Perang’s Mansion in Tual

The house of the merchant Perang sits on top of a tall spire of rock, similar to the homes of most wealthy and powerful people in Tual. The poorer people live in shacks clinging to the base of the spires, resting on wooden posts, where they frequently get flooded or swept away by the stormy seas.

In the Green Sun campaign, Perang turned out to have been replaced by a doppelganger, who died at the hands of the heroes. Tual still exist in Planet Kaendor, and I might use Perang again as an NPC.

All these moments will be lost in time…

Despite my expectations, I actually stumbled across a great idea for my Planet Kaendor reworking yesterday, shortly after writing the last post.

I’ve had a long on-again, off-again relationship with Sword & Sorcery campaigns. I’m absolutely a huge fan of Conan and Kane, but generally enjoy reading them in small portions. For long term campaigns, the typical bleakness and violence seems like a bit too much for me, and when you descend down into the abyss of Sword & Sorcery fandom, you get quickly swept up in the currents of hyper-violent grimdark orthodoxy. Which in my opinion is considerably more extreme and intellectually hollowed out than the tales of the great masters ever where. Yes, they always were violent, reveled in (implied) debauchery, and had elements of horror. But the popular perception today is like a copy of a copy of a copy that only captures the most extreme expressions of black and white and losing all nuances.

But I digress.

The piece of advice for S&S campaigns that I came across was a reminder that the stories are usually highly episodic and the heroes begin each new adventure in a completely different place, with all the gains from their last undertaking already lost and forgotten. Which was put in direct opposition to the infamous quote from Gary Gygax that “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT”. I never was a fan of Gygax and his ideas of adventures and gamemastering (*boo*, *hiss*, I know…), but this piece of advice I always found very compelling. And I did rigorously apply it during the Inixon campaign, though that turned out to not have made any difference because we never went through with managing long expeditions into the wilderness from a fortified base camp.

But now that I think about it, this is really an approach to managing time that works in direct opposite to the aesthetic goal of making the world feel unmoored in time, with no real sense of either the past or the future. The rest of the world is not keeping track of what happened before, then why would the hero. The inevitability of all their deeds being forgotten and leaving no lasting legacy is supposed to be part of the setting’s tone.

To take it a step further, you could not just stop using a calendar (even though I made such a cool one) but also forgo keeping detailed records what the players did entirely. Taking notes about what is currently going on in the current adventure is of course still a good practice, but once it is wrapped up and the campaign moves on to the next adventure, you can discard them and rely entirely on your own fallible memory. When the players ask who exactly an NPC was who they supposedly had been talking to some adventures earlier, just shrug your shoulder and tell them that their vague memories of those encounters are probably reasonably close enough to what really happened. Don’t try to help them remember. At this point it doesn’t matter anymore anyway and whatever they can agree on now becomes the new reality. Even if as the GM, you still remember what really happened.

Same stuff, different destination…

So here I am, again, planning a new fantasy campaign, again, determined to make it so much better than previous attempts. Again.

Now my last fantasy campaign did end differently and sooner than I had expected. But it did finish with an actual conclusion. With the villains beaten and the day saved. Which by this metric makes it the most successful campaign I’ve ever been involved with. At 19 sessions in total, it was also the longest campaign I’ve ever been involved with. And in the early and middle parts, I felt that my performance as GM was leagues above anything I’ve ever done before. In part because I really learned quite a lot about gamemastering in the four years or so since I had last run a campaign, but I think at least to an equal if not even higher degree because I used a much more open-ended approach to what the story will be. Despite my initial plans, it wasn’t really a sandbox campaign by any stretch of that term, but dropping the players off in a place with only vague hints that there are some useful things in the area that could help them later on their journey directly resulted in the most fun sessions I’ve ever had as either GM or player.

It was only on the final leg of the campaign, when I made it into a more conventional dungeon assault to reach some kind of conclusion, that I felt myself increasingly fighting with the constraints of D&D and my enthusiasm for the game dropped considerably. The players still seemed to have a great time, but my heart really wasn’t into it anymore. I was already looking forward to try again with mechanics that work for me, not against me.

Down the Dungeon

One realization that I made during the later parts of the Inixon campaign is  that dungeons really don’t do it for me. I am a huge fan of the idea and the aesthetics of magical caves and ruined cities. But I really don’t like the gameplay concept of the dungeon.

When did this become…
…hotter than this?

