Category Archives: sword & sorcery

Forest Moon 2: Knights of the Frozen Throne

About a year ago I’ve sat down and wrote a list of elements that would evoke the atmosphere and style that was really at the heart of my inspiration for the Ancient Lands, which over the many years of working on it had regularly strayed off into other, more generic direction. Writing these ideas down as Project Forest Moon started probably the most productive phase of my whole work on the setting and in hindsight feels like a second moment of the settings inception. When I looked back at the original first outline I made, pretty much all the important elements were already there and the following five years were spend on toying around with various mechanics and researching background information on society and technology. Much of which ended up being discarded as irrelevant and uninteresting for campaigns. Figuring out what doesn’t work and why is a major and important learning experience, but It was only in the last year when I finally learned how much atmosphere is actually much more important than lots of methodical detail.

Project Forest Moon turned out to be an astonishing success for myself which lead me to declare the setting as basically complete three months ago. Well, at least so far as having reached the beta stage. And to focus my efforts on the final push to smoothen out the remaining rough edges I made another list with the elements that still are not as prominent as they should be and the ways I want to deal with them.

  • That’s no Planet. It’s a Moon! Forest Moon was really just a name referring to one of my major inspirations for the style of the setting. But the idea has grown on me and I totally like the idea of switching the primary moon of the Ancient Lands to be the larger companion of the system. It changes absolutely nothing for the people living in the Ancient Lands, but it adds a little bit to reinforce the notion of it being an alien work very much unlike Earth in many ways. And I also just love the oldschool pulpy vibe that you get from works like the Barsoom series and obviously Star Wars.
  • Points of Light: While it comes from the development process of the most controversial edition that was widely seen as a major step in the totally wrong direction for D&D, Points of Light is a very fascinating paradigm for desiging settings, that is actually extremely oldschool but had to my knowledge never been put into words that well. The whole, and really pretty simple idea, is that the campaign world is a mostly untamed world without any real centralized power or organization and overall generally hostile to the mortal races. They have carved out their small islands of relative safety and stability that are only loosely connected by barely maintained roads, but around them these small villages and towns are completely surrounded by monster infested wilderness.  I’ve been working under these assumptions from the very beginning, but I feel that I’ve continuously drifted back towards something more conventional. One way to accomplish this is to completely banish the idea of countries from the setting. Geographic areas are defined by having a consistent landscape, like a mountain range, island group, or wetland. But there are no more cultural regions that give the inhabitants some kind of shared identity. Now every island of mortal inhabitation is reduced to being its own unique entity.
  • No More Cities: As a consequence of the stronger Points of Light approach I am ditching the concept of city states. These have always been problematic for me as they are meant to not be visited by PCs but always ended up being the focus areas of the worldbuilding process. I will keep the handful that I have, but they are reconceptualized as strongholds of particularly powerful warlords. They are fortified towns under a single leader. No longer a common space for a regional aristocracy.
  • Level 0 World: One paradigm I’ve commited myself to some time ago is that every NPC that is not considered important enough to be given a name and individual personality is automatically a level 0 character with no class. NPCs that are fleshed out as individuals only get classes and levels if they have extraordinary fighting prowess or skills or possess magical powers. If their power and influence is purely social then they are still only level 0 NPCs, even if they are very high ranking individuals.
  • More Focus on Journeys: I already had boat travel on rivers and coasts on the list the last time but have not actually done much to make this a more prominent feature of the setting. With a setting like this, the trip between town and dungeon is not enough to cover the wilderness aspects of a campaign. The journey between towns should be an adventure in itself. This is one aspect where I have to put some more thoughts into mechanics and it’s less of a worldbuilding issue. However, the connections to the river and overland path network is one important element in the description of settlements. This also includes creating some more river monsters.
  • More really big Beasts: Part of the concept is that the wilderness is dangerous and terrifying. With a more open ended, site-based approach to adventures and the ability to retreat from encounters or avoid them, I think I can get away with populating the world with more beasts that will be too tough to fight head on for most parties. More dragons and rancors.
  • The Fey Folk: There are three races of humanoid fey in the Ancient Lands. Naga, shie, and racksha. The naga already have a very prominent role in many aspects of the setting, but the other two are still mostly concept that exist more or less in isolation and are not really connected to anything yet. The shie are the creators of the Tower Builder and Tree Weaver types of ruins, but the raksha are more of a character design than a setting element so far.
  • Rituals: The Ancient Lands is conceptualized as an animistic world but so far there is little specific about how this element can be included in actual play. The consultation of shamans and witches and the use of elaborate warding and divination rituals needs to become more fleshed out. Given that divinations in the Ancient World work by predicting the crossing of paths of people with intersecting or conflicting goals rather than stating predetermined outcomes, I see a lot of potential here.
  • Sites of Power: I need to put a lot more thought into magical glades and springs that work as powerful stationary magic items.
  • Druids as Monks rather than Templars: My idea of the Druids was as an organization of shamans that work together to fight the spread of demons and sorcery but I realized that this actually makes them not very interesting as NPCs. If they are the best at fighting sorcery, why would they have to work together with player characters? It’s basically the old Jedi Problem, where one character type is the hero by default and everyone else really only gets in the way and should try to stay out of harm. Instead I want to reconceptualize druids as scholars who have the knowledge to fight sorcery but require warriors to actually do the heavy lifting and clear a path for them.
  • No Lizardmen: I already had lizardmen scrapped once but got them back as part of the setting some time in the last year. But now I realize that all my cool ideas for a lizard race have already been incorporarted in jungle elves and the naga slaves serpentmen. While a neat idea, the lack of a decent concept means the setting will probably be better of for the time being. Not having mortal lizardmen actually frees up a spot for an idea I have for lizard spirit-ogres as a fourth race of the fey folk.

