The Realms, Spirits, and Magic

While working on barbarian wilderness settings, I’ve always been swinging back and forth between trying to create a world that is pure wilderness with civilization being something that is only heard but never seen, and city states trying to keep the encroaching Chaos of the wilderness at bay. I have a tendency to just run with whatever has caught my fancy at the moment and losing sight of the bigger picture. I feel that for the last months, I’ve been focusing far too much on the politics and hierarchies of the big cities and drifting away from an actual wilderness setting. But one aspect in particular I found to have neglected the worst is the magical and mystical element of a true primordial wilderness. To that end, I’ve picked up playing some more Dark Souls 3 again, which is just soaked into all that mythic stuff without being an Epic story of great rulers and grand battles. I’ve been inspired by that game even more so than the first back when it came out, but felt that many of my ideas would need much more transformation before they stop seeming like blatant copies of someone else’s popular work. But now I decided screw at all that! I take from Star Wars and Conan without any shame all the time, and it’s only ripping off if you imitate the form without giving it any of your own context. If anyone looks at any of this and thinks, “hey, that reminds me of Dark Souls“, I’m totally fine with it. After all, Dark Souls has Berserk plastered all over it and everyone thinks that’s awesome.

The Three Realms of Kaendor

The world of Kaendor is ancient beyond reckoning. There must have been a point were time first began, but not even the most ancient spirits remember a time before this one. As far as anyone can tell, the world has been the way it is now forever. If there ever was a time before this one, nothing remains to tell of it.

The world consists of two primary realms, which the mortals call the Wilds and the Underworld. The Wilds consist of all the forests, mountains, and islands that make up the continent of Kaendor and the unknown lands beyond. They are the world of plants and beasts, and the countless spirits and gods of the Wilds. Beneath the surface of the earth lies the Underworld, the realm of fire and demons. Both realms are primordial and eternal, controlled by supernatural forces and the inscrutable wills of spirits and demons. As the two sides of the natural world, they are neither good nor evil, but they are harsh and uncaring, no more concerned with the fates of mortals than those of beasts. And in the hierarchy of beasts and spirits in the Wilds, mortals stand far below the peak.

But at some point, or perhaps at many different points in the vastness of times, mortals discovered that the power of fire, which occasionally rises into the Wilds from the Underworld by pure chance, can be an incredible weapon and tool to deal with the many threats of the forests and the mountains. By learning to weild and control the fire, mortals gained the ability to change their environments , drive off the beasts that prey on them, and push back against the influence of the spirits that control the weather and the land. And as the power of mortals grew, the small and scattered Civilized Lands they controlled became like a third realm in their own right.

Magic and Civilization

Civilization in Kaendor is not an enduring thing. Once control of the land is gained, it must constantly be maintained to keep the Wilds at bay and keep them from reclaiming what was once theirs. Pacts and truces with the spirits of the surrounding Wilds must be honored and renewed, and the temples and priest-kings must perpetuate the rites to maintain the stability of weather and floods required to grow the food that feeds their cities. But inevitably, there are only two possible fates that await every city and civilization. Even with the powers of temples, the constant unpredictable changes of the Wilds can only be slowed but never stopped, and eventually the prosperity of even the mightiest city will start to fade. As populations decline and roads and fields are no longer maintained, the rites that ensure stability weaken in power until they fail completely. At that point, the Wilds will reclaim the land faster and faster, until their is nothing left but abandoned and overgrown stone walls, which in time will also crumble and disappear.

But all too often, people try to escape this inevitable fate, and instead of allowing their civilization to fade, they turn their gaze to the Underworld for powers much greater than simple fire. As ordinary magic draws its powers from the supernatural energies of the Wilds, Sorcery draws on the demonic powers of the Underworld. Not only can sorcery hold back the Wilds even when the power of fire and skills is failing. Sorcerers can create things undreamed of priests, sages, and craftsmen. By using the powers of the Underworld to bend the Wilds to their will, sorcerers believe that they can create civilizations much grander and more prosperous than any that came before them. But there are countless ruined cities overgrown by the forests and crumbling into the sea that stand as proof of their madness. Sorcery may prolong the inevitable end of a declining  city, but instead of quietly fading out as the Wilds return, they always end up burning out and leaving nothing but charred cinders. Fire is the main tool of mortals to assert power over the wilds, but if allowed to run free, it will simply consume everything.

