Category Archives: worldbuilding

I search the body

Some things that can be randomly found on killed or captured NPCs in the Ancient Lands. It’s a great tool for showing the players about the setting instead of telling them, which I think first appeared in Vornheim by He Who Must Not Be Named. Since I believe no kittens were killed in the development of this idea, I have no problems with using it. It’s a great tool that every setting that wants to be more than generic should use.

  • Bag with silver scraps (worth 1d4 x 10 sp)
  • Bag with silver coins (worth 1d6 x 10 sp)
  • Bag with gold nuggets (worth 1d10 x 10 sp)
  • Small gold idol (worth 1d10 x 10 sp)
  • Small carved ivory idol
  • Small carved wooden idol
  • Small clay idol
  • Iron dagger (deals full damage to spirits)
  • Obsidian knife (deals full damage to spirits, breaks when rolling a 1 against an armored foe)
  • Iron tipped arrows (1d10)
  • Obsidian tipped arrows (1d10)
  • A map showing the location of a site in the wilderness (random monster lair or a prepared full size dungeon)
  • Glas jar with glowing slugs (light as a candle, slugs live for 10 days if fed leaves)
  • Crystal that glows like a candle for three hours after lying in a campfire for one hour
  • Pouch with iron nails (1d10)
  • Pouch with opium
  • Pouch with salt
  • Herbal potion (heals 1d4 points of damage)
  • Herbal potion (+2 to all saving throws and Constitution checks against exhaustion)
  • Herbal potion (+1 to attack and damage, -2 penalty to AC)
  • Vial with water from a healing spring (heals 1d6+1 points of damage when drunk or negates 1 level lost from energy drain when worn as an amulet and then rendered inert)

Three Degrees of Civilization

Over the last couple of months I have been steering the design of the  Ancient Lands away from true sandbox environments towards something more of an expedition focused nature. Adventures more in the style of David Cook’s The Isle of Dread and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Civilization and culture is increasingly moving into the background in favor of greater attention to environments in which actual adventures are playing out. But the setting is not just aimed at being a stage for dungeon crawls, but for entire expeditions from the planning to the eventual triumphant return laden with gold. This makes the settlements through which the party passes along the way an important and integral element of both the adventures and the setting.

During a discussion about the development of the setting I mentioned that all proper civilization is located along the rivers and coast, which led to the natural question what the deal is with all the communities not located directly on this primary trade network of waterways. While trying to express how I was imagining minor settlements, this idea of Three Degrees of Civilization evolved naturally while I was typing a response. (Which is why I always love writing about my design process. A lot of great ideas arise from that.) It all goes back to the Hill Cantons idea of Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird, with which it overlaps, but is not identical. In the Ancient Lands, the starting towns would be corelands where everything is ordinary; the wilderness is the borderlands, where things are getting strange and threatening; and the ruins and caves of the main adventure sites would be the weird, where the Mythic Underworld is fully realized. In a slight twist, cities are not part of the corelands but of the borderlands. So many people living together in a massive construction of stone is just not natural and alien to the ordinary clanspeople from which PCs come.

But not all villages are equal. While the towns from which expeditions start are clearly part of the corelands and some of the early settlements are welcome islands of safety in the wilderness, the further away from the main waterways of civilization you get, the more foreign even the villages become. As the title indicates, I came up with three categories of settlements that are meant to make the players experience their gradual transition into the weird.

First Degree Communities

Settlements of the first degree are all places that are regularly visited by travelling merchants and who are part of the international network of trade. They import goods from foreign places and in turn export local products to pay for them. Almost all first degree settlements have some kind of port or pier where merchant ships traveling on the major rivers and along the coasts can trade their goods. Even though cities are strange places, they are also communities of the first degree.

The first thing that is of importance to player characters in these settlements is that business is done with coins. These settlements have stores, taverns, and sometimes inns near the port where they can get any supplies and services they need by simply paying for them with money. If they require mounts and pack animals, there are traders who sell them.

The other main feature of these communities is that visitors are common and that most of the locals enjoy some social mobility. This makes them the best places to easily recruit hirelings, guards, and other specialists. The idea of paid labor and going on long journeys is not foreign to these people, even if the majority of them has never traveled furthern than one or two settlements away from their home.

Bronze is a common material in these communities and soldiers are regularly equipped with lamellar cuirases and bronze spears, axes, and swords.

Second Degree Communities

Communities of the second degree are not directly on the trade network that transports goods across the world but they have regular contact with settlements that are. These are almost universally fully argarian communities that are mostly self-sufficient but have some frequency of bartering surplus food and animal skins for manufactured goods with their neighbors.

Second degree communities don’t normally use money for everyday transactions but as they have regular contatact with places that do it has still value for them. While there are no stores to buy supplies, parties can stock up on food and other basic necessities by offering coins to locals that can spare some. Getting new equipment in these places can be quite difficult as there simply aren’t many tools or weapons with which the locals would part.

