The Cerulean Order

After the great wars of the Old Sorcerers had left the victorious armies badly shattered, and the surviving sorcerer kings ravaged in body and mind by the corruption of the demonic powers they had unleashed on their enemies, a great revolt led by the priests of the moon goddess Temis spread over the coastal cities of Kaendor to overthrow the evil tyrants and banish their demonic servants for good. After thousands of years of despotic rule by the Tower Builders, the Naga, and the Old Sorcerers, the mortal peoples were finally freed of the corrupting influence of demons. The ancient cults of the gods reemerged from hiding, and numerous new kingdoms were established under the rule of wise priest kings.

Though the tyranny of the Old Sorcerers and their demonic servants had been broken, sorcery had never been fully banished from the world, with many sorcerers fleeing to hidden lairs deep in the wilderness, and scattered secret cults pledging themselves to demons for personal wealth and power. And among the priests of Temis, many realized that they would have to dedicate their lives to eternal vigilance to prevent the return of demons taking a hold over the people. The Cerulean Order traces back its lineage to the old priests who led the people in revolt against the sorcerer kings,and all its members of the order are ordained priests of the moon goddess. However, the order exists separate from the hierarchies of any of the temples and is not under the authority of any high priest. Priests of the Cerulean Order follow the same traditions and use the same symbols shared by all the temples of the moon goddess, and most people are not aware of any difference between them and traveling priests from other temples. However, their robes typically include very little white and instead are made almost entirely from shades of dark or medium blue, and they are most clearly identified by blue tattoos covering their hands and wrists.

The Cerulean Order sees itself as a group of scholars first, and priests second. Their sanctuaries are usually closed to visitors and they rarely perform any public rites and ceremonies, though as ordained priests of Temis they have the power to do so. As the old priests who led the revolts against the sorcerers, the order sees its role as that of guides and advisors, and inquisitors who seek to uncover the influence of demonic magic wherever it is hiding, rather than as warriors who purge demonic cults and slay corrupted sorcerers themselves. By the very nature of the order, its members are always suspicious of possible demonic influence and looking for signs of corruption wherever they are traveling, and have somewhat of a justified reputation as being prying and a nuisance. However, the deep respect given to all priests of the moon goddess gives them a certain leeway not typically granted to visitors at courts or other outsiders. When direct warnings or appeals from members of the Cerulean Order go unanswered by a king or lord, they typically bring their concerns to the local priest or high priest. Such situations often put the priests into awkward positions that don’t help with the orders complicated reputation among the priesthood. But when a member of the order calls upon the name of the goddess to assert their certainty of a demonic or sorcerous threat and that they are not acting on mere suspicion alone, their warnings or accusations are typically taken extremely serious and the leaders of the local temple will use all their reputation and their entire influence with the local lords to see the threat purged.

In Dragonbane: Priests of the Cerulean Order are typically trained in both Animism and Mentalism and at least know the spell Banish or even Purge. Farsight, Divination, and Scrying are also commonly used spells, as well as Dispel, Protector, and Magic Shield. Their priority is to destroy demons and undead and protect those who are fighting sorcerers and demons from their magic.

Return to the Forest Moon

Looking proudly at the sandbox map I made over the last two weeks from first rough layout sketch to mostly finished version, I made the disappointed realization that I had once again prepared a D&D campaign. Despite my joy at having found a game in Dragonbane that is free of the underlying mechanical framework shared by all D&D versions and with a bit more substance than Barbarians of Lemuria, and writing a whole post about needing to approach sandbox preparation differently, I was still falling in the old established patterns that I’ve trained myself to adopt for the last ten years or so. Trying to fill the new sandbox with all my favorite D&D dungeons that I always wanted to use one day and taking a new shot at the old Forest of High Adventure concept surely didn’t help with that.

I feel a cleaner break is in order. To really approach a Dragonbane campaign with a fresh perspective on Kaendor.

