Category Archives: sword & sorcery

War Cry of the Flame Princess: Wilderness Travel

Wilderness travel is one of the things I always wanted to include as a major element of my campaigns but the rules as written in either B/X or LotFP require too much on the spot calculation and conversion of movement speeds in different terrains that I just can’t handle at the table with my ADD when the players are talking about what they are going to do next at the same time. Adding the attack bonus to a d20 roll and subtracting hit points I can manage, but doing divisions and fractions while paying attention to conversations just ends up with me getting brain locked. All my homebrew systems and my choice of LotFP as the system I am using have been done as means to compensate for my impairment in this regard. Making game mechanics more accessible for people with neural impairments is something I’ve never seen anything written about and might be worth dedicating a post or two to in the future.

Last year I already tried my hand at coming up with a simpler and faster solution, but it’s still based on the underlying assumptions of a hexcrawl with way more precision and granularity than I need for Sword & Sorcery adventures. But a great idea for something much better comes once again from Angry-sensei, who just has some kind of gift for making methods that are practical to use instead of being best suited to programm a computer with. There are two big things of beauty in his proposal. The first one is that it doesn’t require a map with precise measurements or any degree of accuracy. In addition to being quite a lot of work for GMs, the current design standard for maps is basically satelite photography which is something that wouldn’t be available to people within most fantasy world but in my own experience also create a sense of the world being fully explored and tamed. Which is the complete opposite you’d want in a mythic bronze age Sword & Sorcery world. Tolkien’s hand drawn map for The Lord of the Rings is what I consider the ideal form of fantasy map. It’s a tool for navigation that provides an idea of the general layout of the lands but also has a level of abstraction that inspires the viewer to wonder what marvelous places might be hidden in all those blank spots that noboy alive has ever set foot in. The second great thing about it is that it works without any calculations and requires only looking up a single number in a simple table. This post is an adaptation of this concept to the rules of LotFP with some tables for actual use in play.

Travel Times and Distances

When a party makes an overland journey, the first step is deciding on the path they want to foollow from their starting point to their destination. The GM then makes a quick rough measurement on the map (which can be as sketchy as you want) or makes a judgement call how long this path is in miles. At the start of each day, the GM decides which type of terrain the party will mostly be travelling through on that day. Knowing the encumbrance rating of the slowest character or pack animal in the party, the GM simply looks up on the following table how many miles the party covers on that day.

Terrain Unencumbered Lightly Encumbered Heavily Encumbered
Road 24 miles 18 miles 12 miles
Heath/Moor/Plains 16 miles 12 miles 8 miles
Desert/Forest/Hills 12 miles 9 miles 6 miles
Jungle/Mountains/Swamp 8 miles 6 miles 4 miles

Soldiers throughout history have been marching at about 3 miles per hour on good roads, so with 8 hours of marching you get 24 miles per day. While those soldiers would have been encumbered by gear, they also wouldn’t be travelling through untamed wilderness, so I think this table makes a decent enough approximation of plausible travel speeds.

Mounts

Contrary to movies and books, horses do not cover greater distances in a day than a human can. While they can run much faster at short distances, humans (and dogs) are the world’s best endurance runners and can keep on walking with much less need for rest than other animals. The distances covered by humans and horses are about the same. The big important difference is that horses can carry a lot more weight than humans and are much less slowed down by the same loads. Riding and pack animals should have the same movement rates as humanoids but with double or tripple the carrying capacity of an average person for calculating encumbrance,

Water Travel

17 different types of ship with different sailing and rowing speeds, 5 classes of quality, and 9 degrees of weather conditions is a bit more than needed when dealing with travel at this level of abstraction. I reduced it all down to this simple table.

Type Favorable Conditions Average Conditions Unfavorable Conditions
Canoe 24 miles 18 miles 12 miles
River Boat 80 miles 60 miles 40 miles
Sailing Ship, Slow 120 miles 90 miles 60 miles
Sailing Ship, Fast 160 miles 120 miles 80 miles

I’ve done some researching of my own about the speeds of (admitedly modern) sailing ships and the numbers in the Expert rules and LotFP seem to be way off. These numbers for distance travelled in a day are much closer to what you could actually expect from real ships. For canoes the distance is given fr 8 hours, as for marching, but for the others the distance is for a span of 24 hours since they are powered by wind and people can take turns with steering while the others rest. For canoes and river boats favorable and unfavorable conditions means going downstream or upstream. Average conditions would be on lakes. For sailing ships these apply to the weather and the wind in particular. Whether they are favorable or unfavorable can be determined with a simple roll of a d6, with a roll of a 1 or a 6 indicating that less or more distance has been covered that day. On the seas travel distances can vary greatly, but this is a good enough approximation for a game.

Wilderness Encounters

Another suggestion by Angry that I also take pretty much as is is rolling for wilderness encounters by rolling a number of d6 bases on how how much monster traffic is present in an area the party is travelling through on a given day. For every die that rolls a 1 there will be an encounter sometime during the day. At what time during the day and in what terrains these encounters will take place is up to the GM to decide. I got curious and calculated the odds for wilderness encounters with this method:

#d6 Threat Level No Encounters 1 Encounter 2 Encounters 3 Encounters
1 Settled or desolate 83% 17%
2 Wilderness 69% 28% 3%
3 Hostile Wilderness 58% 35% 7% 1%
4 Hostile Patrols 48% 39% 12% 2%

They are not actually as high as I expected. Not having any encounters at all still remains the most likely outcome by a good margin and even at higher threat levels the chance to have multiple encountes in a single day is very low. As Angry explains it in a much more elaborate way, this is actually a pretty nice addition to the regular wilderness encounter rules. It raises the number of factors players have to consider when picking a route to three: “How long would we be at risk at encuntering monsters in that area?”, “How dangerous are the monsters we might encounter in that area?”, and now also “How many monsters are in that area?” Go through the swamp that is choking with giant spiders or risk the shortcut over the mountains where almost all creatures have been killed by a dragon?