The Ancient Builders

Ruins play obviously a great part in the Ancient Lands and someone has to have build them in the first place. While I don’t want to have a generic post-apocalyptic world I decided to keep things simple and focused and have the majority of ruins be from an ancient time and build by fey races instead of being build by past humanoid civilizations. Ruined castles can have signs of past inhabitation by people, but people-build ruins are going to be almost all abandoned villages. Mortals just don’t have the ability to build castles like spirits can, and never did. It’s not that mortals lost knowledge and abilities they had in the past, but simply that spirits are just much more powerful in every way. Fortunately for mortals, most fey castles have long been abandoned and only few of them are currently inhabited. The fey races are not particularly attached to stability and leave lots of stuff behind when they are done with them, but these tend to remain around for a very long time after that and over thousands of years those abandoned castles add up.

Naga

Of all the old builders, the naga are the ones that still have a strong presence on the material world and inhabit and maintain many of their ancient castles, particularly in the southern lands. Around the Inner Sea and the northern lands these are all long abandoned, though. Naga ruins often consists of steep, tower-like ziggurats surrounded by smaller buildings with flat stone roofa that housed vast numbers of elven slaves. They can easily be identified by their lack of stairs, with levels being connected by ramps. They are also generally found near coasts.

Tower Builders

The tower builders were a civilization of shie that built a large number of citadels throughout the northern parts of the Ancient Lands. All their castles have a square base and smooth walls that slighty narrow inwards until reaching a flat top. These towers are build from huge stone blocks that are very accurately fitted together and each have a completely unique shape. Inside, the ceilings are held up by massive supports that start close to the walls and lean sharply inwards to form a kind of trapezoid arch and provide a lot of cover and hiding spaces.

Rock Carvers

Ruins of the Rock Carvers are mostly found in the area of the Inner Sea, particularly the Akai and Tavir Mountains, but also in various places in the steep rocky cliffs on the coast. Rock Carver ruins are often seemingly low and bulky constructions compared to the other styles of castles, but are mostly located underground, which hides their frequently massive proportions. Often the only parts visible above ground are a steep and extremely thick wall and an only slightly higher citadel that guard the main entrance to the rest of the stronghold. Often these have very few windows that are barely more than arrow slits, but castles in well defensible locations high up in the mountains sometimes have large numbers of great balconies and tarraces overlooking the landscape below. Smaller ruins are often completely invisible from the outside and appear only as easy to miss caves that reveal themselves to be spectacular underground castles. While the working of walls and tunnels is always extremely precise and without any irregularities, many ruins include large natural caverns that have remained entirely unworked and kept in their magnificent natural form.

