Category Archives: worldbuilding

The Deep Blue Under

I frequently see well meaning critics demand that more writers should include their own “cultural heritage” in their works. To get more diversity in fiction, particularly in fantasy, als also share new ideas and perspectives with the global audience. Does this also apply if you’re a writer from Northern Europe? We have lots of cultural heritage here. I am sure there’s lots of people who would really be into fantasy inspired by vikings.

But to be honest, we do have a bit more history than that here in “the land between the seas”. (No, not Denmark. Schleswig-Holstein.) And it’s all about sailing and the sea. Some time after the Viking Age, Lübeck became the gateway to Northern Europe and central hub of the whole Baltic Sea trade. While I mentioned once before the whole story of Margarete I, the Kalmar Union, the Battle of Visby, and pirates is excelent Game of Thrones level material, the history of the Hanseatic League is mostly a story of commerce and diplomacy, which lies somewhat outside of my own field of interest when it comes to fantasy. If someone would write it, I’d totally read it, but I’ve got other things to do with my own writing efforts.

But still, there’s the sea…

If you’d want to condense the culture of Schleswig-Holstein in just two images, it’d be dairy farming and the sea. Those are our things! (We don’t have anything else.) Including sea travel has always been a priority for me in my work on the Ancient Lands and it has remained so even after I gave the setting a tighter focus as a forest world. Forests and the sea, that’s the two worlds of the Ancient Lands. Today I was thinking about the role of sea spirits within the setting and I didn’t have a lot on my list. Mermaids that can shapeshift into humans and like to eat people with their shark teeth was about the full extend of ideas I had about it. That and Deep Ones, but those fishy friends are not actually spirits but more in the league of trolls and harpies. I had stopped worrying about sea monsters a good while ago, because when are you really going to have players fight those. I certainly don’t want to do fantasy kingdoms on the bottom of the sea, as throughout the past four decades those have always universally sucked. And when you’re on a ship, most sea creatures can’t actually fight with player characters. So what to do about the sea as an element of the Ancient lands?

Here’s where all the talk about cultural heritage comes into it. When you think about fantasy and the sea, you probably first think about pirates on tropical islands, and maybe Odysseus in the Aegean Sea as a distant second. But here up north, the image of the Sea is a very different one. The Baltic Sea is pretty tame (and boring), but the North Sea and particularly the North Atlantic Ocean are a different story altogether. There is very little romantic about how they are seen in local folklore and there aren’t any pretty mermaids in coral castles and friendly dolphins. The beach is a nice place to take walks and think about going for a swim if the weather were just a bit warmer. But the sea itself is a vast, black, cold void of watery death.

In Northern German folklore, the North Sea is given some degree of personalty, so you could think of it as a kind of spirit. But a more accurate word would be demon. Yes, the sea has always been a provider of food and the source of our wealth through trade, but that’s only as long as you stay above it. Below the surface there is only darkness and death. If the sea is worshipped, it’s not to ask for plenty or good fortune. It’s begging it to spare your life. The sea can swallow everything that floats on it or that is close to it, and what it devours is never heard from again. It is literally forever vanished from the face of the Earth. Only very rarely do things come up from below, and these are the massive corpses of things unlike any creatures seen on land or in the air. Things with no resemblance to what can be found in rivers and lakes. Below the waves lies a world that is not meant for people. A world in which people can not exist.

While I like the idea of shapeshifting cannibal fish ladies, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are actually much too human like for a place like this. Instead of making the sea part of the Spiritworld, I am going to assign it to the Underworld. It’s not the world of spirits that seem related to people, but the world of alien demons. I had not really decided on any details about the Ocean God yet, but going with Dagon would be a much more interesting choice than some happy dolphin god. Another interesting aspect of the sea in the Ancient Lands is that aside from the highest mountains, it’s the only part of the world that is open to the sky without any cover. For people used to life under trees, this would be a very alien environment.

Of course, there are still some major sailing peoples in the Ancient Lands and I am going to keep sea travel an important part of the setting, But sailors will be a much more odd group of folks. Even staying close to the coasts, they are always living on the edge to the Underworld, much more so than any other people. And their own culture should be influenced by this proximity to demonic influences. Discovering remote islands will also take on a somewhat different character. I have not thought of any specifics yet, but reaching such a place should have some traces of feeling like arriving in a different world after having passed through an alien and malevolent otherworld of the open sea.

Fantastic worldbuilding is so much more easier, fun, and interesting than realistic worldbuilding

I admit that I fell into this trap myself when I started to seriously work on a fantasy world six years ago. So let’s call it a typical beginners mistake. I was young and stupid, just like probably everyone else. I frequently look around in RPG forums for discussions about advice on worldbuilding and I’m always more than happy to share my experiences and discoveries and present various options that I think might be of interest and useful for the people who asked.

But there is this one thing that regularly comes up, almost always by people who are just starting out, that makes me somewhat… let’s say “frustrated”. It’s people trying to make a fantasy world by attempting to model a physically, chemically, biologically, and even astronomically realistic planet. I think the initial consideration is valid. You don’t want to end up people pointing out that your rivers are running upstream or in circles or that you can’t have an ecosystem in which all the animals are carnivores. A basic understanding about geography and ecology is a good thing to have to avoid the most embarassing blunders.

