Mythic Fantasy and the Days of High Adventure

Among the many different branches of fantasy, one of the more obscure ones that is rarely seen in the wild is Mythic Fantasy. I believe it’s actually more a hypothetical idea than an actual concept anyone is working with in practice. I’ve seen it come up a few times in Fantasy-RPG books for gamemasters, as one of several suggested options for what different forms of styles a fantasy campaign could possibly take. The general idea seems to be fantasy that takes its main inspirations from Iron Age myths of the Greeks, Celts, and Germanic peoples, which tell tales of gods and superhuman heroes. And that’s usually about the full extend of detail for how this kind of fantasy would work. The only concrete suggestions I’ve seen is generally “I don’t know, I guess you use some medusas and minotaurs, or something”. But I say no, that’s not how you make a mythic fantasy campaign. That’s just reenacting Greek myths as an RPG. When we are talking about how we can give a fantasy RPGs like D&D different tones and flavors to make it more similar to other styles of fantastic stories, the goal is to put the default material into a new context. Stories of ancient myth are one thing, but I think when we use the term Mythic Fantasy, we should apply it to something else. Mythic is the adjective that describes that thing. Fantasy is the noun that is the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this these past few days, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions to how you can create original fantasy material, in a newly envisioned world, and present it in a way that evokes a similar overall feel without just directly copying existing material.

The Monster

This is a big one, and I believe, the most critical of all the points I am going to make here. Modern fantasy in general, and fantasy RPGs in particular, seem to have lost touch with The Monster and forgotten it’s central role it plays in many of the oldest tales that survive to this day. Not all stories need monsters, just as not all fantasy needs to evoke the style of ancient myths. But we just don’t see The Monster anymore. RPGs in particular are full of “monsters”, but these tend to be swarms of critters that appear as the heroes come around the corner, and after a short action scene, are immediately forgotten one’s the turn around the next. Monsters are there to be fought, because fantasy is supposed to have monsters that are fought, but they generally don’t really have any impact on the greater story.  The story plays out between human(oid) characters. And I believe this even mostly holds true in D&D, with its big tomes of high level monsters. Yes, you might occasionally have fought a beholder or aboleth. But how often was that creature the main villain of the adventure that the entire story revolved around? What interactions did the PCs have with that big monster before they opened a door and found themselves immediately attacked? These monsters may make big and memorable fights, but from what I’ve seen over the past decades now, they are almost always just window dressing for a story that would work just as well without any monsters in it at all.

This is very much not the case with the monsters of ancient myths. There may be both perception bias by me and survivor bias by the ravages of time, but most if not all of these tales are about one monster. Medusa, the Bull of Minos, the cyclops Polyphemus, Cerberus, Fenris, Grendel, Humbaba, Ravana. They all have a name. They all are known to the people living near them and greatly feared. They have a history. They are not just some random creatures that live by themselves deep in the wilderness, minding their own business. The heroes who fight these monsters are not simply showing of their strength and power, they are performing a great service for the community. Yet somehow, we don’t really see that in modern fantasy. I think having these unique great monsters, that are an active thread to society and that ordinary people can not deal with are a central element of what makes a story feel mythic and really need to be included when trying to make a world that feels like Mythic Fantasy.

The Courts of the High Kings

Mythic tales as a whole seem to have a much bigger focus on specifics than the general, compared to what is overwhelmingly seen in games. Take any setting book for a fantasy RPG and look at the description of cities. If there is any useful information at all, it tends to be general stuff about the overall feel and appearance of the city, for when a group of mercenary adventurers is coming through on their way to new adventures. Cities often are central to mythic stories as well, but usually they are not described at all. When mythic heroes come to a city, they really are coming to a king’s court. That’s really the only part of the city that matters. Perseus comes to Knossos, to meet with King Minos. The city of Knossos is irrelevant to the story. All that is important is the palace of king Minos. Beowulf travels to Heorot, the court of King Hrothgar. We would assume that the king’s hall is inside a small city or town, but it is of no importance of the story. The name of the king’s court is not.

As a broad generalization, mythic tales like to give specific names to all the important characters and places. Myths will often take care to mention the homes and lineages of even secondary characters. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that the original audiences of these stories would have been able to glean a great amount of context from these pieces of information. The home and lineage of different characters could inform deeper meanings in the things these characters say or the things they do, that are now lost to us. But even so, I still think that we would recognize such thing as being characteristic of ancient myths. And this is something that shouldn’t be too difficult to emulate in a game. When introducing new characters that are to some degree relevant to the story, don’t just tell the players their names and outer appearance, but also have them be introduced as “the son of X, brother to the king of Y”. It does not have to actually mean anything, but it still creates an impression that these things would be greatly meaningful to the people within the world of the story. Present NPCs as important leaders and emissaries, and have other NPCs treat them and speak of them as people who have influence and power, or at very powerful and influential friends. The world of myths is in many ways a very small one, in which everyone knows everyone and everything is connected.

The heroes should be Heroes

In common usage, the term hero is often used to simply mean protagonist. Or simply any person who did something risky out of kindness. But that’s not the original meaning of the term. A mythical hero is a person who stands above all others and exist in a different category than everyone else. And furthermore, they perform great deeds that bring a significant and permanent benefit to society as a whole. Unsurprisingly, many ancient heroes are said to be demigods who are descended from divine beings. A hero almost has to be superhuman by definition. Heroes are the people who go down in history, and they don’t even have to be good guys.

