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.

Knights of the Old Republic: Shadows of the Sith Empire

I went with Star Wars, reviving my idea for a Knights of the Old Republic campaign in which Darth Revan was succeeded by a Sith Empress.

So far, all of these planets are from the Expanded Universe with no completely made up additions of my own. This is the most interesting region of the Galaxy in my opinion, where you get the Republic, the Jedi, the Sith Empire, the Hutts, Czerka Corp, the Mandalorians, and Adascorp, and can easily add in the Exchange. It has the homeworlds of the Arkanians, Cathar, Ithorians, Mandalorians, Miraluka, and Wookiees, which are all prominent races in the Old Republic; and also Gand, Trandoshans, and Weequay. Aside from Twi’leks, Duros, and Rodians, what else could one ever want? And those all have hyperspace engines.

The only other equally interesting region of the Galaxy is the one that holds Tatooine, Bothawui, Rodia, Ryloth, Sluis Van, and Sullust (and Geonosis, Kamino, Mustafar, and  Naboo if you’re into that stuff). In a Rebellion campaign I would probably set my game there, but for the Old Republic there’s no space like Sith Space. But why limit yourself to a small part of the galaxy at all, when the movies very clearly make it look like you can jump from one end to the other in maybe an hour? Because if you give the players a map of the entire galaxy, it’s just way too much information. With a hyperdrive, the players can go almost anywhere at any time, and when every planet is an option, they are easily paralyzed by indecision and you have no way to have at least a little note card with the basic information at hand.

(Yes, you could make a map showing only selected planets all across the galaxy, but shush!)

Now where did I put my dice…?

Finally main season at work has come to a close. Instead of 44 hours per week I am now down to a much more cozy 35 hours, and also almost no weekend duty anymore. That provides me with a lot more free time.

And immediately I start thinking about starting a new online campaign. The biggest question is what type of campaign I want to make it. Some kind of Conan-style adventures in a Morrowind-style setting using material from my previous games, or do the Knights of the Old Republic game I had wondered about for a long time now.

Now that I think of it, the question can probably be boiled down to “Do I want lightsabers or not.” The rest would actually be mostly the same.

Considering all the options, I am currently favoring Barbarians of Lemuria as the game of choice. It doesn’t have all the numbers and restraints of D&D type fantasy games, but it also is mechanically really simple and easy to understand, which makes it very well suited for online play.

C6?

While it’s really well made, I’ve always been thinking that making a Conan RPG based on the d20 system was a really odd and unfitting choice. The extremely steep power gradient between 1st and 20th level just doesn’t seem right. But running the Conan game in an E6 variant? Now that seems like a really interesting thought.

The beautiful worlds of E6

At the very end of the run of Dungeons & Dragons’ 3rd Edition, someone came up with an idea to turn the game from one that covers heroes who start as complete nobodies to become practical demigods into one that emulates a more grounded style of fantas with a single very simple modification. In Epic 6, player characters can only advance up to 6th level, instead of up to 20th level and possibly beyond. Characters can still advance, but instead of getting new levels with everything that includes, they only get further customized through gaining one additional feat in place of additional levels. Numbers remain relatively small and within a range that has proven itself to work really well in practice, and most of the powerful spells remain outside of the players’ hands. It’s about getting characters to the level that is considered to be my many the one where they best represent the common image of a proper fantasy hero and then staying there. No new rules need to be learned and all the existing material of the game that is available to 6th level characters can still be used just as it is. As a rules hack, it is incredibly neat and elegant.

But to me, the really amazing consequence of E6 is not on the side of the players. In my own experience, very few games ever had characters reach 7th level and beyond. The great power of high level characters never became an issue in any of the games I played and ran. The reason I got so fascinated with E6 back when I still played 3rd Edition is the many implications that it has for the world around them. It’s not just that player characters are limited to 6th level, the same limitation also applies to NPCs as well. This means you can’t simply go to a big temple or wizard school and pay someone to cast 4th and 5th level spells for you and you won’t be able to buy scrolls of these spells as well. A considerable portion of magic items also can no longer be crafted by either PCs or NPCs either. Even if magic is as widely available as the game seems to assume by default, the limitations of what spells are available to the wizards and clerics of the setting lead to a rather different “high magic” setting with a lot of low-power magic and an almost lack of high-power magic.

But where it gets really interesting is the fact that these limitations on the powers and abilities on PCs and NPCs don’t apply to monsters, as those don’t normally have levels. Many people seem to prefer to adjust the world of their game accordingly by limiting the monster population to creatures that are considered appropriate challenges for 6th level parties by the rulebooks, but I’ve been much more a fan of keeping all those big critters around as they are. This way you get a world in which even the most powerful mortal heroes are incapable of taking on directly. If an older dragon or greater demon needs to be dealt with the players will have to work out different strategies to face than other than straight up challenging them to a fight in their lair. At the same time, powerful magical creatures are the only source of access to higher level spells which they have as inborn abilities rather than learned through advancing in levels. If you need powerful magic, you need to find a powerful magical creature and convince it to provide it for you. A world in which “high level” PCs stand head and shoulders above the common rabble but are still dwarfed by magical monsters is something I’ve not really seen much in fantasy. Something that I find very fascinating from a worldbuilding perspective. While I like the mechanics of Symbaroum, the way it is written it only makes advanced PCs vulnerable to common soldiers and bandits, but at the same time it also lets them take out the most powerful monsters just as quickly. Limiting the possible strength of monsters the way they are feels somewhat disapointing to me. There is a space for fantasy in which fights can take almost the form of Russian roulette by making engaging a powerful foe a great danger. But setting things up in a way that a head on assault isn’t really a viable option strikes me as much more interesting.