But then there’s always people who start worrying about the size of their world’s sun, it’s radiation output, and it’s distance from the planet. Or how spiders can only get so big because of the way their respiratory system work unless you increase the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere considerably. It’s a typical mistake and I made it as well when I started, but such exercises are ultimately pointless.

The first thing is that it’s still fantasy. If you’re writing really hard science-fiction, then I can understand the desire to show off your real-world science knowledge and make the alien environments physically sound. But why bother worrying about the oxygen circulation in (real world) spiders or the maximum weight supported by bones (real world) mammals and then add 50 meter fire-breathing flying reptiles and ghosts? As soon as you start adding fantastic elements, you already establish that real world physics do not apply to this world.

The other thing that makes such efforts futile is the question how such information would ever become known to players or readers? Is anyone ever going to dissect a giant spider and ask for a description of its whole internal anatomy? Is any character ever going to make an atmospheric analysis or calculate the energy output of the star based on its chemical composition and mass? If a detail can never plausibly come up in the fiction, then it’s useless.

The amount of scientific knowledge you need to make a pretty plausible fantasy world is really very basic stuff: Planets are colder at the poles and warmer at the equator. Climate varies little between summer and winter near the sea and varies greatly further inland. You need to have larger numbers of herbivores than carnivores. Water flows downhil; rivers only meet but don’t split up (except for coastal swampy river deltas). As a simple rule of thumb: As soon as you start adding measurements and make calculations, you went off doing exploring real-world scientific phenomena (which is a good thing),  but it’s irrelevant for your worldbuilding.

I also want to make an appeal to dream big. An Earth-like planet with medieval culture is unlikely to really inspire people and amaze them. When you set out to build a new fantasy world, then you really should consider to build one that is different and something people haven’t seen many times before. Of course there’s some personal stylisitic preference talking here. I’m unashamedly a huge fan of Morrowind, Planescape, and Star Wars and 70s and 80s fantasy art. There seems to be very little fantasy of this kind to be around these days. But it’s fantasy, you’re allowed to be fantastical.

One Page Cultures

Dealing with cultures in a campaign setting is always a tricky issue. There are a lot of good reasons to provide a good range of different cultures with unique and distinctive character instead of going with some kind of generic Standard Fantasy Setting. But at the same time there’s always the very real risk of excessive lore dumps that make the setting less accessible to newcomers. While Tekumel and Glorantha always looked quite intriguing to me, I was never able to get even a foot into the door, so to speak. There’s so much and I don’t know where to begin reading. My goal with releasing Ancient Lands material is not just for it to be read but also to be used in actual games. I don’t want to write fiction (at least with this undertaking) but to create RPG material. Good RPG material.

So when chosing a format to present the various cultures I have created for the setting, making it so that it’s accessible and useable are the key considerations. That means it has to be short. Or as Bryce tends to put it in regard to adventures “terse and evocative”. Short enough to make people willing to read it even when they have no investment in it yet, evocative enough that it makes them want to have it in their games, and providing the kind of information they need to actually use it effectively. So the format I am fiddling around with now is the One Page Culture. One page of text of text has to be enough to cover all the essential facts.

But what are the essential facts? By which I mean “necessary or highly useful to present the culture in an actual adventure”. When I read about cultures in RPG books or other fantasy world, there tends to be a lot of stuff that might be somewhat interesting to read as entertainment, but is almost impossible for the players to actually encounter except in the form of an infodump monolog. So the main consideration is: “What aspects of a culture will the players be interacting with?” Limiting the full length of the description to a single page is a means to ensure the whole thing doesn’t get bloated with descriptions of cooking and embroidery. These are the things I found to be the most relevant for GMs to run a game, in no particular order.

  1. Who are the important people? Probably the most important thing for players to know. When they get to a village or stronghold, who are the people they need to talk to if they need something. Who are the people who matter for things related to adventurers?
  2. What can they do for you? Once you know what kind of leader or official you need to talk to, what kind of assistance can you expect to get from them and what are the limits imposed on them by their society?
  3. Who are the troublesome people? In addition to people who could be of help to the players, there’s also those who could mean trouble to adventurers. Witches, inquisitors, doomsday preachers, and so on.
  4. What can they do to you? If the players have run ins with these people, what kind of threat are they likely to pose?
  5. What services are available? Different cultures may have different good that they are producing exclusively or have various restrictions on what may be sold or provided to outsiders.
  6. How do they fight? What type of armaments are used by warriors of the culture and what’s the common composition of a group of armed people? Do they rely on certain tactics or are there special rules who can be in charge of such a group. Where would warriors be found in an average settlement and in what numbers?
  7. What do settlements look like? While the specifics about different architectural styles are of little consequence, it can be quite useful to have a general idea of the common layout of a settlement for each culture. In some cultures the hall of the chief or the shrine may be in the center, while in others they may be found on a prominent hill at the far side of the main gate. Or the shrine may not be located within the settlement itself but some distance away from people’s homes.  Some cultures may have tall stone houses, others circular single-story farm house with thatched roofs, or underground burroews. It doesn’t have to be alaborate, but if you keep these things consistent the players might quite likely recognize the patterns.
  8. What are shrines and temples like? Since adventurers tend to have to deal with various supernatural poisons, diseases, and curses and may have other needs for divine aid, shrines and temples are going to be places that are quite likely to be visited on several occasions. Giving a brief description of how the culture builds its shrines, how priests look like, and what requirements and restrrictions are in place for assisting outsiders can be a great boon to making a culture appear distinctive. Deep theological concepts or religious celebrations are usually completely irrelevant in actual play.
  9. What animals are around? This item is important for the Ancient Lands in particular, but can be useful for describing cultures in general. If the animals found in settlements are not the typical European farm animals, then what kind of mundane or unusual critters are around instead? The Ancient Lands don’t have horses, cows, pigs, or dogs, but many similar roles are filled by various types of deer, goats, and large reptiles. A settlement of skeyn would have many ogets (large riding goats), while Takari elves of the Mahiri Jungles would use large caravans of huge drohas (hardrosaurs). This also applies to what beasts warriors would be riding into battle.