The identity of the Rock Carvers is a complete mystery to everyone but they have often left behind many enchanted stones and gems.

Tree Weavers

The Tree Weavers were another group of shie who created numerous castles and palaces in the Ancient Lands. Their ruins are widely regarded as the most magnificent ones and appear to have been grown from gargantuan petrified trees and living rock rather than build by masons. Except for floors and stairs, which are covered in tiles of polished marble, there are no flat surfaces or straight angles to be found anywhere in these ruins, with all walls slightly bulging outwards and all ceilings being domed. Many ruins consist of tall towers that often have smaller side towers branching off from them in seemingly impossible angles like enormous stone trees. Other buildings have large marble roofs made from a single piece that look like the shells of colossals turtles.

Tree Weaver ruins are often home to a great amount of plant life, much of it being dangerous and even deadly to people getting too close.

Glass Makers

Ruins of the Glass Makers are the most mysterious ones and widely regarded to be by far the oldest. Many even believe that they were build by spirits that have long retreated into the eternal dark of the Underworld. Ruins of this type are made or a very hard dark material that greatly resembles glass an comes in various hues. Surfaces require a great deal of force to damage and tend to merely chip rather than fracturing. Rumor has it that at least in some ruins such damages slowly heal over the course of decades and centuries but they are so infrequently visited that nobody has ever really seen it happening so far.
The architecture of these steuctures, if it can even be called that, tends to be highly bizarre and often seems to serve no discernable purpose. However, they all share in common that they contain large underground sections of which generally much less information is available.

Glass ruins often have areas of high corruption and are sometimes haunted by trapped demons. Sorcerous relics can often be found in them and they are highly sought after by naga and sorcerers.

In the Land of Zero-Level NPCs a 4th Level Fighter is a Hero

One thing I really love about oldschool D&D, and which changing was a major flaw of the d20 system, is that nonplayer humanoids have fixed stats like monsters and don’t have levels like PCs. That’s not just orcs and gnolls, but also dwarves, bandits, and berserkers. Not only is this really convenient for GMs who have a lot less work to prepare for a session and can simply pull stats for any minor NPC out of the book if an unanticipated fight breaks out, it also brings with it a number of very interesting assumptions about the world and the position of PCs in it.

I have adopted the policy that every NPC too minor to get a name in advance is automatically a level zero NPC. Which means effectively all guards, soldiers, bandits, and civilians. Named NPCs have to be significantly more skilled in combat than the average soldier to become even 1st level fighters or amazing skills to have levels as scouts (fighter-thief) or specialists (thief). In such a setting a 1st level fighter is clearly a Veteran and a 4th level fighter a Hero. And of course that’s what Gygax and Moldvay intended when they put these titles next to these fighter levels. 1st level PCs are not raw recruits and 5th level characters not “low-level”.

I’ve started to get the impression that high-level characters (level 13+) were flawed pretty early in my 3rd edition days and I’ve recently seen people make good arguments that these have been tacked on later in a somewhat haphazardous way and were not part of the original design that quickly ran out after 9th level. But it’s something that is relatively easily ignored, at least until Forgotten Realms became the de facto official AD&D setting going into 2nd Edition. Forgotten Realms had this odd thing going on where high level NPCs are numerous and make their homes in quaint unassuming villages or go into semi-retirement to run a tavern. Which I can see as having some charm, but becomes a really bad influence when it’s taken as a precedent. If there are level 15 or 20 NPCs found in farming villages, what’s the point of 2nd or 6th level PCs other than being errand boys? 4th level is no longer heroic and 8th level most certainly not super-heroic.

So simultaneously you get monsters becoming stronger to compensate for 10th level being the new 5th, which leads to the really annoying consequence of players having to wait until they’ve run enough rat and goblin errands to get to the cool stuff of giants, dragons, and demons. Which in twelve years of playing 3rd Edition and Pathfinder never happened to me once. Aside from the one time we started with 14th level character’s I only encountered a beholder once (last session of that campaign) and not a single dragon or demon. So lame.