If you want to have a game that feels like stories of myth, the protagonists have to be heroes. And in any kind of roleplaying game, the players have to play the protagonists. There are many awful examples of published adventures where this is not the case and the PCs are merely spectators watching the real heroes do cool stuff and save the day, which has been emulated by countless numbers of GMs. But that’s objectively bad gamemastering and adventure design. The medium of roleplaying games demands that the players play the protagonists of the story. The game is the story of the PCs. In mythic stories the protagonists have to be heroes, and in roleplaying games the PCs have to be the protagonists. This means that in a Mythic Fantasy campaign, the PCs have to be heroes. And what makes or makes not a hero are not their deeds, but the perception of their deeds. A hero is who the people regard as a hero.

One major aspect of realizing this in a game is in the way that NPCs talk to the PCs and behave towards them. Heroic PCs should be treated as being exceptional people who stand tall above the common men of women. Heroes mingle among the highest ranking people of society, and they will gain the personal attention of kings and queens when they arrive in a new city, who will treat them with the same honor and respect as foreign dignitaries. Even when the PCs are from simple backgrounds with no titles and few possessions to their name, their deeds elevate them to being part of the elite.

To make this really work and feel believable in an actual campaign, PCs need to exceed the prowess and skills of ordinary warriors pretty early in the campaign. Having PCs start at a higher level or with larger numbers of character points is one option. But I am personally much more in favor of instead having ordinary NPCs all be of the most basic type. The default soldier and brigand are usually good enough for all common soldiers and brigands throughout the entire campaign. When the PCs reach 5th level, there is no need to have them encounter ultra-elite soldiers and brigands. If they can just steamroll over any ordinary warriors they encounter then let them. They are heroes. They are supposed to be superhuman. Equally important is that this makes it more believable that the ordinary soldiers are not capable of dealing with the monsters that threaten their cities and people. In some fantasy setting, many adventure ideas are frequently shot down with the simple reason of “why doesn’t any of the powerful NPCs or the giant armies take care of the problem?”. The answer to that is simple. There are no powerful NPCs. There are no armies that could be wasted to die at the feet of an ancient horror.

Swords of Legend

As with monsters and NPCs, another way to make a game feel more mythic is to apply the same principle of specificity to magic items. In mythic tales, there are no +1 swords or mass produced amulets that are found in some random hole in the ground. Every magic item is unique. Often they have a name, and almost always they have a history. They don’t just lie around to be found by the first person who stumbles upon them. They are either pried from the dead hands of slain main antagonists who used them for their evil purposes, or given as gifts from influential people as rewards for outstanding deeds performed by the heroes. Or alternatively, the heroes go to on a quest to retrieve the items from their ancient resting place, overcoming many hardships and foes along the way.

But even with this in mind, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have any magic items that are discovered unexpectedly in forgotten ruins. A great example of this is early on the movie Conan the Barbarian. Conan has been released from slavery by his master and is being chased by wolves, and trying to climb to safety on top of some rocks, falls into the well hidden entrance of an ancient tomb where he discovers his new sword. Since the movie has barely any dialog, neither the scene nor the sword gets any mention later in the film. But as the story have it, it was supposed to be a highly special and remarkable sword, a relic from the great and powerful realm of Atlantis that has long faded into myth. And in that scene where Conan discovers it in the tomb, this really comes across. He does not just find a sword lying around. He discovers an opulent tomb, with an ancient warrior king in his armor, sitting on a great stone throne, covered in dust and spiderwebs, the sword in his skeletal hand.

We do not know the name of the sword, or the name of the king. And we do not know any of their stories. But the way in which the sword is found makes it clear that this is not just some random sword from the shelf, that you can sell to a village blacksmith in bundles of ten. This is a unique artifact with a great history, even though the tales have been forgotten. And it still might just be a sword +1.

Illustrations by Justin Sweet, showing scenes from various Kull stories by Robert Howard.

What should Sword & Sorcery campaigns feel like?

There was a discussion on Dragonsfoot about how to bring a feeling of Sword & Sorcery to oldschool D&D. Like most of these discussion, the focus was on deciding which races and classes should be available for player characters, how to handle healing and magic items, and things like that. But I think that’s starting the whole topic at too late a point. Before you can make choices on how to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery through game rules, you first need to establish for yourself what kind of atmosphere and emotions you want to evoke in the first place.

I think at the most fundamental level, long before going into any specific elements, they key aspect that makes Sword & Sorcery a thing is that it is not a rational form of fantasy, but an emotional. The plots in Sword & Sorcery are almost always very simple and basic. I can’t really think of any story that has intricate plans, unexpected turns, and surprising reveals about hidden motives or betrayals. It’s not a genre of conspiracy plots and whodunits. Hero’s can be very clever, but their plans are remarkable in their simplicity rather than their complexity. Their strengths lie in improvisation combined with determination, and generally work only because of their outstanding martial skills. Plans help to shift the odds in their favor, but at the end it has to come down to a contest of force against force.

Sword & Sorcery can have considerable depth, but it’s not a cerebral experience. It is very much emotional. When we see philosophy make an appearance, it’s overwhelmingly existentialist. A philosophy that deals with giving meaning to a life after realizing that logic is hollow and empty and reason can not give you any joy. And that being said, Sword & Sorcery is fun! It doesn’t have to be humorous. It’s often grim and full of pain, but I think it’s almost always meant to be thrilling and exhilarating. Elric and Kane can be very brooding and morose, but that’s not why we like them. We like them because they inevitable will be overtaken by fury and then kick everyone’s ass, and it will be glorious.