A Book? What kind of book?

Pretty early on in my work on the Ancient Lands I began considering the possibility of making the material publicly available. The comments on the early ideas I shared showed that there clearly is some kind of interest for the kind of setting I have in mind and have continued throughout the years. And since I started reading a wide range of OSR releases and seeing with how little resources and just a good amount of creativity they have been made, creating some kind of book started looking like a real option. Now that the world has reached a pretty clear shape in my head and I more or less finalized the rules I want to use for it, it’s getting time to get started with some actual writing.

The most important decision before even starting with putting words on a screen is to chose what kind of book it’s going to be and what is going to go into it. I am all for making whatever creative work you want to do, but what I want to make is a world, not some kind of special or innovative book. So I find it useful to consider who would be the intended target audience and what kind of book they would find useful to have. In my very early worldbuilding days I used to look at the table of content of the Forgotten Realms and Eberron books, or the old TSR box sets and try to cover all the items they had listed. The results were not satisfying and it’s pretty clear that I won’t be having an audience like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Golarion anyway. I’ve actually come to dislike such books myself and consider it a format that just isn’t really useful for GMs. With whatever I am writing being effectively a homemade book using a retro D&D system, the main audience I might reach would likely be mostly GMs running oldschool game, plus the odd person who follows me to this site through one of my forum signatures. And these people wouldn’t be interested in a big encyclopedia of a complex world with a detailed history and intricate webs of NPC relationships. And neither am I really interested in developing or writing such a world.

I read a good number of RPG books of which many are setting specific, but with no intention to run campaigns in those worlds. What I am really after is ideas that I can incorporate in my own campaign. Almost the whole creation process of the Ancient Lands consisted of collecting ideas and concepts from everywhere and integrating them into the setting with barely more than a fresh coating of paint. The book that I want to make is a collection of humanoid cultures, settlements, adventuring sites, creatures, and one concept of a cosmology unusual for a D&D world. It is all content that I created for use in my own campaign and it all can be used together if someone wants to play in my world as well. But I expect that to happen rarely and so the primary design goal is to make it a collection of working stand-alone pieces that GMs can scavenge to create their own bronze age wilderness Morrowind-esque worlds.

The main problem i had when first getting into RPGs and deeper into Forgotten Realms was that I felt the main book not providing me enough information to actually run a game, It was full of hints for what is hidden in many of the dungeons, teased at the resources and plans of various organizations, and gave brief glimpses at the goals and motives of important NPCs, as well as announcing big historic events to come. And I knew that at least for some of these there were actual definitive answers to those questions and much more detailed descriptions of the brief summaries. And as a young GM I felt that I would have to know these things before I could use all those elements in a game or otherwise I would later discover I did things wrong. And that’s a big problem with settings that have these big progressing timelines and continous releases of sourcebooks. You can actually  run them wrong and contradict the officially established facts. The second major problem with Forgotten Realms in particular is that all the cool content is for high level parties and completely out of scope for the most common groups of 1st to 5th level. Which means the majority of content you get isn’t even going to see any use for most of the time. What’s the point of NPCs I can not use because my party is not powerful enough and that have to be kept out of any danger because I don’t want to contradict their official description in future releases? The second edition box set and the third edition book are prime examples of how to not make a campaign setting. The Planescape and Dark Sun boxes were much better, but the revised edition of Dark Sun made all the mistakes the first one managed to avoid. Again, the main purpose of a campaign setting is to be used by GMs to run games for their players. They are not for reading fiction. Most big published campaign settings don’t appear to understand it but have a big enough brand behind them to not make it matter.

One of my favorite setting books, that I’ve been praising many times, is the first edition Forgotten Realms book The Savage Frontier. This book is what I want to do. It’s a collection of ideas that inspire GMs to create their own specific and detailed content. To me it’s one of the many old Jaquays classics. Unfortunatly that first version of the North didn’t last and became the quaint bloated mess it has been ever since. Another, and perhaps even better example of what it might look like would be Yoon-Suin. It’s not a book that gives you a world that can be played out of the box. It really is a book of ideas that you are meant to use to assemble your own personal setting, I already can say for certain that I won’t be having any considerable number of random tables or appendices (full of random tables) and will be going for more half-page dungeon descriptions and NPCs meant to be met by and interact (and perhaps get killed by) the players. But it’s an approach I very much appreciate.

I hope that this might have provided some general idea of what you can expect to get. Somewhere in the distant future. However, I am doing this purely for the enjoyment of creation and the intention of getting read and used by other people, so all the content will be available for free. Once everything has been written and the reception indicates that there might be a market for it I could very well imagine doing a very pretty print version with comissioned art sold at a modest profit. But again, this is for my own use first, to see it get used by others second, and with commercial success being a very distant third that is of no real priority.