Ocassionally traders from neighboring settlements might arrive with a few ogets carrying some goods for barter, these communities don’t see any regular visitors and as such there are no inns and taverns. The center of the community is usually the hall of the chief and the only accomodations are those offered by local families who invite the PCs as guests. If they are travelling with a considerable party of hirelings and guards, this hospitality probably won’t extend to them. Usually getting such an invitation is not difficult, as hosting travellers is widely considered a previlege among wealthy families who are proud to have such honored guests.

Since labor is limited and everybody needed, recruiting new hirelings in these communties is difficult. Player’s might be able to find one or two people eager to leave before they are being cast out, but other than that a local guide to show the path to a nearby ruin is usually the most that they can get unless they have become close friends with the village leaders.

Bronze is a rare and valuable material in these communities and lamellar armor or swords are uncommon, while leather scale armor and bronze spears dominate.

Third Degree Communities

These villages are almost always very small and isolated and located far from any major trade routes. Their only contact with civilization is through neighboring comunities of the second degree and even that could be very limited.

Unsurprisingly, these settlements have no use for coins but might accept gold and silver jewelry when bartering for food. Outsiders are often invited into such villages only if the locals are desperate for help with outside threats and then it is only the chief who has the right to make such invitations.

Hirelings can not be recruited in such communities but if one of the PCs somehow ends up having a strong relationship to specific NPCs these could still join the party as henchmen.

Most such communities have very little bronze and as such large numbers of spears and arrows are using stone blades. Only high ranking warriors have bronze weapons and armor is generally limited only to shields and small numbers of bronze helmets taken as trophies.

What does an Ancient Lands adventure look like?

In the end, a campaign setting really is just a stage for adventures. And adventures are generally the only way through which players are interacting with it. This really deserves an article of its own, but when it comes to designing a campaign setting you really need to start with chosing the kinds of adventures that will be set in it. I believe the fact that I am only explicitly making such a list now has a lot to do with all my worldbuilding work only really taking shape in the last half year or so.

So here you go. When I think of the Ancient Lands as a stage for adventures, these are what I have in mind:

  • The Lost City
  • The Isle of Dread
  • Quagmire!
  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God
  • Dwellers of the Forbidden City
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Deep Carbon Observatory
  • Slumbering Ursine Dunes
  • Aliens
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Dark Souls
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Red Nails
  • Stalker
  • Super Metroid

You could say a microsandbox. Or a mesodungeon.

The Ancient Lay of the Land(s)

Last week or so I’ve been writing about how I consider organizing the setting material for the Ancient Lands into individual documents for each region, similar to the FR and GAZ modules for D&D. But thinking more about it I realized that doing 12 of these would be a bit much and one area is actually really small while another is not even intended to be explored like the others. Mentally playing around with possible ways to group some regions together, I came to the conclusion that there are actually four destinct regions whose lands and cultures are strongly interconnected but have few links with the others. Having a total of four regional books that can stand on their own as complete settings containing multiple landscapes and interactions between local groups seems actually much more practical to both write and use. So each book might indeed end up at a scope very similar to FR5 The Savage Frontier.

To get myself back into regularly writing about the actual world itself, here is a shortish post on the four main region of the Ancient Lands that will be described in detail. They still only make up only a relatively small part of the continental map, with probably some 80% being left entirely blank. I’d say they probably hold 80% of the humanoid population and most of the major settlements big enough to end up on a map,  but those blank spaces should hold plenty of room to possibly add more regions later. Though at this point I can’t really think of any kind of land I’d like to create that isn’t already incuded.

I don’t have any good map of the continent right now, but basically it’s a crescent shaped coast open to the ocean in the west (I grew up close to the North Sea and in my mind the sun has to set in the sea) with two clusters of islands near the tips. Everything east of coast is forests stretching on forever.

The Northern Forests

Since this region is the closest to the original inspirations for the Ancient Lands I want to cover it first and it will probably be the focus of most of my writing for the forseeable future. There used to be a big long mountain range that marks the northern edge of the map, but I realized that a single region from the coast in the south all the way to the mountains would have to be huge, and it’s actually a stupid cartographic cliche carried over from Middle-Earth and Forgotten Realms.

The Northern Forests are the lands that lie on the northeast shore of the Inner Sea and are covered in dense temperate forests. Near the coast the climate is quite mild but a few hundred miles north arctic winds cause more of a subarctic climate dominated by coniferous taiga woodlands. The Northern Forests are the homeland of wood elves and kaas and many of the larger fortress cities of the skeyn. They are also the main region where treants, giants, shie, and dragons rule over the lands and many abandoned and inhabited fey castles can be found.

