Category Archives: sword & sorcery

The Book of Swords

I came across this announcement for a new Sword & Sorcery anthology The Book of Swords.

While my experience with anthologies has not been that great this far, I am still looking forward to it. It has a couple of the bigger names on its list and there’s also already an announcment for a second volume, The Book of Magic, which I am even more curious about.

A Wanderer on Kaendor – New writing project

As I’ve been hinting at over the past weeks, I have once again turned to trying my hand at writing fantasy. I am still very early in the process and just started working on a first outline, but so far a pretty solid concept has already formed. To a large extend it’s an updated version of my ideas I had two years ago, which ended up going nowhere because I was never able to transform my ideas for characters and setting into plot. But a while back I figured out that you actually can write action adventure tales that are character driven instead of plot driven, and that opened up a whole new space of ideas to me that really has me want to get something down to paper.

Oldschool Sword & Sorcery

To probably nobody’s surprise, the style I want to write in is Sword & Sorcery in the style of ConanElric, Kane, and Hyperborea. Modern Sword & Sorcery is generally thrown together with Dark Fantasy or the completely unironic and akwardly oblivious Grimdark. But while Kane does match the stereotype of the dour cold-hearted killer, the style as a whole is probably best described in the opening ofThe Phoenix on the Sword, which became the work that led to it’s establishment as a distinctive type of fantasy:

“Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

In my view, Sword & Sorcery is all about tales of encounters with the supernatural. About remarkable individuals who have brushes with vast realms that lie beyond the world of ordinary existance and behold things not meant for mortal minds. And they are also tales of great emotions and passions with great senses of wonder and exhilaration. It is very much a style that has grown out of the tradition of Romanticism. Yet passion and wonder are things that I find missing in most works that I see released as Sword & Sorcery in the 21st century. A niche that has been seriously lacking attention for a good while now, even with hushed wispers of a Sword & Sorcery revival making their rounds for close to a decade now. But by now we have to realize that we won’t be having such stories unless we write them.

My take on it

Sword & Sorcery is a style of stories that lends itself really much more to shorter self contained tales rather that big multi-volume doorstoppers. Yet there is barely any market for short length stories outside of obscure magazines that nobody seems to read, and none at all for stories of medium length. And I can very much see why there is little interest in short stand-alone one-shots where the world and characters are over barely after they have been introduced. But all the big classics of Sword & Sorcery – Conan, Fafhrd & Gray Mouser, Elric, Kane – are not like that at all. When we read them today we get collections of many stories often spanning multiple volumes. They were not written like that back then, but it seems to me the perfect approach to write them now. Instead of one story in three books, we can write three stories in one book. (And of course expand to nine stories in three books.) All set in the same world and sharing the same cast of characters. Very much like TV shows were being made in the 90s. This way you can write stories using the well established and tried structure of Sword & Sorcery while providing the requirements of the contemporary market.

As the saying always goes, “write what you would want to read”. And there are so many things in contemporary fantasy that I think have great potential for so much more than is being done with it, as well as a lot of fascinating themes and elements that I never see covered in fantasy anywhere. The one thing that motivates me most to write is the types of heroes that are common in the action and adventure genres. They are heroes without fear, who are undisturbed by violence and death, and who never question the whole business of constantly fighting hordes of enemies. And they are also almost always more than capable of dealing with seemingly overwhelming opposition because they are just that great and special. You could easily say that I have a great fascination with violence, but it’s far from the heroic glorification of action movies and games. Depictions of violence tend to greatly tone it down to make it entertaining fun, but I am much more interested in treatments of violence as horror in itself.

A major influence in this regard to me is Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid series. Snake is an extraordinarily dangerous fighter and skilled master of stealth, but he is also a pawn who keeps getting used by others who outsmart him, and while he always wins in the end, he usually is left with regrets about having been tricked into furthering another villain’s goal. Snake represents a very unconventional form of heroism that is much more about being of honorable character and regarding violence as a means of last resort that holds no glory. Perhaps an even greater influence on my idea of heroism is Indiana Jones, who is constantly being beaten and outsmarted and doesn’t really have any superhuman strength and power. But his heroic nature lies in his determination and courage, which makes him come back and try again until in the end he comes out on top. A third character I love is Geralt from The Witcher, who like Snake is a superhuman warrior with a very unique insight into violence and a very critical view of himself and his work. As we have a rather unique outlook on militarism and heroism in German culture, Snake, Indy, and Geralt are heroes that resonate with me much more than the average action hero who enjoys his violent deeds. I am with Yoda when it comes to “great warriors”.