10 Random Things about the Ancient Lands

Things are rather busy at work these days with our main season having started (we sell garden plants so everything needs to be fully grown before the actual planting season starts) and even on the days when I don’t get back home late and tired I mostly spend my time doing other things than working on the Ancient Lands. While admittedly I’ve been writing more here recently than I have for quite a while, most of it is spur of the moment stuff that just pops into my mind minutes before I write it. And even most of that is more theory than specific content.

But I am always more creative in spring and summer (it’s adventuring season after all) and I got quite a number of ideas in my head that are almost finished content that is only in need of being nailed down and locked. Which I always do best when spelling it out in writing. So expect more stuff that is ready to take and use in games in the comming weeks. For now I am hopping on to an idea that someone suggested over two years ago and share ten randomly selected interesting details about the Ancient Lands that make it a unique and distinctive setting:

  1. The Ancient City: Somewhere in the distant past there was a great city of sorcerers known as Sarhat (or Sahal) that rivaled all other realms in power and eldritch knowledge. Of all the legendary ruins in the Ancient Lands, this one is by far the most famous and most searched for, though almost nothing definitive is known about it. Many believe that the sorcerers of Sarhat were naga and that therefore it must be located somewhere in the Mahiri Jungles or Kemesh, but every so often the notes of slain naga sorcerers reveal that their hunts for the ancient city have got them no further than anyone else’s. Some treasure hunters and sages believe that the city actually lies somewhere in the Spiritworld or might even have moved far from its original location. Countless people have died or vanish on their search for Sarhat and among the common people there is a widespread doubt about what one might even find if the city could ever been reached. The search for the fabled city is widely regarded as an idiotic quest for fame without any hope of success or practical purpose, and leading people to Sarhat has become well established as the ultimate folly, both literally and figuratively.
  2. Verticality:Throughout the Ancient Lands and over the countless centuries of its existance, the builders of fortresses and castles have always shown a seemingly universal fascination with height. In a world covered in trees, reaching above the endless canopy and having an unlimited view to the horizon has become an ancient symbol of power. Castles are often build on top of rocky hills or take the form of massive towers, and some fortresses are carved into the sides of massive cliffs. Even in small villages with simple wooden palisades the highest point of the settlement is usually reserved for the chief’s hall or the village shrine.
  3. Truthspeaking: The future is always uncertain until it happens and there are no powers that could say for certain what it holds. Yet the actions and choices of both mortals and spirits are often very much predictable as long as one has sufficient knowledge of their motives and plans. Truthspeaking is the art of peering into the wyrd and observing the countless possibilities and paths that lie ahead of a person and finding the one that seems most likely. Truthspeaking is very accurate when it comes to predicting significant encounters that await a person in the near future if events have already been set into motion to send them and others down certain path. It can also predict how those other people will act according to their natures and motives and a warning of looming treachery can be of invaluable worth. However, while truthspeakers can predict a duel between two heroes before they even know about each other’s existence, they have no way to tell who will win if their skills are equal. And often it is tiny and seemingly insignificant details that decide the outcome of an encounter that even the most experienced truthspeakers can easily miss as being important.
  4. Serpentmen: The serpentmen are servants of the naga who are similar to elves in size and stature but with scaled skin, serpentine eyes, and almost featureless faces. They have never been encountered as anything other than soldiers or guards and seemingly always in the service of naga, which has many people believe that they have been created from elven slaves through alchemy or sorcery.
  5. Iron: While the raw materials for making iron are quite cheap and widely available, the process of refining them into a workable material and forging it into durable blades are much more complex and dificult than working with bronze. While iron pots and nails are common and its often used for making lamellar armor plates, iron blades are very rare and valuable. Even though they are no better than well made bronze blades (and often even less so), iron has the special property of harming spirits just as well as it does mortals. Pieces of iron can be used as wards against spirits and iron chains have the power to securely bind them and even prevent mortal witches from using their magic.*
  6. There are four moons in the sky: One large, one medium, and two small; one of which is moving very slowly in the sky in the opposite direction.
  7. The Old Gods aren’t gone: Nor are they sleeping. They are still around as they always have, since long before the gods of forests or beasts. They have only become almost invisible in this world since life took over the surface of the planet and established the familiar laws of nature. As one leaves behind these familar regions in the Spiritworld they can be found deep beneath the earth and among the stars that are still their domains.
  8. Time is irrelevant in the Spiritworld: While visiting mortals still experience time as they are used to it seems to have no real influence on the Spiritworld itself or its native beings. Castles can stand deserted in pristine conditions for many thousands of years or crumble into rubble within minutes after being abandoned. Some spirits sleep for eons or sit in silent contemplation for centuries without need for food or sleep. Fires burn without ever consuming their fuel and a single night may last for what seems to be months. The Spiritworld is a manifestation of the thoughts and emotions of the spirits and does not have to follow the patterns that govern life in the material world.
  9. Spears and Bows are the Hero Weapons: Swords and axes play a rather minor role in the warrior culture of the Ancient Lands. Since armor tends to be light and not highly sophisticated, reach and speed are the main things that keep warriors alive in battle. A properly armed warrior carries either a spear or a shield (or both if he has attendants to carry them) and short swords and axes are kept primarily as backup weapons or for use in tight spaces. When using one-handed weapons, the other hand always carries a shield if it’s in any way possible.**
  10. There are no horses or dogs: Also no bears, cows, or pigs. Horses and dogs are the two most significant animals in European culture as far as their role in hunting and warfare is conerned. Since I want to go with a style that is more Morrowind/Planescape/Kalimdor, these very familiar creatures are removed and replaced with more exotic creatures that are representative of the world’s unique ecology.