The Cult of Heotis

The Fenai of the Dainiva Forest worship three primary deities. Idain, the Lady of the Woods; Livas, the Lord of the Beasts, and Heotis, the Keeper of the Fire. Idain is the goddess of the fields and Livas the god of the herds. Heotis is the goddess of the home. Her role is that of the bringer of fire used for warmth, light, cooking, and smithing, without which mortals would live no different than beasts; but she is also the one who protects the house and the family from its flames. Fire is not good or evil, but it is the demon that is invited into the home, because without it there would be no home. Fire is a blessing, but it also must be respected and feared. Because otherwise it will destroy and kill everything near it.

Wilders

Not all mortals embrace civilization, and there are probably just as many people living simple lives in the forests and mountains, away from the grain fields surrounding the city states. Civilized people call them the Wilders, and look down upon them as savages and heathens. Wilders have found their own way to coexist with the spirits of the Wilds, making pacts with the spirits of the land to live as subjects within their domain and acknowledging their rule through sacrifices. Wilder settlements are small and rely largely on hunting, herding, and foraging, growing no larger than what the domains of the spirits they worship can sustain, and remaining flexible enough to adapt to the changes in their environment.

Wilders usually use fire only as much as they need for warmth and light, and never to clear land. Though most clans are not above torching the villages of the enemies, which they regard as an additional desecration and humiliation of their foes.

Corruption and the Undead

Eventually, the flames of sorcery will consume the bodies of mortals, but long before that they char their souls. The use and regular exposure to sorcery is not kind on the spirits of mortals. At first it leads to slight madness, but over time leads to the creation of ghouls. Ghouls are still more alive than undead, but as the effects of sorcery continue to gnaw on their flesh, they develop a craving for the flesh of the living to sustain their own failing bodies. Ghouls are not only found among the minions and slaves of sorcerers, but also the desperate inhabitants of old ruins and plains of ash that have been consumed by the flames of the Underworld. Ghouls who practice sorcery eventually rely entirely on the energies of the Underworld to sustain their warped existence and turn into wights, though the same fate can also await their closest servants. If the corruption progresses past this point, eventually the dead flesh with crumble into ash, leaving behind only a spirit of demonic power in the form of a wraith.

Sometimes people are killed by the powers of sorcery very quickly, completely destroying their bodies and leaving behind only a charred remnant of their soul in the form of a shade.

Skeletons and zombies in Kaendor are always deliberately created by sorcerers or demons and usually have a charred and burned appearance as their dead bodies are animated by faint spirits of flame.

Mythic Fantasy and the Days of High Adventure

Among the many different branches of fantasy, one of the more obscure ones that is rarely seen in the wild is Mythic Fantasy. I believe it’s actually more a hypothetical idea than an actual concept anyone is working with in practice. I’ve seen it come up a few times in Fantasy-RPG books for gamemasters, as one of several suggested options for what different forms of styles a fantasy campaign could possibly take. The general idea seems to be fantasy that takes its main inspirations from Iron Age myths of the Greeks, Celts, and Germanic peoples, which tell tales of gods and superhuman heroes. And that’s usually about the full extend of detail for how this kind of fantasy would work. The only concrete suggestions I’ve seen is generally “I don’t know, I guess you use some medusas and minotaurs, or something”. But I say no, that’s not how you make a mythic fantasy campaign. That’s just reenacting Greek myths as an RPG. When we are talking about how we can give a fantasy RPGs like D&D different tones and flavors to make it more similar to other styles of fantastic stories, the goal is to put the default material into a new context. Stories of ancient myth are one thing, but I think when we use the term Mythic Fantasy, we should apply it to something else. Mythic is the adjective that describes that thing. Fantasy is the noun that is the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this these past few days, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions to how you can create original fantasy material, in a newly envisioned world, and present it in a way that evokes a similar overall feel without just directly copying existing material.