Another topic that greatly fascinates me is failure and defeat. Mainstream American media do not accept failure as the final outcome. “Failure is not an option.” But my own take on existentialist philosophy (influenced by Buddhism) is that failure is always an option. “Never give up” is possibly one of the worst advice that I’ve ever heard. I love stories in which the protagonist eventually grows to be more by dropping the commitment to a goal that no longer seems to be worth pursuing. Finding peace always seems more important to me than winning or being right, which is something that I find very much missing in current and recent adventure movies in general and also fantasy books specifically. Giving up and running away can be a form of personal greatness that can be a satisfying conclusion to a story, which is something I really want to write about. There is obviously a strong Noir influence in everything.

The third thing I want o feature heavily in these stories is a strong mystical element. The treatment of religion in fantasy is often superficial at best and the supernatural reduced to an alternative form of physics. I’ve been taking classes on existentialism, spirituality, mysticism, and Asian and African religions for four years in university and there are huge psychological and social elements to them that have incredible storytelling potential. I see the Encounter with the Supernatural as a core element of Sword & Sorcery and want to make it the center of my own stories. And not simply encounters with fictional beasts and wizards who can throw fire, but by making the adventures spiritual journeys to a higher reality. There are some really incredible lines in Mass Effect, that sadly the series did not really follow up on, but which quite well describe the sense of wonder I want to pursue:

“Rudimentary creatures of flesh and bone. You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. There is a realm of existance so far beyond your own you can not even imagine it. You can not even grasp the nature of our existance. We have no beginning, we have no end. We are infinite. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”

I admit that all of this is very ambitious to say the least. Especially for a first serious attempt at writing. But if you have something fresh and different to say, I think it does not matter that much how polished and refined it is. I am very exited to see how this will work out for me. I think there’s real potential for it to be great.

The Wanderer

I intend Kaendor to be a series that covers the adventures of several different heroes. But for the beginning I want to focus on one character in particular, who has been constantly on my mind for years, even though I have not decided on a final name yet.

The Wanderer came into being as a reaction to typical fantasy heroes who regularly tend to be or become the most extraordinary people of their world. Individuals of remarkable talent and potential who end up with unmatched skills and perform the most amazing deeds that become the stuff of legend. Over the years I have developed a great love for the smaller stories. Of characters who are not the best at what they do and who don’t have the skill and power to fight enemies that greatly outnumber them, and who are not assured victory because they are the hero of the story. The Wanderer is a woman without great skills or special powers, who doesn’t have great fame or any significant influence. Nor is she on any mission or quests. What drives her is her curiosity and the search for answers to questions she can’t specify herself. She travels the lands as a seeker of enlightenment, similar to how Conan was wandering the world to gain greatness. In a world full of strange wonders and mysteries, she often joins groups of treasure hunters and mercenaries or travels on her own, with a temporary companion or alone. As she is often on her own and no master of combat, fighting is usually not an option and so her adventures into strange places are more about wits and bravery.

The Lands of Kaendor

Kaendor is a world very similar to my past work for RPGs and is made up of many of the same building blocks, including peoples, creatures, and landscapes. They are my favorite cool things that I have scavenged from other fantasy worlds for years. But below the aesthetic surface it’s a quite different world that is’t tailored to the specific needs of campaigns or build around game mechanics. Instead it’s a world that is mostly about culture, society, and elaborate manifestations of the supernatural and the mysteries of the cosmos.

Kaendor is a forest world covered almost entirely in trees or water. The known lands consist of a long stretch of coast and nearby islands that reach from the arctic to the tropics but still make up only a small fraction of the full size of the world. The sky is dominated by a huge moon covered in changing bands of blue and beige clouds, which causes regular eclipses lasting for hours every spring and fall. The forests are dominated by conifers and ferns and home to many great beasts, including giant reptiles and insects.

The cultures of Kaendor are consist of various nonhuman peoples and are based on a wide range of civilizations from the Bronze Age, a time period that is surprisingly underused as a source for fantasy. There are a small number of city states ruled by regional kings, but most people are living in small clan holds deep in a vast wilderness. Armor consists of simple cuirasses of bronze scales and the weaponry of heroes consists of spears, shields, bows, axes, and small swords. I have a very clear and distinct aesthetic in mind for this world, which is very strongly influenced by The Empire Strikes Back and Morrowind, following my idea of Baroque Fantasy.