The Inner Sea

The southern Inner Sea is the most civilized region of the Ancient Lands where most of the major port cities are located. Which for this setting means something inspired largely by the city-kingdoms of Greek myth or downscaled versions of the late Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The city states of the Inner Sea are found scattered across the southeast coasts and the nearby islands but the region also includes the Akai Mountains to the east and the Tavir Highlands to the south. The coast is mostly populated by wood elves but is also home to large number of skeyn and some outposts of jungle elves that serve as harbors for ships transporting goods between the Inner Sea and the South. The Akai Mountains are the homeland of the yao who have few large settlements of their own and are mostly hunters and herders in a comperatively barren land. The Tavir Highlands are a desolate place feared by most people as they are prone to earthquakes and covered in small volcanoes and bottomless crevices of which many lead down into the underworld. The Highlands are home to the wilders, primitive and savage people of mixed wood elf and jungle elf ancestry that are said to worship the spirits of the Underworld.

In addition, the Inner Sea is also the primary region of activity for the Sakaya. Originally the Sakaya started as a kind of monastic order that still exists in the Akai Mountains, but whose warriors have increasingly transformed into mercenary bands or raiders that have cut almost all ties with the monasteries. Several Sakaya generals have risen to be among the most powerful warlords of the Inner Sea and become a major threat to many of the established kings. The Inner Sea is also the region with the largest numbers of mortal sorcerers, most of which are nobles from the elven city states and sometimes practice their demonic powers openly.

The Lands of Mist

This region lies in the northwest of the Ancient Lands between the Inner Sea in the south, the ocean in the west, and the arctic sea in the North. Unintentinally, though perhaps subconsciouslty, I’ve been grouping all my ideas for dreary and desolate regions in this part of the map. It kind of satisfies my own appreciation for “that northern thing”, but while it’s certainly highly influenced by Norway and Iceland it’s very much not Viking themed.

The Lands of Mist all have a subarctic maritime climate, which means cool and damp summers and freezingly cold damp winters. It’s damp pretty much all the time, overcast more often than not, and one of the few places in the Ancient Lands where moors, marshes, or even barren rock are just as common as woodlands. Population here is sparse, even  compared to the rest of the world, and those people who settled here did so out of necessity rather than choice. There are some wood elves and kaas living here, as well as some mining outposts of skeyn. But most people are either jungle elves who have eatablished colonies that export dried fish to the south, or the Kaska, a group of savage yao who have fled to this distant corner of the world to flee the wrath of their gods.

The Lands of Mist consist of three main regions. The Islands of the coast are home to the jungle elves who have adapted their culture to this harsh environment, particularly in the south where forests are still common. The mainland coast is where most of the wood elves and kaas are living in small fortified villages. Some distance inland lie the Witchfens, a vast soggy wetland that is inhabited only by the Kaska, who occasionally raid the coastal lands.

Even though the region is a remote and inhospitable wilderness now, there are many old ruins around, many of which seem to be almost undisturbed by treasure hunters. The opportunity to find great riches and magical treasures is high but it’s particularly dangerous. The Lands of Mist are designed for darker adventures and suited either for higher level parties or campaigns going for a higher lethality.

The Southern Jungles

The tropical jungles and islands of the south started originally as an idea for providing an origin for the naga and having a great culture of lizardmen. Because it’s a prehistoric fantasy world and you really need to have a dominant race of reptile men. But when I decided to put the focus on a wilderness world I ended up scrapping the idea of a lizardmen empire as the dominant civilization. However, I recently braught the lizardmen back, though now as a more average culture. The islands of the southern sea oviously exist to cover any Island of Dread needs while the mainland goes for a style of the vast jungles of central Africa.

The Southern Jungles lie south of the southernmost parts of the Inner Sea and also include the many islands that lie off the coast to the west and north. Both the mainland and the islands are home to jungle elves and lizardmen but even further south lies the mystical land of Kemesh, which to this very day is under the control of various powerful naga city states. The naga themselves only make up a small portion of the population, which consists almost entirely of elven and lizardmen slaves. The free tribes of both peoples are in an eternal war with the naga, but this has settled into a permanent state of mostly minor skirmishes and raids for many centuries now.

Domains and Endgame in the Ancient Lands

These last couple of days I’ve been thinking about and rereading the rules for high level characters and ruling over domains in the Expert and Companion rules. Domain play has always been something of an elusive beast that few people seem to have any real experience with. Got there once but didn’t stay with it long seems to be the most common statement.

When you look at the Cook Expert rules (1981), domain play is almost completely absent. It tells you that characters at 9th level can become rulers of a domain, tells the GM to handwave a monthly tax income, and has a half page of price lists for constructing a castle. But it doesn’t really go into what play as a ruler would be like.