Seven years ago, I wrote Project Forest Moon, a list of new design principles that I wanted to put at the center of the worldbuilding for a Sword & Sorcery wilderness setting. Which I still consider a huge success and my biggest breakthrough in really finding the right focus and tone for my following work. I think writing down a similar updated concept paper might be really quite useful for me now. When I think of new ideas how I can manifest the style I am aiming for in concrete setting elements, I often remember that I already did come up with something great a few years ago, but it somehow slipped from my mind at some point and I didn’t do anything with it. This post is a collection of many of these ideas for myself, to look up again when I’ll inevitably get lost in the weeds again.

From Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer.

Tone and Style: One thing that has always been core and center of all my worldbuildilg is that I wanted it to be a big forest setting from the very start. And it soon developed into a desire to give it somewhat of a pulpy lost world style. Influences have come and gone over the years, but I think a really good foundation for my own mental image as I further develop environments and cultural elements is “a Sword & Sorcery jungle world collaboration by Frank Frazetta and Moebius”. If they had painted and drawn such a world, how would I translate what I see into descriptions and scenes? Another huge influence I mention all the time is of course Morrowind, which really set the standard for me for fantasy settings that feel like different worlds than slightly rearranged versions of European folklore. And more recently, Kenshi has become a major influence on what I want to accomplish with the setting. While not actually a fantasy setting and very much a desert world, it’s such a fascinating example of small warlord societies on a desolate alien planet.

The Forest Moon: The term Forest Moon comes of course directly from Endor in Return of the Jedi. The visuals in that movie and The Empire Strikes Back have left a giant impact on my imagination since I saw them for the very first time. There are no sci-fi elements in Kaendor, but a lot of classic pulp art blended fantasy and space elements together with no clear separation, and the idea of Kaendor being an alien world around a huge gas planet really resonates with me to evoke that amazing pulp style. It means very little in practice since conditions on the moon are identical to Earth and nearly any fantasy world, but one way in which such a setup would logically manifest itself is in frequent and long-lasting eclipses. I did work out a complete 16-year cycle calendar with 24 months of 16 days and three leap years of 23 months, that also indicates likely eclipse days at some point. I think I need to make renewed efforts to incorporate this into the culture of the world. At least the eclipses that can happen multiple times per year should have some dramatic impact.

Permian Pangea: Dinosaurs are extremely cool. But they also kinda on the nose. Barbarians riding on dinosaurs can be great pulpy fun, but they don’t really evoke a sense of a plausible alien world. I found that a great solution to this is to instead populate the world with animals from the Permian and Paleocene periods directly preceding and following the dinosaurs. They are still very realistic animals, because they actually did exist, but are mostly unknown even to people who can name dozens of dinosaurs on pictures. They seem like they are made up to most people and a bit alien, but nothing exceptionally weird. I think I worked out the main predators and livestock animals for Kaendor years ago and still don’t feel like there’s any more work to be done. Just make frquent mention of drohas and krats as pack and farm animals in places that the players are coming through. I only need to stat them for Dragonbane, which is really quick and simple.

Human Civilization is new and small: I don’t really believe in the idea of lost golden ages and actually find the concept somewhat offensive. It’s the conservative moaning about a better past that never was, and a rejection of change as a matter of principle. But impressive ancient ruins are really cool, and post-apocalyptic anarchy can be a lot of fun. To eat my cake and still have it too, I very early came up with the idea that the past great empires that build monumental castles and made the magic treasures were otherwise actually really terrible and their disappearance a good thing for the world and its people. Kaendor is full of ruins and treasure hoards from the naga and shie who enslaved the early humans or drove them into the most remote regions of the wilderness. Now that they are mostly gone, humans can build civilizations of their own, but they are way too small to fill out the vast territories ruled by the elder peoples, and so numerous huge, empty ruins still cover what is now again wilderness. Still largely untouched and unexplored. Human civilization consists only of a handful of relatively minor city states, separated by vast stretches of wilderness full of terrible beasts.