Magic & Religion for a Dark World

Building on a previous post from two months ago and somewhat revising it.

I always want to do more with magic than it simply being there and wizards casting spells as if it’s a simple science. For me it also needs a mystical element that waves it into the nature and origin of all reality. To come up with something for this setting, I looked at what the primary role of supernatural forces in the world would be. Which clearly is the effect of different regions becoming more or less magical or magically corrupted and this affecting how civilizations develop and decline. There are also gods of the land that have some control over it, and priests and sorcerers who want to take that control for themselves. The casting of spells by mages as a weapon or to do useful things is still very much a secondary thing in the worldbuilding and I don’t have any real plans for how that should look yet. So I’ve been looking at magic as a divine and natural force first and build a metaphysic model for the world before going deeper into available spells and magical items. As of now, I am working with the magic sytem of Symbaroum in mind, from which the three magical traditions are directly taken.

Magical energy is both the source of the life force in all living things and the power behind all natural forces. It’s the energy of earthquakes, volcanoes, and storms, and as such also governs flooding, droughts, avalanches, and wildfires. In its primordial state the world is raw Chaos, just the basic elements without any structure and order. It is the will of spirits that makes the primordial chaos take form and give it structure. All the lands exist because they are given shape by the Gods of the Land. There are countless spirits of greatly different power, but they all together form the environment that exists around them.

In the natural order of things, mortals are not the masters of the world, not do they have any preferential position in it compared to all the animals they share it with. The untamed wilds are a place that is harsh and dangerous and full of things much more powrful than people. But mortals always have the desire to shape the environment around them to be less dangerous for them and provide them with more prosperity. The oldest form of such attempts is Witchcraft, the practice of appealing directly to individual spirits of great power whose influence over the land can make an important difference to the farmers and hunters and their villages.

At some point Witchcraft was surpassed in many places by Theurgy. Instead of appealing directly to numerous indivdual spirits of the land, priests began to pray to greater gods of much greater power and far wider influence. In the End, two cults became dominant that worship gods that have become known to be sympathetic to the plights of mortals and responsive to their pleas. Nine in the North and Seven in the South. (Six of which are identical.) Their ability to influence the natural world is tied to the faith of the people who inhabit the lands and as such the building of temples and the performance of rituals is a very important element of society. The true power of the gods is found only where the faithful take it, while at the same time abandonment of the Gods of the Land diminishes their influence and power to cause disasters and other calamities that are cause of suffering for mortals.

But it is the nature of mortals to always seek to improve their lot and gain power that rivals that of the gods. All the prayers and rituals of the priests have their limitations and they are unable to make all the beneficial changes to the environment that are possible. Some think they know better than the gods what mortals really need and developed the art of Sorcery. Sorcery attempts to gain the powers of the spirits and reshape the surrounding world to provide greater prosperity, wealth, and security. However, the natural world is a fragile thing and witches and priests are both in full agreement that it should be left in the hands of the gods to reshape the lands to the greater benefit of their worshippers. Sorcery has achieved a number of marvelous wonders, but much more prominent in the minds of most people are the many disastrous catastrophies that turned whole lands into barren wastelands or regions haunted by nightmares. Except for a few places, Sorcery is feared in all lands, and in many places ruthlessly exterminanted by both priests and witches where discovered.

In the present day, worship of the Nine Gods and the Seven Gods is the dominant religion in allmost all settled lands. But Witchcraft snd the worship of Gods of the Land is still practiced in many border regions and isolated settlements that have almost no contact with the great cities that are the centers of Theurgy.

Once more with (more) feeling

I’ve realized that recently I have not been feeling really enthusiastic about working on the new setting and looking forward to seeing it in action. The last really cool thing where the 50 Cool Things two weeks ago.
I think I found out why that is and how to fix that.

The Problems

The first thing is that I took the idea of using a lot of elements from medieval Northeast Europe and it turned into something more like taking medieval Northwest Europe and adding fantasy elements to it. While I am a huge fan of The Witcher and Dark Souls, the medieval design isn’t really one of the things I love about them. The style that I really love is that of Planescape, Dark Sun, Morrowind, Star Wars, and evrything deawn by Moebius. Worlds that feel very alien and often somewhat surreal. Worlds that are more about representing ideals instead of realism.