I  very much encourage using the rules for foraging and starvation. Carrying a large amount of rations means the party wil be slowed down but make consistent progress each day. Not packing enough rations for the whole journey (to make room for treasure for example) means that the party is travelling lighter and at a faster speed. While finding enough food in the wilderness is relatively easy with a trained specialist or a scout, the time it takes is highly unpredictable and can cause the party to actually make even less progress in a day. It’s a nice layer of added uncertainty that the players can consider in their planning for wilderness journeys.

Since more than a single encounter per day is very unlikely even in the more crowded regions, the encounter tables should be stocked in a way that there is real danger for the party. If the players have no reason to expect the possibility of a character dying or the party getting captured then they also have no incentive to hurry up, making the whole exercise of wilderness encounters moot.

Encounter Distances

If an encounter happens, use this table to determine the distance as which surprise rolls are being made by both sides.

Terrain Distance
Forest/Jungle 2d6 x 10 yards
Desert/Hills/Swamp 3d6 x 10 yards
Heath/Moor/Mountains/Plains 4d6 x 10 yards
Lake/Sea 4d6 x 10 yards

When travelling on rivers, use the row for the surrounding terrain. The distance for encounters on sea or lakes are for encounters with monsters. Ships can be seen from much larger distances.

Am I done?

Certainly feels like I am done. Despite saying just a few weeks ago that I felt I barely had made any real progress over the last six years of working on the Ancient Lands, I think that I now have all the pieces togther. Not ready for a publication by any stretch, but you could say the setting has reached the beta stage, where it’s completely playable.

Some monsters still need proper names and a handful still needs their stats written down, but I got a 100 entries bestiary. The gods still need naming, but I have them all together and religion properly worked out. The four character classes are all ready to play and the magic system is complete. I got all the races and an outline for the culture, and good sounding names for almost all of them. The map is an ungly sketch but it has all the countries that I want to include.

 

This thing can be played.

This week I was reading through the older posts I’ve written here about the Ancient Lands in more detail, and while it is true that almost all major elements of the setting where already in place in early 2011, the vast majority of them had a sometimes quite significantly different shape and appearance back then. Based on what I’ve been writing about the process, the setting really grew into the world I want it to be in the last 8 months. Many things I now consider crucial to the theme and style of the setting I wrote about only last summer. Looking back a full year before now, there’s still a lot of stuff that now seems completely out of place to me. Deserts, empires, trade networks, criminal organizations, humans! What was I thinking?!

I think a big tipping point was writing the Project Forest Moon post. This was when all the ideas and things I liked really became one coherent concept. That’s when it clicked and I realized which of my many inpirations I really want to set the overall tone for the world. Endor, Morrowind, Kalimdor, and Planescape (Beastlands and Pandemonium). I want the Ancient Lands to feel like those, and everything that doesn’t have anything to do with bringing that style to life can go. No empire, even when it’s lizardmen. No deserts, no steppes, no tundra. Certainly no criminal organizations, multinational mining consortiums, or national borders. But as I now recently realized, also no stone age hunters. In my quest for making a more solid tribal society and animisitc religions in a largely unsettled world I regularly kept forgetting that it’s still supposed to be a Bronze Age level setting. But now it finally all looks right.

There’s still a good amount of things to be done. The first priority being the creation of a sandbox for my next campaign that I’ll hopefully be starting before the summer. The setting I have created now is a set of rules, monsters, cultures, and general geographic overview. Creating adventures for it is another step entirely. The other thing I want to do is to actually get all the ideas that mostly exist in my head and on some indecipherable notes into a coherent text that can be shared and used by others. I am still not putting any hope in any kind of commercial success with this setting, but I definitely want to release it to the public. Over the many years of working on the Ancient Lands I’ve been getting a considerable number of comments and also messages from people simply wanting to tell me that they really like my ideas and would love to play in such a campaign. And that’s really all the confirmation I need that this isn’t a completely pointless undertaking. Even if nobody else ever runs an Ancient Lands campaign, it can still be a useful sourcebook for material or at the very least a source of inspiration for GMs wanting to start making their own settings.

And that’s what it’s all about

This last week I have been doing a lot of thinking about my work on the Ancient Lands setting so far. Going by my oldest notes that I could find, the whole idea started pretty much exactly six years ago, give or take a week or two. And after all this time of expanding, revising, and discarding and two short campaigns I find myself with almost nothing concrete to show for. Almost all the major elements like races, classes, technology level, magic, and religion have been there from the very start and I don’t really have much more written down than I had back then. As of now there are no maps, no settlements, no dungeons, abd no NPCs. They all ended up discarded because they just didn’t work for what I really wanted to make.

But it’s not like the years had been wasted and all the work been futile. Rather the opposite. I’ve learned so much about running games and building settings that I had no idea of back then and that helps me know to understand what it really is that I want and what I have to do to get there. And this process has given me more insights and made me more capable at realizing my vision up to right now. Or three days ago, to be more precise.