Nature Always Wins: People always seem to think of themselves as the masters over nature who have taken control over the world they live in. But that perception is simply the result of a limited perception. They see the changes to the environment within sight of their homes and think of history on the scale of decades and centuries. But on the global scale, and the cosmic scale, none of the works and accomplishments of mortals mean anything. Eventually, everything will be reclaimed by the wilderness and forgotten, leaving behind only a few mysterious traces that hint of something that came before. And even those will completely fade away eventually, when the mountains still stand and forests still grow.

Bronze Age Technology: Bronze age weapons and armor, and architecture and administration. Because it’s a cool style.

A World of Demons: Unlike many other fantasy worlds, Kaendor has a clear separation of the natural and supernatural. Creatures are either ordinary animals, even if huge and deadly, or they are supernatural monsters. For many people, the common term for the later beings is demons. They don’t come from some other dimension or realm and are creatures of flesh and blood that are born, need to eat, and can be killed. But they do have magical powers and age very differently, if at all. Another class of creatures does exist that are pure spirits without physical form that come from another world, and they are typically referred to as demons as well, but they are actually a completely different type of beings.

A World of Heroes: Just as there is a clear difference between ordinary animals and monsters, there is a clear distinction between heroes and ordinary people. Like monsters, heroes are in some way connected to the supernatural. There are countless different beliefs of what makes a person a hero, from being blessed by the gods or chosen by fate, to circumstances of birth and the heroism of ancestors, or that it is something that can be attained through devotion to the divine or a form of enlightenment. None of these might be true, or all of them might. What is clear is that all heroes are destined for greatness, be it for good or for ill. And it usually does not take long for people to recognize heroes for what they are. All PCs and mages are always heroes, as are many kings, chiefs, and warlords. Rulership is often inherited in the lands of Kaendor, but close relatives who show the traits of a hero are almost always seen as more legitimate successors than those who do not. (In Dragonbane game terms, all PCs and all NPCs who have Willpower Points are heroes.)

Sorcery is corrupting: Magic is a power that does not come from the natural world but from outside of it. It is not inherently evil or destructive, but it is not bound to respect the natural laws that govern and sustain all living things. In the presence of poorly controlled magical energies, living things become corrupted and warped from the inside out until they become sickly and twisted and eventually die, or continue to exists in a state between life and death, sustained by the very magical forces that are destroying them. Even rocks and metals can become brittle and crumble after long exposure to extreme corruption. The spells most commonly known and taught by most mages are the result of many centuries of careful study and research and dangerous and costly experimentation to minimize any unintended corrupting effects on their surroundings and nearby creatures. But those with the ambition to explore and discover new and greater magical powers rarely take the caution to have the care and patience to keep their work from corrupting their surroundings and themselves. Making ambitious sorcerers seen as very dangerous and rightly feared.

Everything is a Cult: In the lands of Kaendor, every gathering of people with a common purpose prays to one or several gods to protect them and bless their efforts. In some places, all groups, factions, and organizations might pray to the same god worshiped in the local temple, while in others there might be dozens of different gods and spirits, which might be so obscure that barely anyone outside the group has ever heard of them. But every group has some kind of altar in their main gathering place, and members show their status as initiates with talismans displaying the symbols of their cult.

Gods are not People: I have still not yet fully decided on the actual nature of gods in Kaendor, but while they might be depicted as such in iconography, they are definitely not people or even individuals. They are more like divine forces or powers that are believed to have a real influence on the world and who can be influenced through worship and rituals, but they are not beings with a defined shape or who exists in precise locations, and won’t directly communicate to mortal creatures through words. Ultimately, priests with magical powers are mages who have studied and mastered spells just like sorcerers do, but who pursue the advancement of their magical skills within the teachings and philosophies of their faith.

FHA Advanced and Improved Map

I hadn’t been quite happy with how the first draft of the map for the Forest of High Adventure campaign came out and so I did some big revisions to it that still mostly stuck to the original sketches.

It’s still a 10-mile hex map, but the area it covers has now been reduced to one quarter the original size. This is still a very sizable area about the size of Northern Germany, but I feel that the density of major settlements feels now much more plausible at this smaller scale. It’s still a 300 mile journey up the river from the coast to the northwestern mountains. Going there and back again could easily turn into a two month expedition. It’s not Lewis and Clarke scale, but actually still a really major undertaking when you think of it.

