Villains for a treacherous forest world

Almost a year ago, I made up a list of great villains from fiction that I want to use as direct inspirations for my own antagonists. Even though this setting is very different in style and tone, I found that this list is still representing my top picks for great antagonists to emulate. They need to be human in their desires and limitations and failings, but also absolutely dispicable. This is what great enemies look like.

Setting the Theme

Silly title? Probably. It’s not easy being both snappy and clever all the time.

The first step in creating a new setting is always to think about which existing works you draw your main inspirations from and serve as your primary references. It may be fully unconcious for many people, but you can’t create something new from nothing. The second thing that I think everyone should do, but a great many number don’t, is to give it some thought what your new creation is supposed to be about. Lots of fictional worlds, especially in RPGs, are not really about anything. And that’s the main reason why they are bland, boring, indistinguishable, and ultimately forgettable. With past settings I did make this crucial step, but then I immediately went ahead creating lots of content without really paying any attention to the themes. And the campaigns ended up simply being okay, not very memorable, and feeling somewhat generic. (Though I also partly blame this on sticking with D&D-derivative systems.) Self-awareness being the first step towards self-improvement and all this, now is another opportunity to do better.

I’ve already been doing a good amount of preliminary work on the setting, and out of the many ideas I came up with and threw out, some general overall themes did emerge. The core idea, that has fascinated me for years, is that complex human cultures throughout all of history have regarded themselves as the pinacle of creation. Beings so far above all other living things that they exist outside of the natural order and nature in fact exists to serve man. Above them are only the gods, who are immortal and live in realms removed from the world. But among the living things on Earth, man stands above everything, and man will live on even after death, in the realms of the gods. This seems to be almost universal among civilizations, with exceptions being small isolated cultures that live in places where the environment has not been transformed into farmland and cleared of most dangerous predators. Yet for the last generation or two, there has been a growing awareness and understanding in western culture that we can’t bend nature to our will, and it’s not a matter of developing better technologies. Instead of adapting to local environmental conditions, we have tried to force the environment to change to suit our needs. But nature doesn’t care about or needs, which directly led to many of the worst natural disasters of human history. Some people even go so far to say that there are no “natural disasters”. Nature just does what it always did, disasters only happen when people put their houses in the paths of natural forces or think they know how to improve the environment for their own benefit. We’ve had plenty of fiction over the last decades about a world altered so much by humans that it became inhospitable to humans. And now the survivors have to learn to live with the new conditions. Or they don’t. My idea for the main theme of this setting is a world with natural forces so strong, forests growing so fast, and beasts getting so big that it was never suited for civilizations. The spirits that rule over nature don’t care about what happens to people any more than to any other creatures, and people are far from the top of the food chain. It is a forest world with numerous small areas suitable for farming and free of most dangerous predators, but the limited space does not allow for growth or expansion beyond some tens of thousands of people. Beyond these small islands of relative safety lies a true primordial wilderness, a world that is majestic and wondrous, but also terrifying and cruel.

One major difference going into this setting compared to my previous ones is that I don’t approach it from the perspective of Dungeons & Dragons, with it’s levels, spell lists, and monster books, but from the perspective of Apocalypse World. Structurally, a world in which the environment restricts human societies from growing large is very similar to a world in which catastrophic changes to the envrionment reduced human societies to a very small scale. The situation in which people live, the needs they have, and the threats they face are mostly the same. Post-apocalyptic fiction often features extreme or even exagerated conflicts and violence because it takes place in settings of extreme or exagerated scarcity. It takes the complex and often abstract conflicts that are part of our own world, and human history as a whole, and reduces them to the very basics where everything gets much simpler. I don’t want to make this a dystopian setting where people live in misery and constant fear, but I find it very useful to approach the overall social situation, with its conflicts and factions, from the perspective of fundamental scarcities. What do people need but do not have? What motivates them to behave in certain ways that are typical for the setting? What makes them act agressive and foolish?

The first, and most simple scarcity, is a scarcity of farmland. There are only a limited number of places where the ground is suitable for growing crops, the vegetation not spreading too agressivly to clear fields, and the wildlife not too dangerous to settle downn. With farmland being limited, there is only so much food that can be produced. But even when you have enough to feed all the people, you also need to have surplus to store for bad years and to trade with other settlements. Farmland is the primary unit of wealth, and while the distances between major settlements make generally unfeasible to conquer land from neighboring settlements, it is the main source of conflict within communities. A settlement can not increase its amount of farmland, but families are constantly trying to get more land from their neighbors. The scarcity of farmland is the underlying basis for most local politics and power structures and affects who could be a potential ally or enemy to the players, and who they would have to approach to get things done.