Last month I’ve been working on my Forest of High Adventure sandbox and despite having a really good feeling about it I ended up once more realizing that I had made somethin that really isn’t at all what I wanted. Instead of going straight back to the drawing board, I’ve spend much of the past days thinking about what went wrong and hunting down what other people have written about the process of creating wilderness sandbox campaigns. A mind with ADD tends to wander all over the place and into multiple directions at once, but when it comes to exploration and creativity that’s not actually a drawback. I really don’t remember how I got there, but the first conclusion I came to was that I had once more lost sight of my goal. The Forest of High Adventure was an attempt to make a wilderness sandbox out of the material from The Savage Frontier, which I consider to be the best setting sourcebook I’ve ever come across. But really, the original spark that got me into worldbuilding was not the thought that the High Forest is a great place to set a campaign in. It was the idea that the ancient past of the High Forest always sounded like a much more interesting setting to play in than the actual material that is described in the books. Including The Savage Frontier. So what have I been doing preparing an Ancient Lands campaign by reconfiguring the building blocks of The Savage Frontier?

The second thing I realized is that I really have to nail down what the core elements and assumptions are that are defining the setting and give it its unique character that distinguishes it from other worlds. I’ve spend a lot of work on figuring out such things as the tradenetworks of key resources, the main political powers of the region, the histories that led to the major conflicts, and things like that, but these all reall have nothing to do with exploring ancient ruins in the widerness and encountering the strange spirits that reside there. Even though its meant to be the central theme of the setting, I did almost nothing with spirits. So I scrapped all that for now and instead begin the creatio of new content with defining the relationship between people, the environment, and spirits.

I’ve been asking people what it means for a setting to have depth. And the best reply, that really nailed it for me and many others, was that the difference between a deep and a shallow setting is that in a deep setting the world itself provides the reasons why things are as they are and people do what they do. In a setting with depth the stories and the characters are specific to that setting and really only work within that setting. They can not be simply ported over to another setting. My favorite examples of these are always BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age settings, but the Metal Gear Solid series also has strong elements of that. They all have a very strong and distinctive identity and they do that almost without any need for history, maps, and political and economic organization.

How do I do that for the Ancient Lands? As I said, the starting point for all of this was that I regularly found the lost realms of the distant past in many fantasy settings much more interesting than the present that is shown. The Lord o the Rings is a story about magic fading from the world and the end of the age of myth, to be replaced by our own world of rational progress. Which is a good story, but I would really love to also see a world in which elves and dwarves are not fading peoples and humans dominant, and in which dragons and giants still dominate. This idea evolved a bit further into a world that is animistic in nature and ruled by spirits, and I also like the atmosphere and aesthetics of exploring an almost uninhabited wilderness as in the D&D module The Isle of Dread, the continent Xen’drik in Eberron, and Kalimdor in Warcraft III. And yes, my favorite forest moon Endor also rears it’s green head again here. So I’ve been writing down notes for things that I thought are central to this vision and should be center stage in every adventure set in the Ancient Lands. And over the days they added up to a pretty decent list.

  • Civilization exists only because spirits protect it from the threats of nature.
  • Civilization ist precarious because spirits are alien.
  • The Wilderness is threatening because people are small.
  • The Spiritworld is not meant for mortal creatures.
  • All mortal endeavors are fleeting and nature will swallow up everything eventually.
  • Cities are unnatural. They are very unlike the way almost all people live and require the support of extraordinary powers.
  • Spirits do not prey on people but generally are not concerned about their wellbeing or that of animals or plants either. Usually it’s safest to not draw their attention at all.
  • Spirits have great control over their domains but can not act against their nature.
  • Sorcery can do things that spirits can not, but it poisons the land and the creatures on it.

The idea that civilization can never grow big or last for a long time came as a solution to having a wild world full of ruins while having the stubborn conviction to not make it another post-apocalyptical setting. There was no real practical reason for that other than wanting to be different. But I think this idea of perpetual collapse and the resulting certainty that the future won’t be different results in a very interesting mood for the setting. It also meshes well with the fact that for the vast majority of human history people couldn’t see any progress happening to their societies. People often complain about medieval stasis in fantasy settings, but for thousands of years that was how things felt for almost all people.

The idea to make cities alien places came to me just yesterday. I always knew I wanted to have a handful of cities but often thought about perhaps not describing them or having them appear in campaigns at all. But I was looking again at Chris Kutalik’s idea for Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird in his Hill Cantons campaign and it seems like a very good approach to me. For the Ancient Lands, villages and towns and the small surrounding farmlands would be Corelands where everything is normal and adventures don’t usually happen.* The wilderness beyond the fields and pastures is the Borderlands, which are full of terrifying beasts and the challenge is to survive the treacherous journey to the dungeons. The Spiritworld and most dungeons are the Weird, where magical creatures can be found and the normal rules no longer apply. (*Adventures in the Corelands would mostly revolve around witches and cults, whose lairs are also Weird.) And cities in the Ancient Lands are clearly not places where you can rest in peace and safety and no real adventures happen,which disqualifies them for being Corelands. So instead of having the PCs be county bumpkins in the big city, why not make the cities outright strange and alien places? After all, they are kind of a violation of the natural relationship between people and the wilderness and it’s already established that sorcery is able to overcome the natural rules of the world. Making people believe that all cities are sorcerous places (and in many cases that’s actually the case) seems like a great way to make them fun in a wilderness campaign and it’s another thing to make the setting distinctive. I think I have to read Vornheim again. (And look what someone just did!)