Finally there’s the strong supernatural element. The world as a whole really consists of two mirroring realms. The mortal world and the Spiritworld, which are always in close contact with each other and result in a strong presence of spirits in all places. Spirits are strange beings that normally exist outside of mortal perception, existing outside the familiar passing of time. Witches and shamans don’t really have magical powers of their own but possess great knowledge about the spirits and the ways to communicate with and manipulate them. By having access to the knowledge and abilities of spirits they become able to gain insight into the present, past, and also future and have some degree of control over the fortunes of people and settlements.

All in all, I feel like I have a lot of great ideas that are quite different from most fantasy that is out there today while also drawing heavily on classic Sword & Sorcery from the past that many people are wishing to see more of. While it’s somewhat daunting, I see a real chance to do something great with this.

Spell-less Magic

Fantasy in recent decades seems to have a big thing for magic systems, and I believe partly becuse of the success of Brandon Sanderson. When I see people talk about magic systems it more often than not seems to revolve around different types of spells and the method of their casting. To the point that it seems to be taken for granted as a basic premise for any kind of magic to appear in fantasy.

This week I was exploring the idea of converting Apocalpyse World to a Sword & Sorcery game. All in all, it’s a system that strikes me as a really good match right out of the box with the one major thing that is missing from it being a set of rules for spellcasting. But it’s not like the game is completely free of magic. One default assumption of the setting of an Apocalypse World game is the existance of a Psychic Maelstrom, which is the source of seemingly supernatural effects and phenomenons, but whose actual nature and trait are deliberately left completely unspecified to organically take shape during play. There is a single ability that allows one of the classes to use magical power in a somewhat direct way, but it is again very vague and open ended and does not really fit the image of casting a spell.

And looking at older fantasy books, this is actually very much like magic used to be portrayed in fiction. The oldest example of a straight up spell slinger I can imagine is Tim the Enchanter, who can summon up fire without flint or tinder. Gandalf, Elric, or Kane, or any of the sorcerers in Conan’s stories don’t say magic words and have stuff shoting from their outstretched hands. Instead their “magic” mostly takes the form of knowing things and being in contact to powerful entities otherwise invisible to the perception of regular people.

The spell in its modern form appears to be primarily a game mechanic. One that was carried over from RPGs to videogames and from there seeped out into the wider field of fantasy in general. While I am a big fan of fantasy games, I’ve always had reservations about the gamification of non-game fiction. Even with games I prefer mechanics to be as invisible as possible and maintain a more organic feel in the in-game fiction. (Which is why I find Apocalypse World quite appealing and always had a problem with D&D magic.)

With the Ancient Lands, I’ve always felt more like making a “game of the book” rather than a “book of the game”, even with the vast majority of my work over the last year being on game stuff with no actual book anywhere near to sight. But these days I feel once again more drawn to writing fiction, with my game development having reached a point where there’s not really much left to do other than playing it. And even with all the worldbuilding advice for writers that adresses magic systems, I find the idea of a spell-less magic to be a lot more interesting.

Raise Animated Dead

Resurrection of dead characters is a difficult topic when it comes to fantasy in general and to RPGs in specific. To make it short, I am not a fan of death being an effect on a PC that can be removed with the casting of a spell. Once a character in the party has access to this spell, players can mostly expect their characters to live forever. As long as the cleric survies the battle, everyone is probably going to be fine. If the time limits are generous, then it becomes mostly a matter of having the money and transporting the body to a high level NPC, which can become an available option much earlier in the game. This significantly changes the game and doesn’t really line up with pretty much any fantasy fiction. It just doesn’t seem right for my prefered style of Sword & Sorcery and so I created the aspect of life and death in the Ancient Lands around the assumption that resurrection is impossible. There is no soul separated from the body and once the life has been extinguished it is forever gone. Nothing there to bring back into the world of the living.

However, resurrected NPCs can be pretty cool when used sparingly. The undead sorcerer. The returned hero of old. The helpful ghost. I don’t really want to have these completely banished from my campaign.