*I really like this one from a mechanical perspective. It’s a simple replacement of the common silver weapons and makes the imprisonment of spellcasters very easy without convoluted magical prison setups. All while reviving the old image of iron having power over spirits.
** This is partly “historical accuracy” but primarily a desire to see these weapons of ancient mythological figures back in their deserved spots. The reach advantage of spears can simply be represented as a +1 bonus to Armor Class, as in practice it makes it harder for an opponent to get close enough to attempt a strike at the body.

Adventures for Fun and Profit

But let’s forget about the profit for now.

Noism started an interesting debate with two posts about a seemingly overarching theme of bleakness in modern oldschool RPG releases and discussion. And I think it’s an accurate observation. The majority of content that is getting major exposure these days is pretty dark. But I think the main reason for this lies in the popularity of the works of James Raggi and Zak S., whose personal styles simply are bleak and grotesque. You could easily count Patrick Stuart as also having ascended into this exclusive group. Together they and their works easily tower over everyone else combined. This of course creates the perception that oldschool gaming is dominated by dark and bleak content. And when it comes to commercially produced publications this is actually the case. But I believe these great adventures are popular primarily because they are really good, not because they have bleak tones and dark themes. It probably is mostly a coincidence that the most successful creators are sharing such similar artistic styles.

That being said, it’s still a valid question to ask how we all could produce content that is just as good but taking a more positive outlook on things? Having bleak adventures dominate is indeed kind of a problem, in that it is quite easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm that is surrounding their reception. Deep Carbon Observatory is awesome and makes me excited to make something just as awesome with my own ideas. But at least for me it’s always very easy to fall into the trap of falsely assuming that something similarly great would also be similarly structured. It takes me conscious effort to say “This is not what you wanted to do. You had a different idea that is also awesome and your own.” So I find it very worthwhile to encourage a discussion about what other shapes great oldschool adventures can take and to get people to put more of those out there so that we have a broader perspective on what we can be doing that builds on our own passions and develops into our own personal style.

The original question that started this was “can RPGs be cheery?” I am not a native speaker but this doesn’t seem like a word that I could align with fantasy adventure RPGs. Cheerfulness seems to be in conflict with …well, conflict. As I see it, every adventure needs conflict. Without conflcit there’s no treat and therefore no tension. Maybe you can have RPGs that are cheery, but I don’t see it working for games of the fantasy adventure type. However, what these games do have the capability of is FUN!

To me, the absolute holy grail of a perfectly executed adventure is Raiders of the Lost Arc. It has violence and pain, a terrible threat, and the most evil of evil villains: Nazis! Is it in any way cheery? No, I really wouldn’t say so. But is it a bleak movie or a pessimistic one? I’d say far from it. It’s exciting and wondrous and Indiana Jones is a hero who has no pretentions of glory but is good without a trace of doubt. And it really is fun.

I do enjoy a certain gloominess in my favorite games and movies, but I would say that those are all cases in which the mood isn’t bleak but rather somber. To me the big difference lies in the outlook forward. In bleak settings there is a universal certainty that the actions of the protagonists won’t be making and difference for the better. Things might even end up being worse despite their best efforts. Things are bad and are only going to be worse. Adventures in such environments can be fascinating and entertaining, but unless everyone is set to go down in a blaze of glory, it’s not going to be fun. (Early Warhammer 40k always seems hilarious to me.)

But dark elements or periods of gloom do not have to drag everything into bleakness. As with Indiana Jones you can still have an overall very positive outlook, simply by giving the players confidence that their efforts will make things better. Things will look up in the future because the heroes took great risks and paid great personal costs. if the players walk away with a confidence that it all had been worth it, then even an adventure full of darkness can have an overall positive outlook. A great example for such a tale would be Princess Mononoke. That movie gets outright terrifiying as shit goes to hell, but even then the hero keeps pushing forward because he knows that he can make the future much better than it’s currently looking to be.

I don’t think I’ve consciously been thinking about it this way, but I believe that my Ancient Lands setting is at its core a world meant to be about the struggle for making things better. The setting is build around the concept of treasure hunting, but not about gold fever and the suffering it brings to everyone involved, but again much more of the Indiana Jones type. The main motivation for PCs is the excitement of discovering magical wonders that people back home would never have dreamed of. To reach them, great threats have to be overcome and there is fierce competition from highly dangerous and unsavory people who might use such discoveries to harm. You can easily have the PCs encountering great dangers and dealing with serious threats, but overall I find it an approach that lends itself very much to having a lot of fun while doing so,

As I see it, the world is not so much “Points of Light surrounded by a vast sea of darkness”, but rather islands of the familiar surrounded by oceans of the unknown. When it comes to designing settings and adventures it’s really very much the same approach, but the dangerous unknown doesn’t have to be dark. Even if it’s just unfamiliar you can still have high tension adventures without any need for bleak darkness.

Am I done?

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

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

 

This thing can be played.