But as a whole, I wouldn’t say Sword & Sorcery is dark. It’s no darker than The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s not really a distinguishing feature. People also often say that it is more grounded and down to earth, and I can’t really see where that idea is coming from? I think most important of all, Sword & Sorcery is always larger than life. It doesn’t dial up things to the maximum of what would still be sensible, but possibly always goes a little bit beyond. At least I can’t think of anything that I would unambiguously call Sword & Sorcery that is reserved and has both feet firmly on the ground. What Sword & Sorcery certainly is is somewhat grimy and gritty. It is never noble or idealistic, and goes to great lengths to be the opposite of pastoral and quaint. It can be majestic, but never pristine. There is always some degree of both savagery and decadence, and going back the point about being focused on the emotional aspects of fantasy, it is “sensual” in the wider sense of the term. It is bold and has little sense of shame. At times this can shift into sleaze, but I think even then, good Sword & Sorcery is always sincere. I can’t think of any work of Sword & Sorcery that is somewhat ironic or tongue in cheek, and doesn’t take itself serious. Sometimes it does get silly, but even at those times, you always get the impression that the creators think this is awesome and the greatest <expletive deleted> ever. In many later works, which is were you find much of the cheesier examples, there is a clear sense of self-awareness of how silly some of the elements are. But we’re supposed to lough with them, not at them. Even at its dumbest, Sword & Sorcery has no doubt that it’s still cool and awesome. Sword & Sorcery never apologizes for anything. Some of it might be silly or immature, but there is a sense of full acceptance that the creators love what they love. They don’t couch things with irony to defend and shield themselves against accusations of having bad taste.

Now what does all of this mean for GMs running a campaign?

Be bold. Make it larger than life. Don’t be afraid of cliches. Go for pathos and portray the NPCs with passion.
Challenge the players’ courage rather than their analytical skills. When in doubt, err in the players’ favor. If an idea sounds somewhat implausible but cool, be lenient with odds to succeed. Encourage the player to stumble forward and make mistakes they will have to live with, rather than shutting down their ideas and tell them to go back thinking of something else until they come up with something that satisfies you.

Going into fantastical and dangerous places is super fun. But to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery, I think dungeons should be relatively small and light on puzzles. Have fewer encounters, but make them more unique, elaborate, and filled with excitement. In the fiction, you often come across great ruined cities, but the heroes still only have two or three encounters in a small handful of distinct areas. Going slowly and meticulously through a huge area, drawing precise maps and cataloging your findings does not really evoke the emotions that are central to Sword & Sorcery. Sword & Sorcery stories tend to be short because they are incredibly dense. Lots of things are happening, and most of these things are remarkable. There is little place for the mundane and routine.

“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

– Robert Howard, Queen of the Black Coast

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.

The Scholar class for Planet Kaendor

As I am falling again deeply into the B/X hole, I have once again found myself having to deal with the question what I want to do about the issue of Clerics. Planet Kaendor is ultimately my own take on Sword & Sorcery, and with the passing of (many) years, I am seeing more and more the meaning and relevance of the typical conventions of this particular style of fantasy. Early on, I was all in for various (A)D&D-isms, like having elves and gnomes, goblins and gnolls, dragons, powerful elemental magic, other planes to visit, and a classical pantheon of gods. That’s all long in the past by now and I’ve fully accepted our Lord and Savior Robert Howard into my heart. And I really find myself enjoying the abstract magic of Moorcock and Smith much more than magic missiles and fireballs.

Finally getting a good picture of what I want gods and spirits to be in my setting (I never had really made a decision on this aspect in all the years), it’s really become clear that clerics don’t have a place on Planet Kaendor. Temples and priests are cool, as are barbarian shamans, but a clear separation of arcane and divine magic just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the supernatural forces that shape the setting. (Which will be the topic of a different post.) My main concern had been how the game would change if you no longer have clerics in the party who can cast healing spells and the players will only rely on healing potions. But when you look at how much healing spells they can actually provide in B/X, it’s really not that much. No spells at all at 1st level, and even well along into a campaign at 7th level, it’s still only two first level spells and one fourth level spell. And you might want to sometime cast other spells than just cure wounds as well. So I think when you’re not too stingy with healing potions as the GM, there should be no real disruption from the lack of clerics.

The most interesting alternative approach to priests that I’ve seen is from the Conan d20 game, which is build on top of a D&D framework. It only has a single full spellcaster class called the scholar. What spells they learn and how they present themselves in public is entirely up to them. Sorcerers and witches are obviously scholars, but so are priests and shamans. They don’t get their magic powers from their gods, but through the same arcane study as everyone else. Priests may claim that they get their magic powers from their gods, and might even believe it, but except for rare cases of divine intervention, it’s all their own doing. That’s an approach I feel is right for Planet Kaendor as well.

The Scholar class is really just the default magic-user with a different spell list. In any other regard, it’s really identical, including hit points, attack chances, saving throws, and number of spell slots. I’ve never been a fan of spell slots as it’s too obviously a game mechanic and not an abstraction to represent a plausible magic system in game terms. But I really don’t want to work out a completely new magic system myself. The most convenient solution for me is the one that was introduced in the 5th edition of D&D. Casters really have two separate sets of “preparation slots” and “casting slots”. You prepare spells as you would always do, but when you cast them they don’t disappear for the rest of the day. You’re still limited in the number of spells you can cast by your casting slots, but you’re not limited to cast a spell only once per day, or forced to prepare it in two slots if you want to be able to cast it more than once. It solves the weirdness of spells being forgotten without actually requiring any modifications to the classes themselves.

