Good artists borrow, great artists steal – Laying the foundations for the Ancient Lands

When I started working on the Ancient Lands, I wanted of course to create a world that contains many of the things I already love in other settings, but would wish to be more explored or developed a bit differently. Not all the things I love, because that doesn’t really lead to consistend and belivable world, but rather to a mess of randomly thrown together pieces. But still a selection of a good amount of things from my favorite settings that I have come to love a lot. Here, I want to provide an overview of the major geographic areas of the Ancient Lands and the works that inspired them. These don’t cover the whole world, or even the whole continent, but are the selection I made for those regions I want to develop in detail, while leaving the rest simply untouched. There’s something there, of course, but I don’t know what it would be either.

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What I learned from reading Fate Core – Part 2: Starting a campaign

One thing most GMs will realize probably quite quickly is that you can’t really start a great campaign with “You are all meeting in a tavern” (unless you’re going for a pure treasure-hunting dungeon crawl, I suppose). Even if you have an overarching story in mind, it’s often difficult to slowly build up to the really big issues that will define the campaign. At first you get to kill some rats in the basement and then slowly work your way up until you eventually get to explore a goblin lair where the actual hook for the major part of the campaign will be found. And as easy as it sounds, it’s quite difficult to make it work well and be exciting and enjoyable for the players.

Fate presents an interesting take on this: Every new campaign should start with at least two big issues (though don’t overdo it or it gets too cluttered and confusing). These can either be current issues or impending issues. Impending issues are the things I just mentioned. The definitive story with a clear villain and a specific goal for the PCs. But something that seems to be usually overlooked in RPGs are the current issues. Instead of dropping the players into a world where everything is mostly fine until they run into the plot hook, you can (and I think should) also start the campaign with some kind of major conflict or other problem already in place. It’s something that is very common in fiction and in many videogames as well. Take for example, once again, Star Wars, where there is already dissent against the new public order and rebellion brewing in secrecy before Luke and Han get involved in the actual plot at all. It’s the background environment in which the specific adventure of delivering the Death Star plans and saving the princess takes place. It’s the context for what they do and makes that simple delivery run matter, even before they end up joining the rebellion and taking up the goal of defeating the Empire. The game Skyrim is also a good example. You get the Dragon storyline as an Impending Issue that slowly builds up during the first three or four hours of the game, but there is already the Stormcloak uprising against the Empire as the Current Issue, which has been going on for quite some time before the players character gets drawn into the story.

Now I really wish I had been thinking about this a week ago, so I could have made use of this simple method to start my new Castles & Crusades game, but with only the first session played so far, it should be easy enough to do this retroactively.

What I learned from reading Fate Core – Part 1: Environment Zones

While I was pondering whether the new Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight Games might be something worse purchasing instead of sticking with Star Wars Saga Edition (the FFG game require three $60 books, of which only one has been released yet; but SE is a d20 game with all the baggage that includes), I considered giving another chance to the generic class-less games that are out there. There’s a lot of praise for Burning Wheel and Savage Worlds, but Fate Core brings with it the huge advantage of being entirely free for download.

I have to admit that I am still not a big fan of Fate Points (Action Points, Bennies, Force Points, Luck Points, whatever you want to call them) and I can say outright that I think using Fudge Dice only has the purpse of selling special dice to me (though the game appears to be perfectly playble with 2d6 instead), but there’s really a lot of ideas in that game that frankly should be in every pen and paper game ever published! It’s not even strictly mechanical stuff, but really just some basic ideas how to approach the creation of character personalties, campaign setups, and encounters. Things that can be applied to probably every RPG that exists.

One thing that I really, really like – as someone who thinks miniatures have no place outside of tactical wargames – is to define the battlefield for encounters as a number of zones. The idea is, that you come up with a location for an encounter and divide it into a couple of zones that represent different kinds of environment. For example, an attack of a small hut could have the zones “Inside”, “Front Porch”, “Back Porch” and “Roof”. On each characters turn, they can move from one zone to another one and still get to take one action. In the first round, you could enter the “Front Porch” zone and then throw a smoke grenade through a window, and in the second round you move from “Front Porch” to “Inside” and try to tackle the enemy. The effect from the smoke grenade would now also affect only the “Inside” zone.

