Setting Expectations

A pun. I’m so clever.

Apparently there are still people who protest vocally when someone mentions that System Matters. Even though it should be totally obvious that it really does. Having recently started to get into the rules and mechanics of Dragonbane, I’ve been considering running my next Kaendor campaign with this system. I’ve really been a lot into the West Marches style of wilderness exploration for the last six years or so, especially since I really started to understand the Classic Dungeon Crawling structure that all the mechanics of B/X are designed around. OSE is a great way to let new players take a look at the game without having them to try understand the attack roll mechanic (which I still don’t understand to this day), and Shadowdark has some interesting new ideas to bring to that table. And both are a shiny new, or at least contemporary thing that new players have interest in to give a try. But all of these have a big problem for me and that is that they are still D&D.

And D&D has some really odd and specific assumptions about the game world that are hard wired at the most fundamental level and you can’t really replace without changing the whole premise of the game, regardless of edition, retroclone, or hack. The big ones for me are the linear level progression and the magic system. (Alignment is also stupid, but that one is actually easy to remove.) The are the main reasons why Barbarians of Lemuria has always lingered at the edge of my vision (it’s a bit too simple), why I kept looking at every new fantasy adaptation of Blades in the Dark, and why I really wanted Forbidden Lands to somehow work for my needs (it’s a bit too complex).

While I’ve been jumping from game to game in the hope to finally find the game that I want for my fantasy campaigns for many years (and in the end still always ended up with versions of D&D), Dragonbane now seems to be the most promising system I’ve come across yet. Maybe it finally is the one. I’ve been thinking for the last week about how a Dragonbane campaign set in Kaendor might look like, because the West Marches and Classic Dungeon Crawling structures simply don’t work in a system without XP. This had me reexamine the very question of how to complete the sentence of “You play as an X who does Y” for such a campaign. And finding an answer for that that works with the mechanics of the game significantly changes several quite basic assumptions of the Kaendor setting.

There are three things that stand out for me as making Dragonbane a fundamentally different game from D&D derived systems that require quite different things from the game setting to work with it. The lack of XP to incentivize certain behaviors like searching for treasure or looking for fights, the lack of character levels that creates a mechanical hierarchy of all the NPCs and PCs, and the lack of a distinction between sorcery and priestly magic.

Though many groups reportedly have stopped using XP in their D&D 5th edition games and simply give PCs new levels when the GM thinks it appropriate, it’s still a fundamental aspect of the game, and one that is central and does a lot of heavy lifting in B/X. The promise that hauling treasures from dungeons will get the PCs XP on their return is what allows players to be proactive and take charge of the campaign. They know what their characters are after (treasure) and where it can be found (dungeons), and they have the tools to go and claim it. Go out gathering information on old ruins with potential treasures, pick one to get to, and decide which obstacles to challenge and which ones to avoid. If the game does not have a mechanic that ties character advancement to their treasure hauls, then players have no incentive to randomly check out any dungeon they become aware of and poke into every little crack and hole they find. This means the idea of adventurers as treasure hunters does not work, and with that dungeon crawl as a core campaign structure does not work either. Exploring dungeons can still be part of the game, but it would be to find one specific thing in the dungeon instead of exploring as much of it as possible. Anything that isn’t the Thing can be left behind, and after finding it the PCs can just leave.  A hunt is quite different from an exploration. And because of this, I think making the game focused on a story is probably mandatory. (What I think that could look like while having the players be in charge of the campaign will be a later post.)