Since I want to cap character levels at 10th, the list only goes up to 5th level spells, but of course you could always expand it to 6th level spells as well. It’s mostly spells from Basic Fantasy, which are almost identical to B/X, but I also included a few from OSRIC as well.

1st level spells
  • Cause Fear
  • Change Self
  • Charm Person
  • Command
  • Darkness
  • Detect Magic
  • Entangle
  • Hold Portal
  • Light
  • Protection from Demons
  • Read Languages
  • Remove Fear
  • Resist Cold
  • Sleep
  • Spider Climb
  • Ventriloquism
2nd level spells
  • Blindness
  • Charm Animal
  • Detect Demons
  • Detect Invisible
  • Detect Thoughts
  • Invisibility
  • Knock
  • Locate Object
  • Mirror Image
  • Fog cloud
  • Phantasmal Force
  • Resist Fire
  • Silence
  • Sorcerer Lock
  • Speak with Animals
  • Slow Poison
  • Stinking Cloud
  • Web
3rd level spells
  • Clairvoyance
  • Darkvision
  • Dispel Magic
  • Growth of Animals
  • Haste
  • Hold Person
  • Invisibility, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Demons, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Normal Missiles
  • Slow
  • Speak with Dead
  • Striking
  • Suggestion
  • Water Breathing
4th level spells
  • Bestow Curse
  • Charm Monster
  • Confusion
  • Growth of Plants
  • Hallucinatory Terrain
  • Polymorph Other
  • Polymorph Self
  • Remove Curse
  • Shrink Plants
  • Sorcerer Eye
  • Speak with Plants
5th level spells
  • Animate Dead
  • Cloudkill
  • Conjure Elemental
  • Contact Higher Plane
  • Dispel Demons
  • Feeblemind
  • Hold Monster
  • Insect Plague
  • Slay Living
  • True Seeing

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…

Look at my Works, you Mighty, …

When I wrote my first post outlining the purpose and goal of my latest worldbuilding efforts, I got a lot of replies, including this interesting link from Oliver Simon to a great academic article about the role of the environment in Conan: Exiles. It gave me a couple of great ideas for Planet Kaendor and I made some notes for a new post, and then completely forgot about it for the next six weeks while writing other posts I had already planned. Of my three notes, I only remembered the meaning of the first one, and I had to reread both the entire article and my post that led to it being recommended to me to figure out the second. And I still have no clue what idea the third note was supposed to be about. Don’t be me! Take better notes when you get great ideas for your own work.

The article takes a look at the open world survival game Conan: Exiles as a horrifying analogy of the cruel exploitation within human economic activity. While many of these survival games have the killing of other player characters and the looting of their equipment and resources as a key gameplay element, this game uses the well established and accepted norms of the Hyborian Age to take it to a much more grotesque level. Not only can you loot the possessions of your slain foes, you can also butcher their dismembered corpses for meat and crafting materials. Nonplayer characters can be taken alive and made slaves, that are a hugely important resource for expanding your own base. And some magical powers require human sacrifice to attain. Other people are reduced to “human resources” in the most literal sense. They are commodified as tools to be exploited for your own quest for wealth and power.

Being basically a sociological paper, it’s not an easy read, and the first part is crammed full of attributed quotations of other writers that don’t really add to the topic and mostly seem to be there to pad out the references list at the end to boost academic credibility. But after that it goes into how the environment with its ruined buildings, abandoned weapons and tools, and human remains also tells a story of how economic exploitation build the fallen civilizations as well.

I didn’t expect Marx and Derrida to contribute to my worldbuilding, but I guess stranger things have happened. One passage in particular really got me thinking about how I can give the ruins that fill the environment of Kaendor a more meaningful presence in the actual game instead of being irrelevant pieces of lore in some file.

Faithful to Howard’s original Conan stories, the landscape is one which Derrida would have recognised as being distinctly hauntological; it is a world scarred by its past. This environment is shaped by forces which still have agency but no agent, generating effects which exert great power over the player’s experience of and interaction with their surroundings.

Agency without an agent. Now that’s an expression that really appeals to me. In this case, we have to treat agency as different from the concept of player agency in roleplaying games, which is the ability of players to make choices about the actions of their characters that meaningfully affect the outcome of the developing story of the game. Without an agent, there are no choices that are being made or actions that are being taken. Instead we have the idea here of choices that were made and actions that were taken long ago by the long dead builders of the ruins that led to the creation of the current environment. The choices were made many centuries ago, but their consequences still affect and constrain the options that are open to the player characters in the present. The idea is that the ruins are not simply featureless and inert stones that litter the surroundings, but active entities that challenge and threaten the intruding explorers.

(At this point I want to apologise for falling into academia speech and getting abstractly philosophical. Four years in cultural studies do this to you. It comes automatically and leaves it marks on you forever.)

As a simple example, take an ordinary arrow trap that shots an arrow when someone steps on a certain part of the floor. To quote the endlessly poetically and quotable Darkest Dungeon:

Curious is the trap-maker’s art… his efficacy unwitnessed by his own eyes.

A trap is not simply a feature of the environment, even though many games treat them like that. An actual trap is not simply just there. It is there because someone made a choice and took action to put it there. With an intent to kill. The builder of the trap does not know who will fall victim to it, and the people it injures will most likely have no idea who caused them harm. In a ruined dungeon, the builder will have died centuries before the victims were born. But still, one person exercised agency to cause serious harm to another person. The agent is long gone, but the effects of the agency are present in the present.