One common argument I come across for the need for high-level NPCs and mid-level town guards is the question of what would prevent the players from burning and looting villages. To which I have one really simple answer: Nothing!

So the players want to fight guards that can’t stop them and plunder the local stores for anything valuable? They want to become villains terrorizing the countryside? Let them. But that doesn’t mean you have to let them get away with it. Because what do villagers do when being under constant attacks by raiders with supernatural powers? The only thing that can defeat a Hero is another Hero! They call for heroes to save them. It doesn’t need to be Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. You can start with a party of 3rd and 4th level NPCs. If the players defeat them others will trie, until eventually they become infamous and feared enough that armies a send to deal with them and then 8th level parties consider them a worthy task for themselves. If the players keep defeating them, they are certainly going to have a blast with it. And everything is good.

Eldritch Lore: Elementals

Air Elemental by javi-ure

A while back I’ve seen someone describe elementals in Dungeons & Dragons as fundamentally boring. I think they are really cool, but what is it that they rally have going for themselves? When you look at their description in the Monster Manuals and Expert Sets, really all that you get is a description of how they look and their abilities in combat. And that’s really everything there is about them. What little there is about their role in the wider world makes them appear more like mindless temporary golems controlled by wizards than actual nature spirits. I have to agree. Elementals in Dungeons & Dragons are super lame.

Yeah, well… I’m gonna go build my own fantasy setting. With blackjack and cool elementals!

Elementals

Earth Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals are the oldest and most numerous of the spirits inhabiting the Spiritworld. Even more so than the spirits of trees and animals, they are the spirits of the land, sea, rivers, and sky themselves. They have no shape or form of their own, but wherever the elements are present there are also elemental spirits inhabiting them in the Spiritworld.  Whenever they have a need to interact with the physical world around them they can manifest a body shaped from their element. Weapons can not damage water and fire and even when rock is crushed an earth elemental can maintain a body made from rubble. The only ways to deal any harm to an elemental spirit are magic and the elements themselves. Dousing fire with water or turning water into steam with extreme heat can overwhelm the power of an elemental spirit, causing it to lose its hold over its physical form and disappearing back into the environment to recover its strength. Like all spirits, elementals are hurt by iron as well, but bronze, wood, and stone have no effect on them whatsoever.

Fire Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals don’t have any needs as living creatures would understand them or even desires like the shie, naga, and raksha. They are eternal beings as old as the world itself, who will probably continue to exist until the end of time, long after all people, beasts, and other nature spirits will be gone. Yet they are not mindless forces of nature, nor completely devoid of emotions. The main priority pursued by elementals is to be left in peace. The one thing that drives them into furious rage are disturbances of their comfortable quiet. However what costitutes a disturbance to these enigmatic beings is never clear to tell. The presence of beasts large and small is a constant and regular occurence throughout all the world and most of the time elementals make no distinguishment between people and animals. The affairs of mortals are of no relevance to them and so they are generally ignored by elementals. However, their apparent peacefulness can very quickly turn into determined agression by causing a commotion in their vicinity or merely getting to close for their comfort.

Water Elemental by javi-ure

While elementals usually don’t talk to other creatures they are capable of speech, speaking in the languages of spirits of the earth, water, and sky. They simply lack any desire to communicate with other beings. But when approached with care by a shaman they can be drawn into a conversation and reveal themselves to be quite intelligent creatures of great wisdom, though much of it has little meaning to the short lives of mortal beings. When interacting with people, elementals often take a vaguely humanoid shape but they can also assume forms resembling various great beasts or simply appear as rolling clouds or bulges of water. The minds of elementals are nearly as alien as those of the ancients that predate the formation of the world, but being a fundamental part of the natural world their presence has none of their warping and corrupting effects on the land and creatures around them.