The second scarcity is a scarcity of cooperation. Because communities are separated by often long stretches of wilderness, most of them tend to be fairly insular. Trade between settlements is a common thing, but nobody ever gets anything for free. And in times of trouble, most communities are entirely on their own. Their local trouble is not someone elses trouble. It might seem as a sensible course of action in the short term, but in the long term problems can grow into much bigger threats that endanger much larger regions. The indifference to the trouble of others is regularly a contributing factor to the rise of major threats. Cooperation is rarely given and never expected, but this also means that it is regarded with immense value when offered. Getting allies for their cause is a major challenge for the players, but the offering of assistance is a very strong bargaining chip and comes with great gratitude that may be invaluable in the long run. The difficulty in finding allies can be a frustration for players, but being persistent and taking risks will lead to immense rewards.

The third scarcity is a scarcity of understanding. It is in the nature of people to believe that they understand everything perfectly well and that they know all they need to know. But in reality, most people’s understanding of the wilderness and the supernatural is rudimentary at best and often outright false. But the confidence in their mistaken believes drives them to make decisions with terrible outcomes. Real dangers are being ignored and needless conflicts escalated because of people’s believes about how things work and what others want. Because resources are scare and the environment dangerous and often hostile, not all conflicts are caused simply by misunderstanding, and could be solved by explaining the truth. When there is not enough food, then there is not enough food. But every threat is being increased and every conflict escalated by people making decisions based on false assumptions. And it isn’t just that people are mistaken, but refuse to believe that they are mistaken. Understanding more about a situation and the creatures and spirits of the wilderness is always the most important part in dealing with a problem. Blindly charging in without a plan always makes things only worse. Attempting to communicate with the alien minds of spirits or gleaning information from the ruins and records of past settlements is always a crucial part in putting an end to threats that endanger communities.

Just yesterday I realized that these three scarcities very much overlapp with the three vices and three virtues that I picked as the basis for one of the most prominent religions of the setting. Greed, hatred, and pride are the sources of all ills. They are the reasons people do stupid things that lead to violence and disaster. Opposed to these are the virtues represented by the three gods of the religion. The God of the Fields, who represents generosity, the God of the Home, who represents hospitality, and the God of the Herds, who represents humility. The scarcity of farmland is connected to greed; the scarcity of cooperation is connected to distrust and resentment, and therefore hatred; and the scarcity of understanding is directly matching pride. Almost certainly not a coincidence, but simply the result of having thought about these and worked with them for several weeks.

Finally, it is critical to have a pretty good understanding of what kind of people the players will play, and what kinds of things they will be doing in the campaign. The themes I have decided on don’t really align with becoming powerful warriors through the fighting of many monsters and the amassing of great riches, and trying but ultimately failing to make D&D characters work in the Ancient Lands was probably the main reason that setting never led to the campaigns I envisioned. But Apocalypse World makes very different assumptions about what player characters are and what they do. Even though it’s never spelled out that way, AW is a system centered around being community leaders. Some of the character types lend themselves to loose canons, but the majority of them come with implicit or outright explicit ties to a home settlement. Three of them are leaders of large groups and two more are running essential services for the community. And all the others lend themselves to being very well known, either highly respected or feared. These ties to the community mean that the characters are automatically invested in the community. When the main defining trait of your character is running a temple or owning a tavern, ensuring the town’s continued existance is always going to be high on your list of priorities. And even if you play a character without such ties, you’re playing someone closely aqainted with the local priest or tavern keeper played by another player. In the past, my focus has always been on the wilderness and dungeons, and these are still where my passions lie. But having characters deeply tied to a home settlement does not mean that play has to be focused on that settlement. Most threats to the settlement come from outside and the people can’t afford to wait until they are clawing at the gates. To prevent trouble from reaching the settlement, the players have to go out and face them in the wilderness. Threats can come in many forms. Since I am a fan of the supernatural, spirits starting to act threateningly or monsters coming close to the village are always great options. But you can also have shamans and sorcerers trying to gain power and endangering the village in the process. And things can always be made more interesting by throwing some raiders into the mix. Raiders on their own are never very interesting to me, but they always make for a great complication in a charged situation.

My feeling is that this is a really solid fundation to building a setting with strong themes that run from the big picture down to the finer details and make it a world that has it’s own distinctive character that makes adventures feel and play out differently from what you can have in any other setting.