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

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

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

Know what you don’t want

Not much of a big revelation, but it feels like a somewhat important step of my own worldbuilding work.

My favorite design paradigm is “Perfection is not reached when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.” (My second favorite one is “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”) While it has led me to very good results so far and the Ancient Lands are now much tighter and sleeker, I still frequently find my mind wandering off into wrong directions when making up new details. And what I realize now is that many times I end up following the same paths that didn’t lead to anything satisfying before. There are many fantasy ideas that I really like but which are not fitting for this particular setting.

  • Stone Age Fantasy: The Ancient Lands are a world in which civilization is small and short lived, which is mostly wilderness and ruled by spirits. This is a setup that lends itself very much to Stone Age cultures and I frequently find myself thinking of cultures and settlements in a Stone Age context when trying to define them more sharply. But now I realize this is really not what I want. The original concept was of a time where elves and dwarves rule and are at war with dragons and giants. That would be much more like small Bronze Age kingdoms. While it’s tempting to go that route to distinguish the setting, I don’t want to do a Stone Age hunters game. No need to explore this direction any further. What I want is more Morrowind and Kalimdor.
  • Weird Horror: I’ve found myself coming back to pour over Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventures and Patrick Stuart stuff many times and most of them are great. And there’s a good number of ideas in them that I think will be of great use to me, but I don’t want my campaigns to be like them. There’s a lot of great images and effects to be found, but the setting doesn’t really have a place for bleak dispair.
  • Classic Demons: I love demons in D&D. They are one of the greatest parts of the whole generic D&D mythology. I am also quite intrigues by the demons from Dragon Age. But my setting doesn’t really have a place for such embodiments of evil. What I a, going for is something much more like Daedra or Quori, with a lot more weird and less obsession with destruction. If I find myself thinking about evil destruction spirits, I should get myself to stop and instead work on something that’s more on the point.

Creativity isn’t something to just turn on and off as needed but more of a bubbling of ideas that for some reason feel right. But good design needs focus and direction. Knowing what you want is great, but knowing what you don’t want, even though it’s a great idea in general, also might help quite a bit.

The Old School Basic forum is still up and runnin but getting it off the ground has turned out to be slow start. There are two users now, but that’s of course notwhere near enough to make it a proper forum where people would go to to get a wide range of opinions on questions regarding the Basic editions of D&D. For this forum to really work, much more people are needed. At the very least to make it look like a place where actual discussions take place and one could hope to get any replies to a question. So even if you’re only remotely interested in a Basic foused forum or have no intention to post regularly, making an account and looking by on occasion would be a real help. Yes, it’s totally lame now but every additional user would be a real contribution in making it a properly active forum.

Time is an Illusion, and so are Pants

While I’ve been thinking about Morrowind, Planescape, Glorantha, and Tekumel (and why Dark Sun doesn’t seem to feel fully right as being in the same category) I came to the conclusion that beyond Asian and pre-medieval stylistic influences they all share a considerable amount of metaphysics and religion and have some esoteric aspects that are a big part of their appeal. (Dark Sun doesn’t, which is what sets it apart.) It’s something that I frequently pondered and has always been in the back of my head since I first wrote about the subject two years back. And while thinking about what elements with philosophical and metaphysical aspects I already have, I came up with a pretty decent list.

Most of these things started with me wanting to hav certain aesthetic and narrative elements that turned out to be conflicting with each other. Attempting to solve these conflicts by making various small changes and adaptations led to the discovery of numerous new ideas that are all not entirely original but make everything come together in a distinctive way that gives the world a unique character and opens interesting venues for exploration.

The Mythic Otherworld

This is an extension of Philotomy’s concept of the Mythic Underworld, which treats dungeons as places outside of the regular laws of nature and working by their own unfathomable supernatural rules. In the Mythic Otherworld this idea is extended to entire lands, or in case of the Ancient Lands the Spiritworld. The wilderness is a place of mostly mundane dangers that simply try to eat you. But the Spiritworld and its native creatures are not bound by the normal rules that make the civilized lands and wilderness make sense. Being inherently supernatural,the Spiritworld is a realm where things can seem illogical or outright impossible. There are castles and landscapes that defy gravity, fires that burn forever, underground labyrinths that never run out of breathable air, and creatures encountered in places they couldn’t have possibly reached. There are rules that govern the Spiritworld, but they are often quite different from those of the physical world and rarely make sense to mortal minds.

(This concept started as an attempt to make sense of the illogical layup and keying of many early dungeons, but actually turns out to be a really good paradigm for designing fantastic places with a mythical atmosphere and making spirits alien.)

Life Energy

Anything that exist is infused by energy. Energy allows living creatures to move and think, gives spirits their powers, and is also what makes fire burn and even seemingly unliving stones roll down cliffs and crush things underneath it. Energy is everywhere and while it appears in different looking forms it is ultimately all of the same essence. This life energy of nature has no boundaries and all things and everything that happens is part of the same whole. But within this universal energy is a vast multiplicity of wills, and each will has seemingly complete control over different bodies. But all the wills of each animal and plant within a landscape also make up the spirit of the land and this spirit can manifest a body of its own, even though it simultaneously exists in all the other beings within its realms.

To great spirits it comes naturally to share control over all the things in its domain with the individual wills of each being. People and animals are not normally aware of this touching and merging of wills. But it can be learned to extend the will beyond the own body into other things and other beings, which is then known as magic. Once control is released, things again follow their own natural behavior, which is why all mortal magic is impermanent.