It probably wasn’t originally intended when D&D was first designed as  pure dungeon crawling game, but having PCs advance in discrete levels which increase all their abilities at a somewhat linear rate, and having monsters defined similarly by their Hit Dice, created a hierarchical ladder of power for all the inhabitants of the game world. One that is inherently quantified through the game mechanics. Since all creatures in the game are meant to be a credible threat to PCs at some point in the game, newly made PCs start almost at the very bottom of the ladder, just a step above rats and goblins. And at some point it became commonly established that the character progression provided by the rules also applies for NPCs that inhabit the game world, and that there would be 15th level fighter and 17th level wizards out there who could single handedly take out entire armies by themselves. And logically these NPC heroes would be important powerful leaders of the game world whose deeds shape history. Logical and reasonable, but this means that new 1st level characters are nobodies. And 5th level characters are probably still nobodies who don’t appear on the radar of the great and mighty. This greatly limits the kind of stories you can tell in a newly started campaign, or you would have situations where the great heroes of the realm do nothing and wait for random nobodies to solve the great crisis, or the PCs grow to great power in a matter of weeks, though it took the great heroes decades to do so. There is of course always the option to just start a campaign at a higher level, but to many people like me, getting what is supposed to be an award for accomplishments for free feels unearned and takes the fun out of playing at higher levels and continuing to advance further. In a skill based game you cab of course count all the skill ranks of PCs and NPCs and put them in a sorted list (though Dragonbane NPCs only have two or three out of 30 skills listed in their stats). But a character with 16 in a dozen skills and just 5 in combat can still be hopelessly outmatched in a fight with a character with 14 ranks in combat. Different characters can have different skills rise at completely different rates. Having an NPC reach maximum ability in one area does not automatically raise all the other abilities as well. This feature means that a newly made PC can start with a 14 in a few important skills and quickly raise them to 16, and already be in the same league as the great masters in the respective field. While still being very far away from having reached maximum advancement. To me, this opens all kinds of doors to have PCs start the campaign as important heroes of fame who walk in the halls of kings without having to skip over a major part of the character progression.

The fact that Dragonbane has only a single magic system in which any character can learn access to the spells of the three magic schools has a huge impact on the presence of the supernatural in the Kaendor setting. My approach had long been that there are no clerics in Kaendor and while I had considered letting mages have access to healing spells, I eventually decides that priests are instead people with no magic power of their own, but can command the magic of sacred holy sites on which their temples are build. It’s a concept from the D&D Companion Rules that allows the nonhuman peoples to have priest magic in their towns without the ability to have cleric characters, by essentially giving an ordinary person access to a powerful magic item that is locked in place inside the town. It’s a cool concept, but when any PC can learn access to the Animism school and the healing spells, then the whole concept becomes redundant. It even means that any witch or sorcerer could learn healing spells and there’s nothing inherently divine about them. Which I think suits me quite well. But I still will have to fully reconsider the role of magic spells in society if I want to run Kaendor campaign with Dragonbane.

Originality is overrated, but at least make some effort!

Earlier today I found myself thinking about the lineup of humanoids that populate the current version of Kaendor and had a worried feeling that putting little bug-men and sophisticated harpies as regular people into a fantasy setting might be pushing things into something too weird and outside the lines of fantasy conventions. But I really liked their concepts and it was starting to make me get a little bit upset.

But then I actually got upset about how totally ass-backwards that whole line of thinking is! It’s fantasy! This is supposed to be the genre where you can do anything and everything can be made to work, and where nothing is impossible. And yet we still have concepts of how fantasy worlds should be done according to established conventions.

In a number of discussions over the last year or so about why fantasy RPGs are seemingly so much more popular than sci-fi RPGs, several people brought up on numerous occasions the idea that sci-fi just isn’t as accessible to new players because it doesn’t have established default standards that everyone already knows, which let players understand the game world from the start without needing lengthy introductions. I actually dispute the claim that sci-fi doesn’t have established default standards, but that’s not the point here. The thing that has me upset today is that fantasy being standardized in the Lord of the Rings/Conan model appears to be widely seen as a good thing, at least in RPGs.

And that just feels really wrong.

Surely we can do better

Today I started playing Hollow Knight, knowing absolutely nothing about the game other than having seen a few screenshots and being able to recognize the character. And not even two minutes later, before anything had actually happened, I was thinking about Scorn and Elden Ring and saying to myself “why is D&D fantasy so lame?!”

