is always the most important part in dealing with a problem. Blindly charging in without a plan always makes things only worse. Attempting to communicate with the alien minds of spirits or gleaning information from the ruins and records of past settlements is always a crucial part in putting an end to threats that endanger communities.

Just yesterday I realized that these three scarcities very much overlapp with the three vices and three virtues that I picked as the basis for one of the most prominent religions of the setting. Greed, hatred, and pride are the sources of all ills. They are the reasons people do stupid things that lead to violence and disaster. Opposed to these are the virtues represented by the three gods of the religion. The God of the Fields, who represents generosity, the God of the Home, who represents hospitality, and the God of the Herds, who represents humility. The scarcity of farmland is connected to greed; the scarcity of cooperation is connected to distrust and resentment, and therefore hatred; and the scarcity of understanding is directly matching pride. Almost certainly not a coincidence, but simply the result of having thought about these and worked with them for several weeks.

Finally, it is critical to have a pretty good understanding of what kind of people the players will play, and what kinds of things they will be doing in the campaign. The themes I have decided on don’t really align with becoming powerful warriors through the fighting of many monsters and the amassing of great riches, and trying but ultimately failing to make D&D characters work in the Ancient Lands was probably the main reason that setting never led to the campaigns I envisioned. But Apocalypse World makes very different assumptions about what player characters are and what they do. Even though it’s never spelled out that way, AW is a system centered around being community leaders. Some of the character types lend themselves to loose canons, but the majority of them come with implicit or outright explicit ties to a home settlement. Three of them are leaders of large groups and two more are running essential services for the community. And all the others lend themselves to being very well known, either highly respected or feared. These ties to the community mean that the characters are automatically invested in the community. When the main defining trait of your character is running a temple or owning a tavern, ensuring the town’s continued existance is always going to be high on your list of priorities. And even if you play a character without such ties, you’re playing someone closely aqainted with the local priest or tavern keeper played by another player. In the past, my focus has always been on the wilderness and dungeons, and these are still where my passions lie. But having characters deeply tied to a home settlement does not mean that play has to be focused on that settlement. Most threats to the settlement come from outside and the people can’t afford to wait until they are clawing at the gates. To prevent trouble from reaching the settlement, the players have to go out and face them in the wilderness. Threats can come in many forms. Since I am a fan of the supernatural, spirits starting to act threateningly or monsters coming close to the village are always great options. But you can also have shamans and sorcerers trying to gain power and endangering the village in the process. And things can always be made more interesting by throwing some raiders into the mix. Raiders on their own are never very interesting to me, but they always make for a great complication in a charged situation.

My feeling is that this is a really solid fundation to building a setting with strong themes that run from the big picture down to the finer details and make it a world that has it’s own distinctive character that makes adventures feel and play out differently from what you can have in any other setting.

Welcome to the Jungle

Good artists borrow, great artists steal. I plan on stealing from these ones very generously.

Baroque Fantasy

The Green Hell and the Circle of Life and Death

The Deep Blue Under

I admit not a lot of forests here. But that’s where the creative transformation into something new happens. I am such a genius. The shortest way I can sum up the concept is “Dark Sun in green”.

I think one thing to take away from this list is that the world and its inhabitants needs to be intense and surreal. It really has to be larger than life to evoke the styles of these reference works.

You can get the Tiger out of the Jungle…

Work on the Ancient Lands  setting more or less ended early last year because I just couldn’t get my dreams for a fantastic world fit together with the needs of fantastic adventures. Last winter I tried putting my creative energies somewhere else and started working on the medieval Baltic Sea dark fantasy world Dark World, but I lost interest in that pretty soon. Instead, I went back to making my alternate timeline for Knights of the Old Republic a reality. Which actually went quite well.

But still…

The idea of Bronze Age warriors riding on great reptiles through an endless forest dominated by strange magical beings just never completely faded from my mind.

And how could I? Once you’ve seen perfection, how could you ever be content with less?

The problem was never with the elements I wanted to include in such a setting. The reason things never really worked and came together was that I had painted myself into a corner with what I wanted characters and adventures within that world to be like. Somehow I got that idea in my head that I don’t wannt to run campaigns that are about such banal things like permanently chasing after piles of gold, or seeking glory in killing piles of enemies. Which is a valid aesthetic choice, but it turned out to just not work when you still approach characters and adventures with the mindset of Dungeons & Dragons.

Originally, my idea to make some kind of wilderness warriors campaign started with a fascination for the E6 variant of D&D 3rd Edition that cuts the 20 level progression down to 6 and then has characters gain more low-level abilities instead of becoming increasingly more powerful. Later I moved on to Basic/Expert and from that to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and finally to Barbarians of Lemuria. with a short detour through Symbaroum. But even though the later two are classless systems with more flexible systems for experience, they still come with very similar assumption about what a fantasy hero is and does.