So yeah, I am feeling really good about this whole worldbuilding thing. I have no gameable material right now (except for a 100 entry bestiary without pictures or typed out descriptions), but I feel like I have another major milestone reached. And perhaps now I’ll get a working sandbox put together.

I think some people would call coming across this image while writing this post syncronicity. I call it coincidence.

XP for magic items?

While I am usually rather against mechanics that are obviously made for gameplay reasons and not for getting reasonably realistic results, encumbrance is one element where I make a big exception. I am a huge fan of inventory slots in pen and paper games. Not because they are in any way realistic but simply because any attempts to measure items by weight or volume end up as such bothersome bookkeeping that people usually end up ignoring encumbrance entirely.

Which in a game of exploration expeditions and treasure hunting is a real shame. You lose so much of the experience of dungeon crawling and wilderness travel when you don’t have to worry about being slowed down by carrying too many supplies. And even worse, when the PCs can carry as much supplies (which are dirt cheap) as they want, then it also becomes redundant to track how many more torches and rations they currently have with them. And really: What’s left then? A Pathfinder adventure! I mean combat! Bookkeeping is not fun, but having to worry about running out of light or throwing away all your food to be able to outrun a monster while still hanging on to all your gold is something I never would want to miss again. And in AD&D 1st Edition and the Basic/Expert gold is not primarily money. Most importantly gold is experience. Your XP take up inventory space and can slow you down on your way to safety.

It always amazes me how deeply interconnected the various elements. Encumbrance, XP for treasure, and random encounters only look like completely different things but they are all a single unit of resource management that really is at the heart of the oldschool experience. If you drop one, the other two no longer work either and there’s nothing to keep the party from having 15 minutes adventuring days and rest after every fight, which is the huge glaring flaw of 3rd Edition and Pathfinder.

As such,I am really a big fan of the Encumbrance system in Lamentations of the Flame Princess which gives each character a number of inventory slots and every item takes up one slot. It doesn’t adjust the item limits based on character Strength but otherwise it’s clearly the right approach. The typical character sheet has a section for items with one line available for each item. Just mark after how many lines the encumbrance limits are reached and you never need to even count how many items your character carries. As long as you leave no lines empty you just have to check whether your item list passes the marked lines. That’s an encumbrance system you can actually use at the table without annoyance.

But now finally to XP: In my Ancient Lands campaigns there is very little use for money. It’s really only needed for big bribes, tributes, ransoms, or for buying really big things. And most people rarely use coins in daily life. So I don’t even bother with individual coins anymore. Instead I simply go with treasure items. In LotFP,a bag with 100 coins takes up one inventory slot. Like LotFP, I think silver is a much more sensible standard coin for normal business and it makes finding gold much more exciting when it’s not something people see every day. So the standard treasure item is worth 100 XP, with a bag of silver coins being the benchmark for how valuable such items commonly are on average. In addition to that I am also using great treasure items that are worth 1000 XP, or as much as a bag of gold coins. This reduces bookkeeping again by a lot. (I really hate bookkeeping.)

XP for treasure is a great system because it rewards players for behavior that you want to see as the GM. It rewards them not for slaying a monster but for getting the treasure guarded by the monster. It seems a bit silly that characters would get better at fighting by collecting coins, but then it’s no more realistic to learn more spells by shoting people with a crossbow. XP for gold encourages players to explore and sneak. XP for combat encourages combat. It actually discourages sneaking and negotiating except as means to get an advantage for a coming fight. I like XP for treasure much better, but the concept behind the Ancient Lands is not just one of treasure hunters but a game of knowledge seekers. Gold and jewels are not meant to be actually that thrilling for the PCs who are striving for a higher goal. Something else is needed to which the players are encouraged by the lure of XP.

By default characters get no XP for magic items. Magic items are useful to the party and give them advantages while in an oldschool game money usually doesn’t. Unless you eventually get into building castles,there’s not really much to do with all the massive piles of gold characters gain on their progression to higher levels. But in my campaigns the search for and fighting over rare magic items takes center stage and so I want to reward it with XP as well. Since magic items are meant to be rare, the players won’t getting their hands on a lot of them. At the same time gold and silver are meant to be less lustrous so I can simply hand out less of mundane treasure to even out the total gain of XP. The main difference is that magic items are worth much more XP but still take up only one inventory slot. But again,this can be countered by giving more silver treasues (100 XP) and fewer gold treasures (1000 XP).

Now assigning specific values to magic items is difficult as they don’t have a value that could be measured in coins. But in the end the XP are awarded for the challenge of getting them and so I consider it a good solution to simply set the XP for retrieving a magic item to 1000 times the dungeon level on which it was found. By which I don’t mean the actual physical story of the dungeon but the difficulty of the Wandering Monsters table that is used for the dungeon level. Often that will be just three or five times the value of a regular gold treasure,but then the players can also actually use the item’s power to their advantage, making it worth more to them than just the XP. I think it’s also a nice rule of thumb for special treasure items like huge gems.

A Snake and a Rose

Totally random thought of the day:

Could you run a D&D campaign set in fantasy wilderness inspired by the style and themes of Metal Gear Solid?

As absurd as it first seems, I think this might actually work really well. Snake is an extraordinary warrior and thief who ends up in remote desolate places where evil madmen with their quirky superhuman henchmen prepare their villain lairs for devastating attacks with mad superscience. Make the big bads sorcerers and the weird gadgets into magic artifacts and it all should work just as well in an Iron Age tech fantasy world.