In the Companion set, a lot more ink has been spilled about it. There’s lots and lots of rules for management and accounting. But as far as I am able to tell, there still is no real guidance of any kind what players would actually be doing in play. Doing the accounting for a domain and occasionally fixing the mess caused by raiders or disasters? How would this be appealing to players who so far have been exploring exotic places, navigated deadly dungeons, and had dealing with monsters and evil sorcerers?

It could be a fun game to some people, but doesn’t seem to mesh at all with what D&D has been up to that point. And much more importantly, it’s not a group activity. One player rules a domain and makes all the descisions for it. If all the players have their own separate domains, how would they be playing together? You can of course play a game of warlords, but that would be a competitive game, not a cooperative one. And a group of characters who have been working together for years wouldn’t suddenly become rivals and send their armies against each other. The only practical way I can see for having PCs become rulers over domains would be to have them retired from play and have them occasionally appear as quest giver NPCs played by their old player. Who would then be playing a new adventuring character to actually go on that adventure. If you have a large scale campaign with dozens of players and multiple GMs I could see that working for a handful of high level characters. But this simply isn’t the reality of how D&D is played. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of such groups that still exists today could be counted on the fingers of one hand. If there even are any.

One argument for domain play in a campaign with more Sword & Sorcery leaning that occasionally comes up is that Conan was a king. Kane was a sorcerer-warlord and Elric was an emperor. But the important part is that their stories are never about ruling and managing their domains. Sword & Sorcery tales about rulers are always about leaving the court with a sword in hand and fighting monsters. If you want to emulate the high level adventures of popular Sword & Sorcery heroes then domain management rules are completely irrelevant and out of place.

Occasionally there are big battles between armies, but even then those stories are not about being a field commander. It’s always about personally going after the enemy commander or pulling awesome stunts to destroy the enemy forces without having your own troops stab them dead one by one. Mass combat isn’t something that happens in Sword & Sorcery either. What you get is raids with a group of maybe up to a dozen people. Which would be a group of PCs and their henchmen.

So I’ve come to the descision that the high level elements of the Ancient Lands setting will simply assume that there is no such thing as domain play. Taking control of a stronghold and gathering followers will simply be down to players actually fortifying a place and talking to people. It may be done at any level and take whatever scale seems appropriate for a given situation. But for all intents and purposes characters will pretty much stop to advance after 9th level and only gain small increases in hit points at a very slow pace from their continued adventures, plus skill points for specialists and spell points for witches. (In my War Cry of the Flame Princess rules fighters reach maximum attack bonus and witches maximum spell level at 9th level, and scouts maximum Bushcraft and Stealth skills at 10th level.) I only ever had two campaigns reach 11th level and that was both in 3rd edition which has pretty fast level progression. So chances are pretty high I won’t ever see a 10th level character in the Ancient Lands anyway.

Eldritch Lore: Undead

This is hopefully going to be the first enty in a new series of post. I’ve often been talking about having a pretty much complete monster book for the Ancient Lands lying around that only needs the various monster descriptions typed down but so far I’ve never got around to actually do it. This hopefully is going to change now. There are close to a hundred monsters I’ve created for the Ancient Lands (and probably that many again that ended up cut) and they more or less fall into two basic categories. Supernatural monsters and fictional animals. While I really love my weird animals, there’s not really much interesting to say about them. A hippo with horns is stills just a hippo and a big hadrosaurus that has the stats and behavior of a camel is still just a camel. Not terribly exciting to read, nor to write. For the final document I am probably going to cover them with just two or three sentences each.

That still leaves the spirits, demons, undead, and other magical critters, and those are where all of the real meat is. I am kind of starting this at the very end with the undead, who don’t actually play much of a significant role in the greater design of the setting and which are by far the fewest in number. Though this is what is actually making them the easiest to cover, and I’m always the first to admit that I am really lazy, so here you have them. I admit that there is nothing drastically new or original about them and they are in fact the most mainstream depictions of undead you can get. But I think most undead in fantasy are really just slight modifications of these and since undead are not going to be a real focus of the setting they should be sufficient. Also, given the way that undeath works in the Ancient Lands, having numerous highly specialized forms of undead wouldn’t feel really appropriate.

General Undead Information

Undead are rare and terrifying monsters in the Ancient Lands and only come into being through the effects of sorcery and demonic corruption. There is no single definition of undeath, but all these creatures share in common that they originally used to be living people (or animals) but have been transformed into something neither fully living nor dead. Animated corpses, wights, shades, and wraiths are the remains of people who have unquestionably died and whose spirits are forever gone. With ghouls and darklings things are much less clear as they have never truly died but share many of the other traits common to undead creatures. They might more accurately be described as corrupted rather than undead but this is a distinction that only matters to sages who have never actually encountered them in person.