One possible solution, that I think could be quite fun, is to make it possible to return a body back to life but the resulting creature ends up being somewhat odd. It looks like the person and has the memories of the person, but ultimately it’s something different. A magical construct. For antagonistic NPCs this is good enough. They can still be villains without any special limitations. For helpful NPCs this would still allow them to perform some kind of task that benefits the PCs, but they can’t really return back to their old life. Of course, you can get endlessly philosophical about the question whether a being with the same appearance and memories would be the same person or an artificial fake, or perhaps a separate but still fully human twin. I think usually they would be, but I believe it should be possible to come up with ideas to make them sufficiently similar but different that they would not be welcomed back into their old lives. That’s another step to be figured out later.

But regardless of how the world reacts to such resurrected characters, the players might and will quite possibly have very different oppinions. Players might have no problem with playing a character who has all the traits of their old one but has only philosophically changed. To make it effective, resurrected PCs should be unappealling to play on a continous base. One quick and easy solution would be to make it impossible for them to gain any more XP. This might make it appealing to have the character complete his last quest for dramatic reasons while not really offering much incentive to keep going after that. Another nice limitation that might help in making the characters unnatural nature apparent would be to not make this return to life permanent. Maybe it lasts only a month or a year after the character is gone for good or it takes continual magical rituals to preserve this temporary return to the world of the living.

The Social Conflict of the Ancient Lands

Working on the Ancient Lands is always also a great process of learning for me. Even though it took me six years to get to this point, during which comperatively little content has been created, it doesn’t feel like wasted time as I don’t think I had anywhere close to the skill needed to make the world that I am refining now. But I still spot mistakes that were made and that hold considerable room for improvement.

While originality is overrated, I made some decisions early on about what fantasy stereotyps I don’t want in my setting because they are already everywhere (at least in the fantasy I was reading and playing back then): No Dark Lord, no demonic invasion, no lost golden age, no diminishing magic, and no default good PCs who kill default evil antagonists for no other reason than charity or to safe the world/kingdom. And I still really like those and mostly stick to them. Instead I came up with the idea that PCs are clan warriors who protect their village by fighting of monsters. But what first was a solution, and not a very well thought out one, gradually morphed in my head into a mandatory requirement. Not only do I now regard it as a dead end, it also made my pretty much completely ignore aspects of the setting that are actually pretty important. A major one of these is social conflicts and the main factions involved in it.

One thing I like so much about the Knights of the Old Republic series is their web of factions. In the Star Wars movies the Jedi and Sith are both actually really bland, but in KotOR they are more multi-faceted and you also get the Mandalorians as a third faction. And you don’t have that tunnel vision on the Skywalkers, which makes it all a lot more interesting. I know I want some of that. Other great examples of factions are the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, which really have them in the center of worldbuilding rather than the main stories, which serve more as framing devices to see the factions clashing.

I think that great conflicts are those that arise from specific circumstances unique to the world. Like the dark side of the Force in Star Wars, demonic possession in Dragon Age, or Defiling in Dark Sun. This results in conflicts that couldn’t take place in any other world as well and creates a real reason to play in this specific world rather than any of the dozens that are already around. If you want people to get invested in your setting, it needs to offer something that existing settings don’t. Again, you don’t need to be original in every element of the setting (which probably wouldn’t even work) but at the very least have one new thing, or new combination of existing things.

In the Ancient Lands, this original element is a natural world that is too powerful to be subjugated and makes large scale civilization impossible. Civilizations always stay small and are short lived, as agriculture is only sustainable with the blessing of the gods of the land. As there a few spirits that have both the power and inclination to create such havens where crops and herds are relatively safe from wild animals and the the severe elements, settlements always remain fractured and populations are unable to expand. How people are dealing with this situation is the basis for my current approach to the four main factions. Previously I had treated the factions as relatively small organizations, but I think the following ideas probably work best when almost all settlements can be associated with one of these factions, even if they have no unified hierarchies.

Druids are the mainstream group of shamans who serve as intermediaries between farming villages and the spirits of the land on which they live and work. (No longer the sorcerer hunters I treated them as previously.) In druid philosophy the current state of the world is the natural way of things and trying to fight nature can lead to no good and will always lead to premature destruction. Instead, the only way to find a life of peace and relative safety is to learn and understand the laws that govern nature and use them to your advantage instead of trying to work against them. In this regard druids are deeply conservative. This life is close to as good as it gets and any troubles are either the result of trying to defy nature or inevitable facts of the ways of the world. Accepting the limits of what mortal peoples can achive in a world in which they are not the masters and focusing on avoiding unnecessary clashes with the wilds and their spirits is the only way to a content life.