Of course, the three games I mentioned are videogames with a very strong audiovisual component that RPGs just don’t have, so they are not really a good comparison. But why is it still always the same Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms stuff we see being rehashed by all the adventures and retroclones? Even with D&D having abandoned the medieval aesthetic for dungeon punk, the world and the stories have actually become more flavorless by replacing the medieval cliches with a modern social model. When I see oldschool adventures getting praise, it’s typically for being competently done, not for being imaginative.

Of course, settings and campaigns with low weirdness have their place and great appeal. And half a century ago, the now classic dungeons would probably have been fresh, strange, and exciting to the players who had never seen anythibg quite like that in fiction at such a scope. And of course this is now me after having had my fill on that stuff for some 25 years.

But still, where has the spirit gone for being imaginative and creative with new ideas in D&D and other generic fantasy RPGs? Where is the sense of the fantastical? 30 years ago, even the people making D&D dared to go wild and strange with Dark Sun and Planescape. And plenty of people still love this stuff.

I think when we create adventures or settings for campaigns, we really can strive for more than Ye Olde England with adventuring guilds again. We should be fanning the flames of imagination, not worship the ashes.

Using 30-mile hexes

Everyone knows that Hexagons are Bestagons, and that the 6-mile hex really is the only size that makes sense for wilderness travel. But since the dawn of RPG time, the 30-mile hex has also always been around and keeps showing up from time to time.

As someone who thinks that hexes are best used as a tool to approximate the length of a winding path between two points without having to fight with a measuring tape instead of treating it as a “wilderness room”, I always found the use of 6-mile hexes very compelling. Most wilderness travel will be something like 12 to 24 miles per day and you can easily set up a travel speed system where any overland movement will only be in full 6-mile hexes with no fractions and remainders. (And by you, I mean me.) Going smaller than that with the hexes becomes pointlessly granular, and bigger hexes become less useful for tracking daily travel. The 30-mile hex is way too big for travel tracking, and if you think the 6-mile hex is ridiculously big to hide just one encounter, then 30 miles is just ludicrous.

However, I was once again struggling with frustration about not having a clear image of how I want to handle the contrast between wilderness and civilization in the Kaendor sandbox I am still working on. And it occurred to me that perhaps I could make the city states much smaller and treat them as being on the same scale as individual barbarian tribes that live spread out over several villages in a limited area. And I think the 30-mile hex might actually be a really good unit for the territory claimed and mostly controlled by a mid-sized town or a tribe.

Example made from my 6-mile hex Savage Frontier map.

A 30-mile hex with the main settlement in the center means an area with a radius of 15 miles. That’s about the distance that you can travel with cargo in a day in pre-modern times. (Though of course express messengers can go much further than that.) This allows people from the outer edges of the area to travel to the central main settlement in a day, stay for the night, do their business in the morning, and make it back home before nightfall. Historically, towns organically grew to be spread out at half that radius for their respective area of influence so people could make it back home on the same day. But that’s for medieval Europe or the early American colonies. For a sparsely populated setting and in a frontier context, I think 30 miles should be very suitable. (In a more densely populated and developed setting, 10-mile hexes could be very useful too, though.)

I think that a 30-mile hex also makes for a good size for a forest or swamp in a sandbox. Each 30-mile hex contains 18 6-mile hexes and 12 half-hexes. Assigning 24 hexes to a geographic region with shared environmental conditions and using the same wandering monsters tables seems like a pretty good size if the campaign is about traveling to spread out ruins instead of clearing hexes where every hex contains a thing.

Return to Kaendor

Y’all all don’t what real Gamer ADHD is!