Welcome to the Jungle

Good artists borrow, great artists steal. I plan on stealing from these ones very generously.

Baroque Fantasy

The Green Hell and the Circle of Life and Death

The Deep Blue Under

I admit not a lot of forests here. But that’s where the creative transformation into something new happens. I am such a genius. The shortest way I can sum up the concept is “Dark Sun in green”.

I think one thing to take away from this list is that the world and its inhabitants needs to be intense and surreal. It really has to be larger than life to evoke the styles of these reference works.

You can get the Tiger out of the Jungle…

Work on the Ancient Lands¬† setting more or less ended early last year because I just couldn’t get my dreams for a fantastic world fit together with the needs of fantastic adventures. Last winter I tried putting my creative energies somewhere else and started working on the medieval Baltic Sea dark fantasy world Dark World, but I lost interest in that pretty soon. Instead, I went back to making my alternate timeline for Knights of the Old Republic a reality. Which actually went quite well.

But still…

The idea of Bronze Age warriors riding on great reptiles through an endless forest dominated by strange magical beings just never completely faded from my mind.

And how could I? Once you’ve seen perfection, how could you ever be content with less?

The problem was never with the elements I wanted to include in such a setting. The reason things never really worked and came together was that I had painted myself into a corner with what I wanted characters and adventures within that world to be like. Somehow I got that idea in my head that I don’t wannt to run campaigns that are about such banal things like permanently chasing after piles of gold, or seeking glory in killing piles of enemies. Which is a valid aesthetic choice, but it turned out to just not work when you still approach characters and adventures with the mindset of Dungeons & Dragons.

Originally, my idea to make some kind of wilderness warriors campaign started with a fascination for the E6 variant of D&D 3rd Edition that cuts the 20 level progression down to 6 and then has characters gain more low-level abilities instead of becoming increasingly more powerful. Later I moved on to Basic/Expert and from that to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and finally to Barbarians of Lemuria. with a short detour through Symbaroum. But even though the later two are classless systems with more flexible systems for experience, they still come with very similar assumption about what a fantasy hero is and does.

But this summer, I finally managed to understand Apocalypse World. I had to read the whole book end to end probably five times, but even when I first read it a year before, I immediately became aware that there’s a really fascinating game hidden in the unorganized heap of rambling and unexplained game terms. At some point I had looked into Dungeon World, which is based on the same mechanics adapted for fantasy settings, but it tries to use the mechanics to recreate the style of Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, it loses what makes Apocalpyse World feel different.

Last year, Mick Gordon gave a great presentation at GDC about how he created the soundtrack for the new Doom. His instructions were that he had to create music that nobody had ever heard before, that fit the game perfectly, and that would be instantly loved by fans. Which he actually did, with huge success. And one of the big lessons that came out of that work was “to change the outcome, change the process”. And since I started to really dig into the rules of Apocalypse World and working out how it is meant to be used, I discovered this to be a really significant realization. For several years I had tried to create something that is unlike D&D, while still approaching like creating content for D&D. When put like that, it really doesn’t seem surprising that the whole effort repeatedly bogged down, even though I tried to start over again several times.

To get a different result, you have to use a different approach. And Apocalypse World is indeed a very different approach. Without getting too deeply into the specifics of the rules, one difference that impressed me the most is the approach to the different character types that players can play. Character classes are defined primarily by a set of abilities, very often in combination with a narrow set of equipment. These are all in turn based on tasks. Fighters do the frontline fighting, thieves do the locks, traps, and scouting, clerics do protection and healing spells, and wizards do the artillery spells and various support spells. In Apocalypse World, the various playbooks all have their suits of specific abilities, but for most characters all there’s a free choice from all optional abilities, and pretty much all abilities can be learned by any other characters as well. (Though you’re limited to a total of two abilities from other playbooks in addition to four abilities from yours.) And all characters can use all equipment equally well if they get their hands on it. Instead characters are defined by their role in society. There’s a character who rules over a small settlement or compound. A character who leads a cult, one who leads a gang, and one who runs some kind of bar. One character is an artists with a captivating personality, another has access to abilities that goad players to stir up trouble any time they run into important or dangerous people.