I think the best thing about MGS that makes it such an amazing series are the characters, especially the villain’s henchmen.Every single one of them is completely fucked up in the head, but occasionally sympathetic and even reluctant to help the villain. I think that would make for excelent NPCs in an open ended adventure with a lot of potential for really unexpected turns. And what player wouldn’t love to deal with an antagonist like Ocelot? That’s a guy you just have to love to hate. And then there’s also the betrayal by friends who don’t want to see you harmed but have other greater loyalties. Not being able to tell friend from foe (even after they’ve shown their cards) and conflicting loyalties from NPCs who are carrying various personal burdens is just the stuff behind ideas like Against the Wicked City and Blue Rose.

Speaking of Blue Rose, the pdf of the new second edition has just been released. Didn’t get it yet but really looking forward to seeing what they did with it.

But back to Metal Gear Solid antagonists. Another great aspect of them is that every single one of them is a completely different type of opponent with unique abilities and powers. Not just unique within the respective game, but unique within the world of the series. In Dungeons & Dragons there’s always the common tendency to make opponents based on the rules for making PCs. They tend to have classes, levels, and spells that are all available to the players as well. And for a great number of NPCs that works perfectly well. But I am a fan of mythic fantasy and the otherworldly and in such a campaign there is no need to have the main NPCs be ordinary people who have trained their skills. Making a decent number of opponents completely unique entities with distinguishing powers might do a great deal to make the world seem more magical.

I just started my three weeks off from work and plan to really throw myself into working on the Forest of High Adventure sandbox. Thinking of the main dungeons as Metal Gear Solid lairs is already getting my imagination bubbling.

Forest of High Adventure sandbox campaign

The Forgotten Realms were my first campaign setting back when I first got into RPGs and while I eventually got put off by its kitchen sink approach I still have some fondness for The North. The North is maybe 5% of the area of Faerûn but can stand as a complete setting on its own. The Sword Coast has become the default region for Forgotten Realms material and I believe the de facto officially supported region in 5th Edition for good reasons. While I don’t have a strong yearning to revisit this setting, I am still very fond of the High Forest in particular. I really got into RPGs when I played on a Neverwinter Nights server set on the eastern edge of the High Forest and eventually became one of the GMs and senior level designers. And my first steps into worldbuilding began with an attempt to take the hinted at past of this region and expand it into a proper playable setting. Eventually I dropped the connection to the Forgotten Realms entirely and now over a decade later it led to the Ancient Lands in its current state. But I always was a bit disappointed that I never got to run a campaign that goes really deep inside the forest and has the players explore its ancient mysteries.

I had planned to start a new Ancient Lands campaign next winter, but by now “next winter” has become “this winter” and its going to be delayed until next spring. And with still a good amount of time ahead, I still have not entirely commited to what I am going to run. Earlier this week I read a great recent post by the Angry GM about making wilderness travel more fun. And though I had last planned to do something simple and episodic, it put the sandbox bug back into my ear. I had written about a workable travel system for pointcrawling in the wilderness a while back which is quite similar, but as usual Angry made a great improvement over it by making it work without prepared precise maps. A pointmap was to be a compromise over a hexmap, but being able to track travel times and random encounters without a highly detailed map is even better. And unlike with a pointmap it’s really easy to handle a party getting lost.

In previous attempts to make a sandbox I found it very efficient to simply grab a bunch of old modules that fit the theme and put them all together on a map. One that came to mind was Hellgate Keep, which is set on the edge of the High Forest. And that got me the idea to use the whole High Forest chapter from The Savage Frontier as the base for my sandbox. It’s the original inspiration for my Ancient Lands setting and as such pretty much everything from it fits perfectly into it. While the North in later publications is a nice place, I think the original version from The Savage Frontier is by far the coolest. It’s classic 80s Jaquays goodness that still has a nice lingering Judges Guild smell. I am not exactly sure why, but the next time the region was described all the best places where destroyed and the most interesting characters dead. And a lot of it is great sandbox material:

    • Hellgate Keep: An old elven fortress city overrun by demons and their half-demon and undead minions. It’s not just a dungeon but a city, and one way too powerful to assault head on. Not really suited for a dungeon crawl but in a sandbox it can get a lot more interesting to visit.
    • Nameless Dungeon: This ruin of an underground stronghold has been closed off and put under heavy guard by elves after adventurers found some magic weapons and armor there. Later books provided an explanation for this odd behavior by making it the long forgotten prison of elven sorcerers who had consorted with demons to usurp the throne of an ancient realm. And now they are waking up and some have already escaped into the forest. I really quite like this one.
    • Blue Bear Tribe: This barbarian tribe has fallen under the control of their evil shaman who is a disguised hag in league with the demons of Hellgate Keep. They were banished from their ancestral shrine by its spirits for their evil ways and are unable to find it again.
    • Tree Ghost Tribe and Grandfather Tree: Some of the Blue Bear tribesmen have split of from their kin and renounced their evil ways. They hope to become worthy again in the eyes of the spirits and rediscover the location of the giant magical tree that they worship.
    • Star Mounts, Endless Caverns, and Stronghold of the Nine: The Star Mounts are a mountain range of incredible hight and somewhere below them are the Endless Caverns that lead into the Underdark and hold the bones of a huge dragon whose treasures have never been found. Not far away is the Stronghold of the Nine, the base of a group of famous heroe who have been turned mad by an evil artifact they discovered and begun to turn the castle into a battlefield fighting each other.
    • Citadel of the Mist: A magic castle that is home to a powerful sorcerer who is one of the main opponents of Hellgate Keep and ally of the treants that live in the nearby forests.
    • Lost Peaks: Mountains that are said to hold the Fountains of Memory that show visions of the past.
    • Dire Woods: A strange part of the forest that is much larger on the inside than the outside and somewhere near its center lies the ancient city Karse, which holds the giant undead heart of a demigod sorcerer.
    • Ruins of Decanter: An old mine that is crawling with monsters created by sorcerers of old and left to their own devices, but recently an illithid known as the Beast Lord is bringing them under his control.