The Sakaya are a cult that accepts the dominance of natur and the greater power of spirits and gods, but rejects them as masters over their lives. Sakaya do not worship the spirits and turn for them for guidance and protection and instead draw their strength from relying on the cooperation with other people. Nominally they are a unified society of equals, though in recent decades the warrior companies on the coasts have increasingly reduced ties to the monasteries in the mountains. Sakaya will make bargains with spirits and occasionally agree to paying regular tribute, but they offer no devotions to them. Their strength comes from winthin themselves and their mutual cooperation to overcome the hardships of life. Striving for excelence in one’s skills and sharing resources for the greater good is the best way to support the community and create a peaceful life for oneself.

Wilders are generally small and remote settlements that share the belief with the druids that mortal efforts can not overcome the indomitable forces of the natural world. But they refuse to remain content with lives of hardship and permanent struggle and instead seek solace in an even greater power. Wilder cults worship the primordial gods of the earth and the sea that still rule these vast realms below the surface world as they have done since the beginning of time. Druids regard this as a worship of demons and the calling of powers into the world whose corrupting influence can only lead to disaster and suffering. In the eyes of most people, wilders are little different from sorcerers in the threat they pose to the rest of the world.

Sorcerers are witches who deny that the laws of the natural and spiritual world are unshakeable and refuse to accept that mortals can never be more than they are. They have turned to sorcery as a source of magic that is not bound to the natural laws and has the powers of primordial chaos to reshape reality itself. Sorcerers regard wilders as superstitious cults that have no understanding of the powers that they worship. The primordial gods of the deeps are simply spirits whose powers are open to mortals just as well. Sorcerers are very rare, perhaps numbering only a few hundreds in the whole world. But their attempts to reshape the world around them to their whims makes them an extremely dangerous threat in the eyes of all the other groups. Even sorcerers who seem like kind people and mean no harm to anyone warp and corrupt the world around them and leave behind areas of toxic blight in their wakes. They are all seen as madmen who risk dooming the world forever.

None of the groups are outright good or evil. Sorcerers are always destructive and wilders regularly play with very dangerous forces, but this does not mean that players can simply kill all of them and be done with it. Wilders often live in whole villages and while they may be particularly odd people they do not always directly threaten anyone else. Druids seem predestined to be good guys, but of all the groups they are the least flexible and tollerant. In their eyes the other groups are only making things worse for everyone and the Sakaya are foolishly risking their own survival at best. The monastic Sakaya are probably the ones least interested in confronting others but can be particularly stubborn against cooperating with demands that have them submit to spirits. The warrior Sakaya on the other hand are clear troublemakers, constantly looking for opportunities to improve and display their martial skills. This puts them in conflict with pretty much everyone, regardless of ideology. A sixth major group would be the naga sorcerers, who are very much like mortal sorcerers but regard all of those as inferior ursupers of their races ancient powers. Naga sorcerers never cooperate with mortal sorcerers and only tolerate them as personal thralls who are deliberately kept at a weaker power.

That’s no Moon

It’s a gas dwarf.

I never made any secrets about how much I love the worldbuilding of Morrowind. (It’s gameplay is a different matter.) And I never let an opportunity pass by to tell everyone how much I love Star Wars. I also liked the world of the old videogame Albion and the whole old Planetary Romance genre in general. When I wrote down my Project Forest Moon concept paper to spice up the Ancient Lands with more mythic and puply atmosphere, that title was just a name referencing the visual style of Endor in The Return of the Jedi. But that phrase stuck with me until I recently decided to have the Ancient Lands be set on an actual moon. I know a fair bit about astronomy and while I think scientific accuracy is vastly overrated in fantasy worldbuilding, I think no creator likes to create stuff they know to be wrong within the rules of their fictional world. So I sat down to figure out a configuration that is at least somewhat plausible if you’re not getting too specific about the exact numbers involved. Or in other words, I feel pretty confident that planets like this can exist if you just find the right numbers for masses and distances to keep everything in semi-stable balance.

Having an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant (like the Rebel base on Yavin 4 in Star Wars) would have all kinds of “interesting” effects that would make any kind of Earth-like environment on it vastly implausible. And you’d also end up with all kinds of funkiness regarding day length and daily solar eclipses lasting for hours. To keep things much simpler and more familiar, I chose to make the big ball in the sky a gas dwarf instead.