The Monster

This is a big one, and I believe, the most critical of all the points I am going to make here. Modern fantasy in general, and fantasy RPGs in particular, seem to have lost touch with The Monster and forgotten it’s central role it plays in many of the oldest tales that survive to this day. Not all stories need monsters, just as not all fantasy needs to evoke the style of ancient myths. But we just don’t see The Monster anymore. RPGs in particular are full of “monsters”, but these tend to be swarms of critters that appear as the heroes come around the corner, and after a short action scene, are immediately forgotten one’s the turn around the next. Monsters are there to be fought, because fantasy is supposed to have monsters that are fought, but they generally don’t really have any impact on the greater story.¬† The story plays out between human(oid) characters. And I believe this even mostly holds true in D&D, with its big tomes of high level monsters. Yes, you might occasionally have fought a beholder or aboleth. But how often was that creature the main villain of the adventure that the entire story revolved around? What interactions did the PCs have with that big monster before they opened a door and found themselves immediately attacked? These monsters may make big and memorable fights, but from what I’ve seen over the past decades now, they are almost always just window dressing for a story that would work just as well without any monsters in it at all.

This is very much not the case with the monsters of ancient myths. There may be both perception bias by me and survivor bias by the ravages of time, but most if not all of these tales are about one monster. Medusa, the Bull of Minos, the cyclops Polyphemus, Cerberus, Fenris, Grendel, Humbaba, Ravana. They all have a name. They all are known to the people living near them and greatly feared. They have a history. They are not just some random creatures that live by themselves deep in the wilderness, minding their own business. The heroes who fight these monsters are not simply showing of their strength and power, they are performing a great service for the community. Yet somehow, we don’t really see that in modern fantasy. I think having these unique great monsters, that are an active thread to society and that ordinary people can not deal with are a central element of what makes a story feel mythic and really need to be included when trying to make a world that feels like Mythic Fantasy.

The Courts of the High Kings

Mythic tales as a whole seem to have a much bigger focus on specifics than the general, compared to what is overwhelmingly seen in games. Take any setting book for a fantasy RPG and look at the description of cities. If there is any useful information at all, it tends to be general stuff about the overall feel and appearance of the city, for when a group of mercenary adventurers is coming through on their way to new adventures. Cities often are central to mythic stories as well, but usually they are not described at all. When mythic heroes come to a city, they really are coming to a king’s court. That’s really the only part of the city that matters. Perseus comes to Knossos, to meet with King Minos. The city of Knossos is irrelevant to the story. All that is important is the palace of king Minos. Beowulf travels to Heorot, the court of King Hrothgar. We would assume that the king’s hall is inside a small city or town, but it is of no importance of the story. The name of the king’s court is not.

As a broad generalization, mythic tales like to give specific names to all the important characters and places. Myths will often take care to mention the homes and lineages of even secondary characters. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that the original audiences of these stories would have been able to glean a great amount of context from these pieces of information. The home and lineage of different characters could inform deeper meanings in the things these characters say or the things they do, that are now lost to us. But even so, I still think that we would recognize such thing as being characteristic of ancient myths. And this is something that shouldn’t be too difficult to emulate in a game. When introducing new characters that are to some degree relevant to the story, don’t just tell the players their names and outer appearance, but also have them be introduced as “the son of X, brother to the king of Y”. It does not have to actually mean anything, but it still creates an impression that these things would be greatly meaningful to the people within the world of the story. Present NPCs as important leaders and emissaries, and have other NPCs treat them and speak of them as people who have influence and power, or at very powerful and influential friends. The world of myths is in many ways a very small one, in which everyone knows everyone and everything is connected.

The heroes should be Heroes

In common usage, the term hero is often used to simply mean protagonist. Or simply any person who did something risky out of kindness. But that’s not the original meaning of the term. A mythical hero is a person who stands above all others and exist in a different category than everyone else. And furthermore, they perform great deeds that bring a significant and permanent benefit to society as a whole. Unsurprisingly, many ancient heroes are said to be demigods who are descended from divine beings. A hero almost has to be superhuman by definition. Heroes are the people who go down in history, and they don’t even have to be good guys.

If you want to have a game that feels like stories of myth, the protagonists have to be heroes. And in any kind of roleplaying game, the players have to play the protagonists. There are many awful examples of published adventures where this is not the case and the PCs are merely spectators watching the real heroes do cool stuff and save the day, which has been emulated by countless numbers of GMs. But that’s objectively bad gamemastering and adventure design. The medium of roleplaying games demands that the players play the protagonists of the story. The game is the story of the PCs. In mythic stories the protagonists have to be heroes, and in roleplaying games the PCs have to be the protagonists. This means that in a Mythic Fantasy campaign, the PCs have to be heroes. And what makes or makes not a hero are not their deeds, but the perception of their deeds. A hero is who the people regard as a hero.