While ghouls and darklings are still consisting of a unified body and spirit and sustain themselves through consuming the flesh of the living, the other types of undead are fully magical beings that can not exist independently of the source of sorcerous power that created them. Walking corpses are usually close to the sorcerer or demon that created them while wights, shades, and wraiths are eternally linked to the corrupted energies of the place that spawned them. In fact they are more part of the place than separate beings and as such it is impossible to exist beyond its borders. This is widely seen as a blessing as these undead horrors have the ability to turn the slain into more of their own.

Animated Corpse

XP: 20
No. Appearing: 2d4 (4d6)
Armor: 12
Move: 90′
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attack: Claw +2 (1d6) or weapon +2 (1d6)
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 14
Poison: 12
Breath: 15
Device: 13
Magic: 16
Morale: 12
Special: Immune to disease, poison, charm, paralysis, and sleep.

Animated corpses are known under many names but in the end they are effectively just that. The remains of living people and beasts that have magically been giving a semblance of life by the magic of a sorcerer or demon. They have no spirit of their own and are nothing more than empty shells made to rise and move pulled by magic strings. While terrifying to look at, animated corpses pose no greater threat than living beasts and can simply be cut down by any blade, but as there is no blood running in their veins they tend to continue fighting until they are hacked to pieces.


XP: 25
No. Appearing: 1d8 (3d6)
Armor: 14
Move: 120′
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attack: Claw +2 (1d4 + paralysis) or weapon +2 (1d6)
Saving Throws:
Paralysis: 14
Poison: 12
Breath: 15
Device: 13
Magic: 16
Morale: 8
Special: Immune to disease, poison, charm, paralysis, and sleep.

Ghouls are elves, yao, or other humanoids who have been corrupted by the dark magic of sorcery or demons. Though they have never truly died, they resemble the undead, existing in a state between life and death. They grow gaunt with pale skin and dark sunken eyes and are suffering from madness, but are also filled with unnatural vigor and are much more cunning than any beast. Their clawed fingers can crush a mans throat and leave deep rends in the flesh of their victims, and their teeth have the strength to bite through bones, as they regain their strength by feeding on the flesh of humans and beasts.

Many ghouls once were adventurers and treasure hunters who delved too deep into ancient places where the living are not meant to tread, or what remains of those who become slaves of dark sorcerers or demons. The corruption that warped their bodies also affects their minds and all of them are clearly unhinged, but most of them seem to retain the memories of their former lives and traces of their past selves.

A living creature hit by a ghoul’s claws must make a saving throw against paralysis or collapse to the ground unable to move for 2d4x10 minutes.


XP: 35
No. Appearing: 1d8 (2d8)
Armor: 14
Move: 120′
Climb: 90′
Hit Dice: 3 (13 hp)
Attack: Claw +3 (1d6 + paralysis)
Saving Throws:
Paralysis: 14
Poison: 12
Breath: 15
Device: 13
Magic: 16
Morale: 10
Special: Immune to disease, poison, charm, paralysis, and sleep.

Darklings are ghouls that not only have survived in their undead state for decades but actually managed to gain additional strength from it, losing their last traces of humanity in the process. While still roughly the size of a person, darklings are are powerfully build beasts with pale gray hide that run on all fours and have become truly feral in their madness. Darklings are almost always found underground and never go outside during the day. Their small black eyes can see perfectly even without any kind of light. They have never be seen to follow commands of other creatures or communicating in an intelligible manner but have been known to be magically goaded by sorcerers to patrol the area around their lairs or attack the strongholds of their enemies in large packs. Continue reading

Unbe or not unbe?

Undead! One of the great classics of fantasy monsters with a history that goes back to the earliest beginnings og culture. Could you even imagine a Sword & Sorcery world without any undead in it? They are probably a much more common representation of sorcery than sorcerers themselves.

Yet I am finding myself beginning to seriously doubt my concept for undead in the Ancient Lands setting. The problem begins with the basic assumption that for mortal creatures body and soul are an inseparable whole, from which follows that people do not face troubles with the certainty that a better life awaits them after death. This really is one of the core premises of the whole setting that forms part of the basis of its many cultures and religions. This is something that just can’t go. But I still love undead and so reduced them to half a dozen forms that are mostly mutations caused by sorcerous energy (ghouls, wights) or or elemental-like entities that have some faint resemblance to the people from which they were created (shadows, wraiths) But the downside is that you can’t really have conversations with the actual dead. Hellboy has a lot of scenes where he discovers old battlefield and the frozen skeletons whisper warnings and advice to him. That’s an element that is just so cool and I don’t really want to have missing out on it.

And sometimes they aren’t even human.

But the problem gets even bigger. The Ancient Lands are a very nontraditional setting while zombies, ghouls, wights, and wraiths are all as generic Standard Fantasy as orcs and goblins. Now that I’ve started looking again over towards Final Fantasy, Star Wars or Kalimdor from Warcraft 3 as stylistic inspirations and references they’ve started to stand out to me as somewhat out of place. Morrowind has lots of undead but those exist within a context of a complex culture of worshipping dead ancestors. Can’t worship your ancestors if they’ve ceased to exist.