Having a dungeon with a few dozen rooms which are inhabited by various groups of guards and creatures makes sense for a dungeon crawling campaign. But I found that when the players go to a place to meet a NPCs, be it to rescue, negotiate with, or fighting them, going through an entire dungeon really just becomes a drag and a nuisance that gets in the way of making progress with the game. A castle may well have hundreds of rooms, but the story of sneaking into one specific room in that castle does not require hundreds of scenes to play out. Look at books and movies that have cool locations that could be considered dungeons, and I think almost all of them come down to really just three or four rooms in which all the scenes play out. Jabba’s Palace: Main gate, throne room, rancor pit. Thulsa Doom’s Lair: Main stairs, cave passage, throne room. Fully mapped dungeons are for dungeon crawling games. For narrative focused games, they seem to be out of place.

From Crawling to Walking

Very much related to purpose of dungeons is the usefulness of resource management. Typical fantasy adventuring gear is mostly for dealing with the many obstacles that are encountered in dungeons. Most objects can be used in scenes in a narrative focused game as well, but there generally isn’t the expectation that you always have to carry around your golf bag of adventuring gear with you all the time because you know you’ll be needing most of it very soon. Tracking how much stuff characters can carry makes sense when you have an expectation that supplies will run out after frequent use and restocking won’t be easily possible before that happens. It also becomes relevant when the weight of all the stuff impacts how fast or how slow the characters can be progressing through the places they are in.

When I prepared the Inixon campaign, doing a traditional wilderness exploration based on long expeditions into The Isle of Dread had actually been my plan. But while we were playing Against the Cult of the Reptile God we already settled into dynamics and character motivations that were much more narrative focused. And it became even more so during the completely unscripted stay in the pirate town that went on much longer than the one or two sessions I had calculated for it.

The experience with these parts of the campaign had been amazingly positive. Not only did I get great responses from the players, I also felt like my performance as GM went up steeply and the workload both during games and when preparing new content seemed to plummet down to a fraction. You can of course set up a wilderness crawl completely blind and leave it entirely in the hands of the players to do or die. But I feel like this would only be fun with players who really want this style of game and who are quite decent at it. Otherwise making sure that the obstacles they are facing will be challenging but not too dangerous and keeping an eye on how much resources they have left and will need to find in the near future becomes quite a lot of work. Work that I now can absolutely live without. Resource management is another thing I want to leave by the side for the time being.

More Weirdness

When I am sitting by myself, coming up with great ideas for worldbuilding, the Sword & Sorcery setting I imagine is full of alien and exotic stuff like Tekumel, Barsoom, or Morrowind. But in every single campaign I’ve run in this type of setting, I always ended up describing a fairly ordinary generic fantasyland to the players. In this case it was generic pirates and serpents fantasyland, but that’s still just in a different climate zone in fantasyland.

And once again, I suspect a primary source of this might be D&D. In particular, it’s power gradient as monsters and other enemies are concerned. I tend to to create monsters of a style that makes them seem like they could potentially be actual animals that once existed somewhere on Earth, or which at least are not inconceivable as hypothetical branches that could have had evolved naturally. When statting such creatures for D&D, it usually is the easiest way to simply reskin some kind of monster that already exists, like an owlbear or rhinoceros. But when you do that, you already have locked in the relative power level of many of your new original critters. And in my case, the more exotic and stranger creatures are almost all more dangerous and powerful than the more mundane ones, so their D&D stats have to be correspondingly higher as well. And at that point I had already trapped myself, making a good portion of the more interesting creatures so powerful that PCs would have to have a good number of levels under their belt to face them with a real chance to win. Now the Inixon campaign ran over 19 games and at the end the PCs would have reached 6th level if the campaign would have continued. It was a long campaign with a not unusually slow advancement, but even so I never got an opportunity to show of many of the creatures in their natural environment without wiping out the party.

What actually happened was that I filled the encounters that the players got up with the smallest and most uninteresting of critters. Mostly cultists and snakes, with the occasional wolf-reskin and yuan-ti boss. Total fail. It also didn’t help that so much time was spend fighting those little critters because you need to get plenty of fights under your belt to get to the higher levels. Time that wasn’t spend interacting with the local cultures. This really ties in directly with the issue of dungeons.

Hopefully I can avoid this mistake when I am converting my material to Barbarians of Lemuria.

More Desolation

This is something that I’ve never got to work. Not even remotely. The aesthetic and tone that this type of Bronze Age Pangea setting is meant to evoke the style of Dying Earth fiction. With a world that is huge and wild and covered in ruins, but barely inhabited by people at all. Nothing of that kind ever came up in any of my previous campaigns. I thought the solution to that would be to have long wilderness journeys on which the players have to chart their course along landmarks and manage their supplies and deal with the difficulties of transportation. Usually that never happened because the PCs never got a level where I thought they would be ready to deal with such a challenge. And with a more narrative focus for the next campaign and ditching resource management, that won’t really be an option either. No real clue how to work on that, but it’s one more priority in which I’ll have to find ways to include it.

Why are we doing all of this?