Yesterday I mentioned on Mastodon that I regular keep getting new ideas every few months for what could be really cool campaigns and then losing interest in the work after a few days or weeks, but that it seems like I always keep coming back to the same Sword & Sorcery inspired setting of nature spirits and dinosaurs on an alien forest planet. People asked if there’s any place where they could read more on that world, and there really isn’t anything I could direct people to at this moment. So this post is going to be that.

Kaendor is the current incarnation of a Sword & Sorcery style campaign setting heavily inspired by the worlds of Morrowind and Dark Sun, and the visuals of classic Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian, that I’ve been tinkering and experimenting with since at least back in 2009. I’ve run three separate campaigns in that world over the years, but there have been many drastic overhauls and changes to the geography, history, cultures, and monster populations that it’s become a completely different world from its original incarnation. But looking through my old material, the jumble of ideas and fragments seems to have gained the general shape of what is now the Kaendor setting in Summer 2016 when I wrote my Project Forest Moon concept. Reading it again now, it still feels like a perfect match for what I want to accomplish with the setting.

My previous campaigns were run playing Pathfinder, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and while I wanted to run D&D Basic/Expert last time, there just wasn’t the audience for it and we ended up playing 5th edition. I had been very seriously considering Barbarians of Lemuria, Worlds Without Number, and Forbidden Lands as systems for future campaigns. But now with the considerable popularity gained by Old-School Essentials, which is reformated reprint of the B/X rules, I think it’s now much easier to get player for it. And it really is the system that Kaendor was always meant to be for.

Inspirations and References

  • A Princess of Mars
  • Albion (DOS game, 1995)
  • Bound by Flame
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Dark Sun
  • Fire and Ice (by Bakshi and Frazetta)
  • Kenshi (PC game, 2018)
  • Morrowind
  • Nausicaa
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Record of Lodoss War
  • Return of the Jedi
  • Severance: Blade of Darkness
  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne
  • X1: The Isle of Dread
  • X6: Quagmire!

Yes, this is all very 80s/early 90s. That stuff is on fire! ;)

The Environment

Kaendor is the smaller of a pair of binary planets around an orange dwarf star, the other one being a a blue gas dwarf (a type of planet now known to be common in the universe, but with no example in our solar system). With the stars lower gravitational pull on the planets, a year is slightly longer at 381 days, but with another large planet in place of a moon, months are considerably shorter at only 16 days. (Leading to two 8-days weeks per months.) With the gas planet casting a much larger shadow than a smaller moon, solar eclipses are much more common on Kaendor, and many places see one or two every year, which are typical occasions for many magical rituals.

Kaendor with the gas dwarf and its orange dwarf sun in the background. (Simulated with true scales and perspective in Universe Sandbox 2.)

The surface of Kaendor is about half land and ocean, with almost all but the higher mountain ranges being covered in an endless expanse of trees, giant mushrooms, and swamps. The dominant animals on land are reptiles and insects, with many species growing to enormous sizes. Instead of birds, the skies are home to many kinds of feathered flying reptiles. Mammals are somewhat uncommon, mostly resembling rodents of many shapes and sizes, but there are also many types of deer and goats. (There are no dogs, cats, horses, or bears)

The Peoples

The common Kaendorians are very similar to humans in nature and appearance, but they don’t have any particular resemblance to any specific peoples from Earth. Giants, serpentmen, and fishmen exist, but their numbers are a far cry from what they were tens of thousands of years ago and most people never see even one of them in their entire lives. Insect-like goblins are more common, but they mostly keep to themselves and only occasionally make short visits to other settlements to trade.

Civilization on Kaendor is generally fairly small. While there are many large river valleys for civilizations to arise, there are few open plains, and clearing the ancient forests along the river banks is difficult and dangerous work with the massive scale of many old trees and the amounts of deadly animals and treacherous spirits. A few major cities exist near the coast, but mostly people live in small towns and surrounding villages scattered far and wide across the lands, in whatever small patches of farmable land can be found. The larger city states can establish some kind of centralized government over the surrounding towns and villages a few days’ ride out from their city walls, but most people are ruled over by local chiefs or tribal councils.