Because of this, you completely avoid the situation of the characters sitting in a bar and waiting for an opportunity to use their swords or spells to appear. Many of the characters come with NPCs who depend on them, who have expectations of them, or who just don’t like their presence. This is a game that just doesn’t do lone wanderers without connections looking for other people’s problem to fix. In Apocalypse World, you’re always a prominent somebody and problems come to you. To make this work, Apocalypse World is designed as being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of dangers, where there’s always a scarcity of somethhing that makes people do stupid and dangerous things. Even if you don’t seek riches or glory, staying put in a quiet place isn’t an option. When you have no food, you have to get some. And when you have it, you have to keep hold of it. This really is not a radically new idea. But it’s a very different one from the D&D adventuring party.

My ideas for an ancient forest world have never been post-apocalyptic. But it has always been about the treacherous wilderness on the frontier, beyond which lies a vast unknown home to strange beings and phenomenons. It is in many ways and environment with a great deal of structural similarities, and I found that all the character types from Apocalypse World translate very well to a fantasy wilderness. You live in an insolated stronghold surrounded by hostile wilderness and it is up to you to take steps to keep the mundane and supernatural dangers that are lurking out there from getting in. I had actually considered something along this line some years ago, but still thinking about adventures in terms of dungeons, monster stats, magic items, and experience point I just couldn’t figure¬† out how to make this work.

Learning how Apocalypse World approaches campaigns, player characters, and NPCs was a very fascinating and inspiring process. And all the while, I couldn’t help but think how all of it would translate to Bronze Age warriors riding dinosaurs through a vast forest ruled by strange beings. At some point, I had this image in my mind of “Dark Sun, but in a giant forest”. And with the default assumptions of Apocalypse World, this seems like a really good starting point for a redesign of that ancient forest that always keeps calling back to me.

I’ve started to love the Darkest Dungeon

When I first got Darkest Dungeon about a year ago, I had a really hard time with it. I’m the kind of player who never uses potions and hoards all the money because “I might really need them later”. And then never using any of them even in the final fight. This became a big problem and led to me getting almost completely stuck. When I tried to get back into the game, I went to look up for advice on how to really play the game, and I learned two very important lessons. “Don’t waste money by trying to make all your characters recover immediately after a run.” I always spend almost all my money on recovery. “The most important thing is to use all your money to upgrade skills and equipment.” I never put any resources into unlocking equipment or any money into buying equipment. My reasoning was that any weapons and armor I bought would be lost when that character dies and all the money wasted. And this is the kind where it’s “when the character dies” and not “if the character dies”. But it seems leveling up a character does not actually increase the stats, or at least not in any substenntial ways. Increasing stats is done through upgrading weapons and armor. So yeah, I was trying to play the whole game with effectively level 0 characters. It explains a lot. Now that I learned my mistake I actually managed to defeat my first boss in week 81 and it’s all been so much easier from there.

Now that I am no longer treading in place, I got the chance to finally fully enjoy the things other than the combat that the game has to offer. It’s actually a fairly simple game without any plot. I think you could describe it as somewhere halfway between X-Com and Rogue. Pick your team of four characters from your barrack and send them into a dungeon to get money to buy upgrades and level them up, while every so often some of them die and have to be replaced with new recruits. Until at some point you can form a party powerful enough to beat the Darkest Dungeon. But a lot of praised has been heaped on the game for its presentation and I think it’s entirely justified. It looks great, and it sounds great, and it actually has some very interesting worldbuilding going on. This game does not have “lore” in any way that I have discovered yet like an Elder Scrolls or Dark Souls game for example. There is no history, no characters, no places, and things like that. Instead it has the kind of worldbuilding that consists of consistent repeating imagery and symbols, and various simple rules of what is what in this world. It’s not even terribly original. It’s basically Lovecraftian Gothic Horror. But the way it’s put together is very appealing to me. There is very little substance, but it’s all so evocative that it forms into something much bigger in my mind that keeps me deeply engaged.

The first story I want to share is that of Stafford Jr. After my first couple of runs through the dungeons, I recruited my first character of the Leper class. Who happened to be named Stafford. The leper is perhaps the most one dimensional class in the game. He hits really hard with his big sword and seems to have high resistances, but can’t do much else and doesn’t even hit very consistently. But when he hits, it’s massive. I really liked having Stafford in my team but unfortunately he was in my first group that got completely wiped out in an attempt to fight a boss. Every single one of them died, and it was such a grueling and epic fight that Stafford was done in by a heart attack from massive stress. It was awesome, but also sad. So when I recruited a new leper a bit later, I gave him the same brass and red armor style and renamed him to Stafford Jr. Stafford Jr. ended up becoming even cooler than his predecessor. From his descends into the maddening dungeons he gained a couple of quirks. First he decided that he would refuse any kind of stress recovery except for praying at the chappel. He also started to believe that he is possessed by demons that make him touch strange and highly dangerous things the party finds in the dungeons. It’s all randomly generated and was in no way planned by the developers. But it just so happened. A man in a decaying body covered in brass armor, who carries a massive swords and spends a lot of time in prayer at a church because he’s convinced he is possessed by demons. I normally very much support the advice that you shouldn’t put any of your characters from games into your stories, but I know I just have to use Stafford Jr. in some way.