One thing that had really bothered my for several years when setting up new campaigns was with setting up situations and environments in which it would feel believable to me that the PCs are risking their lives to go on these adventures. Typically in fantasy RPGs, you get two kinds of characters: Murderhobos and magic boy scouts.

When you’re running a dungeon crawl campaign and the goal of the campaign is to overcome monsters and get their treasure to get XP for being able to overcome more powerful monsters to get their treasure, then there really is no need for anything more complicated than characters who are risking their lives for riches and don’t really concern themselves with anything else. But for something that has more focus on an unfolding narrative where more time is spend on conversations and making arrangements between various competing groups, such characters won’t work. They just want to know where the monsters with the treasure are.

On the other hand you have the shining heroes who have nothing better to do with their lives than permanently wandering around looking for any opportunity to risk their lives against terrifying foes for people they don’t have any connection to. These are characters that work for games where everyone knows the campaign is about brave heroes saving the world from evil. But I don’t feel them being suitable for campaigns where there is no black and white good and evil, and no obvious end goal that all PCs would automatically pursue. Which I think is where all the much more interesting stories take place.

I’ve struggled for many years with finding a good description of what kind of people “adventurers” are in my setting and what players should expect of their role in the campaign. But now I think I always made this much more complicated than it really needs to be. I think all you really need to get players engaged with a dangerous situations and get invested in the outcome is to tell them to make characters who are deep down decent people and put them in situations where they have the means to make a real difference for good. Most sane people really like doing good things but avoid being heroic in everyday life out of uncertainty and fear of doing something wrong or getting into danger. In a game, this isn’t really a factor. Games let you do the right thing without any actual risk or cost, and in these situations most people are more than happy to play the hero. Many videogames check off trophies and achievements for ending the game in a heroic or villainous way, and in most cases you see vastly more players who did save all the kittens instead of kicking the dogs. (And I believe large numbers of those who kicked the dogs did it on a second or third playthrough after having saved the kittens in their first run.)

And also take into consideration my earlier choice to drop the idea of regularly clearing out whole dungeons of all the monsters. This drops the total amount of lethal fights that PCs get into considerably and makes a much higher fraction of them actually directly matter. You get much fewer situations where the players would be killing bands of goblins or swarms of giant centipedes simply because they are there. This makes the life of an “adventurer” seem considerably less suicidal and makes it much more believable that relatively ordinary people would accept the risks that come with it. Think of the four hobbits for example. They didn’t sign up to clear out Moria or conquer Mordor. And the story doesn’t make them do that. I have no idea of their kill counts during their year long quest to reach the heart of their enemy’s power, but I think most of them would be able to count them on one hand. Or at the other end, my two favorite scoundrels Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. They aren’t selfless people full of endless compassion and driven to self sacrifice. But when they find themselves in situation where a terrible injustice has to be stopped, and they have the means to attempt it, they find their decency to not just stand by and ignore it.

Getting away from D&D’s class system probably might help with this as well.

And what is it all about?

Now we’re going to get really pretentious. When I was learning more about ancient cultures and their belief systems back in university, I got the strong impression that all civilizations with organized states and agriculture develop a belief that they are separate from nature and that humans are really much more similar to the gods. They are the masters of their environment, and in some cases the world really was made for them. Today it becomes obvious how that attitude leads to huge environmental problems and disasters, but to some degrees this has been going on for thousands of years. I thought it would be really interesting to come up with fantasy cultures in a world where there is absolutely no doubt that nature does whatever the hell it wants, the constant environmental changes are much faster to be more visible during a human lifetime, and people get inevitably crushed if they think they can make nature obey their wishes. There are no natural disasters. There are only extreme weather events. They only become disasters because humans build inadequate houses in high risk areas and have no plan B for when their human-build infrastructure is destroyed.

My idea for such a setting is to make it an extreme weather world, where typhoons, earthquakes, and active volcanoes are very common, and the nature gods in charge of these phenomenons pay no attention to the needs and wishes of mortals. This world is not made for people to live in and make use of. Going with my favorite Eldritch Abomination quote: “You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.” Except that the nature gods wouldn’t bother explaining themselves to mortals.

One analogy I came up with and that I quite like is that in this world, people aren’t the apex predators like bears or tigers, but sit more in the middle like weasels. They certainly are predators who have no trouble killing almost everything else in their weight class and can even take on other animals considerably larger than themselves. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do against a bear and their only option is to get out of the way. (Not counting wolverines and honey badgers. Those are just fury and madness.)

