Somehow I’ve never heard of this game (or its predecesor) before.
I am not expecting a new Thief with this one, but a proper stealth game with a good looking fantasy setting? I’m on board with that.
Somehow I’ve never heard of this game (or its predecesor) before.
I am not expecting a new Thief with this one, but a proper stealth game with a good looking fantasy setting? I’m on board with that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I was watching John Carter again and it really is a corny B-movie with an awful script and badly acted protagonists. But that’s the case with pretty much all fantasy movies except for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings (which often are corny blockbusters with an awful script and badly acted protagonists). And while I think that it could be argued that it’s a bad movie, it certainly is a really nice looking movie with a lot of cool ideas. Basically the ideas that are taken directly from A Princess of Mars and are not new additions for the movie. You know, the ideas that Star Wars ripped off to huge success.
And some of them I think I really want to grab myself:
White Apes kick ass! They eat puny rancors for breakfast.
That Petrified Giant Tree Thingy Shrine. The only problem I have with this design for a dungeon is that it’s not nearly big enough in the movie. It needs to be ten times bigger and then it totally has to be an adventure site for my campaign.
Helium looks awesome. It just needs a thick forest in the canyon below the cliff and can go straight into the Ancient Lands. (As a Tree Weaver castle, I would say.)
Those meddling sorcerers. Don’t really have a clue how, but I like the idea. And I really like that their powers are mostly illusions and mind control but that they absolutely suck when having to fight themselves, which makes them much more interesting as actual antagonists. big open question is what they would try to accomplish in the Ancient Lands.
And since we’re at them, the Warhoon tribe is really gnarly looking. I said I need some better ideas for the raksha. I think this could be it.
Not appearing in the movie, but I really like this design for Banths. I think this is what I’ll make my arags look like instead. (My original inspiration were varren from Mass Effect, which really look remarkably similar to this, just more fishy.)
Here I am still really conflicted. Airships are totally awesome! But I feel like they would be a huge change to the setting as a whole. The concept for the world is one of wilderness adventures in a somewhat more primitive world and having the ability to fly over the forests instead of slowly crawling through the underbrush and paddling along rivers would be a drastic departure from that.
But they are really, really cool.
And they would not actually be a radically new idea for B/X-BECMI. Elves and Halflings have been given the ability to make airships very much like these in the Companion Set way back in 1983.
And it’s really, really cool…
I guess what would be needed is to make these things incredibly rare and put some severe limitations on how far and long they can fly before requiring a stop to resupply. But I guess that’s worth a whole post in itself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.