Another thing I love about the game is the Occultist, which is perhaps my favorite type of wizard I’ve ever seen in a game. An occultist was one of the very first characters I recruited in addition to my starting crusader and highwayman and I stil have him around as one of my highest level characters. Unfortunately he has a strange name that I don’t recall right now. The best thing about him, as I said, are his spells. I primarily use him as a secondary healer, using his wyrd reconstruction spell. Perhaps the oddest but also most awesome healing spell I’ve ever seen. Any time it is used, it heals between 0 to 13 points of damage, and in addition the target has a chance to suffer a bleed effect, regardless of the result. This is interesting because all his other powers consists of cursed and summoning tentacles that attack your enemies. There is no lore about this power, but it’s clearly implied that there’s some kind of barely controlled body horror going on. It can end up not healing any damage at all and even causing additional damage through bleeding, but it also has the potential to heal a lot more damage than the healing of a priestess. Or it heals a lot of damage and also causes continuing bleeding at the same time. This kind of implied worldbuilding really works for me.

Similar things are going on with the environments and enemies. Again, the enemies are nothing really that new. There are a lot of skeletons, bandits, and various tentacled thing, and then there are also various typed of humanoid pigs, which are encountered on runs into the Warrens, one of the four main dungeon types in the game. There’s also a normal dungeon with mostly undead, a creepy forest with bandits and mushroom men, and a watery cave with fish men and various sea creatures. Where the narrator once gave this awesome line after I successfully finished a run.

At last, wholesome marine life can flourish – if indeed there is such a thing.

This game knows where it’s roots and inspirations lie. But I find the warrens to be the most intriguing ones as the implied worldbuilding goes. Visually it’s a generic dungeon, but the majority of enemies you encounter are pig men. And the entire time you’re there, you can faintly hear them squealing in the distance. Dozens of them, maybe hundreds. Al ready a good start, but then I noticed this line from the narrator at the start of exploration missions.

To prosecute our war against the Swine, we must first scout their squalid homes.

“War against the swine”. As far as I am aware, this is only a throwaway line with no narrative meaning. But I find it really evocative. The raids into the dungeon are a war? Somehow this makes me imagine a really different type of background story than a simple dungeon crawl to get loot and level up. It’s such a tiny thing, but it implies a much bigger and detailed world than there really is. Which I don’t consider cheating at all, but as a fan of horror techniques as really very elegant design. What you feel that probably should be there is always much more fascinating than anything you could ever actually spell out. Darkest Dungeon is really good at that, or at the very least it really manages to put out just the right hints that get my own imagination racing.

Fantasy cliches I don’t like

There are good reasons to not dismiss something out of hand simply for it being commonly regarded as a cliche. Something being a cliche does not come from it’s inherent flaws, but from the flaws of numerous inferior immitators. Every cliche once started as an original idea that served a meaningful role that was highly important to the work it appeared in. But that being said, there are still real problems with making use of cliches. When an element is included in a fantasy work because the creators believe that it’s expected and a default component, then you have exactly the situation where the element is present without any context that makes it relevant and meaningful. Even more so, when you keep doing things the way it’s commonly expected, you end up just retelling the same bland generic stories that have been worn down to be without any distinguishing features. And so, back when I first started to create a fantasy world, I made a couple of choices what common fantasy elements I really don’t want to include. Not for the lofty goal of being original, but to protect myself from blindly going with the flow and end up in places I never wanted to be.