To bring in the Dying Earth tone, even though it’s a world that is full of life and going nowhere, my idea is for people to have an approach to history that nothing that they do will have a lasting impact in the long run. They can build cities that might grow into small kingdoms, but it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will topple their walls or destroy their farmland, and the people will return to the wilderness to live among the savages, with their descendants knowing nothing of their civilized origin. That’s how it always has been, and always will be. The broken ruins that stand as proof are found everywhere. Refusing to see the signs and abandoning the dying cities for a better life elsewhere will only make the inevitable end worse.

Of course, there are always some powerful people who don’t accept this fate and believe that they have the strength to avert this doom and create a legacy that will last forever. And some of them are turning to dark magic to pursue this goal or even seeking immortality. They always fail, but the terrifying results of their foolishness survive in infamy long after other kings and cities have been forgotten.

I think this is a really cool concept with some real solid substance to it. But it never really came up during low-level exploration adventures. But I think it might be more useful in a campaign with a more narrative focus, where the sorcerer king doesn’t have to be a 15th or 20th level wizard. As with many other things, I don’t really have anything definitive nailed down on this front yet. But it’s something I want to focus on much stronger going forward from here.

To wrap up this sprawling abomination of a past, this is where I stand right now in both my hindsight reflection on previous campaigns and with my lofty ambitions going forward. Currently I am feeling that I don’t really need to change much regarding the worldbuilding of the setting. I don’t think there’s any need to drop existing creatures or create new ones, alter the general geography, or come up with different ideas for the cities. I don’t seem to have to make any changes to my big box of toys. Instead, I feel this process will be a lot more about how I could be playing with them in different ways, and perhaps spend a lot more time with some of the stuff that’s so far been lying unused at the bottom of the box.

So yeah, rambling’s over. I worked three days on this without any real major revelation to share with the world. This is what I got right now, but there’s been quite some response from a number of people for this topic, so I hope it’s not been completely in vain. I’m looking forward to see where this is going myself.

If at fourth you don’t succeed… (and why system does matter)

Last month I finished my fourth campaign in which I tried to bring my ideas for a Sword & Sorcery wilderness setting to life. While the campaign was overall a great success, and by far the longest of the four, the way the setting came to be actually realized in practice was not at all what I had been aiming for.

I believe I first had the idea for a Bronze Age Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting some six years ago after reading Robert Howard’s Conan and Kull stories and Edgar Burroughs A Princess of Mars, and remembering my old affections for Morrowind and dinosaur books.

The first attempt was Ancient Lands, which I ended up using in a short lived Pathfinder campaign. Not being happy with the result I tried reworking it as Lands of the Barbarian Kings for the low-level E6 variant for D&D 3rd edition. Still unhappy with the results, I brought back the same basic ideas when I got interested in rules-light oldschool RPGs as Ancient Lands (v.2), first for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and later Basic Fantasy. After that campaign I threw a lot of material and ideas out once again to get a better focus on the elements that really mattered for my core concept in the form of Green Sun. Which I wanted to run in original B/X, but convenience at the moment led to me giving it a shot with D&D 5th edition instead. Which again, also didn’t really lift of, ignite, or whatever other metaphor you want to use.

Some of the players actually really tried to dig into the setting that I had outlined in a basic overview file. Which I really did appreciate, but at that point, the events of the campaign and goals of the party had already set the future adventures down a pretty clear path. And I didn’t feel like I wouldn’t be able to keep the great quest coherently together if we were to set out to new unrelated detours. Maybe it would have been possible to do, but at that point I was already clear on not wanting to run D&D 5th edition any more than necessary. Keeping a straight heading towards the ultimate goal of the party to conclude the campaign and then start over with something else seemed the much preferable option to me.

Looking back at all the campaigns now, it seems pretty obvious why each one only brought a slight incremental improvement towards realizing my concept, but never making an actual breakthrough. Each time, for reasons of convenience, I ended up running some variant of Dungeons & Dragons again. And at the heart of all the sweet, sweet awesome ideas I have for a Sword & Sorcery campaign in a Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting, is that I want it to be specifically not like Dungeons & Dragons.

I don’t have anyone to blame for this but myself, but still, curse the tyranny of market leader!

At first I was genuinely thinking that my ideas should work with D&D without problems. Dark Sun did it, right? (I’m not sure, I never got to actually see Dark Sun in any kind of prolonged action, and lots of settings look much better on paper than in play.) Going from regular Pathfinder to E6 with limited classes and my own bestiary seemed like a sufficient solution. Looking around on my site, it’s actually been almost exactly two years since I had great ideas for trying make the setting concept work better with Apocalypse World. But at some point I got interested again in the dungeon and wilderness exploration system of B/X and thought that would work just as well. That I thought 5th edition could be a suitable substitute when response to a B/X campaign invitation was muted is just my own damn fault. I got seduced by the warlock class.