It is not just traps. Every artificial obstacle that characters encounter is there because someone put it there with intent. Every constructed tool or weapon they find is in its place because someone made it for a purpose and put it in its present location as a consequence of choices and actions. And this even carries over to much larger scales. Planet Kaendor is conceptualized as a world in which the natural environment is outside of the control of mortals. Whatever they do in their attempts to shape the world that surrounds them will quickly be negated once the wilderness returns. But things look very different when it comes to the marks left behind by unnatural sorcery. A charred wasteland of ash haunted by ghouls attacking careless travelers surrounding a ruined city does not exist randomly. Its existence is the consequence of choices made by a sorcerer long ago. A consequence that directly affects the characters in the present. And the natural world in Kaendor is often directly controlled by spirits, who can exercise their own agency as well. Though being essentially immortal, this does not fall under the agency without agent. They are merely agents with an invisible presence, but I think the overall effect is quite similar.

The key idea that is presented here (indirectly) to worldbuilders is to create environments for adventures that are not simply passive and interchangeable backdrops that maybe have a couple of unusual but random backgrounds in them. Instead, they should give indications that obstacles and useful finds are the result of someone’s deliberate exercising of agency. Bad things don’t exist in the present at random. They exist because someone in the past wanted it or did a careless mistake. There was a purpose behind it and it was someone’s fault. And that someone’s presence should still be felt as a malevolent force seeking the destruction of any intruders, or a shade lingering among the ruins of its crumbled dreams. Of course this might not be a universal requirement for all fantasy environments. But I had written about looking for ways to give ruins and magical places are more active role in my world, and this article provided great insights on how I could be moving closer to that goal.

All the mentions of cannibalism also got me some interesting idea for ghouls, which have been a favorite of mine since I encountered a new take on them in Dragon Age, and have held a very important position in my deliberations about the nature of the supernatural in Kaendor basically from the start. But those deserve an entire post of their own.

All these moments will be lost in time…

Despite my expectations, I actually stumbled across a great idea for my Planet Kaendor reworking yesterday, shortly after writing the last post.

I’ve had a long on-again, off-again relationship with Sword & Sorcery campaigns. I’m absolutely a huge fan of Conan and Kane, but generally enjoy reading them in small portions. For long term campaigns, the typical bleakness and violence seems like a bit too much for me, and when you descend down into the abyss of Sword & Sorcery fandom, you get quickly swept up in the currents of hyper-violent grimdark orthodoxy. Which in my opinion is considerably more extreme and intellectually hollowed out than the tales of the great masters ever where. Yes, they always were violent, reveled in (implied) debauchery, and had elements of horror. But the popular perception today is like a copy of a copy of a copy that only captures the most extreme expressions of black and white and losing all nuances.

But I digress.

The piece of advice for S&S campaigns that I came across was a reminder that the stories are usually highly episodic and the heroes begin each new adventure in a completely different place, with all the gains from their last undertaking already lost and forgotten. Which was put in direct opposition to the infamous quote from Gary Gygax that “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT”. I never was a fan of Gygax and his ideas of adventures and gamemastering (*boo*, *hiss*, I know…), but this piece of advice I always found very compelling. And I did rigorously apply it during the Inixon campaign, though that turned out to not have made any difference because we never went through with managing long expeditions into the wilderness from a fortified base camp.

But now that I think about it, this is really an approach to managing time that works in direct opposite to the aesthetic goal of making the world feel unmoored in time, with no real sense of either the past or the future. The rest of the world is not keeping track of what happened before, then why would the hero. The inevitability of all their deeds being forgotten and leaving no lasting legacy is supposed to be part of the setting’s tone.

To take it a step further, you could not just stop using a calendar (even though I made such a cool one) but also forgo keeping detailed records what the players did entirely. Taking notes about what is currently going on in the current adventure is of course still a good practice, but once it is wrapped up and the campaign moves on to the next adventure, you can discard them and rely entirely on your own fallible memory. When the players ask who exactly an NPC was who they supposedly had been talking to some adventures earlier, just shrug your shoulder and tell them that their vague memories of those encounters are probably reasonably close enough to what really happened. Don’t try to help them remember. At this point it doesn’t matter anymore anyway and whatever they can agree on now becomes the new reality. Even if as the GM, you still remember what really happened.

Same stuff, different destination…

So here I am, again, planning a new fantasy campaign, again, determined to make it so much better than previous attempts. Again.

Now my last fantasy campaign did end differently and sooner than I had expected. But it did finish with an actual conclusion. With the villains beaten and the day saved. Which by this metric makes it the most successful campaign I’ve ever been involved with. At 19 sessions in total, it was also the longest campaign I’ve ever been involved with. And in the early and middle parts, I felt that my performance as GM was leagues above anything I’ve ever done before. In part because I really learned quite a lot about gamemastering in the four years or so since I had last run a campaign, but I think at least to an equal if not even higher degree because I used a much more open-ended approach to what the story will be. Despite my initial plans, it wasn’t really a sandbox campaign by any stretch of that term, but dropping the players off in a place with only vague hints that there are some useful things in the area that could help them later on their journey directly resulted in the most fun sessions I’ve ever had as either GM or player.

It was only on the final leg of the campaign, when I made it into a more conventional dungeon assault to reach some kind of conclusion, that I felt myself increasingly fighting with the constraints of D&D and my enthusiasm for the game dropped considerably. The players still seemed to have a great time, but my heart really wasn’t into it anymore. I was already looking forward to try again with mechanics that work for me, not against me.