The technology level of Kaendor is mostly Bronze Age, with crudely made iron being only suitable for nails, cooking pots, arrowheads, and armor scales, but too fragile for weapons, tools, or chainmail. There are a few roads through the forests connecting the city states with nearby towns, but transportation of heavy goods is done almost entirely by boats over longer distances, or hauled by pack animals that can walk on narrow trails and step over roots or through mud. Wheels are only used for wheelbarrows or handcarts within towns and villages.

The Supernatural

This is an aspect of the setting that is still somewhat up in the air and I am currently undecided on how I want to nail down the specific rules for the future. In general term, all the natural forces in the environment are the actions of spirits. Most spirits of plants and stones are extremely simple beings that have no real consciousness, personality, or individual traits. They simply exist, maintaining the natural cycles of the environment through their passive influence. But the spirits of particularly ancient trees or large caves, and especially the spirits of whole forests, mountains, or island are very powerful entities that have a great awareness of everything that happens within their domains and the power to influence the environment directly to their will. However, the nature of these great spirits is completely different from that of mortals, and they perceive the world and understand events in drastically different terms. Their desires and choices lie well outside the comprehension of ordinary mortal minds and they generally have no concerns of any kind how their actions and changes to the environment affect individual people or even whole villages.

All settlements require a shaman who knows the local spirits and has at least a basic understanding of their goals and desires. The role of the shamans is to consult with the spirits to get permission to build new settlements or make any major changes to the environment and to plead with them for understanding about offenses or aid in times of hardship. They also perform the many rituals and sacrifices demanded by the spirits in return for their continued permission to settle, farm, hunt, and mine in their domains. The exact purpose of many rituals and what the spirits actually gain from them is a mystery even to many shamans, but they are not questioned as subservience to the spirits is an everyday part of life everywhere on Kaendor.

Magic that falls outside the domain of interactions with the spirits exists in the realm of sorcery and is closely tied to demons. Being part of the environment and regulating its natural processes, the power of the spirits is limited to guiding the many forces of nature, but it can not break its laws. It can control plants and the weather, accelerate healing or cause disease, or increase strength or cloud the minds of mortal creatures. Existing outside of nature and coming directly from the primordial chaos, demons are not bound to such limitations. Sorcery can do the impossible by rewriting the laws of nature and overturn the natural order, making it potentially extremely powerful. However, the natural world is extremely complex with everything influencing and affecting everything else, and seemingly minor changes that disrupt the natural order can have impossible to predict consequences with wide reaching scale. Sorcery is inherently corrupting, spreading decay and sickness in everything it touches. The effects of a single spell are typically very subtle, and over time the natural order will restore itself and the damage disappear. But the continuous use of demonic chaos magic has devastating effects on both sorcerers and the lairs in which they perform their spells and rituals. The transformation into ghouls is the first stage of the effects of continuous exposure to sorcerous spells or corrupted environment. At that point there is rarely any hope for victims of returning to their former selves, and the only paths ahead if the effects of sorcery persists are numerous forms of true undeath.

Flipping again through Ghostwalk

Ghostwalk came out in 2003, three years after the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition and just before the new revised rulebooks came out. It’s a book that I see getting mentioned every other year or so and that always seems to be fondly remembered by a few people. However, in the almost 20 years since its release now, I have never heard of even a single person mentioning a campaign or even just a one-shot adventure that was actually played in this setting. Looking through some other early 3rd edition stuff these last days, and thinking about games with this system that I always wanted to run but never actually did, had me of course reminded of Ghostwalk.