So what is a gas dwarf?

Gas dwarves are the most recently discovered type of planet that exists in other star system, which look very much like gas giants but are much smaller than those. In their center is a solid rocky core like a common terrestial planet which is then surrounded by a massive atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. Planets like Earth or Venus have not enough gravity to hold on to these very light gases in significant quantities, but if you go just a little bigger in size gravity is strong enough to keep these huge balls of gas together. The total mass of gas dwarves is between 1.7 and 4 times the mass of the Earth and it appears that they are one of the most common types of planets in the universe. It’s just a random oddity of the solar system that we ended up not having any of these. Being so much smaller than a gas giant the gravitational effects and its magnetic field would be much smaller than what you have in a behemoth like Jupiter or even Neptune.

I recently got myself Universe Sandbox 2, which I’ve been fascinated about for a very long time, and made a quick simulation of what it might look like if you take Earth and switch the Moon for smallish gas dwarf. I started by taking Neptune and changing its mass to 2 Earth masses. The program then did the recalculation of it’s actual size automatically. As expected, two bodies of such similar size would actually form a binary planet, both orbiting about a point between them instead of one going around the other, with the world if the Ancient Lands not being actually a moon. But it’s close enough. The screenshot at the top of this post is taken directly from the simulation I made with everything being at actual scale, with the gas giant being the same distance away from Earth as the Moon. But it’s a lot bigger and the little black dot next to the bigger blue ball is what the Moon would look like from this perspective. At 8.5 times the radius of the moon the gas dwarf would take up an area in the sky 72 times bigger. Hydrogen clouds would also reflect light much better than moon rocks, so the light of a full moon would likely be hundreds of times brighter than what we get here on Earth. However, human eyes are actually really amazing at automatically adjusting to light levels to give the brain the appearance that everything is normally lit. We did measurements of light levels in greenhouses in school and rooms that seem to be evenly lit actually get several times the amount of light close the sun facing windows than at the opposite side. Sunlight is obviously brighter than the light of a full moon, but human eyes adjust so well that you probably wouldn not have suspected that it is actually 400.000 times brighter. So even with a full moon being 400 times brighter than on Earth, the nights wouldn’t actually look much brighter to the eyes of people.

This is the Earth and the gas dwarf seen side on at actual scale. This shows the actual relative sizes and distances of the two bodies.

Tidal effects would obviously be much more severe as those caused by the Moon. However in practice, the actual rise and fall of the water is influenced much more significantly by the shape of coastlines than the gravitational pull of the moon. While there would be some bays experiencing absolutely astonishing tides, it should not be too dramatic for most coasts to completely change life near the sea. The time between high tide and low tide remains roughly 6 hours since the day is 24 hours in length. The orbital speed of the gas dwarf is marginal compared to the rotation of the forest planet.

Sadly, one thing that Universe Sandbox can not simulate is tidal locking. Tidal locking is when a smaller body slows down its rotation to the point where it matches its orbit around the larger body, causing it to always show the same side to the larger body, while the larger body would remain stationary in the sky of the smaller one. I think this is boring and want my wandering gas moon, which is why I gave it such a low mass to reduce this effect. In reality, the effects that cause tidal locking are working on every smaller body orbiting a larger one. The only question is how long it will take for the rotation to slow down before a true lock is reached. For the Earth and the Sun, tidal locking actually takes longer to reach than the Sun is going to live. One number I’ve found is that the Earth actually had days of only 6 hours when it first formed. So the fate of my world is sealed and it will eventually tidally lock to the gas dwarf. But the gas dwarf has only twice the mass of the forest planet while in comparison the Earth has 80 times the mass of the Moon. So I see it as completely plausible that a after three billion years the forest planet still has a nice 24 hour day and is a very far way from getting locked and the gas giant keeps moving in the sky.

Another interesting number is the length of a month. That is time from one full moon to the next full moon. In this particular configuration of masses and distances that I uses this turned out to be almost exatly 16 days. That would be 4 days from new moon to half moon and from half moon to full moon, and the same back of course. 16 is a very attractive number, being a square of an even number, so I keep that for the days in a month. For the number of months in a year, 24 would also be a very attractive number, being a multiple of 12. If a month where exactly 16.0 days and a year exactly 24.0 months, it would lead to a year of 384 days. Very close to what we think of when we are talking about “a year” as a unit of time. But such a perfect synchronisation would seem vastly implausible to me, so in the tradition of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi I am setting the length of the year at roughly 381 days, with the occasional leap day now and then. And sometimes a year happens to have only 15 months. Since I am lazy with such things and calendars show up rarely in practice in campaign, I’m not making any names for months or days of the week. It’s simply the first day of the eleventh month. With each month beginning at the new moon.