I think the problem is not just strictly with the mechanics. D&D and it’s derivatives all circle around the permanent hunt for XP and climbing the ladder of level advancement. And the way the combat systems are designed, they are really made for lots of smaller fights rather than the occasional big ones. It’s also, which might be even more important, that playing D&D brings with it huge amounts of expectations from the players. And as a GM, I am always very conscious of not acting like the kind of jerk GM who tells the players how to play the game correctly, even if I had something else in mind for how the tone and dynamics should play out in action. I understand the role of the GM to be an entertainer, not a conductor. I make it possible for the players to play their story, I don’t direct them to play my story. With the group I had for the Inixon campaign, the players really were interested in exploring the world that I had prepared, which makes me feel that I am at least on the right track with my ideas. But I just never could consider telling them to stop playing like it’s D&D. I invited them to play D&D and they joined the game being excited to play D&D. That’s just not something you do as a GM.

But now the campaign is concluded (actually concluded and not just sputtered out and abandoned), and while it wasn’t the epic grand finale that you always imagine to get, it still ended with fighting a giant snake on the roof of a tower rising above a ruined city, it’s shattered body being slain by arrows and magic bolts, in mid-transformation into a sorceress after being blown over the edge by one of the warlocks. That’s still pretty metal.

After having distracted myself for a couple of weeks with the preparation for a Star Wars d6 campaign (which still has to wait until later this year), I am still drawn back to the lizard infested jungles to once more try it better. I had considered Barbarians of Lemuria several times over the years, but with the many lessons learned from the Inixon campaign, I now feel more certain than ever that I really should go through with this. It’s a rules light game that is very quick to set up and easy to learn, giving it a very low entry barrier for new players. And if any players bring existing assumptions about a BoL campaign with them, it’s probably something like Conan the Barbarian, which in this case suits just fine. Maybe it will be a bit of an uphill battle to get even just three or four players together for that, but I now feel that this will be necessary to make the setting concept work, and there are no easy shortcuts around that. D&D is no longer an acceptable substitute.

Star Destroyers are big!

Yes, of course they are big. Everyone knows they are big. That’s their thing.

But in the movies we only ever see one of them next to a Corellian Corvette, which is one of the very smallest ships that is still considered in the capital ship category. A number of additional capital ships have become well established in the Expanded Universe over the decades, each with their own listed lengths. But seeing the numbers on paper usually does not really give a true sense of the relative sizes. A ship that is twice as long as another ship of the same shape is not twice as big in total mass and volume, but eight times as big.

To better visualize this I took images of the various ships that make the most frequent appearances and put them together side by side at the same scale. And it turns out, Star Destroyers are really big.

Top to bottom: GR-75 Medium Transport (90m), Action VI Bulk Freighter (125m), CR90 Corellian Corvette (150m), Lancer Frigate (250m), Nebulon-B Frigate (300m), Carrack Light Cruiser (350m), Strike-class Medium Cruiser (450m), Dreadnought-class Heavy Cruiser (600m), Victory Star Destroyer (900m); in background: USS Nimitz (333m), Interdictor cruiser (600m), Imperial Star Destroyer (1,600m)
Top to bottom: Victory Star Destroyer (900m), MC80 Star Cruiser (1,200m), Imperial Star Destroyer (1,600m)

In the movies, the Imperial Star Destroyers are simply very big, with no real reference to how they compare to other large warships. But against the most common ship types of the Expanded Universe, they are still absolutely massive. There really isn’t anything in their weight class except for the occasional obscure one-off appearances.

Because the Mon Calamari MC80 cruisers are over a thousand meters long, I always had assumed that they are comparable to Imperial Star Destroyers. But seeing them side by side that really is not the case. The MC80 is actually most comparable to the Victory Star Destroyer, which is usually seen as the miniature version of the Imperial Star Destroyer.

And again, the Victory Star Destroyer is not a small ship itself. It is still absolutely enormous. When Dreadnoughts were introduced in the Expanded Universe, they were usually portrayed in a way that made them seem like extremely large and powerful ships, or at the very least would have been during the Clone Wars. Apparently the biggest ships the Old Republic had in its fleet. But at 600 meters in length and with a relatively narrow shape, they are already dwarfed by a Victory Star Destroyer and appear almost tiny next to an Imperial Star Destroyer.

When I create stuff for Star Wars, I always try to take the three movies at face value, taking them as my reference frame for what the Star Wars universe is by default. But in light of this comparison, sending four Imperial Star Destroyers into an asteroid field to chase the Millennium Falcon was absolute overkill. And as much as it pains me as someone who regards The Empire Strikes Back as the best movie ever made, the Super Star Destroyer was just stupid.