The black dungeon markers now look much more dense as well. This sandbox feels packed. There’s a pretty empty region on the eastern side of the coast, but that area is supposed to be the region that’s been somewhat settled by civilization, so there’s not being a whole lot of exploration adventures to be done there doesn’t seem like a problem.

And so far this really is just the big impressive ruins and cave systems with a backstory. I have not even added any regular small monster lairs yet. With so much stuff going on, I feel I’m probably not even going to need to skip over the middle part of long journeys. One random encounter check for every hex of travel still shouldn’t result in an overwhelming amount of encounters when traveling between any two hexes.

Short thoughts on condensed Hexmap travel in Sword & Sorcery campaigns

As I outlined in my previous post, I really do like the general idea of hexmap travel through the wilderness, but also think that Sword & Sorcery adventures have their focus on the most exceptional events in the travels of their protagonists and don’t concern themselves with the regular day to day stuff, like the majority stetches of long distance journeys.

Reading up again on Chris Kutalik’s great introduction to Pointcrawls, I’ve been considering that system as an option, but couldn’t quite get myself to fully leave the hexmap behind. I don’t really need it for what I now plan to do with campaign I’m preparing, but it still just feels really right to have one, especially since I want to capture a bit of a retro-feel of how I perceived fantasy RPGs in the late 90s. (I’ve even been playing around with a neocities site as a compendium for world information and play reports.)

One thing that is easily done is to draw a Pointcrawl map on top of a hexmap. After which the hex grid basically becomes purely decorative and serves no more mechanical function. While that would provide the useful additional information as described in the page linked above and simplify things for me as GM, it would still not actually do anything to deal with the question of how to play out long distance travel in Sword & Sorcery campaigns. But it gave me the following idea.

The upper path is an example of regular pointcrawl notation laid over a hexmap grid. Going from the blue site to the read site means going through six hexes between them, costing six time intervals to travel through, and perhaps causing six rolls for random encounters.

The lower path shows the same situation, except that the markers for random encounter checks are placed only within two hexes of the blue and red sites.

The idea here is to only have the players actually play out travel on the solid path sections with random encounter rolls, supply consumption, and whatever else your game of choice might include. The dashed section of the path represents a time skip during which the world still turns and the sun rises and sets, and the PCs might even have some side adventure or another, that isn’t of particular relevance to their main tale. Events that didn’t result in meeting NPCs who make later reappearnces or in any of the PCs being meaningfully affected, and their supply situation will be about the same when they reach the other side.  It’s only when they are getting close to the red site again and the path resumes being solid that the whole procedures of covering one segment of travel are being played out again. It still preserves some of the aspects of hexmap wilderness travel, but can greatly reduce the play time of long distance journeys as I am planning for. Any random encounters with NPCs or monsters will happen relatively close to a site where they can have some kinds of effect or connection to the inhabitants of that site. If the players encounter a group of bandits deep in the wilderness, nobody will care about what happed there in the towns they left or are headed to. But if the encounter happens within one or two travel segments from a town, people there might have had problems with the bandits in the recent past, or might be friends of them. The random encounter in the wilderness could very well be quite important to an adventure that happens at that particular site later.

For longer joureys between towns and famous big dungeons, there can also be squares for minor sites to break up thr long journey between the start and destination into multiple smaller adventures. These can also have their own random encounter check ponts near them.

I think this could be a quite interesting solution to having most of the aspects of hexmap travel and pointcrawls on a map that is at continent scale and doesn’t really try to map and describe its whole area at a 6 or 10-mile scale. You do lose a bit of it, like getting lost deep in the wilderness and running out water in the desert while one PC has to be carried. But in a Sword & Sorcery themed campaign, there probably isn’t even the time to spend much focus on these things, so I think it might be a pretty good trade.

Sword & Sorcery Sandboxes?