Lesser Elemental

XP: 500
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 19
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 6 (27 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d6
Earth: Slam 1d8
Fire: Slam 1d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 12
Poison: 10
Breath: 13
Device: 11
Magic: 14
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Greater Elemental

XP: 1,200
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 21
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 8 (36 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d8
Earth: Slam 2d6
Fire: Slam 1d8 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 10
Poison: 8
Breath: 11
Device: 9
Magic: 12
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Elder Elemental

XP: 1,900
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 23
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 12 (54 hp)
Attack: Slam 2d6
Earth: Slam 2d8
Fire: Slam 2d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 8
Poison: 6
Breath: 9
Device: 7
Magic: 10
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

I search the body

Some things that can be randomly found on killed or captured NPCs in the Ancient Lands. It’s a great tool for showing the players about the setting instead of telling them, which I think first appeared in Vornheim by He Who Must Not Be Named. Since I believe no kittens were killed in the development of this idea, I have no problems with using it. It’s a great tool that every setting that wants to be more than generic should use.

  • Bag with silver scraps (worth 1d4 x 10 sp)
  • Bag with silver coins (worth 1d6 x 10 sp)
  • Bag with gold nuggets (worth 1d10 x 10 sp)
  • Small gold idol (worth 1d10 x 10 sp)
  • Small carved ivory idol
  • Small carved wooden idol
  • Small clay idol
  • Iron dagger (deals full damage to spirits)
  • Obsidian knife (deals full damage to spirits, breaks when rolling a 1 against an armored foe)
  • Iron tipped arrows (1d10)
  • Obsidian tipped arrows (1d10)
  • A map showing the location of a site in the wilderness (random monster lair or a prepared full size dungeon)
  • Glas jar with glowing slugs (light as a candle, slugs live for 10 days if fed leaves)
  • Crystal that glows like a candle for three hours after lying in a campfire for one hour
  • Pouch with iron nails (1d10)
  • Pouch with opium
  • Pouch with salt
  • Herbal potion (heals 1d4 points of damage)
  • Herbal potion (+2 to all saving throws and Constitution checks against exhaustion)
  • Herbal potion (+1 to attack and damage, -2 penalty to AC)
  • Vial with water from a healing spring (heals 1d6+1 points of damage when drunk or negates 1 level lost from energy drain when worn as an amulet and then rendered inert)

Three Degrees of Civilization

Over the last couple of months I have been steering the design of the  Ancient Lands away from true sandbox environments towards something more of an expedition focused nature. Adventures more in the style of David Cook’s The Isle of Dread and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Civilization and culture is increasingly moving into the background in favor of greater attention to environments in which actual adventures are playing out. But the setting is not just aimed at being a stage for dungeon crawls, but for entire expeditions from the planning to the eventual triumphant return laden with gold. This makes the settlements through which the party passes along the way an important and integral element of both the adventures and the setting.

During a discussion about the development of the setting I mentioned that all proper civilization is located along the rivers and coast, which led to the natural question what the deal is with all the communities not located directly on this primary trade network of waterways. While trying to express how I was imagining minor settlements, this idea of Three Degrees of Civilization evolved naturally while I was typing a response. (Which is why I always love writing about my design process. A lot of great ideas arise from that.) It all goes back to the Hill Cantons idea of Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird, with which it overlaps, but is not identical. In the Ancient Lands, the starting towns would be corelands where everything is ordinary; the wilderness is the borderlands, where things are getting strange and threatening; and the ruins and caves of the main adventure sites would be the weird, where the Mythic Underworld is fully realized. In a slight twist, cities are not part of the corelands but of the borderlands. So many people living together in a massive construction of stone is just not natural and alien to the ordinary clanspeople from which PCs come.

But not all villages are equal. While the towns from which expeditions start are clearly part of the corelands and some of the early settlements are welcome islands of safety in the wilderness, the further away from the main waterways of civilization you get, the more foreign even the villages become. As the title indicates, I came up with three categories of settlements that are meant to make the players experience their gradual transition into the weird.

First Degree Communities

Settlements of the first degree are all places that are regularly visited by travelling merchants and who are part of the international network of trade. They import goods from foreign places and in turn export local products to pay for them. Almost all first degree settlements have some kind of port or pier where merchant ships traveling on the major rivers and along the coasts can trade their goods. Even though cities are strange places, they are also communities of the first degree.

The first thing that is of importance to player characters in these settlements is that business is done with coins. These settlements have stores, taverns, and sometimes inns near the port where they can get any supplies and services they need by simply paying for them with money. If they require mounts and pack animals, there are traders who sell them.