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Enhancing the Ancient Lands

I am starting a new campaign set in the Ancient Lands tomorrow, and as so often I find myself a bit doubting about the setting really being something different and not just another case of generic european middle ages fantasy. So kind of as a last moment effort, I sat down once more, going over notes to remind myself of some special features I’d fallen in love with over the last years.

  • Giant Fungus Trees: These are the one big thing that really makes Morrowind look very different from any other well known fantasy setting, even those of the other Elder Scrolls games set in the same world. Of course, it’s not an original idea now, but I think by including them, it’s adding a certain look to the setting that is still rare.
  • Magic Ponds and Wells: I like the idea of water being a substance with inherently supernatural traits. As the Japanese say, water is the only substance that can clean itself. It evaporates at the ground and when it returns as rain, its perfectly clean and unsoiled by anything, which is the reason it’s so important in cleansing rituals. In Warcraft III, the night elves can build Moonwells that replenish the health and mana of nearby units, and there are also natural magical fountains found throughout the world. The spring in Treebeards house in the Lord of the Rings would be another example. Given that the spiritworld plays a prominent role in the Ancient Lands, magic springs seem right in place as locations of strong magical power, which I prefer a lot over ley lines and the like.
  • Large Insects: Giant Spiders are one of the most generic fantasy creatures and giant beetles, centipedes, and scorpions are also quite common. Much more rare is the use of domesticated insects. Dark Sun has them, as the world isn’t very hospitable for most mammals, and again, Morrowind has giant long-legged beetles as transports in swamps and other difficult terrain. Not quite sure how to implement such things in the Ancient Lands, but it’s something I want to come back to and give some more thought.
  • Giant Lizards: Dinosaurs in fantasy are always a difficult subject. They don’t feel a lot out of place in cavemen worlds, but usually people tend to feel that they just don’t belong into a world of knights and wizards. However, the Ancient Lands is not such a world, but one of barbarians and witches. Outright using dinosaurs still doesn’t feel right to me, but there’s a middle ground here. Instead, I am going with large reptiles that are very similar to dinosaurs in all respects, but not actually based on real species. Crocodiles and comodo dragons are still existing species, and many extinct dinosaurs had an anatomy not much unlike rhinos or cattle. I created two new creatures some months ago, which really were just a bison and a camel with a different appearance. A feathered deinonychus might look a bit strange to people who grew up with dinosaur books from the 90s, but I think it makes a cool fantasy creature. I think they make good replacements for bulls and horses in the southern jungle regions of the Ancient Lands.
  • Limestone Karsts and Sinkholes: While not exactly rare in Europe and North America, large areas of limestone erroded by water has formed amazing landscapes in many parts of Southeast Asia, that actually look quite unreal and fantastic if you’re not commonly used to it. Particularly in coastal areas you get this massive monoliths rising out of the water at vertical angles, sometimes riddled with caves and forests growing on top. A bit inland, you get huge mazes sretching out of sight into all directions. It’s a natural and not that uncommon landscape feature, but one much more exotic than meadows and marshes.

These are not things that are going to feature in any significant way in the first adventure of the new campaign, but by mentioning these things every so often while describing what the PCs are seeing, I am hoping to get the players to see the world as more than just Europe with orcs and dragons.

Did Vancian Spellcasting have its origin in wargames?

A thought just came to me, while I was wondering once more why D&D has this very strange system of spellcasting known as Vancian casting.

And it occured to me, that the system of having to select your loadout of spells in the morning and being unable to use them again after they have been cast would make perfect sense if you are thinking of artillery in a wargame. An artillery unit would have to carry a limited amount of specialized amunition with them and once it’s fired they would have to wait for resupply to regain their capacity to fire. In the same way, changing loadout would also require waiting for resupply or returning to base. Not being familiar with the very old editions of D&D, I read something about PCs apaprently not even being supposed to rememorize spells while on an adventure and expected to do that when safely back in town for a couple of days.