When it comes to having Imperial ships make appearances in Star Wars adventures, I think Star Destroyers should be reserved for scenes of particular significance. Using them as the go to Imperial warship for most common space encounters lessens the impact their incredible size and power can have. The appearance of Star Destroyers near a planet where the heroes are on a mission, even a Victory Destroyer, can be used as a very effective signal that the stakes have been raised well above normal. Because when there’s a Star Destroyer, there’s always a huge number of TIE Fighters, and even larger numbers of Stormtroopers that could be on the ground. A Star Destroyer is a threat you can not really fight. Your only options are to try to hide or to run. But unless you have a huge fleet on your side, you’re not going to defeat it in battle. And if you manage to get on board of one to sabotage it, your only hope is to evade the thousands of Stormtroopers. You’re not going to defeat them and capture the ship.

It’s just too damn big!

Faction Spells

I am working on a concept for a Planescape campaign, and part of it includes modifying several tanar’ri, yugoloths, and other planar creatures from their 5th edition version to give them back their magical abilities that got lost somewhere along the way. And their Intelligence scores. I really have no idea what anyone was thinking with a marilith and nalfeshnee that don’t have any spells, or an alkilith and hezrou with an Intelligence of 6 and 5 respectively. These are demons, not ogres! And ultrolths at the same relative power level as beholders, storm giants, and nalfeshnees? Oh, please! You can run these monsters, but it wouldn’t be Planescape.

While I was making the updated monster stats and restored their lists of spells to something that would reflect the original abilities at least in spirit, I got the idea that spellcasting NPCs from the planar factions could also have lists of commonly used spells that reflect the spirits of their beliefs and organizations.

The results of this effort vary greatly. For the Athar, Godsmen, and Guvners I didn’t get anything, and for the Ciphers and Xaositects the lists also ended up very short (to the point where they will likely be undetectable as a pattern when players encounter them). But that’s alright I think. This can simply be something that is a prominent feature of some factions but not others.

When creating NPCs that could potentially be fought or provide magical assistance, the following lists are my starting point. I think these spells would also be the first ones that would be offered to PCs who are joining the factions and are looking for assistance and training from their new allies.

The Bleak Cabal

The Bleakers would have an interest in spells that cause madness in others and also preserve their own sanity. There’s not a lot of those in 5th edition, but these are certainly spells that many Bleaker spellcasters would be happy to have in their arsenal.

  • Cantrips: vicious mockery
  • 1st level: dissonant whispers, hideous laughter
  • 2nd level: calm emotions
  • 3rd level: fear
  • 4th level: confusion
  • 6th level: eyebite, irresistible dance
  • 8th level: feeblemind, mind blank
Doomguard

The Sinkers are all over entropy, and as such would be very much into all spells that either drain the strength from creatures or cause decay in the environment. And there’s really quite a lot of spells of this kind.

  • 1st level: arms of hadar, bane, ray of sickness, sleep
  • 2nd level: blindness, darkness, ray of enfeeblement, silence
  • 3rd level: bestow curse, hunger of hadar, slow, vampiric touch
  • 4th level: blight
  • 5th level: contagion
  • 6th level: circle of death, disintegrate, harm
  • 7th level: finger of death
Dustmen

For the Dusties everything revolves around death, so they would commonly use all kinds of necromancies. But they are also very much opposed to people dying before their time has come, or returning from death after their life has ended. As such, they would be using spells that keep people at and make them come back from the brink of death. They are of course also interested in interacting with the undead.

  • Cantrip: chill touch, spare the dying
  • 1st level: false life
  • 2nd level: gentle repose
  • 3rd level: animate dead, feign death, revivify, speak with dead
  • 4th level: death ward
  • 5th level: antilife shell
  • 6th level: create undead
Fated

The Takers believe that everything rightfully belongs to those who can take it and keep it. The most deserving people are those with the determination to do what it takes to get what they want. Unfortunately there are not a lot of spells to get things, but I think spells that help characters to keep the things they have would also be a perfect fit for this faction.

  • 1st level: alarm
  • 2nd level: arcane lock, knock, locate object
  • 3rd level: glyph of warding
  • 4th level: private sanctum, secret chest
  • 7th level: sequester
Free League

The Indeps hardly even count as a faction, sharing only the desire to not have to pledge allegiance to any other faction and simply be left alone to do as they please. Spells that allow them to avoid and escape control and detainment are great spells to help them maintain their freedom.

  • 1st level: expeditious retreat
  • 2nd level: misty step, sanctuary
  • 3rd level: haste
  • 4th level: freedom of movement
  • 5th level: passwall
  • 8th level: mind blank
Harmonium

The only thing the Hardheads ever really want is for everyone to comply and obey. They do want to make everyone adopt their beliefs and comply voluntarily, but they are really not above making people follow their rules by force when needed.