(This originally started by thinking about the actual mechanics by which the Force makes things happen, but it ended as something that also very well explains spirits and divination.)

The Wyrd

Time is always flowing and things constantly changing, so it is impossible to accurately foresee the future before it happens, even with the most powerful magic of ancient spirits. But things never happen without a reason and all beings behave according to their nature, which makes many things that happen predictable. As the life energies of nature and magic flow through everything, great spirits and powerful magical beings have the ability to see what is hidden to the eyes and sense the paths that all creatures are following. This infinite network of paths is the Wyrd, and it is always in motion as creatures make choices and accident happen. But while paths are constantly changing, they rarely change by much and can be highly predictable to those who are experienced in watching them and knowledgeable in the hearts of men and beasts. Divination is the art of reading the everchanging wyrd and recognizing where paths are about to cross. Since all beings tend to follow their nature, great spirits and old shamans can tell which future encounters are fated to happen. They also can make predictions what choices people will make, but these become more unreliable the more unusual their circumstances are, and no power in the world can foresee the great differences that can be made by a loose stone or a serpent in the grass.

(Divination magic is always limited to predicting encounters and obstacles that are likely to happen, but can make no accurate statement of how they will play out. Telling the future without negating player agency and dice results lets me eat my cake and have it too.)

Drifting Time

Time is something that seems simple and straightforward in everyday life, with things changing and moving forward. But this is only because people are mortal and always only see short stretches of time and the physical world is followed by seemingly regular cycles of the seasons. But spirits have a much different perspective that allows them to see mountains rising and lands sink beneath the sea, yet at the same time nothing ever really changes and all the efforts of mortals are never getting them anywhere. On sufficient scales time is not a straight river that runs from the mountains to the sea but endlessly meandering without source or destination. Within the Spiritworld even the passing of seasons and years loses most of its meaning and both the weather as well as preservation and erosion are ultimately depending on the moods of the spirits of the land.

Whether days have passed or centuries makes very little difference in the Spiritworld. Ancient castles can be found in pristine states while solid castles may have crumbled to rubble after returning to them a month later. And while spirits may forgive, they rarely forget, and will honor both ancient agreements and avenge slights that happened generations past.

(The benefit here lies in having a good explanation of why there are so many ruins but little current civilization without having to rely on a Tolkienian decline of magic. It also justifies how magical creatures seem to be waiting fo centuries in inhospitable lairs for adventurers to find them. From their own perspective they and their lairs simply exist in a temporal limbo until outsiders interact with them.)

The Blight

The magic used by spirits, shamans, and witches utilizes the natural life energies within the environment and all the things in it and as such is limited to doing things that are naturally possible. But there is a space beyond the borders of reality which is filled with the energies of raw Chaos. Chaos energy has the potential to change the fabric of reality and through this allows sorcerers to do things that are impossible. This makes sorcery an extremely potent force that can be used for both great works and terrible destruction. But Chaos can never be fully controlled by mortals and every use of sorcery or the mere presence of demons weakens reality around them. This Blight warps and poisons the natural world and all living things touched by it. First it causes weakness and feelings of supernatural dread, but long exposure leads to deteriorating health and eventually turns living things into twisted monstrosities. Sorcerers learn to adapt to the changes of the Blight and consider it a price worth the unlimited potential sorcery offers. But most people see them as madmen who are laying the world into ruin in their thirsting for power. Druids and Demon Hunters stop at nothing to destroy sorcerers and demons wherever they can and while their methods are often extreme most people welcome their continual battle against further spreading of the Blight.

(This one started with my fascination of the idea that heroes fighting dark magic accept that this effort is exposing them to its power and eventually changing them. The Dark Side from Star Wars and the Darkspawn Blight and demonic possession from Dragon Age were both big influences on this.)

Red and Black Hearts

The peoples of the Ancient Lands do not think in the concepts of Good and Evil, or even such dualities as Order and Chaos. When judging people’s character, they distinguish between those whose actions bring peace and those whose actions bring suffering. Those who bring peace are usually higher regarded than those who bring suffering and are regarded as better or worse people accordingly. But there is no such thing as a concept of cosmic divine law which people can live in accordance with or violate. Not everyone who brings suffering needs to be despised or be made to stand justice, but they are all dangerous and often feared.

Most people who spread suffering are regarded as having a Red Heart. They are prone to anger, rage, hatred, and violence. While courage and strength are greatly admired by most peoples, those who have no control over their fury and lash out against others without thinking or restraint are seen as very dangerous people. While many redhearted people are regarded as thugs, this quality is also often found in those who have many other admirable traits. Their rages are often seen with sadness by those close to them, but if they prove to be to violent and unpredictable they need to be taken care of, one way or another.

People with a Black Heart are quite different in character and are much more unpredictable. They are not driven by rage, nor do they seek any satisfaction in the suffering of other. Rather, blackhearted people do not concern themselves with the suffering of others at all. They simply worry about their own goals and needs with no considerations about the wellbeing of others. They don’t go out of their way to spite or harm others but don’t hesitate when their plans will made others to suffer. For those who are more foresighted consider the social consequences of harmful actions on their longterm goals, but when they think they can get away with it there’s little that keeps them from sacrificing anyone.