Down the Dungeon

One realization that I made during the later parts of the Inixon campaign is  that dungeons really don’t do it for me. I am a huge fan of the idea and the aesthetics of magical caves and ruined cities. But I really don’t like the gameplay concept of the dungeon.

When did this become…
…hotter than this?

Having a dungeon with a few dozen rooms which are inhabited by various groups of guards and creatures makes sense for a dungeon crawling campaign. But I found that when the players go to a place to meet a NPCs, be it to rescue, negotiate with, or fighting them, going through an entire dungeon really just becomes a drag and a nuisance that gets in the way of making progress with the game. A castle may well have hundreds of rooms, but the story of sneaking into one specific room in that castle does not require hundreds of scenes to play out. Look at books and movies that have cool locations that could be considered dungeons, and I think almost all of them come down to really just three or four rooms in which all the scenes play out. Jabba’s Palace: Main gate, throne room, rancor pit. Thulsa Doom’s Lair: Main stairs, cave passage, throne room. Fully mapped dungeons are for dungeon crawling games. For narrative focused games, they seem to be out of place.

From Crawling to Walking

Very much related to purpose of dungeons is the usefulness of resource management. Typical fantasy adventuring gear is mostly for dealing with the many obstacles that are encountered in dungeons. Most objects can be used in scenes in a narrative focused game as well, but there generally isn’t the expectation that you always have to carry around your golf bag of adventuring gear with you all the time because you know you’ll be needing most of it very soon. Tracking how much stuff characters can carry makes sense when you have an expectation that supplies will run out after frequent use and restocking won’t be easily possible before that happens. It also becomes relevant when the weight of all the stuff impacts how fast or how slow the characters can be progressing through the places they are in.

When I prepared the Inixon campaign, doing a traditional wilderness exploration based on long expeditions into The Isle of Dread had actually been my plan. But while we were playing Against the Cult of the Reptile God we already settled into dynamics and character motivations that were much more narrative focused. And it became even more so during the completely unscripted stay in the pirate town that went on much longer than the one or two sessions I had calculated for it.

The experience with these parts of the campaign had been amazingly positive. Not only did I get great responses from the players, I also felt like my performance as GM went up steeply and the workload both during games and when preparing new content seemed to plummet down to a fraction. You can of course set up a wilderness crawl completely blind and leave it entirely in the hands of the players to do or die. But I feel like this would only be fun with players who really want this style of game and who are quite decent at it. Otherwise making sure that the obstacles they are facing will be challenging but not too dangerous and keeping an eye on how much resources they have left and will need to find in the near future becomes quite a lot of work. Work that I now can absolutely live without. Resource management is another thing I want to leave by the side for the time being.

More Weirdness

When I am sitting by myself, coming up with great ideas for worldbuilding, the Sword & Sorcery setting I imagine is full of alien and exotic stuff like Tekumel, Barsoom, or Morrowind. But in every single campaign I’ve run in this type of setting, I always ended up describing a fairly ordinary generic fantasyland to the players. In this case it was generic pirates and serpents fantasyland, but that’s still just in a different climate zone in fantasyland.

And once again, I suspect a primary source of this might be D&D. In particular, it’s power gradient as monsters and other enemies are concerned. I tend to to create monsters of a style that makes them seem like they could potentially be actual animals that once existed somewhere on Earth, or which at least are not inconceivable as hypothetical branches that could have had evolved naturally. When statting such creatures for D&D, it usually is the easiest way to simply reskin some kind of monster that already exists, like an owlbear or rhinoceros. But when you do that, you already have locked in the relative power level of many of your new original critters. And in my case, the more exotic and stranger creatures are almost all more dangerous and powerful than the more mundane ones, so their D&D stats have to be correspondingly higher as well. And at that point I had already trapped myself, making a good portion of the more interesting creatures so powerful that PCs would have to have a good number of levels under their belt to face them with a real chance to win. Now the Inixon campaign ran over 19 games and at the end the PCs would have reached 6th level if the campaign would have continued. It was a long campaign with a not unusually slow advancement, but even so I never got an opportunity to show of many of the creatures in their natural environment without wiping out the party.

What actually happened was that I filled the encounters that the players got up with the smallest and most uninteresting of critters. Mostly cultists and snakes, with the occasional wolf-reskin and yuan-ti boss. Total fail. It also didn’t help that so much time was spend fighting those little critters because you need to get plenty of fights under your belt to get to the higher levels. Time that wasn’t spend interacting with the local cultures. This really ties in directly with the issue of dungeons.

Hopefully I can avoid this mistake when I am converting my material to Barbarians of Lemuria.

More Desolation

This is something that I’ve never got to work. Not even remotely. The aesthetic and tone that this type of Bronze Age Pangea setting is meant to evoke the style of Dying Earth fiction. With a world that is huge and wild and covered in ruins, but barely inhabited by people at all. Nothing of that kind ever came up in any of my previous campaigns. I thought the solution to that would be to have long wilderness journeys on which the players have to chart their course along landmarks and manage their supplies and deal with the difficulties of transportation. Usually that never happened because the PCs never got a level where I thought they would be ready to deal with such a challenge. And with a more narrative focus for the next campaign and ditching resource management, that won’t really be an option either. No real clue how to work on that, but it’s one more priority in which I’ll have to find ways to include it.

Why are we doing all of this?

One thing that had really bothered my for several years when setting up new campaigns was with setting up situations and environments in which it would feel believable to me that the PCs are risking their lives to go on these adventures. Typically in fantasy RPGs, you get two kinds of characters: Murderhobos and magic boy scouts.