  • Save the World: This is the lowest common denominator of motivations. Seeing yourself killed and anything you ever loved destroyed is something everyone wants to avoid regardless of circumstances and context. It’s lazy, and that makes it bland. Also, once the world is saved, you really cut off any chance to continue from there in a satisfying way.
  • Dark Lords: Yawn. Vader is interesting because he’s a lackey. The Emperor is interesting because he’s so unassuming and his sorcerous powers come as a surprise. Lord Death Knight Demon Warlocj isn’t.
  • Demonic Invasion: There are a couple of cool ones, but I just don’t want to use it myself.
  • Chosen Ones: I find these intelectually offensive. The idea that a person is perfect and will automatically succeed because the powers that be decided it will be so is not just dead boring, it also implies that effort is irrelevant and some people are just better than others with no doing on their own.
  • Prophecies: There are two types of cliche prophecies. The one type that tells you in advance what will happen with complete accuracy and as such remove any hope of tension from the story. And the type that can only be understood after the the prophecised event has already happened and is therefore completely useless. I actually did end up coming up with an idea to make supernaturalinsights into possible futures interesting, relevant, and non-spoiling, but that came out of my wish to not do either of those cliches.
  • Lost Golden Ages: Like chosen ones, this one just doesn’t sit right with me ideologically. It’s the idea of “everything used to be better in the past”, which in reality always only means “I miss being previleged and getting unfairly advantaged over other people”. Not all development is automatically progress. But this feels way too close to wishing to restore a past that never existed in which the person felt previleged, so I don’t want to touch it.
  • It actually is post-apocalyptic Earth: Get out and never talk to me again.

The beautiful worlds of E6

At the very end of the run of Dungeons & Dragons’ 3rd Edition, someone came up with an idea to turn the game from one that covers heroes who start as complete nobodies to become practical demigods into one that emulates a more grounded style of fantas with a single very simple modification. In Epic 6, player characters can only advance up to 6th level, instead of up to 20th level and possibly beyond. Characters can still advance, but instead of getting new levels with everything that includes, they only get further customized through gaining one additional feat in place of additional levels. Numbers remain relatively small and within a range that has proven itself to work really well in practice, and most of the powerful spells remain outside of the players’ hands. It’s about getting characters to the level that is considered to be my many the one where they best represent the common image of a proper fantasy hero and then staying there. No new rules need to be learned and all the existing material of the game that is available to 6th level characters can still be used just as it is. As a rules hack, it is incredibly neat and elegant.

But to me, the really amazing consequence of E6 is not on the side of the players. In my own experience, very few games ever had characters reach 7th level and beyond. The great power of high level characters never became an issue in any of the games I played and ran. The reason I got so fascinated with E6 back when I still played 3rd Edition is the many implications that it has for the world around them. It’s not just that player characters are limited to 6th level, the same limitation also applies to NPCs as well. This means you can’t simply go to a big temple or wizard school and pay someone to cast 4th and 5th level spells for you and you won’t be able to buy scrolls of these spells as well. A considerable portion of magic items also can no longer be crafted by either PCs or NPCs either. Even if magic is as widely available as the game seems to assume by default, the limitations of what spells are available to the wizards and clerics of the setting lead to a rather different “high magic” setting with a lot of low-power magic and an almost lack of high-power magic.

But where it gets really interesting is the fact that these limitations on the powers and abilities on PCs and NPCs don’t apply to monsters, as those don’t normally have levels. Many people seem to prefer to adjust the world of their game accordingly by limiting the monster population to creatures that are considered appropriate challenges for 6th level parties by the rulebooks, but I’ve been much more a fan of keeping all those big critters around as they are. This way you get a world in which even the most powerful mortal heroes are incapable of taking on directly. If an older dragon or greater demon needs to be dealt with the players will have to work out different strategies to face than other than straight up challenging them to a fight in their lair. At the same time, powerful magical creatures are the only source of access to higher level spells which they have as inborn abilities rather than learned through advancing in levels. If you need powerful magic, you need to find a powerful magical creature and convince it to provide it for you. A world in which “high level” PCs stand head and shoulders above the common rabble but are still dwarfed by magical monsters is something I’ve not really seen much in fantasy. Something that I find very fascinating from a worldbuilding perspective. While I like the mechanics of Symbaroum, the way it is written it only makes advanced PCs vulnerable to common soldiers and bandits, but at the same time it also lets them take out the most powerful monsters just as quickly. Limiting the possible strength of monsters the way they are feels somewhat disapointing to me. There is a space for fantasy in which fights can take almost the form of Russian roulette by making engaging a powerful foe a great danger. But setting things up in a way that a head on assault isn’t really a viable option strikes me as much more interesting.

Magic & Religion for a Dark World

Building on a previous post from two months ago and somewhat revising it.