Some people are seen as having both a red and a black heart and most of them are quickly regarded as monsters in humanoid form or being possessed by demons. Many of them are madmen who soon find an end at the hands of vengeful pursuers, but some end up among the most feared warlords and bandit leaders.

(Calling something evil is an ancient shortcut in western culture to not having reflect on an opponents motivation and reasons and get an instant moral justification to destroy them without further questions asked. Anytime I come across fiction that avoids this lazy simplification (usually Japanese but often also European) I really enjoy it a lot, and it makes interactions with supernatural and inhuman beings much more fascinating. So eventually I found this solution to have people “who just need killing” without giving the players an instant excuse to enjoy it. This is also why there are no orcs, goblins, or gnolls in this setting.)

Honor

While honor is an endlessly complex field, it’s role in the Ancient Lands primarily manifests itself in the two concepts of hospitality and vengeance.

Hospitality is the idea common in most cultures that everyone is obligated to offer food and shelter to travelers within the means of the host and according to the station of the guest. In a world with few travelers there are no places where one could rent a room outside the handful of major trade cities and there are no other places to stay the night or winter indoors than in the homes of locals. While the forests and mountain valleys are not as deadly as the open sea, it has become accepted that offering hospitality to travelers is an adequate price for seeing the same kindness extended to oneself or your relatives when similarly in need of shelter. There are limits to hospitality though and the guest is expected to offer a gift of gratitude in exchange, which again is according to the means of the guest and the station of the host. Overstaying ones welcome or not presenting sufficient gifts, let alone abusing the kindness of the host, is as much a violation of hospitality as not offering travelers a place for the night and just as much damaging to ones honor and reputation.

In a world where visitors from outside are rare, hosting guests is often much more of an honor than a burden to the host. Hosting esteemed guests is a great boost to ones reputation and in most places it is understood that only the mosy powerful families will get this honor. While refusing hospitality when requested is highly dishonorable, offering it freely to travelers can make the lesser families of a village very powerful enemies. Since the most powerful families are usually also the richest who ca best afford hosting guests in considerable comfort for extended time, this is an arrangement that mostly suits everyone involved just fine. Traveling adventurers coming to a new village will usually stay at the hall of the chief or another of the great families.

When conflicts happen, Vengeance is the most common institution to maintain stability. While there often is a desire to see an offender punished, avenging an offense is primarily a means to ensure that nothing of that kind will happen to the offended family or clan again. By getting revenge, a familiy is showing its strength and the severe consequences to anyone who might want to try attacking them. The point is not to get even but to make everyone afraid to cross the familiy again and because of this it is often impossible to let an attack go unpunished, even if the family has no desire for blood. To let an offense pass shows that the family is weak and an easy target for further attacks. Most of the time vengeance can be satisfied by payments of reparations. Paying reparations is safer for both sides and allows the conflict to become forgotten much faster than if someone got killed or maimed. If the reparation is sufficiently high, it means a significant loss for the offending family and it has been established that the attack has cost them. If the offer of reparation is considered insufficient or the crime too grave, the offended family will be after blood. In any such feud both sides come out much worse than they were before and it’s not uncommon that the offended family ends up losing more people and wealth than they inflict in damage on their enemies. Killing is not always necessary and in some cases causing injury will be regarded as acceptable if both sides aren’t eager for a long and deadly feud. But deaths can always happen and sometimes an injured member dying from wounds weeks later can reignite a stalled or solved feud. Feuds can continue for week or months until both sides are too exhausted from the constant state of warfare to continue. If the offended family believes it has shown that anyone attacking them will pay dearly for it, a truce will usually be negotiated though neutral mediators.

Vengeance is almost never between individuals but between families or clans. In tribal societies nobody is ever acting alone and any offense that is being commited is usually done in the presence or at least with the knowledge of a relative. These relatives also share responsibility for the offense, but part of the blame also lies with the elder siblings and older relatives who are responsible for properly raising the children of the family. The responsibility for every offense lies with the whole family. Most people own little personal items and most wealth in the form of land and animals is shared by the whole family,so any reparations automatically affect the family as a whole. The same goes when crops and buildings are destroyed or animals stolen or killed. When an offense is avenged with blood, there are also other practical considerations to attack relatives of the original offender. It is often easy for a family to protect a single member inside their home indefinitely, making it impossible to get at him. In theory all members of a family are valid targets, but many families hesitate to attack children or old women unless the other sides starts doing it first. But when arrows and torches are flying accidents happen and this escalation is not uncommon. Also, even if an offender manages to survive a feud unharmed until a truce is agreed his family will have suffered greatly and they know exactly who was responsible for bringing this suffering upon them. Even if they feel obliged to protect the offender, they will often see that he sees punishment for his offense themselves.

(I’ve long been intrigued at how vengeance and hospitality really worked in practice as their portrayal in fiction always seemed just as dodgy as that of warfare (which is mostly sensationalist nonsense). I’ve spend years researching social organization and public order in pre-civilization societies as a cultural studies student and it’s a very fascinating alternative to the typical medieval fantasy approach. While it’s a highly complex subject I think breaking it down to these two key concepts lets the players gets the most out of it while being pretty easy to grasp.)

I think nothing here is really new and ha been seen in one way or another several times before. But I doubt that all these elements and ideas have been used in this particular configuration and I am feeling very happy with the setting getting my own unique stamp because of it.