The other main feature of these communities is that visitors are common and that most of the locals enjoy some social mobility. This makes them the best places to easily recruit hirelings, guards, and other specialists. The idea of paid labor and going on long journeys is not foreign to these people, even if the majority of them has never traveled furthern than one or two settlements away from their home.

Bronze is a common material in these communities and soldiers are regularly equipped with lamellar cuirases and bronze spears, axes, and swords.

Second Degree Communities

Communities of the second degree are not directly on the trade network that transports goods across the world but they have regular contact with settlements that are. These are almost universally fully argarian communities that are mostly self-sufficient but have some frequency of bartering surplus food and animal skins for manufactured goods with their neighbors.

Second degree communities don’t normally use money for everyday transactions but as they have regular contatact with places that do it has still value for them. While there are no stores to buy supplies, parties can stock up on food and other basic necessities by offering coins to locals that can spare some. Getting new equipment in these places can be quite difficult as there simply aren’t many tools or weapons with which the locals would part.

Ocassionally traders from neighboring settlements might arrive with a few ogets carrying some goods for barter, these communities don’t see any regular visitors and as such there are no inns and taverns. The center of the community is usually the hall of the chief and the only accomodations are those offered by local families who invite the PCs as guests. If they are travelling with a considerable party of hirelings and guards, this hospitality probably won’t extend to them. Usually getting such an invitation is not difficult, as hosting travellers is widely considered a previlege among wealthy families who are proud to have such honored guests.

Since labor is limited and everybody needed, recruiting new hirelings in these communties is difficult. Player’s might be able to find one or two people eager to leave before they are being cast out, but other than that a local guide to show the path to a nearby ruin is usually the most that they can get unless they have become close friends with the village leaders.

Bronze is a rare and valuable material in these communities and lamellar armor or swords are uncommon, while leather scale armor and bronze spears dominate.

Third Degree Communities

These villages are almost always very small and isolated and located far from any major trade routes. Their only contact with civilization is through neighboring comunities of the second degree and even that could be very limited.

Unsurprisingly, these settlements have no use for coins but might accept gold and silver jewelry when bartering for food. Outsiders are often invited into such villages only if the locals are desperate for help with outside threats and then it is only the chief who has the right to make such invitations.

Hirelings can not be recruited in such communities but if one of the PCs somehow ends up having a strong relationship to specific NPCs these could still join the party as henchmen.

Most such communities have very little bronze and as such large numbers of spears and arrows are using stone blades. Only high ranking warriors have bronze weapons and armor is generally limited only to shields and small numbers of bronze helmets taken as trophies.

What does an Ancient Lands adventure look like?

In the end, a campaign setting really is just a stage for adventures. And adventures are generally the only way through which players are interacting with it. This really deserves an article of its own, but when it comes to designing a campaign setting you really need to start with chosing the kinds of adventures that will be set in it. I believe the fact that I am only explicitly making such a list now has a lot to do with all my worldbuilding work only really taking shape in the last half year or so.

So here you go. When I think of the Ancient Lands as a stage for adventures, these are what I have in mind:

  • The Lost City
  • The Isle of Dread
  • Quagmire!
  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God
  • Dwellers of the Forbidden City
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Deep Carbon Observatory
  • Slumbering Ursine Dunes
  • Aliens
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Dark Souls
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Red Nails
  • Stalker
  • Super Metroid

You could say a microsandbox. Or a mesodungeon.

Domains and Endgame in the Ancient Lands

These last couple of days I’ve been thinking about and rereading the rules for high level characters and ruling over domains in the Expert and Companion rules. Domain play has always been something of an elusive beast that few people seem to have any real experience with. Got there once but didn’t stay with it long seems to be the most common statement.

When you look at the Cook Expert rules (1981), domain play is almost completely absent. It tells you that characters at 9th level can become rulers of a domain, tells the GM to handwave a monthly tax income, and has a half page of price lists for constructing a castle. But it doesn’t really go into what play as a ruler would be like.