One major aspect of realizing this in a game is in the way that NPCs talk to the PCs and behave towards them. Heroic PCs should be treated as being exceptional people who stand tall above the common men of women. Heroes mingle among the highest ranking people of society, and they will gain the personal attention of kings and queens when they arrive in a new city, who will treat them with the same honor and respect as foreign dignitaries. Even when the PCs are from simple backgrounds with no titles and few possessions to their name, their deeds elevate them to being part of the elite.

To make this really work and feel believable in an actual campaign, PCs need to exceed the prowess and skills of ordinary warriors pretty early in the campaign. Having PCs start at a higher level or with larger numbers of character points is one option. But I am personally much more in favor of instead having ordinary NPCs all be of the most basic type. The default soldier and brigand are usually good enough for all common soldiers and brigands throughout the entire campaign. When the PCs reach 5th level, there is no need to have them encounter ultra-elite soldiers and brigands. If they can just steamroll over any ordinary warriors they encounter then let them. They are heroes. They are supposed to be superhuman. Equally important is that this makes it more believable that the ordinary soldiers are not capable of dealing with the monsters that threaten their cities and people. In some fantasy setting, many adventure ideas are frequently shot down with the simple reason of “why doesn’t any of the powerful NPCs or the giant armies take care of the problem?”. The answer to that is simple. There are no powerful NPCs. There are no armies that could be wasted to die at the feet of an ancient horror.

Swords of Legend

As with monsters and NPCs, another way to make a game feel more mythic is to apply the same principle of specificity to magic items. In mythic tales, there are no +1 swords or mass produced amulets that are found in some random hole in the ground. Every magic item is unique. Often they have a name, and almost always they have a history. They don’t just lie around to be found by the first person who stumbles upon them. They are either pried from the dead hands of slain main antagonists who used them for their evil purposes, or given as gifts from influential people as rewards for outstanding deeds performed by the heroes. Or alternatively, the heroes go to on a quest to retrieve the items from their ancient resting place, overcoming many hardships and foes along the way.

But even with this in mind, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have any magic items that are discovered unexpectedly in forgotten ruins. A great example of this is early on the movie Conan the Barbarian. Conan has been released from slavery by his master and is being chased by wolves, and trying to climb to safety on top of some rocks, falls into the well hidden entrance of an ancient tomb where he discovers his new sword. Since the movie has barely any dialog, neither the scene nor the sword gets any mention later in the film. But as the story have it, it was supposed to be a highly special and remarkable sword, a relic from the great and powerful realm of Atlantis that has long faded into myth. And in that scene where Conan discovers it in the tomb, this really comes across. He does not just find a sword lying around. He discovers an opulent tomb, with an ancient warrior king in his armor, sitting on a great stone throne, covered in dust and spiderwebs, the sword in his skeletal hand.

We do not know the name of the sword, or the name of the king. And we do not know any of their stories. But the way in which the sword is found makes it clear that this is not just some random sword from the shelf, that you can sell to a village blacksmith in bundles of ten. This is a unique artifact with a great history, even though the tales have been forgotten. And it still might just be a sword +1.

Illustrations by Justin Sweet, showing scenes from various Kull stories by Robert Howard.

What should Sword & Sorcery campaigns feel like?

There was a discussion on Dragonsfoot about how to bring a feeling of Sword & Sorcery to oldschool D&D. Like most of these discussion, the focus was on deciding which races and classes should be available for player characters, how to handle healing and magic items, and things like that. But I think that’s starting the whole topic at too late a point. Before you can make choices on how to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery through game rules, you first need to establish for yourself what kind of atmosphere and emotions you want to evoke in the first place.

I think at the most fundamental level, long before going into any specific elements, they key aspect that makes Sword & Sorcery a thing is that it is not a rational form of fantasy, but an emotional. The plots in Sword & Sorcery are almost always very simple and basic. I can’t really think of any story that has intricate plans, unexpected turns, and surprising reveals about hidden motives or betrayals. It’s not a genre of conspiracy plots and whodunits. Hero’s can be very clever, but their plans are remarkable in their simplicity rather than their complexity. Their strengths lie in improvisation combined with determination, and generally work only because of their outstanding martial skills. Plans help to shift the odds in their favor, but at the end it has to come down to a contest of force against force.