I was planning to write this as presenting a concept that I have worked out, but the more I’ve been getting into it, the more it morphed into sharing a question I am pondering.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve recently become very excited about Dragonbane, which very much matches all the things I was looking for in a game system for the last 8 years or so. I had settled on OSE as the next best thing, but Dragonbane looks like the Fantasy Heartbreaker that I would have made. And I’m now much more interested in launching a Dragonbane campaign in my Kaendor setting than running it as an OSE wilderness exploration campaign as I had planned while working on the regional map and the towns and ruins contained in it. Dragonbane is of course a different game than OSE, and does not have the underlying mechanical framework that makes classic dungeon crawling and wilderness exploration work. Without XP for treasure, or even a mechanic for XP, the typical incentive structure falls away, and resource management also works out rather differently. So a different approach to structuring the campaign is needed.

And of course when this question comes up, my first thought is always “Would this work well in a Sword & Sorcery style?” And I think with Dragonbane the answer is very much yes. If you do the presentation right, the default rules of Dragonbane should work effortlessly with almost any Sword & Sorcery setting.

The longer I’ve been playing RPGs, the more I’ve become convinced that sandbox campaigns are really the only way to play heroic adventure games. The ability to go to any place on the map, try anything, and negotiate with NPCs in any way you think makes sense because you have a GM right there who can have the world and it’s people react to the PCs in real time is the great promise of the RPG medium. The aspect that you can never get from any other. Any campaign that doesn’t put this front and center seems like a waste of amazing potential and a lack of understanding of the medium. RPGs are where you can make stories and experience them at the same time and there’s always more world outside of the current frame. I don’t want to accept anything less when playing an RPG.

But what does a sandbox campaign even mean in regards to the Sword & Sorcery genre?

One major, and perhaps defining, element of Sword & Sorcery is that it’s a storytelling style that isn’t about an ongoing continuity and overarching narrative arcs where everything exists to build up to one big final conclusion that resolves everything. Instead of a heroes entire journey from beginning to conclusion, Sword & Sorcery storytelling is much more like a highlight reel of the most dramatic and fantastic moments in the lives of the protagonists. How their journey actually started is not really that important, and how it all gets resolved eventually even less. We’re here for the cool parts.

Because of this, I think that having a whole Sword & Sorcery sandbox campaign as a single continuity that tracks the events of the PCs lives day by day might not really be that appropriate. “On day 183 the party rested in town. On day 184 the party had one random encounter with bandits on the road and traveled 24 miles. On day 185 the party had no random encounters and traveled 30 miles.” No, that really doesn’t seem right. The same goes for equipment and money. You really don’t have to keep track of how much money precisely the PCs have at any given point and whether they might be 12 gold pieces short for buying a new suit of plate armor after the old one got destroyed.

However, when you play a campaign purely as a series of one-shot adventures with the same characters, then you lose out on one of the great aspects of a sandbox campaign. Making long term enemies and allies and getting to live with the consequences of your actions. I think choices always become so much more interesting when you have consider how they might impact situations that the characters will encounter much later. We don’t generally see that much in Sword & Sorcery fiction, but old enemies coming back to take another shot at you really cool in a game. Especially when you know that these are enemies that you made even though you had other options available to you at that time.

I also really like the aspect of travel on a hex map of the players being free to chart any course through the wilderness with the possibility of evading encounters with dangerous enemies because of good planning on their part, or running into difficult situations because they were trying to avoid something else. But if you go hex map, then you really need to track the miles traveled every day and the food and other supplies running out and being resupplied through interactions with the environment. My thinking on this situation is that the most interesting choices are the likes of “Do we try to sneak over the pass through the mountains guarded by the villain’s soldiers or do we try to take a detour through the Spider Woods?” Soldiers or spiders? Which hexes through the Spider Woods specifically and the speed at which to travel won’t really make that much of a big difference compared to the initial decision. So I guess that perhaps the old Pointcrawl approach might be the best option here. The pointcrawl adventures by Chris Kutalik are set up quite similar to outdoor dungeons, being a large space to explore, with the implication that players likely might try to check out every point. But the principles should work just as well for tracking long distance travel between more detailed sub-regions and offering a great range of possible paths that the players can take to move between them. This system for travel should keep the most interesting and impactful choices for the players as part of the game, but it greatly compresses the majority of the total journey.