The other thing is that I’m not really a fan of treasure hunting. What I really love is exploring magical places, but the material stuff you carry out of them doesn’t do much for me. It’s just such a central element in Sword & Sorcery and wuxia and a standard assumption in most RPGs, but the whole point of starting a new setting was to make something suited for more noir-style stories and adventures. Changing from gold to artifacts didn’t really do the trick.

How to fix it

With that in mind, I think I want to take the setting into a more alien and high magic direction instead of making it Earth-like and low magic. This mostly doesn’t actually change the things that I’ve already described here. The map remains the same, the people remain the same, and the factions remain the same. The magic system of priests, witches, and sorcerers and magical knowledge leading to loss of humanity probably will also remain the same. I will also stick to my plan on using Baltic, Finnish, Mongol, and Greek sounding names and have the trade networks be modeled after the Baltic Sea. And of course, it remains a temperate to cold region of forests with lots of swamps and heaths, full with dangerous and powerful spirits.

What changes will probably be the nature of the eldritch wilderness and also of the civilized lands. So far I had been working with the concept of Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird, based on the assumption of a very medieval Earth-like setting. But it doesn’t make much sense in an alien high magic world. Instead, I found some good guidance looking back into the introduction of the Planescape setting. Planescape is also about exploring wonderous places and collecting valuable stuff there, but it is meant to be so much more than a dungeon crawl treasure hunt. In Planescape, things are intended to get a much deeper meaning and provide more complex motivations by relying on the central theme that belief changes the environment. The factions have their ideological conflicts because each of them tries to make the universe work the way they think it should work and the only reason it doesn’t is because other people still believe that it works differently. This reminded me of my earlier but then discarded idea of powerful immortal sorcerer kings using their supernatural powers to create areas within the otherwise chaotic and dangerous wilderness where advanced civilization can develop and be sustained, protected from the wims of spirits and wild gods.

Now instead of giving this power to immortal sorcerer kings, I want to adapt the idea from planescape that belief can change the environment. Not so much that reality fundamentally changes because people believe it, but to make it so that magic can have meaningful effects over large areas that will affect the environment in a wide range of ways. Usually an area is influenced by the gods of the land, but many priests, witches, and sorcerers working together can subtly change it through complex rituals and the construction of great magical monuments. These are the occult societies like the Sorcerer Lords, the Moon Knights, or the Fog Witches, and of course the Northern and Southern Churches. All their plotting and hunting for magical tomes is not just for knowledge or for power, but it’s a permanent struggle to preserve and strengthen the societies of their homelands, and there are always those who wish to change them to be closer to their own ideals. Ultimately, all the plots and fights are about protecting their way of life or creating a better world. It’s not the ulta-lowest common denominator of the entire existance of the world being threatened by a great evil that wants only to end all life. But it’s still as important a long-term motivation for the factions as it can get. The players’ involvement in their affairs will matter a great deal to large numbers of people.

What is very important to me with this idea is to keep it all very subtle and mystical. The supernatural world is not a machine with dials to be turned and leavers to be switched. The goal is to weaken the influence of some spirit and to manipulate others. Magical constructions are not about building magitech devices, but about building temples from which priests project their divine powers, errecting shrines to claim spiritual ownership over a place, and to slowly enchant the waters of a lake to become a source of magical power that increases the strength of sorcerers near its shores.

Adding Theme

Another thing that seems appropriate to mention here, as it’s closely related and derives from these thoughts, is the subject of theme. A problem with my Sword & Sorcery setting was that I always had difficulties with making things feel meaningful and not just simple action fun. I really like Conan and Kane, but their philosophical concerns never felt like they could be applicable to a game of people playing together with limited time. They are much too brooding and inside looking. All my favorite stories that seem meaningful to me and where the problem requires direct action fall more into the Neo-Noir style. Stories that I find the most interesting are about failure and defeat, and comin to terms with the truth that in reality people are not heroe who can accomplish everything they want because they are determined. The most important questions are always how much you feel you need to accomplish and how much you are willing to give to accomplish it. And not the cliche of “I would give everything and will do anything it takes!” and then winning without actually having to pay anything for it.

I also have a bit of a fascination with prophecies, but really don’t like it when it predetermines the outcome and removes all tension, or when the meaning can only be deciphered after it already happened. A nice solution I found for this is to have divinations only tell the characters whose paths they will cross if they stay on the path they are currently on, and whether this fated meeting will lead to valuable help or to a confrontation. It can predict when a decisive moment will happen, but not determine the specific outcome. Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that he will have to face Darth Vader, and he already knows this to be true. But neither of them can tell what will happen when he does.

Now when you combine these two things with a setting in which powerful factions try to subtly alter the fate of whole region, a very strong theme emerges: Considering the consequences of your actions. Which is an important element in Noir. And which also happens to be a central theme in The Witcher. When you are a poweful warrior or sorcerer, your actions can have very large consequences. You can not simply charge into a place and destroy the evil and except that this nicely wraps everything up and will be happy ever after. This is what happens in a simple adventure story, but it’s not how things work in reality. Not ignoring the fact that sometimes things don’t go as planned and then having to find ways to deal with the consequences as best as they can is something that I feel adds a great deal of depth and meaning to a story.