Another cool subject is solar eclipses. Because with a diameter 8 times larger than the Moon, the gas dwarf has a really easy time completely covering up the sun. In reality the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun once every month during the new moon. However in most months it will pass actually above or below the sun in the sky since all orbits are not perfectly flat. How often you get solar eclipses depends on the tilt of the orbit, the size of the moon compared to the sun, and the length of a month, but they will be most common during spring and fall. There are 16 opportunities for an eclipse every year and a 50% chance for any place on the planet to be on the sun facing side when it happens, resulting in a total maximum of 8 if the orbits where perfectly flat. I really don’t want to worry about the exact math of this, so I am just arbitrarily setting the number of total eclipses a place experiences in a year at 1 or 2. However, I am pretty sure there is an orbital tilt that would lead to this result. I just don’t want to calculate that number as it will never come up in a game. On Earth a solar eclipse can last up to eight minutes. With the gas giant being eight times wider but it going around the planet at double the speed, this gives us eclipses of up to 30 minutes. So to streamline the numbers for practical use, a total eclipse lasts for 10 to 30 minutes.

So that’s the sky and the resulting calendar in the Ancient Lands. I actually tried to simulate each of the two planets having a small moon of their own, adding Deimos and Phobos to the system. When I ran the simulation, the Earth immediately flung its moon on a course to the sun while the gas dwarf threw its moon straight at Earth, leaving a huge crater lake in Morocco. I am pretty sure it should be possible to have two minor moons in the sky as well, but I am not going to include these into the simulation. They are just there in the sky looking pretty and not having any noticable effect on the planet below.

Dark Sun Sandbox

No, this is not a pun.

I wrote about sandboxes and taking the idea of default goals from megadungeons on monday, and how it finally made sandbox campaigns click for me.

And it finally made me understand how I would properly run a Dark Sun campaign. A sandbox is a perfect match for it. One issue with the setting as described is that all the interesting possible oponents are fabulously powerful. If you want to engage in the current public affairs of Athas, you’re facing immortal sorcerer kings with limitless resources and whole armies of seriously dangerous minions. Yet doing regular bandit killing and caravan guarding would be just way too bland for a setting like this. Even being an ordinary adventurer looking for gold in dungeons would be kinda meh.

But as a sandbox it all makes so much more sense. The default action in a Dark Sun campaign is “don’t die”. When you’re in a city, then the templars of the sorcerer-kings are everywhere and looking to kill or enslave you for the slightest reason. If you’re not in a city, then it’s a constant fight to not be killed by the desert. Sitting around idle is never an option, you are always facing a threat. If you don’t have any specific goal for now, then simply staying alive and free will always keep you occupied. It’s a world that really comes to life through random encounters. Random encounters are not the hand GM nuding the players to do certain things. They are the setting itself being hostile to the players, which really is one of the big selling points of Dark Sun as a setting.

And going on more specific adventures with a defined goal can always be treated as a means to accomplishing the default goal of staying alive. Helping others is not something you do out of kindness, but because they will give you resources and assistance in return, which then can help you to survive the deserts and stay ahead of the templars for a little longer. And in the long term, the players can make allies and gain the friendship of slave tribes or bands of elves, or can call in a debt from thri-kreen. Or even somehow get the gratitude of a clan of halflings. Lunatic canibal halflings who live in the one forest in a desert world that everybody else stays way clear of. As they grow in personal power and gain allies, players can eventually get into a position where they can mean actual trouble for any of the sorcerer-kings. Whichever one of them the players decide to hate the most.

The Tyr Region is perfect for a sandbox, and not just because it’s full of sand. However, given that the setting was created for AD&D 2nd edition and that the really cool concept was quickly turned into garbage by a heavy handed metaplot that had NPCs do all the things that would have been cool for players to do, I very much doubt that this was the intention. But that’s clearly how I would run it.

Quicksand Sandbox: What are we going to do tonight, Brain?