The whole idea behind Ghostwalk is that characters who die on their adventures aren’t simply gone from the campaign unless the party can arrange for the characters to be resurrected with a raise dead spell, but instead continue their adventures as a ghost. That alone was a big draw for me when this book was announced, and I was actually surprised when it turned out to be a campaign setting. It’s centered around a city of the dead outside the gateway to the afterlife, with some brief additional information about the surrounding lands. That sounds quite cool, but it never managed to get me even starting on a preliminary concept for an actual campaign, and from everything I’ve seen about the setting since then, very few other people did either.

So I sat down again with the book, and after literally decades since I first read it, tried to find my footing again with the basics of the world and what kinds of adventures it is setting up. And as it turns out, for a 220 page book, there is stunningly little in the way of material that would inspire adventure. When you first hear the idea of a land where the dead don’t actually die, it might sound really cool and make you want to know more. But there really doesn’t seen to be much more.

The central nexus of the setting is the gateway to the afterlife, though which all the souls of dead people have to cross. As these souls are getting close to the gateway, they start to gain the traits of ghost, gaining the ability to be seen and heard, manipulate physical objects, and eventually take on a semi-solid form. Most souls simply pass through the gateway right away, but some hesitate out of a fear of the unknown beyond, or because there is something in the world of the living that they can’t make themselves leave unfinished. And so, over the ages, a whole city has risen up around, and now high above the gateway. Populated by the ghosts who are struggling with the fear of what awaits them in true death or hoping that someone from their past life will try to meet them in the city of Manifest to settle the things that keep them. Because the existence of the city is well known in the surrounding lands and people frequently make the journey in the hope of being able to talk with the dead one more time before they are truly gone.

Where things get a bit muddled is that there is also the practice of taking the bodies of the dead to the gateway to reunite them with their souls in the afterlife. This is where the whole thing starts to feel implausible to me. Is the gateway in Manifest the only one in the world? From how far away are the spirits of the dead coming to pass through it and perhaps linger outside of it for some months or years? Does all the world know about its existence, or is this something known only in the neighboring countries? Is it a local custom to try sending the bodies into the afterlife as well or a global thing? Is it something for the super rich and powerful, or is it a common practice for everyone but the poorest? What about the people who just get buried in this world? Are they condemned to an eternal afterlife in an incomplete state? The idea of having these funeral processions from distant lands coming through the streets of the city every day is very evocative, but it feels really not thought through.

And what about conflicts? The main antagonists that the setting describes are the Yuan-ti. Yuan-ti abominations are not humanoids and as such don’t have spirits that travel to the gateway and manifest as ghosts. And because of that the yuan-ti want to destroy the city. That’s not enough of a motivation for villains outside of superhero comics and it doesn’t really give you anything to work with then coming up with adventures. Necromancers are hated but also really interested in the city, but I wasn’t really able to find out why. What about the ghosts? They populate the city and mingle with the living, but what kind of things would they be up to that could set up an adventures for PCs?

And beneath the city is a giant maze of old ruins called the Catacombs. But if the city is build around a gateway to the afterlife and people bring bodies to the city to move then through it, why does the city have catacombs? Maybe it’s just a name, but a city of the dead with giant catacombs that don’t actually have any dead bodies in them would be kind of lame. Also, what do the living people who build the city around the gateway actually do there? The dead don’t need any of the things that a normal economy provides for the living. Is it all about catering to the living travelers coming to drop of a body or hope to catch a ghost before it departs?

What really amazes me is how this book manages to reach 220 pages. There is so much text that goes on an on about things without actually saying anything interesting. The rules for ghost characters also seem way too complicated. This book has over 80 new feats. Nobody needs that.

In hindsight, I can fully understand why you never hear about anyone ever having played a campaign in Ghostwalk or used the rules for semi-dead PCs.

The elevator pitch sounds like something that could be made into something really interesting. When I picked the book up again, I was thinking that this could be a great opportunity to make a campaign that draws heavily on the Dark Souls and Legacy of Kain series. And while that still seems like it could be a cool campaign, I think all the work needed to make that interesting would leave very little of the setting material that is actually present in the book.