Sword & Sorcery can have considerable depth, but it’s not a cerebral experience. It is very much emotional. When we see philosophy make an appearance, it’s overwhelmingly existentialist. A philosophy that deals with giving meaning to a life after realizing that logic is hollow and empty and reason can not give you any joy. And that being said, Sword & Sorcery is fun! It doesn’t have to be humorous. It’s often grim and full of pain, but I think it’s almost always meant to be thrilling and exhilarating. Elric and Kane can be very brooding and morose, but that’s not why we like them. We like them because they inevitable will be overtaken by fury and then kick everyone’s ass, and it will be glorious.

But as a whole, I wouldn’t say Sword & Sorcery is dark. It’s no darker than The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s not really a distinguishing feature. People also often say that it is more grounded and down to earth, and I can’t really see where that idea is coming from? I think most important of all, Sword & Sorcery is always larger than life. It doesn’t dial up things to the maximum of what would still be sensible, but possibly always goes a little bit beyond. At least I can’t think of anything that I would unambiguously call Sword & Sorcery that is reserved and has both feet firmly on the ground. What Sword & Sorcery certainly is is somewhat grimy and gritty. It is never noble or idealistic, and goes to great lengths to be the opposite of pastoral and quaint. It can be majestic, but never pristine. There is always some degree of both savagery and decadence, and going back the point about being focused on the emotional aspects of fantasy, it is “sensual” in the wider sense of the term. It is bold and has little sense of shame. At times this can shift into sleaze, but I think even then, good Sword & Sorcery is always sincere. I can’t think of any work of Sword & Sorcery that is somewhat ironic or tongue in cheek, and doesn’t take itself serious. Sometimes it does get silly, but even at those times, you always get the impression that the creators think this is awesome and the greatest <expletive deleted> ever. In many later works, which is were you find much of the cheesier examples, there is a clear sense of self-awareness of how silly some of the elements are. But we’re supposed to lough with them, not at them. Even at its dumbest, Sword & Sorcery has no doubt that it’s still cool and awesome. Sword & Sorcery never apologizes for anything. Some of it might be silly or immature, but there is a sense of full acceptance that the creators love what they love. They don’t couch things with irony to defend and shield themselves against accusations of having bad taste.

Now what does all of this mean for GMs running a campaign?

Be bold. Make it larger than life. Don’t be afraid of cliches. Go for pathos and portray the NPCs with passion.
Challenge the players’ courage rather than their analytical skills. When in doubt, err in the players’ favor. If an idea sounds somewhat implausible but cool, be lenient with odds to succeed. Encourage the player to stumble forward and make mistakes they will have to live with, rather than shutting down their ideas and tell them to go back thinking of something else until they come up with something that satisfies you.

Going into fantastical and dangerous places is super fun. But to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery, I think dungeons should be relatively small and light on puzzles. Have fewer encounters, but make them more unique, elaborate, and filled with excitement. In the fiction, you often come across great ruined cities, but the heroes still only have two or three encounters in a small handful of distinct areas. Going slowly and meticulously through a huge area, drawing precise maps and cataloging your findings does not really evoke the emotions that are central to Sword & Sorcery. Sword & Sorcery stories tend to be short because they are incredibly dense. Lots of things are happening, and most of these things are remarkable. There is little place for the mundane and routine.

“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

– Robert Howard, Queen of the Black Coast

Planet Kaendor House Rules for Basic Fantasy

You know what the world really does not need? Another B/X retroclone. Well, I think it kid of does, but I know that nobody wants to see it. So instead, I am simply going to present my own adjustment to Basic Fantasy. BF has always ranked among my favorite retroclones of choice because it’s very close to the original B/X by Moldvay and Cook while at the same time using the sane rational system to attack rolls and armor class. I know the later is trivial to slap on any iteration of D&D, but I am petty about my hate for a resolution mechanic that is objectively bad and done wrong, so that’s counting a lot to me. BF is also very cleanly laid out and easy to read, and the whole thing is free so you can just hand out pdf copies to anyone you like.

Below is a list of all my modifications to Basic Fantasy that reflects my own impressions of actually having read Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, Moor, and Smith, rather than going by the grimdark Heavy Metal Album cover interpretation of what Sword & Sorcery is really about.