There are also some other places in the Savage Frontier that can easily be transported into the High Forest and fit very well into it.

  • Cave of the Great Worm: This huge cave is home to a tribe of barbarians who are led by an ancient benevolent giant reptile. Would fit well into the Star Mounts.
  • Gauntlgrym: An ancient dwarven city that was famous for its wealth but was lost for unknown reasons. It supposedly can be reached from the Cave of the Great Worm and would be well placed under the Star Mounts so it can be reached through the Endless Caverns as well. I say its mysterious fate is something inspired by the Dead Trenches from Dragon Age and Dead Space!
  • Lonely Tower: A tall tower with no visible doors and windows standing in a huge circular clearing in which no plants grow. It’s the home of a alchemist sorcerer from another world.

That’s a lot of great sandbox material, but to make my work easier I also want to add some classic modules that make for great additions.

  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God: I’ll make it Against the Cult of the Succubus Princess and it should provide a great introduction for the demonic forces of Hellgate Keep.
  • Hellgate Keep: This module describes the keep after its destruction but provides a lot of information on how it looked and what was going on when it was still there. It includes the half-demons Kaanyr Vhok, Aliisza, and Sarya Dlardrageth, who all could be interesting NPCs.
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun: I love this thing. I’ve wanted to run this for a long time and always felt that it would work best if the players have no idea what kind of crazy awaits them beyond the empty gate of this black ziggurat. It’s perfect as a random location that is spotted in the distance as the party is travelling through the wilderness on their way to somewhere.
  • Rahasia: This one lends itself very well to be adapted to tie in with the Nameless Dungeon. Instead of a chaotic priest randomly finding the spirits of three elven witches in a temple, it can be one escaped half-demon from the Nameless Dungeon trying to resurrect his daughters who were killed in the uprising and whose spirits he stored in the basement of his mansion before he was captured and imprisoned. Or he’s a loyal minion who is resurrecting his mistresses who had a somewhat flawed plan to avoid falling into the hands of the attacking elves.
  • Escape from Meenlock Prison: I had so much fun the first time I ran it and meenlocks make for great creepy fey monsters.
  • Sons of Gruumsh: A straightforward but interestingly build dungeon that is occupied by three warlords believed to be blessed by their god. Would make great opponents for the tanarruk of Hellgate Keep.

Additional ideas include making Gauntlgrym inhabited by derro who are descendants of the original inhabitants and making the local orc tribes enemies of Hellgate Keep who want to take revenge for their people being taken to create the demonic tanarruk. Good factions are the key to a great sandbox and there are already a good dozen of them with none of them necessarily attacking the party on sight but all of them having lots of enemies and potential allies.

So much material and I’ve not really lifted a finger yet. This is about four hours of thinking what existing material I can use to make my own sandbox. I am still going to make this an Ancient Lands campaign, but I think most changes will be primarily cosmetic. There are different gods and races aren’t exactly the same, but overall I think it will be still very recognizably the High Forest.

A hazy idea for a new OSR magic system

Work hours have been a bit chaotic this month, with frequent evening hours and weekend workdays, so I have not really spend much of the long hours of tinkering with ideas that usually lead to me writing things. But all the overtime hours will get me a lot of shorter workdays after Christmas and there’s not really much to do in a gardening store in January anyway. There’s a lot of ideas floating in my mind that I want to pursue further on lazy afternoons and loudly proclaim my conclusions.

Right now I am occupying my free periods during the day with thinking about adapting my new idea for a magic system to an OSR rules system. Which actually turned out a bit more tricky than I thought.

The main concept is that all characters have an amount of spellpower that is calculated by adding the modifier from Wisdom to the number of levels in the mage class. A 4th level mage with a Wisdom of 16 would have a spellpower of 6 (4+2). Any time a spell is cast or a ritual performed, there is a chance for a missfire based on the character’s current spellpower score. At the end of the casting the spellpower score is reduced by a certain number. Dabblers in magic have a high chance of misfires when performing rituals (which does not require any specific character class) but so do even experienced mages who have already cast several spells that day. I like the concept but don’t have any good idea for how to calculate the chance of failure and how to make a die roll to check for a missfire.

I also think about having three categories of magic. Spells, which take one round to cas; incantations, which take 1 minute to cast; and rituals, which take 1 hour to cast. Only characters of the mage class can learn spells and incantations of limited numbers, but rituals are open to anyone who gets his hands on the instructions. However, I found that I have really very few ideas for traditional spells that would fit with my image of how magic performs in action.

One interesting oddity I noticed a few days ago is that all the effects I wanted my old magic system to do no longer fit with the new system. And a good number of things I deliberately chose to exclude seem highly appropriate for the new system. (Except teleportation, which is still out.) My old approach was highly inspired by Star Wars and Avatar, which spells being extensions of the body and mind. Now I feel much stronger drawn to witchcraft and sorcery that focus on dealing with external supernatural beings. Having just read Hellboy again (a review is one of the things I want to write) probably had a huge impact on that change of mind.