  • 1st level: command
  • 2nd level: detect thoughts, enthrall, hold person, suggestion
  • 5th level: dominate person, geas, hold monster
  • 6th level: mass suggestion
Mercykillers

They are all about delivering punishment to the guilty. There are plenty of spells to apprehend and imprison those who are trying to escape their just fate.

  • 1st level: compel duel, hellish rebuke, hex
  • 2nd level: hold person, see invisibility, silence
  • 3rd level: bestow curse, slow, stinking cloud
  • 4th level: locate creature, resilient sphere
  • 5th level: hold monster
  • 7th level: forcecage
  • 8th level: maze
  • 9th level: imprisonment, true seeing
Revolutionary League

The Anarchists are constantly working to overthrow the people in power and living their whole existence in complete paranoia. Anything that helps with maintaining secrecy is just the thing they need.

  • 1st level: disguise self, illusory script
  • 2nd level: detect thoughts, invisibility, knock, pass without trace
  • 3rd level: nondetection
  • 4th level: arcane eye, greater invisibility, private sanctum
  • 5th level: mislead, seeming
  • 8th level: mind blank
Sign of One

The Signers reject your reality and substitute their own. Pretty much all illusions and transmutations, as well as several enchantments are exactly the kind of magic they are looking for.

  • Cantrip: minor illusion
  • 1st level: charm person, disguise self, silent image
  • 2nd level: alter self, phantasmal force, suggestion
  • 3rd level: counterspell, dispel magic, major image
  • 4th level: fabricate, hallucinatory terrain, phantasmal killer, polymorph
  • 5th level: creation, modify memory, seeming
  • 6th level: mass suggestion, programmed illusion
  • 7th level: magnificent mansion, mirage arcane, simulacrum
  • 8th level: demiplane
  • 9th level: true polymorph, weird, wish
Society of Sensation

The Sensates seek to experience the Multiverse in as many ways as possible, so they can fully see the big picture behind everything and make sense of all existence. Like the Signers they would be very much interested in transmutations that let them experiences the forms of other creatures, but also in divinations that let them perceive what is usually hidden from their ordinary senses. Additionally, spells that help them survive particularly dangerous experiences are of great use to the Sensates.

  • Cantrips: resistance
  • 1st level: comprehend languages, identify, purify food and drink
  • 2nd level: alter self, beast sense, darkvision, protection from poison, see invisibility
  • 3rd level: clairvoyance, protection from energy, water breathing
  • 4th level: arcane eye, polymorph
  • 5th level: legend lore, scrying
  • 6th level: magic jar
  • 9th level: shapechange, true seeing
The Transcendent Order

The Ciphers believe that all the challenges of the Multiverse are not solved through reason, but through instinct. The Ciphers don’t think about threats they encounter or make plans or come up with tactics. They simply act, without hesitations or doubts, in the firm belief that everything will just work out as it’s supposed to.

  • Cantrip: guidance, resistance
  • 2nd level: enhance ability
  • 3rd level: haste, water walk
  • 8th level: mind blank
  • 9th level: foresight, time stop
Xaositects

Chaos is its own reward.

  • 2nd level: misty step
  • 3rd level: blink, hypnotic pattern
  • 4th level: confusion
  • 5th level: animate objects
  • 7th level: prismatic spray, reverse gravity

There might be more that I have not yet thought of. It seems rather suspicious to me that the concept I have in mind for the campaign would feature the Bleakers, Doomguards, Dustmen, Anarchists, Signers, and Sensates in quite prominent roles, and that these just happen to have the largest and most evocative spell lists. Though that could just be coincidence. Something about the Rule of Three or something.

Dusts of Minethys

The petitioners of Minethys are miserable; they’re greedy sods, and they won’t share anything with anyone unless they’re paid for it. Since there’s not much use for jink here, they barter for services and rags for protection against the wind. The strong are those who manage to gain the services of many: their sand-built huts offer the best shelter from the wind, though this means nothing in the path of the tornados. They’re a hard lot, and they’ll bob a body for all he’s worth, if he lets ’em.

Honey Caves Harvesting

One of the major parts of food production in Kaendor is the harvesting of honey from giant bees. Giant bees construct their hives in cave systems and abandoned burrows of large animals, but in some places have been successfully lured into artificially dug tunnels. Hives generally consist of a small number of brood caves where larvas are being raised, and several storage caves where honey is being kept.

Giant bees are highly protective of they honey and quickly attack any intruders they perceive as a threat. To safely harvest the honey, workers protected by armor take buckets of honey contaminated with a fungus that is deadly to giant bee larvas and pour it on the floor of a storage cave. Worker bees quickly detect and identify the fungus and use chemical markers that make the entire cave off limits and abandon all the honey stored in it. Within a day or so, the cave becomes safe to enter and the honey can be harvested, with the giant bees having no more interest in it.