Characters
  • Roll 3d6 six times to generate six ability scores, but assign the six numbers to whichever attributes you like.
  • There are no racial modifiers and adjustments. PCs from all peoples just use the character classes as the are.
  • Characters get the maximum possible hit points at 1st level.
  • The character classes are warrior (fighter), thief, scholar (magic-user), and wilder (see below). Characters can be warrior/scholar or thief/scholar as by the Basic Fantasy rules for elves. (The XP to gain a level are the same as the XP for both classes combined, and the character gets whatever hit dice, attack bonus, and saving throws are better, as well as all spells and thief skills for the level.)
  • Maximum level for all PCs and NPCs is 10th level.
  • The thief skills all use a d20 instead of a d100 (since it’s almost always 5% steps anyway). They also start with considerably higher success chances at 1st level, but increase slower to be again identical to the odds in Basic Fantasy at 10th level.
  • The wilder class has the XP requirements and attack bonus as a warrior, d6 hit points, the thief skills move silently, climb sheer surfaces, hide in shadows, and hear noise, as well as track, and exceptionally good saving throws. (Based on the B/X halfling class.)
  • All characters can use any weapons and armor. Scholars can cast spells in light armor, thief/scholars can cast spells in medium armor, and warrior/scholars can cast spells in all armor.
  • Characters can establish a stronghold at any level. Money is the only limiting factor.
Equipment and Encumbrance
  • Encumbrance is counted in the number of items a character carries instead of pounds. If the number of items is greater than the character’s Strength score, the character is lightly loaded. If the number is greater than three times the character’s Strength, the character is heavily loaded. (Light armor counts as 2 items, medium armor as 4 items, and heavy armor as 5 items.)
  • Up to 100 coins count as one item.
  • Shields provide a +2 bonus to AC instead of +1.
  • The default metal for weapons is bronze. Special blades made from iron function as silver weapons for the purpose of harming creatures resistant or immune to normal weapons.
Experience
  • There are no adjustments to XP based on prime requisite ability scores. (Neither 5% nor 10% makes any noticeable dent in the advancement speed and are just a cause of confusion and errors.)
  • XP for defeating enemies are based on the original numbers from B/X. Characters also get one XP for every gp worth of treasure they bring back from a ruin. (One of the few thing that Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Reward money for completing tasks in ruins also counts as treasure for calculating XP. Turns out this is not a house rule but a default mechanic of the game.
  • Magic items also count as treasure for calculating XP.
Combat
  • Combat is done using the B/X initiative system for group initiative. (The other thing Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Poison attacks do not kill instantly. Instead, a poisoned character makes a saving throw against poison every round or takes the indicated amount of damage. Once one of these saving throws succeeds, no damage is taken and the poison ends.
  • Energy drain works just as it does in B/X. You get hit, you lose one level.
Magic
  • Spellcasters do not have to announce the spells they cast before initiative is rolled for the round. (A rule that only exist in Cook Expert, but not Moldvay Basic, BECMI, or the Rules Cyclopedia, and really complicates things.) Spellcasters who were hit in the first phase of the round can not cast spells in the second phase, but otherwise act normally.
  • Spellcasters have separate “preparation slots” and “casting slots” in equal numbers. Spending a casting slot to cast a spell does not remove it from the preparation slot. The same number of spells can be prepared and cast as by default, but spells are not forgotten after casting.
  • The Scholar spell list combines magic-user and cleric spells, but does not include a range of different spells, such as cure light wounds, continual flame, raise dead, magic missile, fireball, fly, ice storm, and wall of fire, to make magic a more elusive and mystical force.

The Scholar class for Planet Kaendor

As I am falling again deeply into the B/X hole, I have once again found myself having to deal with the question what I want to do about the issue of Clerics. Planet Kaendor is ultimately my own take on Sword & Sorcery, and with the passing of (many) years, I am seeing more and more the meaning and relevance of the typical conventions of this particular style of fantasy. Early on, I was all in for various (A)D&D-isms, like having elves and gnomes, goblins and gnolls, dragons, powerful elemental magic, other planes to visit, and a classical pantheon of gods. That’s all long in the past by now and I’ve fully accepted our Lord and Savior Robert Howard into my heart. And I really find myself enjoying the abstract magic of Moorcock and Smith much more than magic missiles and fireballs.