A draft for a magic system for stories

After quite some time I am finding myself drawn back to writing and one thing I quickly noticed when going over my notes again was that my ideas for magic were really not that interesting. I’ve been reading Elric and Hellboy and played a lot of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and one thing I really like about all of them is how the magical elements in them are windows into a much larger reality of alien weirdness and religion. I also think that the only topics worth writing and reading about are the basic existential questions of what you want, what you should do, and who you ultimately want to be. In a world dominated by immortal spirits that inhabit and empower nature and a single force that is both the source of light and magic, these two fields lend themselves to blending seamlessly together. To decide what you want to do and to be, you need to understand how you are connected to the rest of the world around you. And there really isn’t a lot to explore with a magic system in which sorcerers replace the natural instincts of animals and tendencies of plants and the elements with their own stronger will. It’s easy, practical, and reliable and doesn’t overlap in meaningful ways with philosophy and cosmology. There is nothing mythic about it.

So I went back to the drawing board to take the ideas about what magic can do that I already had and weave them into a more metaphysical framework of spirits and reality. The end result was a magic system with no spells. Elric and Hellboy have no spells where someone waves a hand and says a magic word and a bolt of lightning shots out or someone turns into a chicken. There aren’t spells in Kane or Thief, nor in Indiana Jones, and very few in Conan. Yet they are all full of magic. Slow magic and indirect magic, that often is tied to objects or spirits and doesn’t just jump out from a sorcerer’s mind.

The basic idea for magic is that all things in the world have energy, which is the source for both life and also magic. The most simple form of magic, if it can even be called that, is Alchemy. Everyone can do it if the right ingredients are known and properly used without any special power required. Alchemy is not just the brewing of potions but also the making and wearing of amulets that ward off various spirits simply because they are made of substances that these spirits avoid. Alchemy is the secret knowledge of substances that can be used to do miraculous things. There is no real line between occult alchemy and commonly known herbalism.

Life force and magical energy is in everything and connects everything, making the whole world with all its creatures, spirits, and landscapes into one. Spirits are automatically aware of these infinite connections but people can also learn to sense their presence. Through this awareness they gain moderate abilities of telepathy and precognition and a stronger ability of persuasion and dominance over others. How strong these powers of Perception and Persuasion are depends on the Personal Power of the person. Partly it is confidence, but since all things and beings are connected through their life force “power resides where men believe it resides”. Overpowering an opponent through combat, cunning, or any other display draws some of the opponents power to the victor and he gains even more power if his accomplishments are recognized by many people. But not only people can gain power. Beasts can too, as well as objects. Relics or the weapons of great heroes become powerful themselves and add their power to whoever is wielding them. Both those who lead and those who use magic greatly seek these Items of Power.

While these things and abilities are magical, the highest form of mortal magic is Summoning. Those who practice this high art are known as witches, shamans, and sorcerers. To summon a spirit, a person has to draw its attention through the use of alchemical substances and sacrifices and mentally calling out to it. Often considerable personal power is required to make a spirit come, and even greater power to subjugate it to ones will. Anyone can perform a summoning but the risk is great for those who lack the power and knowledge of alchemy to controll them. Spirits can be made to perform services for the summoner, but they also can do much more than that.

Once summoned, a spirit can grant a summoner its powers through Possession. Anyone lacking sufficient power and experience with spirits can easily fall under the complete control of the spirits they summoned. But those who are experienced and strong enough can control the spirit inside them and use its powers for themselves. The most commonly summoned spirits for possession are minor elementals that allow a summoner to breath fire, survive at the bottom of the sea, or open the ground beneath the feet of their enemies. Experienced summoners can summon such minor elementals in a matter of seconds and then release them again, but it’s always a considerabe risk and an exhausting battle of wills. Beast spirits can be summoned to allow a summoner to change his shape into that of the beast, but this can also be used against enemies who lack sufficient power to control the spirits and become permanent thralls to them, cursed to remain beasts forever.

As magic systems go, this one is pretty fuzzy and it is so by design. Mechanics and rules are not something I am interested in and it’s also a magic that is not intended for magical battles. Witches, shamans, and sorcerers are not people who throw around spells when convenient but are defined by their occult knowledge of the supernatural realm and mostly practice their magic in consulting spirits in hidden seclusion. It’s not what you’d usually come up with for a game, but for stories I find it much more interesting.

5th Edition Sword & Sorcery

With the basic framework for my next Ancient Lands campaign in place and wanting to use the opportunity to give the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons a try, I’ve sat down to think about ways to give the sandbox a proper Sword & Sorcery feel. Here are my general ideas for running a D&D campaign to go adventuring like Conan, Elric, Jirel, and Kane:

Maximum Level

I think that the higher level spells of D&D don’t fit with Sword & Sorcery. There are two options to deal with that. Either cap all PCs and NPCs at 10th level and allow no further progress, or if you want to run a longer campaign with even more powerful PCs remove all the spells from 6th to 9th level from the spell lists. Since many spells can be used to greater effect with higher level slots, spellcasters above 10th level still increase their magic power and of course also the amount of spells per day. (You could also put the cap at 8th/4th level or 12th/6th level if you want the cutoff point higher or lower.)