I always want to do more with magic than it simply being there and wizards casting spells as if it’s a simple science. For me it also needs a mystical element that waves it into the nature and origin of all reality. To come up with something for this setting, I looked at what the primary role of supernatural forces in the world would be. Which clearly is the effect of different regions becoming more or less magical or magically corrupted and this affecting how civilizations develop and decline. There are also gods of the land that have some control over it, and priests and sorcerers who want to take that control for themselves. The casting of spells by mages as a weapon or to do useful things is still very much a secondary thing in the worldbuilding and I don’t have any real plans for how that should look yet. So I’ve been looking at magic as a divine and natural force first and build a metaphysic model for the world before going deeper into available spells and magical items. As of now, I am working with the magic sytem of Symbaroum in mind, from which the three magical traditions are directly taken.

Magical energy is both the source of the life force in all living things and the power behind all natural forces. It’s the energy of earthquakes, volcanoes, and storms, and as such also governs flooding, droughts, avalanches, and wildfires. In its primordial state the world is raw Chaos, just the basic elements without any structure and order. It is the will of spirits that makes the primordial chaos take form and give it structure. All the lands exist because they are given shape by the Gods of the Land. There are countless spirits of greatly different power, but they all together form the environment that exists around them.

In the natural order of things, mortals are not the masters of the world, not do they have any preferential position in it compared to all the animals they share it with. The untamed wilds are a place that is harsh and dangerous and full of things much more powrful than people. But mortals always have the desire to shape the environment around them to be less dangerous for them and provide them with more prosperity. The oldest form of such attempts is Witchcraft, the practice of appealing directly to individual spirits of great power whose influence over the land can make an important difference to the farmers and hunters and their villages.

At some point Witchcraft was surpassed in many places by Theurgy. Instead of appealing directly to numerous indivdual spirits of the land, priests began to pray to greater gods of much greater power and far wider influence. In the End, two cults became dominant that worship gods that have become known to be sympathetic to the plights of mortals and responsive to their pleas. Nine in the North and Seven in the South. (Six of which are identical.) Their ability to influence the natural world is tied to the faith of the people who inhabit the lands and as such the building of temples and the performance of rituals is a very important element of society. The true power of the gods is found only where the faithful take it, while at the same time abandonment of the Gods of the Land diminishes their influence and power to cause disasters and other calamities that are cause of suffering for mortals.

But it is the nature of mortals to always seek to improve their lot and gain power that rivals that of the gods. All the prayers and rituals of the priests have their limitations and they are unable to make all the beneficial changes to the environment that are possible. Some think they know better than the gods what mortals really need and developed the art of Sorcery. Sorcery attempts to gain the powers of the spirits and reshape the surrounding world to provide greater prosperity, wealth, and security. However, the natural world is a fragile thing and witches and priests are both in full agreement that it should be left in the hands of the gods to reshape the lands to the greater benefit of their worshippers. Sorcery has achieved a number of marvelous wonders, but much more prominent in the minds of most people are the many disastrous catastrophies that turned whole lands into barren wastelands or regions haunted by nightmares. Except for a few places, Sorcery is feared in all lands, and in many places ruthlessly exterminanted by both priests and witches where discovered.

In the present day, worship of the Nine Gods and the Seven Gods is the dominant religion in allmost all settled lands. But Witchcraft snd the worship of Gods of the Land is still practiced in many border regions and isolated settlements that have almost no contact with the great cities that are the centers of Theurgy.

Once more with (more) feeling

I’ve realized that recently I have not been feeling really enthusiastic about working on the new setting and looking forward to seeing it in action. The last really cool thing where the 50 Cool Things two weeks ago.
I think I found out why that is and how to fix that.

The Problems

The first thing is that I took the idea of using a lot of elements from medieval Northeast Europe and it turned into something more like taking medieval Northwest Europe and adding fantasy elements to it. While I am a huge fan of The Witcher and Dark Souls, the medieval design isn’t really one of the things I love about them. The style that I really love is that of Planescape, Dark Sun, Morrowind, Star Wars, and evrything deawn by Moebius. Worlds that feel very alien and often somewhat surreal. Worlds that are more about representing ideals instead of realism.

The other thing is that I’m not really a fan of treasure hunting. What I really love is exploring magical places, but the material stuff you carry out of them doesn’t do much for me. It’s just such a central element in Sword & Sorcery and wuxia and a standard assumption in most RPGs, but the whole point of starting a new setting was to make something suited for more noir-style stories and adventures. Changing from gold to artifacts didn’t really do the trick.

How to fix it

With that in mind, I think I want to take the setting into a more alien and high magic direction instead of making it Earth-like and low magic. This mostly doesn’t actually change the things that I’ve already described here. The map remains the same, the people remain the same, and the factions remain the same. The magic system of priests, witches, and sorcerers and magical knowledge leading to loss of humanity probably will also remain the same. I will also stick to my plan on using Baltic, Finnish, Mongol, and Greek sounding names and have the trade networks be modeled after the Baltic Sea. And of course, it remains a temperate to cold region of forests with lots of swamps and heaths, full with dangerous and powerful spirits.