Finally getting a good picture of what I want gods and spirits to be in my setting (I never had really made a decision on this aspect in all the years), it’s really become clear that clerics don’t have a place on Planet Kaendor. Temples and priests are cool, as are barbarian shamans, but a clear separation of arcane and divine magic just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the supernatural forces that shape the setting. (Which will be the topic of a different post.) My main concern had been how the game would change if you no longer have clerics in the party who can cast healing spells and the players will only rely on healing potions. But when you look at how much healing spells they can actually provide in B/X, it’s really not that much. No spells at all at 1st level, and even well along into a campaign at 7th level, it’s still only two first level spells and one fourth level spell. And you might want to sometime cast other spells than just cure wounds as well. So I think when you’re not too stingy with healing potions as the GM, there should be no real disruption from the lack of clerics.

The most interesting alternative approach to priests that I’ve seen is from the Conan d20 game, which is build on top of a D&D framework. It only has a single full spellcaster class called the scholar. What spells they learn and how they present themselves in public is entirely up to them. Sorcerers and witches are obviously scholars, but so are priests and shamans. They don’t get their magic powers from their gods, but through the same arcane study as everyone else. Priests may claim that they get their magic powers from their gods, and might even believe it, but except for rare cases of divine intervention, it’s all their own doing. That’s an approach I feel is right for Planet Kaendor as well.

The Scholar class is really just the default magic-user with a different spell list. In any other regard, it’s really identical, including hit points, attack chances, saving throws, and number of spell slots. I’ve never been a fan of spell slots as it’s too obviously a game mechanic and not an abstraction to represent a plausible magic system in game terms. But I really don’t want to work out a completely new magic system myself. The most convenient solution for me is the one that was introduced in the 5th edition of D&D. Casters really have two separate sets of “preparation slots” and “casting slots”. You prepare spells as you would always do, but when you cast them they don’t disappear for the rest of the day. You’re still limited in the number of spells you can cast by your casting slots, but you’re not limited to cast a spell only once per day, or forced to prepare it in two slots if you want to be able to cast it more than once. It solves the weirdness of spells being forgotten without actually requiring any modifications to the classes themselves.

Since I want to cap character levels at 10th, the list only goes up to 5th level spells, but of course you could always expand it to 6th level spells as well. It’s mostly spells from Basic Fantasy, which are almost identical to B/X, but I also included a few from OSRIC as well.

1st level spells
  • Cause Fear
  • Change Self
  • Charm Person
  • Command
  • Darkness
  • Detect Magic
  • Entangle
  • Hold Portal
  • Light
  • Protection from Demons
  • Read Languages
  • Remove Fear
  • Resist Cold
  • Sleep
  • Spider Climb
  • Ventriloquism
2nd level spells
  • Blindness
  • Charm Animal
  • Detect Demons
  • Detect Invisible
  • Detect Thoughts
  • Invisibility
  • Knock
  • Locate Object
  • Mirror Image
  • Fog cloud
  • Phantasmal Force
  • Resist Fire
  • Silence
  • Sorcerer Lock
  • Speak with Animals
  • Slow Poison
  • Stinking Cloud
  • Web
3rd level spells
  • Clairvoyance
  • Darkvision
  • Dispel Magic
  • Growth of Animals
  • Haste
  • Hold Person
  • Invisibility, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Demons, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Normal Missiles
  • Slow
  • Speak with Dead
  • Striking
  • Suggestion
  • Water Breathing
4th level spells
  • Bestow Curse
  • Charm Monster
  • Confusion
  • Growth of Plants
  • Hallucinatory Terrain
  • Polymorph Other
  • Polymorph Self
  • Remove Curse
  • Shrink Plants
  • Sorcerer Eye
  • Speak with Plants
5th level spells
  • Animate Dead
  • Cloudkill
  • Conjure Elemental
  • Contact Higher Plane
  • Dispel Demons
  • Feeblemind
  • Hold Monster
  • Insect Plague
  • Slay Living
  • True Seeing

But why, tho…?