When you’re running a dungeon crawl campaign and the goal of the campaign is to overcome monsters and get their treasure to get XP for being able to overcome more powerful monsters to get their treasure, then there really is no need for anything more complicated than characters who are risking their lives for riches and don’t really concern themselves with anything else. But for something that has more focus on an unfolding narrative where more time is spend on conversations and making arrangements between various competing groups, such characters won’t work. They just want to know where the monsters with the treasure are.

On the other hand you have the shining heroes who have nothing better to do with their lives than permanently wandering around looking for any opportunity to risk their lives against terrifying foes for people they don’t have any connection to. These are characters that work for games where everyone knows the campaign is about brave heroes saving the world from evil. But I don’t feel them being suitable for campaigns where there is no black and white good and evil, and no obvious end goal that all PCs would automatically pursue. Which I think is where all the much more interesting stories take place.

I’ve struggled for many years with finding a good description of what kind of people “adventurers” are in my setting and what players should expect of their role in the campaign. But now I think I always made this much more complicated than it really needs to be. I think all you really need to get players engaged with a dangerous situations and get invested in the outcome is to tell them to make characters who are deep down decent people and put them in situations where they have the means to make a real difference for good. Most sane people really like doing good things but avoid being heroic in everyday life out of uncertainty and fear of doing something wrong or getting into danger. In a game, this isn’t really a factor. Games let you do the right thing without any actual risk or cost, and in these situations most people are more than happy to play the hero. Many videogames check off trophies and achievements for ending the game in a heroic or villainous way, and in most cases you see vastly more players who did save all the kittens instead of kicking the dogs. (And I believe large numbers of those who kicked the dogs did it on a second or third playthrough after having saved the kittens in their first run.)

And also take into consideration my earlier choice to drop the idea of regularly clearing out whole dungeons of all the monsters. This drops the total amount of lethal fights that PCs get into considerably and makes a much higher fraction of them actually directly matter. You get much fewer situations where the players would be killing bands of goblins or swarms of giant centipedes simply because they are there. This makes the life of an “adventurer” seem considerably less suicidal and makes it much more believable that relatively ordinary people would accept the risks that come with it. Think of the four hobbits for example. They didn’t sign up to clear out Moria or conquer Mordor. And the story doesn’t make them do that. I have no idea of their kill counts during their year long quest to reach the heart of their enemy’s power, but I think most of them would be able to count them on one hand. Or at the other end, my two favorite scoundrels Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. They aren’t selfless people full of endless compassion and driven to self sacrifice. But when they find themselves in situation where a terrible injustice has to be stopped, and they have the means to attempt it, they find their decency to not just stand by and ignore it.

Getting away from D&D’s class system probably might help with this as well.

And what is it all about?

Now we’re going to get really pretentious. When I was learning more about ancient cultures and their belief systems back in university, I got the strong impression that all civilizations with organized states and agriculture develop a belief that they are separate from nature and that humans are really much more similar to the gods. They are the masters of their environment, and in some cases the world really was made for them. Today it becomes obvious how that attitude leads to huge environmental problems and disasters, but to some degrees this has been going on for thousands of years. I thought it would be really interesting to come up with fantasy cultures in a world where there is absolutely no doubt that nature does whatever the hell it wants, the constant environmental changes are much faster to be more visible during a human lifetime, and people get inevitably crushed if they think they can make nature obey their wishes. There are no natural disasters. There are only extreme weather events. They only become disasters because humans build inadequate houses in high risk areas and have no plan B for when their human-build infrastructure is destroyed.

My idea for such a setting is to make it an extreme weather world, where typhoons, earthquakes, and active volcanoes are very common, and the nature gods in charge of these phenomenons pay no attention to the needs and wishes of mortals. This world is not made for people to live in and make use of. Going with my favorite Eldritch Abomination quote: “You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.” Except that the nature gods wouldn’t bother explaining themselves to mortals.

One analogy I came up with and that I quite like is that in this world, people aren’t the apex predators like bears or tigers, but sit more in the middle like weasels. They certainly are predators who have no trouble killing almost everything else in their weight class and can even take on other animals considerably larger than themselves. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do against a bear and their only option is to get out of the way. (Not counting wolverines and honey badgers. Those are just fury and madness.)

To bring in the Dying Earth tone, even though it’s a world that is full of life and going nowhere, my idea is for people to have an approach to history that nothing that they do will have a lasting impact in the long run. They can build cities that might grow into small kingdoms, but it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will topple their walls or destroy their farmland, and the people will return to the wilderness to live among the savages, with their descendants knowing nothing of their civilized origin. That’s how it always has been, and always will be. The broken ruins that stand as proof are found everywhere. Refusing to see the signs and abandoning the dying cities for a better life elsewhere will only make the inevitable end worse.

Of course, there are always some powerful people who don’t accept this fate and believe that they have the strength to avert this doom and create a legacy that will last forever. And some of them are turning to dark magic to pursue this goal or even seeking immortality. They always fail, but the terrifying results of their foolishness survive in infamy long after other kings and cities have been forgotten.

I think this is a really cool concept with some real solid substance to it. But it never really came up during low-level exploration adventures. But I think it might be more useful in a campaign with a more narrative focus, where the sorcerer king doesn’t have to be a 15th or 20th level wizard. As with many other things, I don’t really have anything definitive nailed down on this front yet. But it’s something I want to focus on much stronger going forward from here.