In the Companion set, a lot more ink has been spilled about it. There’s lots and lots of rules for management and accounting. But as far as I am able to tell, there still is no real guidance of any kind what players would actually be doing in play. Doing the accounting for a domain and occasionally fixing the mess caused by raiders or disasters? How would this be appealing to players who so far have been exploring exotic places, navigated deadly dungeons, and had dealing with monsters and evil sorcerers?

It could be a fun game to some people, but doesn’t seem to mesh at all with what D&D has been up to that point. And much more importantly, it’s not a group activity. One player rules a domain and makes all the descisions for it. If all the players have their own separate domains, how would they be playing together? You can of course play a game of warlords, but that would be a competitive game, not a cooperative one. And a group of characters who have been working together for years wouldn’t suddenly become rivals and send their armies against each other. The only practical way I can see for having PCs become rulers over domains would be to have them retired from play and have them occasionally appear as quest giver NPCs played by their old player. Who would then be playing a new adventuring character to actually go on that adventure. If you have a large scale campaign with dozens of players and multiple GMs I could see that working for a handful of high level characters. But this simply isn’t the reality of how D&D is played. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of such groups that still exists today could be counted on the fingers of one hand. If there even are any.

One argument for domain play in a campaign with more Sword & Sorcery leaning that occasionally comes up is that Conan was a king. Kane was a sorcerer-warlord and Elric was an emperor. But the important part is that their stories are never about ruling and managing their domains. Sword & Sorcery tales about rulers are always about leaving the court with a sword in hand and fighting monsters. If you want to emulate the high level adventures of popular Sword & Sorcery heroes then domain management rules are completely irrelevant and out of place.

Occasionally there are big battles between armies, but even then those stories are not about being a field commander. It’s always about personally going after the enemy commander or pulling awesome stunts to destroy the enemy forces without having your own troops stab them dead one by one. Mass combat isn’t something that happens in Sword & Sorcery either. What you get is raids with a group of maybe up to a dozen people. Which would be a group of PCs and their henchmen.

So I’ve come to the descision that the high level elements of the Ancient Lands setting will simply assume that there is no such thing as domain play. Taking control of a stronghold and gathering followers will simply be down to players actually fortifying a place and talking to people. It may be done at any level and take whatever scale seems appropriate for a given situation. But for all intents and purposes characters will pretty much stop to advance after 9th level and only gain small increases in hit points at a very slow pace from their continued adventures, plus skill points for specialists and spell points for witches. (In my War Cry of the Flame Princess rules fighters reach maximum attack bonus and witches maximum spell level at 9th level, and scouts maximum Bushcraft and Stealth skills at 10th level.) I only ever had two campaigns reach 11th level and that was both in 3rd edition which has pretty fast level progression. So chances are pretty high I won’t ever see a 10th level character in the Ancient Lands anyway.

Eldritch Lore: Undead

This is hopefully going to be the first enty in a new series of post. I’ve often been talking about having a pretty much complete monster book for the Ancient Lands lying around that only needs the various monster descriptions typed down but so far I’ve never got around to actually do it. This hopefully is going to change now. There are close to a hundred monsters I’ve created for the Ancient Lands (and probably that many again that ended up cut) and they more or less fall into two basic categories. Supernatural monsters and fictional animals. While I really love my weird animals, there’s not really much interesting to say about them. A hippo with horns is stills just a hippo and a big hadrosaurus that has the stats and behavior of a camel is still just a camel. Not terribly exciting to read, nor to write. For the final document I am probably going to cover them with just two or three sentences each.

That still leaves the spirits, demons, undead, and other magical critters, and those are where all of the real meat is. I am kind of starting this at the very end with the undead, who don’t actually play much of a significant role in the greater design of the setting and which are by far the fewest in number. Though this is what is actually making them the easiest to cover, and I’m always the first to admit that I am really lazy, so here you have them. I admit that there is nothing drastically new or original about them and they are in fact the most mainstream depictions of undead you can get. But I think most undead in fantasy are really just slight modifications of these and since undead are not going to be a real focus of the setting they should be sufficient. Also, given the way that undeath works in the Ancient Lands, having numerous highly specialized forms of undead wouldn’t feel really appropriate.