What changes will probably be the nature of the eldritch wilderness and also of the civilized lands. So far I had been working with the concept of Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird, based on the assumption of a very medieval Earth-like setting. But it doesn’t make much sense in an alien high magic world. Instead, I found some good guidance looking back into the introduction of the Planescape setting. Planescape is also about exploring wonderous places and collecting valuable stuff there, but it is meant to be so much more than a dungeon crawl treasure hunt. In Planescape, things are intended to get a much deeper meaning and provide more complex motivations by relying on the central theme that belief changes the environment. The factions have their ideological conflicts because each of them tries to make the universe work the way they think it should work and the only reason it doesn’t is because other people still believe that it works differently. This reminded me of my earlier but then discarded idea of powerful immortal sorcerer kings using their supernatural powers to create areas within the otherwise chaotic and dangerous wilderness where advanced civilization can develop and be sustained, protected from the wims of spirits and wild gods.

Now instead of giving this power to immortal sorcerer kings, I want to adapt the idea from planescape that belief can change the environment. Not so much that reality fundamentally changes because people believe it, but to make it so that magic can have meaningful effects over large areas that will affect the environment in a wide range of ways. Usually an area is influenced by the gods of the land, but many priests, witches, and sorcerers working together can subtly change it through complex rituals and the construction of great magical monuments. These are the occult societies like the Sorcerer Lords, the Moon Knights, or the Fog Witches, and of course the Northern and Southern Churches. All their plotting and hunting for magical tomes is not just for knowledge or for power, but it’s a permanent struggle to preserve and strengthen the societies of their homelands, and there are always those who wish to change them to be closer to their own ideals. Ultimately, all the plots and fights are about protecting their way of life or creating a better world. It’s not the ulta-lowest common denominator of the entire existance of the world being threatened by a great evil that wants only to end all life. But it’s still as important a long-term motivation for the factions as it can get. The players’ involvement in their affairs will matter a great deal to large numbers of people.

What is very important to me with this idea is to keep it all very subtle and mystical. The supernatural world is not a machine with dials to be turned and leavers to be switched. The goal is to weaken the influence of some spirit and to manipulate others. Magical constructions are not about building magitech devices, but about building temples from which priests project their divine powers, errecting shrines to claim spiritual ownership over a place, and to slowly enchant the waters of a lake to become a source of magical power that increases the strength of sorcerers near its shores.

Adding Theme

Another thing that seems appropriate to mention here, as it’s closely related and derives from these thoughts, is the subject of theme. A problem with my Sword & Sorcery setting was that I always had difficulties with making things feel meaningful and not just simple action fun. I really like Conan and Kane, but their philosophical concerns never felt like they could be applicable to a game of people playing together with limited time. They are much too brooding and inside looking. All my favorite stories that seem meaningful to me and where the problem requires direct action fall more into the Neo-Noir style. Stories that I find the most interesting are about failure and defeat, and comin to terms with the truth that in reality people are not heroe who can accomplish everything they want because they are determined. The most important questions are always how much you feel you need to accomplish and how much you are willing to give to accomplish it. And not the cliche of “I would give everything and will do anything it takes!” and then winning without actually having to pay anything for it.

I also have a bit of a fascination with prophecies, but really don’t like it when it predetermines the outcome and removes all tension, or when the meaning can only be deciphered after it already happened. A nice solution I found for this is to have divinations only tell the characters whose paths they will cross if they stay on the path they are currently on, and whether this fated meeting will lead to valuable help or to a confrontation. It can predict when a decisive moment will happen, but not determine the specific outcome. Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that he will have to face Darth Vader, and he already knows this to be true. But neither of them can tell what will happen when he does.

Now when you combine these two things with a setting in which powerful factions try to subtly alter the fate of whole region, a very strong theme emerges: Considering the consequences of your actions. Which is an important element in Noir. And which also happens to be a central theme in The Witcher. When you are a poweful warrior or sorcerer, your actions can have very large consequences. You can not simply charge into a place and destroy the evil and except that this nicely wraps everything up and will be happy ever after. This is what happens in a simple adventure story, but it’s not how things work in reality. Not ignoring the fact that sometimes things don’t go as planned and then having to find ways to deal with the consequences as best as they can is something that I feel adds a great deal of depth and meaning to a story.