What am I going to do with unbdead that really makes them seem like an integrated part of the setting instead of something foreign clumsily tacked on? No afterlife has to remain integral to the religion and cosmology of the Ancient Lands. Removing the spirit of a mortal (and putting it somewhere else) also must remain an impossibility. But there is still the Spiritworld. The limitation that spirits have to be tied to the body applies only to mortals, such as people and animals. For spirits this is not the case and they can manifest physical shapes separate from their actual “bodies” (mountains, lakes, trees, …) and possess the bodies of mortals. In Final Fantasy X, there are the fayth, great mystics of ancient times who have somehow preserved their bodies in an eternal sleep within sacred shrines and gained the ability to create powerful spiritual phantoms that can aid living summoners in battle. I really quite like that concept. Putting great shamans into an eternal sleep between life and death to become something similar to spirits that can advise the living in times of need would be pretty cool.

And it could also be extended to undead. Instead of people simply dying in places of great sorcerous power, they could become part of the place. Their bodies may be dead, but the energies of the place keep their spirits together to at least give them some ability to communicate with living visitors through visions. It would also mean that they can never leave the place, which is not just an interesting image but also keeps them neatly confined and unable to spread across the world. For simple animated corpses an exception could easily be made. They would be mindless and only be moving on magic strings created by a sorcerer. Scary, but not really returning from death. The bodies move again, but this time there is no spirit inside For ghouls I think the idea of sorcerous mutants that are technically still alive, just really sick and unnaturally strong, could still work really well.

That would only really leave the wight, which I had already fused with the mummy and the lich, I think those are all really different expressions of the same idea, I could simply scrap them and leave it at that, but perhaps I could also find a different background and role for them that would fit better into the setting.

Or an AL-Series perhaps?

A few weeks ago I’ve been pondering what kind of format to use to turn all my ideas for the Ancient Lands into a single unified document. A task that turned out to be more daunting than I anticipated and as of now progress is still negligible, to put it diplomatically. One particular source of grief would be chapter two, after the section on classes and special rules. The races and cultures of the world. Right from the start I knew that I didn’t want to continue the lamentable practice of having a dozen human cultures, three or four elven ones, and then one dwarf culture, one orc culture, one gnome culture, one lizardman culture, and so on. Aside from just being lazy it’s blatantly using the silly racist mode of thinking that all members of a group of foreigners look the same and are the same. Diversity doesn’t just mean that you need a few African and Asian looking humans in your Anglo-French fantasy land. You need to consequently carry this mode of thinking through the whole setting. The problem that arises from this is that when you already start with 7 different humanoid species, giving each one of them multiple ethnic groups leads to really large numbers very quickly. At my last count I was at 15, which is already way too many for a semi-lightweight setting, even when you give them only one page each. And I’d actually want to diversify them even further. This would be much too unwieldy and not result in the kind of content I want to deliver.

Similar problems have been troubling me with the geography aspect of the setting and how to present the different regions and the vast amount of efectively empty space between them. Thinking about this conundrum led me to consider a different kind of format to present the setting to readers. I’ve frequently been praising the Forgotten Realms sourcebook The Savage Frontier as a really good way to present setting information in a useable way to GMs, and it’s actually only one entry in a series of 10 or so setting modules. The same approach was also used in the Gazetteer series that comprised the Mystara setting of BECMI. While I think that doing 12 region books of this scope would be both too large a project for me and also an overload of information for readers who actually want to play the setting at the table, presenting each region as a semi-contained and complete setting on 10 to 20 pages would have some real merit to it. It’s something that I should be able to do in a reasonable time scale (even if it’s only one or two per year), that would be compartmentalized in small projects that would result in regular accomplishments even if I don’t end up completing it but also could be expanded to additional regions added later, and that would also set a low entry barrier for people who are interested in the premise but don’t want to invest the time of reading a 200 to 300 page tome.

A regional module would allow me to present the local people as tribes specific to that region, with maybe three or four of them per module. In the end I might very well end up with 40+ tribes, but they would be spread around over the different modules and readers would only be faced with the descriptions of those tribes relevant to the region. Regions would probably be rather small and even when taken together not represent the whole world and all it’s people. I find it difficult to really get this aspect across in a continent book, but it would be quite easy in a region book. Instead of a book that covers The North, it would be a module about Icewind Dale, one about the Moonlands, and one about the Fallen Lands, and the other 90% of the broader region just wouldn’t be covered at all. This approach obviously only works in settings where populations are widely scattered in small clusters. And it really lends itself to making effectively sandboxes in different parts of the world. But since that’s the type of setting the Ancient Lands are and the kind of game they are made for, this isn’t an obstacle in any way.