General Undead Information

Undead are rare and terrifying monsters in the Ancient Lands and only come into being through the effects of sorcery and demonic corruption. There is no single definition of undeath, but all these creatures share in common that they originally used to be living people (or animals) but have been transformed into something neither fully living nor dead. Animated corpses, wights, shades, and wraiths are the remains of people who have unquestionably died and whose spirits are forever gone. With ghouls and darklings things are much less clear as they have never truly died but share many of the other traits common to undead creatures. They might more accurately be described as corrupted rather than undead but this is a distinction that only matters to sages who have never actually encountered them in person.

While ghouls and darklings are still consisting of a unified body and spirit and sustain themselves through consuming the flesh of the living, the other types of undead are fully magical beings that can not exist independently of the source of sorcerous power that created them. Walking corpses are usually close to the sorcerer or demon that created them while wights, shades, and wraiths are eternally linked to the corrupted energies of the place that spawned them. In fact they are more part of the place than separate beings and as such it is impossible to exist beyond its borders. This is widely seen as a blessing as these undead horrors have the ability to turn the slain into more of their own.

Animated Corpse

XP: 20
No. Appearing: 2d4 (4d6)
Armor: 12
Move: 90′
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attack: Claw +2 (1d6) or weapon +2 (1d6)
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 14
Poison: 12
Breath: 15
Device: 13
Magic: 16
Morale: 12
Special: Immune to disease, poison, charm, paralysis, and sleep.

Animated corpses are known under many names but in the end they are effectively just that. The remains of living people and beasts that have magically been giving a semblance of life by the magic of a sorcerer or demon. They have no spirit of their own and are nothing more than empty shells made to rise and move pulled by magic strings. While terrifying to look at, animated corpses pose no greater threat than living beasts and can simply be cut down by any blade, but as there is no blood running in their veins they tend to continue fighting until they are hacked to pieces.

Ghouls

XP: 25
No. Appearing: 1d8 (3d6)
Armor: 14
Move: 120′
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attack: Claw +2 (1d4 + paralysis) or weapon +2 (1d6)
Saving Throws:
Paralysis: 14
Poison: 12
Breath: 15
Device: 13
Magic: 16
Morale: 8
Special: Immune to disease, poison, charm, paralysis, and sleep.

Ghouls are elves, yao, or other humanoids who have been corrupted by the dark magic of sorcery or demons. Though they have never truly died, they resemble the undead, existing in a state between life and death. They grow gaunt with pale skin and dark sunken eyes and are suffering from madness, but are also filled with unnatural vigor and are much more cunning than any beast. Their clawed fingers can crush a mans throat and leave deep rends in the flesh of their victims, and their teeth have the strength to bite through bones, as they regain their strength by feeding on the flesh of humans and beasts.

Many ghouls once were adventurers and treasure hunters who delved too deep into ancient places where the living are not meant to tread, or what remains of those who become slaves of dark sorcerers or demons. The corruption that warped their bodies also affects their minds and all of them are clearly unhinged, but most of them seem to retain the memories of their former lives and traces of their past selves.

A living creature hit by a ghoul’s claws must make a saving throw against paralysis or collapse to the ground unable to move for 2d4x10 minutes.

Darklings

XP: 35
No. Appearing: 1d8 (2d8)
Armor: 14
Move: 120′
Climb: 90′
Hit Dice: 3 (13 hp)
Attack: Claw +3 (1d6 + paralysis)
Saving Throws:
Paralysis: 14
Poison: 12
Breath: 15
Device: 13
Magic: 16
Morale: 10
Special: Immune to disease, poison, charm, paralysis, and sleep.

Darklings are ghouls that not only have survived in their undead state for decades but actually managed to gain additional strength from it, losing their last traces of humanity in the process. While still roughly the size of a person, darklings are are powerfully build beasts with pale gray hide that run on all fours and have become truly feral in their madness. Darklings are almost always found underground and never go outside during the day. Their small black eyes can see perfectly even without any kind of light. They have never be seen to follow commands of other creatures or communicating in an intelligible manner but have been known to be magically goaded by sorcerers to patrol the area around their lairs or attack the strongholds of their enemies in large packs. Continue reading