Giant Animals

Even though they are not terribly common in most stories, few things scream Sword & Sorcery to me like giant reptiles and giant insects. Probably because they are mostly unheared of in other types of fantasy. Huge bears, tigers, and apes are also great and similarly rare in other fantasy. In addition to giant sized normal animals, 5th edition also has ankhegs, behirs, bullets, carrion crawlers, owlbears, remorhazes, and wyverns which are also all very nice fits.

Monstrous Humanoids

There are good number of really bestial humanoids in the monster manual like ettercaps, ghouls, gnolls, harpies, hags, minotaurs, yuan-ti, and also grimlocks. I would mostly rely on these for humanoid opponents instead of the usual goblins and orcs which are still very humanlike in both appearance and behavior.

Dens of Debauchery

I think for Sword & Sorcery the taverns need to have a strong character and be given a good amount of detail that goes beyond “table, beds, barkeeper”. Taverns are were a great amount or even majority of social interactions will take place and are the best location to show off the rowdy life of adventurers and scoundrels. Taverns or the halls of kings and warlords should be presented as loud and crowded and stuff should be happening there. NPCs spying on the party or trying to steal from them or attempt assasinations, and of course the occasional bar fight. Taverns should not feel like the game menu screen.

Carousing and Long Rests

I got this great idea from Beleriphon at the Giant in the Playground Forum: The Dungeon Master’s Guide has an optional table for carousing and waking up the next morning with possibly interesting results. In the spirit of Conan, Fafhrd, and Gray Mouser, carousing is the perfect situation for the characters to level up at the end of an adventure. They are back at their current place and are enjoying the spoils of their exploits. I would even go a step further and make it mandatory for characters to go carousing to gain the benefits of a long rest from a night of sleep. Or a late morning and noon of sleep. Even with a bad headache, the heroes are then back to their full strength.

Inspiration

Sword & Sorcery games are exactly the type of campaign for which Inspiration exists. The DMG recommends aiming at giving each character inspiration once per play session but I think that’s severely underusing it and making the whole mechanic superflous. It only grants advantage on a single roll. That’s really not much. You can give characters inspiration much more than that. And in Sword & Sorcery you should!

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When a player does something balls to the wall awesome that is daring and reckless but sounds really cool, give the character inspiration to one of the dice rolls involved in that action. Don’t be stingy. In a Sword & Sorcery campaign you want the players to try crazy cool stuff as often as possible.

Weird Dungeon Architecture

Almost all dungeons I’ve seen in fantasy RPGs feel very much like being either castles, abandoned basements, or military bases with natural cave walls. For Sword & Sorcery this is not enough. Sometimes the adventure does lead the party into a normal castle or a well maintained prison, but most of the time, dungeons in Sword & Sorcery are magical and unnatural places that have only passing resemblance to the normal world outside. Even when they are small they are Mythic Underworlds. In my own campaign, which is a very animistic world with lots of spirits, I actually make the entrances to these dungeons portals into the Spiritworld.

There’s probably a huge range of options to do that which someone could write a book about. (Note to self.)

Uncertain Outer Planes

Even though Planescape is great and could be seen as Sword & Sorcery in its own quirky way, I think the standard outer planes of D&D don’t really work with a more mainstream kind of Sword & Sorcery, particularly the good planes. Everything from Pandemonium to Gehenna could work really well, but being able to open a gate and walk among the gods and angels in Elysium and Celestia just doesn’t fit a Sword & Sorcery game.
One approach that I could see working quite well would be to have Heaven and the Hells to be very different in nature and not be analogous and matching opposites of each other. Heaven can be an unknown place unreachable by mortal magic while the hells are open to visitors and demons very willing to answer mortals and listen to their offers of bargains. Or if you want to go down that route, there could be no Heaven, only numerous Hells.
In my campaign the only two other planes are the Spiritworld (Feywild) and the Void (Astral), which can not be visited but is the home of demons.

Few Magic Items

Sword & Sorcery heroes rarely carry more than one or two magical items with them and often don’t have any enchanted weapons or armor at all. If they have something it’s usually protective items that directly counter specific abilities of magical creatures. And alchemy. Lots of alchemy. If you want to give players a good amount of magical help in a Sword & Sorcery campaign, go nuts with potions.

5th Edition Classes for an Ancient Lands Campaign

Whether the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is really suitable for a campaign in my Ancient Lands setting mostly comes down to the character classes. My approach to magic and supernatural or superhuman abilities is quite different to that of generic D&D from the recent past, but on a closer look the classes from the Player’s Handbook actually would need very little work to be perfectly suitable. By and large, simply removing some of the options was all it takes to make the classes into something that is perfectly appropriate for my setting.

These are the classes I intend to use for my new campaign next year:

Barbarian: No changes.

Druid (Shaman): Only Circle of the Land archetype. Looses Wild Shape ability, gains Bardic Inspiration, Song of Rest, and Countercharm as the Bard class.

Fighter: Only Champion and Battlemaster archetypes.

Ranger: No changes.

Rogue: Only Thief and Assassin archetypes.

Wizard (Witch): Only Divination, Enchantment, Illusion, and Transmutation archetypes. No spellbook, spells known as sorcerer.

Maximum Character Level: All PCs and NPCs can only advance to 10th level.

Multiclassing: Unrestricted.

Feats: No feats. (It’s an additional level of complexity I don’t want to bother with.)

Spellcasting: All spellcasting uses the Spell Point variant.

Spells: The spell lists for rangers, shamans, and witches will have to get some considerable changes, but that’s somehing that is going to take a bit longer and will be covered in a separate post.