Random Campaign Idea: Diadokhoi

All PCs start as 10th level characters as officers in a massive army that has been on campaign for years. The campaign starts with a huge battle that aims to crush the enemy army at its last stand. The party leads their soldiers against the enemy’s royal guard and as victory is certain a call arrives over the battlefield: The Emperor has been killed!

The enemy army has been destroyed, its king and generals slain, the survivors routed. But the emperor has no heir. The imperial court is thousands of miles away. What is going to happen now?

I always thought the idea of European knights permanently settling down as rulers in Judea was crazy. But I got totally hooked right from the start when I first heard of generals from Alexander’s army establishing their own kingdoms in Pakistan and Afghanistan after they were left without a leader or a plan after the death of their lord. It’s much more exotic and fascinating than most fantasy.

Obviously it would have to be a domain game campaign, with which I have absolutely no experience. But as a setting it would be one of the coolest backdrops I can think of. Maybe I can take elements of this to integrate into the Ancient Lands. After all, I do have the Mandalorians Qunari Sakaya as a scarily efficient army of compulsive conquerors.

Once more with feeling

This is another post that started out as a way too rambly first draft and that I completely rewrote to make it something more readable. For about the last two months I’ve been occupying myself with thinking about ways to give the Ancient Lands some greater depth and making it more compelling by adding a stronger emphasis on mystical elements and some kind of subtext that is woven into the world itself. To make it more than just another make belief land and something which feels truly wondrous and magical. Something that isn’t just a servicable tool for running campaigns but an artistic expression of my own personal creativity.

When I look at fantasy in books, movies, and videogames, I am always most fascinated when I come across elements that are strange and unexpected and that seem to invite you to think about their meaning within the story. But it is important that “strange” in this context is something very different from “random”. In a lot of old RPG material, or recent material that embraces the old tropes, you can find a lot of crazy stuff with very little rhyme or reason that seem to be there only for the sake of being funny. (Which in Jeff Rient’s threefold model probably would be “retro-stupid”.) While I am totally on board for a short blast of campy fun, this is not something that I would want to deal with when going down to serious business. The strange gives a work a greater depth and makes it more intriguing when its presence has meaning and stands for something.

Very often the strange and weird in fantasy takes the form of monsters. The very concept of monsters in western culture goes back to the Romans who traced the origins of the word monstrum back to either the verbs “to show” or “to warn”. And the original meaning was the occurance of violations of the known natural order – in particular the appearance of creatures of unnatural appearance – which were believed to be the manifestations of something greater and supernatural going on. Seneca described the concept of monstrum as “a visual and horrific revelation of the truth”. And all the things in fantasy and horror that we today consider to be “weird” are forms of such monstrums. They don’t have to be creatures, but can also be objects, environments, events, and phenomena.

What does this mean for the creation of fiction? How can this be translated into an artistic method? For this purpose I want to point to Christopher Nolan’s seminal work on communicating messages and making a point in narrative art.

Contrary to popular believe, Inception is not an illogical heist movie but actually a lecture on communicating abstract concepts to an audience through the telling of an entertaining story, rather than preaching from a soap box. That’s the very concept of “Inception”: You can’t make someone believe something by telling them that they should believe it. Instead you need to show them examples that make them see the issue from your perspective and then let them draw their own conclusions from that experience. And if you’re setting it up right it wil be the same conclusion that you made about the issue. Yes, it’s totally and blatantly manipulative. But that’s what all narative and visual art has always been. The whole point of artistic expression is to communicate ideas.

My goal with the Ancient Lands is to create a world that is compelling and intriguing to explore because there are deeper layers and meanings to discover and experience. Now I am really not sure whether this is defeating the purpose when I am giving a guided tour behind the courtain and outright tell what I am trying to represent with the setting and what the symbolic meaning behind the various strange elements is intended to be. But I don’t regard it as a riddle to be solved and see it more like a method to give the setting a distinctive feel that is consitently evoked by numerous elements that are strewn throughout it. And this post isn’t just about my own setting, but about this approach to worldbuilding in general, so I find it a good way to better illustrate what I mean.

Now let’s get more specific: What are the underlying meanings that I want to be symbolically illustrate through the supernatural elements of the setting? I have some ideas about the meaning of life, the pursuit of happiness, and the structural flaws of western culture. You could perhaps call existentialist eco-socialism or something like that. But nobody wants to hear a critique of western capitalism in a fantasy game about exploring magical ruins. That’s a terrible idea! Instead let me quote Nolan here: “The subconscious is motivated by emotion, not by reason. We need to translate this into an emotional concept.” The best messages that art can communicate are not “do things this way!”, but “think about things this way”. Good fiction that is making a point doesn’t make a specific call to action (that usually just ends up preachy and alienates the audience) but attempts to encourage a certain perspective.