As I have whinged about here many times over the years, the biggest difficulties for me about the preparation for new campaigns has always been finding some kind of decent motivation for why the PCs should care about the main threat or antagonist of the campaign, in a way that gets the players invested beyond the basic “Well, that’s what the GM wants us to do”. I’m not a fan of this type of typical campaign and find it much more interesting and rewarding when the players take the oar and pick the direction they want to sail in next. Most often the excuses that pass as motivations are “we’re the heroes and that’s what heroes do” or “someone’s paying us to do it”. Both of these work, of course, for a basic game, but I always aspire to have my campaigns to be something more than that.

But you can absolutely overthink these things, too! After some not very impressive attempts at setting up campaigns in which the characters are motivated by a desire to rediscover the lost history and arcane secrets of the land, I decided to go back to the basics and embrace classic Sword & Sorcery instead of trying to do something clever and original about it. In the end, actually playing is the whole purpose of the entire exercise. Exploring new ways of what a hero can be in fantasy today and going is better left to other forms of creative outlets. What a game needs to be first and foremost is playable.

While conventional wisdom (that is, ultra-orthodox purists) tells us that Sword & Sorcery is never about assaulting the Dark Lord in his castle from where he is trying to conquer the world, an awful lot of classic Sword & Sorcery stories actually do conclude with the heroes assaulting a powerful evil sorcerer in his castle and putting an end to his plans to conquer the world (or at least the kingdom). It’s just that the hero doesn’t do it for the purpose of saving the kingdom or its people. (Unless it’s Conan, who literally does that in The Hour of the Dragon.)

I really quite like the idea of having a Sword & Sorcery campaign with the goal to defeat an evil sorcerer and had a very interesting conversation about how I could come up with decent motivations for the PCs. And the best suggestion I got was basically “let the players decide”.

At first the whole thing felt a bit backwards, because it goes completely against the common storytelling conventions of RPGs, where you begin with the player as ordinary schmucks doing regular adventure stuff, and hopefully by the end of the first adventure the true nature and goal of the campaign will be revealed. But you really don’t have to. Nothing is stopping anyone from starting a new fame with the pitch “We’re going to play a campaign in which you play characters who have all sworn to find and kill Wangrod the Vile.” That actually sounds a lot more exciting than the usual “we’re going to play a game in which you play adventurers and the story will be revealed later”. Nobody will be disappointed that you spoiled something that would be revealed within the first 5% of the story. That’s what people in the business call “the premise”.

Doing so allows you as a GM to prepare a lot of material in advance, but also leave it up to the players to decide who their characters will be and what their motivations are. You set up the goal, but the players create the motivation. Motivations that they care about and that feel interesting to them. You could of course prepare what the motivations of the PCs will be and tell the players to create characters around that. But if a player isn’t really feeling the excitement for that motivation, that doesn’t work out that well. As it concerns the story and events of the campaign, the motivations of the PCs don’t really matter. As long as the players keep working on the goal to confront and kill Wangrod, things will play out the same way.

Conan the Barbarian might actually be a really good reference for how such a campaign could be structured. When Conan is freed and sets out to find Thulsa Doom, he has no idea where he is or even who he’s looking for. The only clue he has is the standard carried by the warriors who raided his village. First he tries to make a deal with a witch who seems to know something about the symbol, but that ends up getting him nowhere. Then he raids the snake temple looking for more clues, and finds the emblem which tells him he’s on the right track. After the raid, he’s taken to the king who reveals that he’s also an enemy of the sorcerer and finally gives Conan a name. Because he wants his daughter back from the snake cult, he provides Conan with the information where to find the sorcerer and things play out from there. I think that could be a really cool structure to be used for a campaign. The players make their character tailored to be seeking an evil sorcerer and defeating him for whatever reason. Information about who exactly the sorcerer is, where they can find him, and how they can defeat him can be very good motivations to go on all kinds of otherwise unconnected adventures. And information of this kind can be put into the possession of basically every NPC, which makes this structure very flexible. If one adventure doesn’t work out and they don’t get the information there were promised, they can always get it somewhere else. If they leave one adventure for later, you can always just switch around what specific information the respective NPCs have to share to keep the flow of the ongoing investigation. You’re also not strictly married to any specific length for the campaign. When things seem to drag on, you can always have the NPCs give out bigger chunks of information, and should everyone want to make the campaign longer, you can throttle down the rate of progress that is made with each adventure. And even with the sorcerer dead, it doesn’t have to be the end of the campaign. Along the way the players might well have made many friends and new enemies that can be worth coming back to once the original goal has been completed.