As I said at the start, all of this turned out as mostly just sharing what is currently on my mind about the subject, rather than any real system or plan. But maybe something interesting to think about for others as well.

Heroes and Monsters

In much of fantasy, particularly RPGs and videogames, both hero and monsters are very generic terms, typically applied to any protagonists and fictional creatures. But historically, in ancient myths and medieval tales, the concepts of a “Hero” or a “Monster” have much more specific meanings that give them a greatly heightened significance on a metaphysical scale. Heroes and monsters are not merely exceptional people or creatures, but typically unique individuals that exist outside the common rules of the natural world. They are supernatural beings that break the rules of ordinary life.

Conan the Cimmerian fighting the ape-beast Thak in the mansion of the Red Priest Nabonidus.

While I was looking at the spells available to mages in Dragonbane and how their existence would impact the worldbuilding of a campaign, one spell in particular that stood out to me was Resurrection. It is of course a very powerful ability to raise the dead, but under the rules of Dragonbane, an animism mage focusing on healing powers could get access to it very quickly after just two advances in the Animism skill. And there are no limits on who can be resurrected other than the time that has passed since the target has died. To counter this potency, each casting of Resurrection permanently reduces the Willpower attribute of the mage, which can not be recovered.  If we take the rules of the game as they are written as the internal logic by which the campaign world operates, then any mages with healing spells find themselves in the situation where they could save any 8 to 16 people brought to them from death by sacrificing their own mind. How would they even make the choices which people to bring back to life and to which ones they refuse this service to? And even if a player playing a mage with this spell comes to a decision, this would be a philosophical problem with gigantic implications for the worldbuilding of any Dragonbane campaign. Which I am pretty sure the writer of this spell had no intention to be relevant. There are surely many ways to work around that, but something that came to my mind is that perhaps the Resurrection spell does not work on most ordinary people and can only be used to resurrect a small number of exceptional individuals.

Which brings us back to Heroes. At the most basic level, classical heroes of myth are larger than life individuals who have an exceptional impact on their society and regional history. Quite often their exceptional cunning and wisdom and their superhuman fighting skills and resilience are attributed to a divine heritage, being the children or grandchildren of gods. They are not just brave or lucky or unusually well talented and trained, there is something about their inherent nature that is supernatural. This supernatural quality could be what is necessary for the Resurrection spell to work in a Dragonbane campaign. It can work of course on all PCs, but also on powerful priests and sorcerers and even kings and famous knights. And as it happens, there already is a mechanical element in the Dragonbane rules that establishes such a difference between minion and boss NPCs. Willpower Points are something that only PCs and boss NPCs have, but minion NPCs don’t.

Similarly, not every creature in Dragonbane is a monster. A dragon, manticore, or giant is a monster, while orcs, goblins, skeletons explicitly have the Non-Monster trait. The rules for monsters are quite different from those of non-monster creatures and ordinary animals. They never have to make attack rolls and can not be parried, so any PCs attacked by a monster have to either use their action for the round to attempt to dodge or automatically take damage. Monsters also typically have several actions per round, a table with several different special attacks that usually has at least one fear effect, and players can not use the Persuade skill on them. Monsters are clearly something very different from large and ferocious animals.

I really like this approach to super-human people and supernatural monsters to create a stronger feel of Sword & Sorcery in a campaign. It encourages to use “Monsters” more sparingly and have each of them be at least a major setpiece of the adventures they appear in, rather than as a simple way to avoid too much repetitiveness in long stretches of repeated fights. Dragonbane is not a system meant for classic dungeon crawls like B/X, where going from room to room to deal with a new threat behind every door and corner is the name of the game. I’m really looking forward to see how this will play out in practice and how it will impact the feel and presentation of Kaendor.