Since D&D has its root in wargames, it seems entirely plausible to me that Gygax was already familiar with such a system and found a rough analog for spells in Vance’s novels. And from what I’ve heard (never read them), spellcasting in Vance’s novels isn’t really like spellcasting in D&D either. Just similar.

In any way, I vastly prefer my highly beloved spell points.

Fantasy Safari: Fiend Folio (AD&D 1st Edition), Part 1

This time I am starting with Fiend Folio for AD&D 1st Edition by TSR, 1981; 89 pages of monsters.

FiendFolioCoverProbably the most famous and most highly regarded monster book there is. Even I, who never had huge praise for AD&D and consider lots of old D&D monsters to be just rediculous and dumb to a degree that it isn’t even funny, have to admit that this book is really quite amazing. I am a huge fan of monster books of any game and any edition, and I have to kind of admit that in the last 32 years, there hasn’t really been any book that has surpassed this classic in the amount of brilliant new creatures it contains.

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Help! Starting a new nonlinear campaign

Earlier this week I mentioned between classes that I’d really like to play an RPG again. And as luck has it, my friends all got quite excited about the idea. Only two of them have actually played any games before, but all the others are also quite enthusiastic and so I know have 6 players already and a good chance that this game will keep going for two or three years. The kind of opportunity every small-time GM would wish for.

I’ve decited to ditch Pathfinder and instead go with Castles & Crusades, which is much easier to learn, faster to play, and allows much more freedom because preparing for multiple possible outcomes requires much less time and work, and I can even make up things on the fly. However, having always run rather linear games in which there was a clearly structured sequence of setpieces, I don’t really have any experience with planning a much more open-ended campaign. While I like the possibilities of sandbox games, I don’t want to make it a hexcrawl, but instead provide an interesting starting situation in which the players are free to take sides and steer events towards and outcome that is in their favor. There probably is a huge amount of information out there on the subject and reports of campaigns that people actually ran, but finding those is the difficult part.

If anyone has any pointers towards articles, campaign reports, and similar sources, it would be hugely appreciated if you could share the links in the comments.

That’s no ordinary rabbit!

I got this idea watching a video about Machine for Pigs a few days ago, in which the primary enemies are pigmen. For some reason it got me thining about werwolves, probably because a half-man-half-pig is similar to a half-man-half-wolf. However, one is a person afflicted by a disease that makes him turn under the light of the full moon and invulnerable to anything but silver, while the other is an alchemically warped hybrid of two creatures that doesn’t have any of these special traits.

With a werwolf, you know exactly what you are dealing with. You know what caused it, what triggered it, how the creature behaves, and how to kill it. But while a pigman might also stalk the night an brutally tear its victims to pieces, you don’t know anything about its behavior patterns and how it can be killed. And that’s the key to making horror monsters. Fear is essentially a response to not knowing how to respond to a dangrous situation. When you understand the danger, you can deal with it in a safe way, or at least get yourself out of harms way. You are in control of the situation, so there is no reason to fear.

So when it comes to creating or using horror creatures, it’s vital that the players do not know what they are dealing with. And I think it might be even more effective if the players think they know what they are dealing with and that they are in control of the situation, only to have them realize that the weapons and protective items they brought don’t do anything against the creature. Right now, I really want to make a short adventure in which an unseen creature attacks people during nights of the full moon, leaves behind mangled corpses, and is only seen as a shaggy bipedal shape that jumps in great leaps over roofs and walls. But then it keeps attacking even after the full moon has passed and its entirely unaffected by silver and wolfsbane. Which the players will only realize once they sprung their trap and have the beast cornered.

Reading the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Ask anywhere which older RPG books (pre-2000) are among the best and you are pretty sure to get at least some people praising the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. I flipped through it a few times but never saw anything that looked even remotely interesting. Now I’ve been running D&D games for well over a decade and already know quite a bit about the basics and actual experience, but I think most people who recommend the book have been doing so for much longer than that. Could be pure nostalgia speaking, or there are actually some interesting sentences to find under the generic sounding section lables.

So I am going to bite the bullet and start reading a 200+ pages long book that doesn’t look appealing to me to any degree. But while large group of people can still be entirely wrong, they usually are not. Let’s see what I’ll find in these pages.

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