So how could my opinions that I would like people to adopt be translated into an emotional concept? After thinking about it for a few days, I’ve come to see it as “pride and greed are the root of all ills that plague the world”. To perform this inception through the world of the Ancient Lands, this concept needs to be visible within the things that make up the setting. As players are exploring the world and interact with it, they need to encounter threats that stem from pride and greed and see humility and compassion as the source of strength that allows heroes to oppose them.

Immediately two of my primary bad guy monsters spring into my mind. Naga and wights. The naga in the Ancient Lands are a race of serpent spirits from whose ranks the dark art of sorcery was developed. Sorcery is the power to ignore the rules of nature that limit ordinary abilities and regular magic. The naga are also few in numbers but rule over vast armies of slaves. They are the prime example of a hunger for power over both nature and people. They are the perfect candiate for a monstrous manifestation of pride. Wights are undead who have retreated into their crypts where they spend eternity with the riches they amassed in life that they guard fiercely against robbers. They can make for a very great manifestation of greed. Another idea I had today was the old concept of the cursed gold. Greed makes people turn against each other and the sudden possession of great wealth changes people and makes them feel elevated over others. Familair motifs and great showcases of greed being closely tied to pride. Rich people being bad people would be rather blunt and so obvious to make it offputting. But displays of opulent extravagance as indicators for self-destructive madness? That’s more subtle.

As a supporting counterpart to this, humility and compassion would be the sources of of good. This can be incorporated into the world by making the good rulers and helpful allies of setting humble people who don’t display their riches and don’t demand recognition from others. Reaching out to others should be a reliable way to gain powerful supporters and dispays of compassion should return to the players through unexpected aid. I am still at a rather early stage with this idea but it’s one I am very excited about further developing.

Another emotional concept I like to include comes from a realization I had from my university classes in cultural studies. Pretty much every major religion I know about regards bodily existance as hugely problematic. The body is the crude shackles of the pure and exalted spirit. If we could just exist without flesh, we would be gloriously divine beings of perfection. Christianity is one of the more extreme cases of body hating, but it has been a central element of Indian theology for thousands of years as well. And of course it’s everywhere throughout mythology and from there spread into fantasy. The flesh is impure and sinful and holds the spirit back. I find this very nonsensical. Sartre once condensed the central idea behind existentialism down to “existance preceds essence”, and while he probably wasn’t thinking about the body-mind duality I find it applicable to this situation as well. We are not preexisting spirits that become manifest in a physical body (essence precedes existance) but our minds are the result of the experiences made by our bodies. It’s a banal statement from a rational scientific perspective, but quite important in a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the meaning of life and the nature of existence. The relationship between physical instinct and rational morality has been of interest to me for a very long time and was one of the early philosophical problems of my young inquisitive self. In Germany in the 80s and 90s, I experienced an approach to raising boys that attempted to suppress their violent instincts to the point they would eventually be extinguished. But what I found was that boys some years younger than me appeared even more out of hand than boys of my age had been. Also, while I have been told that I’ve refused to retaliate to violence in a Ghandi-like fashion from a very early age (which actually got me through childhood and youth very smoothly), I still loved playing with toy guns and really enjoy violent movies and videogames to this day, even though that would have been seen as a big no-no in 80s pedagogy. My conclusion to this was that any attempt to teach responsible use of physical force has to aknowledge the instinct to violence instead of trying to suppress it. Same thing with sexuality. Attempting to suppress natural instincts only leads to a lack of control over those very same instincts. Therefore I regard the self as an extension of the physical instincts. “Instinct precedes reasom.” Yet I am not aware of any religion that puts the body at the center of being. I thought that there should be some religions of this type in fantasy well before I started working on my own setting.

It’s a philosophical concept that has been part of my worldbuilding from the very start. The Ancient Lands have no afterlife and no ghosts. There are wraiths and shades, but these are not actually remnants of living people. They are distorted echoes of people who have ceased to exist, composed of sorcerous energy. It’s a simpler and more straightforward concept than pride and greed being the source of all ills, and I already got a couple of ideas how to represent it symbolically through supernatural elements within the world.

  • Powerful spirits are physically imposing. Feeble looking spirits have little magical power.
  • Magic items are not crafted, but the remains of powerful spirits and witches that contain traces of their original magical powers.
  • Sorcerers are in great physical shape, like Xaltotun or Kane, not frail and weak.
  • I always wanted to do something with blood magic. The body is the source of the mind and therefore the source of magic.
  • Places of natural magical energies are often invigorating or have healing powers.
  • Undead are always insane.

These are two examples of how you can take abstract concepts and turn them into motifs that you can use to create a consistent theme within the supernatural and also mundane elements of a fantasy setting. I hope some of this might be useful to someone and didn’t turn out too much of a rambling mess,