But this summer, I finally managed to understand Apocalypse World. I had to read the whole book end to end probably five times, but even when I first read it a year before, I immediately became aware that there’s a really fascinating game hidden in the unorganized heap of rambling and unexplained game terms. At some point I had looked into Dungeon World, which is based on the same mechanics adapted for fantasy settings, but it tries to use the mechanics to recreate the style of Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, it loses what makes Apocalpyse World feel different.

Last year, Mick Gordon gave a great presentation at GDC about how he created the soundtrack for the new Doom. His instructions were that he had to create music that nobody had ever heard before, that fit the game perfectly, and that would be instantly loved by fans. Which he actually did, with huge success. And one of the big lessons that came out of that work was “to change the outcome, change the process”. And since I started to really dig into the rules of Apocalypse World and working out how it is meant to be used, I discovered this to be a really significant realization. For several years I had tried to create something that is unlike D&D, while still approaching like creating content for D&D. When put like that, it really doesn’t seem surprising that the whole effort repeatedly bogged down, even though I tried to start over again several times.

To get a different result, you have to use a different approach. And Apocalypse World is indeed a very different approach. Without getting too deeply into the specifics of the rules, one difference that impressed me the most is the approach to the different character types that players can play. Character classes are defined primarily by a set of abilities, very often in combination with a narrow set of equipment. These are all in turn based on tasks. Fighters do the frontline fighting, thieves do the locks, traps, and scouting, clerics do protection and healing spells, and wizards do the artillery spells and various support spells. In Apocalypse World, the various playbooks all have their suits of specific abilities, but for most characters all there’s a free choice from all optional abilities, and pretty much all abilities can be learned by any other characters as well. (Though you’re limited to a total of two abilities from other playbooks in addition to four abilities from yours.) And all characters can use all equipment equally well if they get their hands on it. Instead characters are defined by their role in society. There’s a character who rules over a small settlement or compound. A character who leads a cult, one who leads a gang, and one who runs some kind of bar. One character is an artists with a captivating personality, another has access to abilities that goad players to stir up trouble any time they run into important or dangerous people.

Because of this, you completely avoid the situation of the characters sitting in a bar and waiting for an opportunity to use their swords or spells to appear. Many of the characters come with NPCs who depend on them, who have expectations of them, or who just don’t like their presence. This is a game that just doesn’t do lone wanderers without connections looking for other people’s problem to fix. In Apocalypse World, you’re always a prominent somebody and problems come to you. To make this work, Apocalypse World is designed as being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of dangers, where there’s always a scarcity of somethhing that makes people do stupid and dangerous things. Even if you don’t seek riches or glory, staying put in a quiet place isn’t an option. When you have no food, you have to get some. And when you have it, you have to keep hold of it. This really is not a radically new idea. But it’s a very different one from the D&D adventuring party.

My ideas for an ancient forest world have never been post-apocalyptic. But it has always been about the treacherous wilderness on the frontier, beyond which lies a vast unknown home to strange beings and phenomenons. It is in many ways and environment with a great deal of structural similarities, and I found that all the character types from Apocalypse World translate very well to a fantasy wilderness. You live in an insolated stronghold surrounded by hostile wilderness and it is up to you to take steps to keep the mundane and supernatural dangers that are lurking out there from getting in. I had actually considered something along this line some years ago, but still thinking about adventures in terms of dungeons, monster stats, magic items, and experience point I just couldn’t figure  out how to make this work.

Learning how Apocalypse World approaches campaigns, player characters, and NPCs was a very fascinating and inspiring process. And all the while, I couldn’t help but think how all of it would translate to Bronze Age warriors riding dinosaurs through a vast forest ruled by strange beings. At some point, I had this image in my mind of “Dark Sun, but in a giant forest”. And with the default assumptions of Apocalypse World, this seems like a really good starting point for a redesign of that ancient forest that always keeps calling back to me.

The Witcher RPG is out

I was just wondering what has happened to the Witcher RPG and whether it is still in production. And it turns out to have finally been released after huge delays last friday.

The first print run was sold at GenCon and there’s probably a proper print release very soon. Meanwhile the pdf is already available for 22€ and runs at a total of 336 pages. According to the content table, the book is 158 pages of rules, 32 pages of setting information, 26 pages of GM information, and 48 pages of creatures and enemies, with the rest being a couple of other things.

Still have to properly read it, but I hope that even with 51 pages of character creation and 30 pages of combat rules it’s still actually playable.