One thing I am constantly struggling with as a GM is making up my mind what kind of game mode I actually want my campaigns to run in. The linear plotted adventure went out the window years ago, but since then it’s ben an endless back and forth between enthusiasm and disdain for sandboxes and dungeoncrawls, social games and exploration games, ongoing campaigns and episodic one-shots. Which I think ultimately comes down to a  disconnect between the kind of narratives I am dreaming of and the realities of running a game with other people. I want Conan, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, but these are all tales written by a creator who controls the thoughts and actions of all the characters and has full control over the past, present, and future of every scene at the same time. You can not replicate a book or a movie exactly in an RPG. You can only work towards running a game that will look like just as great a story in hindsight.

Of the many possible open-ended game modes to chose from, the two I know I am not interested in are hexcrawls and megadungeons. Which happen to be by far the most popular, or at the very least the ones that have most been written about. But the discourse about these two modes has led to the articulation of a valuable and important concept: Default Goals and Default Actions.

In a game that has a group come together at regular or irregular intervals and ask the immortal question “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?”, there needs to be a default goal. If nobody has any special plan, then the whole group should be in agreement to default to one standard activity. Otherwise they just keep akwardly sitting around in confusion and are likely to start wrecking things to get any response to their presence from the game world. In the case of the hexcrawl and the megadungeon, these default actions are exploring new hexes and going to the dungeon respectively. Or simply “explore”. But as Matt Colville pointed out quite correctly I believe, “explore” is not a good goal. Exploration is walking around blindly and waiting for something interesting to fall into your path. It’s still waiting for the world and the GM to give them a task to deal with. Without understanding why, I think this is really the issue that always had me feel very uncomfortable about the thought of running a hexcrawl or megadungeon. It just doesn’t seem to have the potential for the kind of narratives I want my games to produce.

My work on the Ancient Lands setting began as an attempt to create a more realistic portrayal of tribal societies in a fantasy world that wasn’t as distorted as the nonsense you get about life in “warrior cultures” in movies and books. But while I think that it’s a fascinating subject and some elements of this will greatly help me making the Ancient Lands feel like an actual world, I have come to really appreciate minimizing exposition and player buy-in. Instead relying strongly on familiar archetypes to allow players to correctly guess what is what in this fictional world. However as part of it, I found one solution to letting PCs go on adventures and being indispensible for the survival of the clan, which was to define PCs as hunters for magical artifacts that can help defend the clan against their enemies and hostile spirits. Somehow this got stuck in my mind as the paradigm that all adventures in the Ancient Lands have to be treasure hunts and that all PCs have to be treasure hunters. After all, treasure hunting is what makes characters progress in B/X, so it seems to be a perfect match, right?

But in hindsight I really just handicapped myself with this approach. Without the addition of “return it to your clan to defend it against attacks”, the default goal of “find treasure” is just as hollow as “explore”. But while reading Kevin Crawford’s excellent Spears of the Dawn, I finally came to the realization that default goal does not have to be the only goal. It’s the goal that you can always go pursuing if you don’t have anything else planned right now. I believe the key to a successful sandbox campaign is to make it a hybrid campaign of exploration/treasure hunt and player-initiated story adventures. On their own, neither can stand by itself. At least not in a way that I want to run it. Pure exploration is aimless. And sending the players to do whatever they want in a world they know nothing about is a recipe for getting them stuck in the quicksand of unlimited options.

A much more appealing approach to sandboxes is “come for the plunder, stay for the people”. The treasure hunt is a device to get players to start interacting with the world in an easy to grasp and straightforward way so that they get opportunities to form connections with the setting and the NPCs and get dragged into local conflicts. The platonic ideal for player initiated adventures always seems to me best represented by the classic Kurosawa movie Yojimbo. There is no quest giver and barely even a hook to get the hero into this adventure. He is just passing through a village when he sees that local gangs are making trouble. Even though the locals tell him to just be on his way, he is intrigued and stays to see what happens next. At this point he has no plan and not even a clear goal and completely plays it by ear, but once he has established some connections to the village it very quickly grows into a complex web of cunning deception and daring swashbuckling that simply is a blast to behold. This is what I believe player-initiated adventures in a sandbox should be like.

But in an RPG, walking down the street until the players run into something that grabs their curiosity is not feasible. If they currently have nothing to do, they need a default goal to fall back on that will keep them entertained until they find something more interesting to do instead. Putting the limitation on character creation that all PCs have to have a drive to look for magical wonders in ancient places seems like a perfect solution for a wilderness sandbox.