To wrap up this sprawling abomination of a past, this is where I stand right now in both my hindsight reflection on previous campaigns and with my lofty ambitions going forward. Currently I am feeling that I don’t really need to change much regarding the worldbuilding of the setting. I don’t think there’s any need to drop existing creatures or create new ones, alter the general geography, or come up with different ideas for the cities. I don’t seem to have to make any changes to my big box of toys. Instead, I feel this process will be a lot more about how I could be playing with them in different ways, and perhaps spend a lot more time with some of the stuff that’s so far been lying unused at the bottom of the box.

So yeah, rambling’s over. I worked three days on this without any real major revelation to share with the world. This is what I got right now, but there’s been quite some response from a number of people for this topic, so I hope it’s not been completely in vain. I’m looking forward to see where this is going myself.

If at fourth you don’t succeed… (and why system does matter)

Last month I finished my fourth campaign in which I tried to bring my ideas for a Sword & Sorcery wilderness setting to life. While the campaign was overall a great success, and by far the longest of the four, the way the setting came to be actually realized in practice was not at all what I had been aiming for.

I believe I first had the idea for a Bronze Age Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting some six years ago after reading Robert Howard’s Conan and Kull stories and Edgar Burroughs A Princess of Mars, and remembering my old affections for Morrowind and dinosaur books.

The first attempt was Ancient Lands, which I ended up using in a short lived Pathfinder campaign. Not being happy with the result I tried reworking it as Lands of the Barbarian Kings for the low-level E6 variant for D&D 3rd edition. Still unhappy with the results, I brought back the same basic ideas when I got interested in rules-light oldschool RPGs as Ancient Lands (v.2), first for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and later Basic Fantasy. After that campaign I threw a lot of material and ideas out once again to get a better focus on the elements that really mattered for my core concept in the form of Green Sun. Which I wanted to run in original B/X, but convenience at the moment led to me giving it a shot with D&D 5th edition instead. Which again, also didn’t really lift of, ignite, or whatever other metaphor you want to use.

Some of the players actually really tried to dig into the setting that I had outlined in a basic overview file. Which I really did appreciate, but at that point, the events of the campaign and goals of the party had already set the future adventures down a pretty clear path. And I didn’t feel like I wouldn’t be able to keep the great quest coherently together if we were to set out to new unrelated detours. Maybe it would have been possible to do, but at that point I was already clear on not wanting to run D&D 5th edition any more than necessary. Keeping a straight heading towards the ultimate goal of the party to conclude the campaign and then start over with something else seemed the much preferable option to me.

Looking back at all the campaigns now, it seems pretty obvious why each one only brought a slight incremental improvement towards realizing my concept, but never making an actual breakthrough. Each time, for reasons of convenience, I ended up running some variant of Dungeons & Dragons again. And at the heart of all the sweet, sweet awesome ideas I have for a Sword & Sorcery campaign in a Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting, is that I want it to be specifically not like Dungeons & Dragons.

I don’t have anyone to blame for this but myself, but still, curse the tyranny of market leader!

At first I was genuinely thinking that my ideas should work with D&D without problems. Dark Sun did it, right? (I’m not sure, I never got to actually see Dark Sun in any kind of prolonged action, and lots of settings look much better on paper than in play.) Going from regular Pathfinder to E6 with limited classes and my own bestiary seemed like a sufficient solution. Looking around on my site, it’s actually been almost exactly two years since I had great ideas for trying make the setting concept work better with Apocalypse World. But at some point I got interested again in the dungeon and wilderness exploration system of B/X and thought that would work just as well. That I thought 5th edition could be a suitable substitute when response to a B/X campaign invitation was muted is just my own damn fault. I got seduced by the warlock class.

I think the problem is not just strictly with the mechanics. D&D and it’s derivatives all circle around the permanent hunt for XP and climbing the ladder of level advancement. And the way the combat systems are designed, they are really made for lots of smaller fights rather than the occasional big ones. It’s also, which might be even more important, that playing D&D brings with it huge amounts of expectations from the players. And as a GM, I am always very conscious of not acting like the kind of jerk GM who tells the players how to play the game correctly, even if I had something else in mind for how the tone and dynamics should play out in action. I understand the role of the GM to be an entertainer, not a conductor. I make it possible for the players to play their story, I don’t direct them to play my story. With the group I had for the Inixon campaign, the players really were interested in exploring the world that I had prepared, which makes me feel that I am at least on the right track with my ideas. But I just never could consider telling them to stop playing like it’s D&D. I invited them to play D&D and they joined the game being excited to play D&D. That’s just not something you do as a GM.

But now the campaign is concluded (actually concluded and not just sputtered out and abandoned), and while it wasn’t the epic grand finale that you always imagine to get, it still ended with fighting a giant snake on the roof of a tower rising above a ruined city, it’s shattered body being slain by arrows and magic bolts, in mid-transformation into a sorceress after being blown over the edge by one of the warlocks. That’s still pretty metal.

After having distracted myself for a couple of weeks with the preparation for a Star Wars d6 campaign (which still has to wait until later this year), I am still drawn back to the lizard infested jungles to once more try it better. I had considered Barbarians of Lemuria several times over the years, but with the many lessons learned from the Inixon campaign, I now feel more certain than ever that I really should go through with this. It’s a rules light game that is very quick to set up and easy to learn, giving it a very low entry barrier for new players. And if any players bring existing assumptions about a BoL campaign with them, it’s probably something like Conan the Barbarian, which in this case suits just fine. Maybe it will be a bit of an uphill battle to get even just three or four players together for that, but I now feel that this will be necessary to make the setting concept work, and there are no easy shortcuts around that. D&D is no longer an acceptable substitute.