While seemingly easy work, harvesting honey is a highly skilled occupation. Not only is preparing a storage cave for harvesting extremely dangerous, with death a constant threat, but the leader of a harvesting group also has the great responsibility to prevent the fungus from accidentally being spread to other caves, potentially killing off the entire hive in a matter of weeks. As such, giant bee keepers are often highly respected people in their towns, like millers, smiths, and shipwrights.

Giant Bee

Small beast

Armor Class 11
Hit Points 4 (1d8)
Speed 10 ft., fly 40 ft.
STR 8 (-1), DEX 12 (+1), CON 10 (+0), INT 1 (-5), WIS 10 (+0), CHA 3 (-4)
Senses passive Perception 10
Languages
Challenge 1/8 (25 XP)

Actions

Sting: Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 3 (1d4 + 1) piercing damage, and the target must make a DC 10 Constitution saving throw, taking 7 (2d6) poison damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. If the poison damage reduces the target to 0 hit points, the target is stable but poisoned for 1 hour, even after regaining hit points, and is paralyzed while poisoned in this way.

The Mythic Fantasy campaign style

Mythic Fantasy frequently gets mentioned in passing in listings of various fantasy styles. The Dungeon Master’s Guide for D&D 5th Edition describes it like this:

A mythic-fantasy campaign draws on the themes and stories of ancient myth and legend, from Gilgamesh to Cu Chulainn. Adventurers attempt mighty feats of legend, aided or hindered by the gods or their agents – and they might have divine blood themselves. The monsters and villains they face probably have a similar origin. The minotaur in the dungeon isn’t just another bull-headed humanoid, but the Minotaur – misbegotten offspring of a philandering god. Adventures might lead the heroes through a series of trials to the realms of the gods in search of a gift or favor.
Such a campaign can draw on the myths and legends of any culture, not just the familiar Greek tales.

Sounds good, makes sense. Barely anyone ever seems to use it. And when you see it show up somewhere, the vast majority of it seems to be indeed mashups of Greek gods, heroes, and monsters. What you get is a fantasy version of Greek myth, sometimes with names switched up, but you will have a really hard time to point out original fantasy that is inspired by mythic themes, motifs, and narratives. There is of course The Lord of the Rings, that was specifically written to be mythic in style, but even though elements of it have been copied thousands of times, the mythic aspects seem to have been lost to the imitators. If you dig in really deep, you might have some luck with lesser known novels, but it seems to be very much absent in movies, RPGs, and videogames. It’s an idea that sounds really good, but I never was able to identify good references for how that could look like. Except of course for the fantasy versions of Greece.

But today I was seeing a trailer for the new From Software game Elden Ring and took a glance at what some people think about it so far, and I finally got it! The whole Soulsborne series is mythic fantasy. This is how it can look like in practice. Is Lord Gwyn a bit like Zeus? Yes, of course he is. And he brought the Age of Fire to humans, like Prometheus did. But other than that, nothing about Dark Souls feels like a retelling of Greek myth. Bloodborne of course does nothing to cover up its imagery that is taken from Gothic Horror and Eldritch Horror, but it doesn’t feel like a Lovecraft story or a Lovecraft setting. It still is it’s very own thing.

But what is it that makes these games and their setting feel mythic, and how is this different from other types of fantasy?

I think the first thing that stands out are the boss monsters. They are not simply just boss fights. With some exceptions like the Capra Demon, most of the prominent ones are unique beings with a specific backstory and context. And equally important, they have powers that make them stand apart from other monsters and a very different kind of threat. When you take our own everyday world as your frame of reference, then a minotaur, centaur, or satyr would be an amazingly strange creature and great threat. But when you are already in a fantasy world, then even a minotaur doesn’t have anything supernatural or divine about it.

The other main thing that contributes to the mythic feel is that these are stories that explain how things came to be the way that they were and the transformations that the world is currently experiencing. They are stories that lift the veil from how the world works. They give you insight into the powers that control the world, why they do what they do, and how they are limited in restricted in what they can do.

Perhaps mythic fantasy is ultimately about the supernatural and divine forces that shape the world, and the potential and limitations of human agency. It’s about dealing with situations that are beyond anyone’s fault or control, with mortals having no choice but accepting the changes forced on them and somehow finding ways to live with them. That isn’t to say that heroes would be passive. Far from it. But fate plays a huge role and heroes often have very little choice in playing their part in events that are inevitable. Even when the ultimate outcome is not predetermined, there often can be only two ways for things to end, and it is up the heroes to make the one decision that makes all the difference.

There surely is a lot more to it than just this, and I am not even certain that these first observations are fully accurate. But I feel like this is a first insight into what this particularly elusive form of fantasy storytelling might actually be.