The Ancient Lands: A world of savage heroes and mythical beasts

Some may remember the name of the world from an RPG setting I’ve been working on last year, and which I used for a campaign this summer. With my interest in gamemastering significantly going back, I am now shifting towards trying my hand at writing stories. My current love in fiction is Sword & Sorcery, which conveniently focuses on a format of stories of shorter lengths and serial adventures instead of a single epic story arc, which personally suits me just fine. It seems much more practical for writing as a hobby instead of a profession. The more I looked into the craft of writing, the more it became apparent to me that worldbuilding for stories (be it book or movie) is very different from worldbuilding for a campaign. You can run campaigns in settings originally made for a book or movie, but that’s usually the most interesting for settings that have a lot of stories written for them. You probably wouldn’t run a campaign in the setting of Princess Mononoke, but Star Wars has everything a GM might ever want. In practice, a story setting, even an extremely detailed one, requires much less information on many things than a campaign setting. Even what Tolkien did was overkill, but writing The Lord of the Rings was really just the last thing he did with the world he had originally created just for the fun of creating a world. And in the end, 90% of all that material never gets even mentioned in the novel.

What I am planing to do here is to assemble a big toolbox of elements that I can use in stories and make references to, and also as a background that provides its own story hooks. I often find it a lot easier to come up with a story that involves the Sorcerer Kings of Dark Sun or the Priests of Set from Conans world, something that has to do with the Sith of Star Wars, or a plot dealing with the Daedra of The Elder Scrolls, than to come up with a story in a vacuum. I also find that it makes the stories feel more real. The plot does not just happen for a single reason and everything that is encountered or described in the story is in some way directly connected to the plot.

So what I am doing here with this series of articles is not about making an atlas and travel guide of the world, which enables a GM to pick locations a group of player characters can visit and how long it takes to travel between two points and what areas the journey would cross through. When you write a story, those are things you can just handwave. Maybe the journey took 10 days or 20, maybe they did have to cross a major river or mountain range, maybe not. In a game, those things are important. In a story you simply don’t mention what all happened between two scenes if it’s not relevant for the plot. Maps don’t matter. Instead, this is going to focus much more on the social and cultural side of worldbuilding. How do people from different population live and what is their relationship with each other. Where do they get there food from and what type of clothing do they wear. What technologies do they use in everyday life and what kinds of weapons and armor can they make or trade. These are all things that in most games really don’t matter or ever come up at all. In a story, they can be just as important as the plot, and in many cases have direct impact on the plot. And when a reader notices that there is a connection in a story between two things that have already been mentioned earlier, it makes the story feel a lot more realistic and unique. That’s why worldbuilding for books, movies, and videogames matters a lot. The Ancient Lands setting presented here is very heavily based on the Ancient Lands campaigns I ran in the past, but a lot of it has been shuffled around or been discarded completely, with a good deal of new elements being added to it, that make it a rather different world. Perhaps a bit like how the Forgotten Realms changed between the 3rd and 4th edition of D&D.

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I love 80’s Action Movies

I was born in the mid-80s, and for a very long time I associated the culture of that time primarily with horrible hairsytles and an absolutely appaling sense of fashion. During the 90s everything was so much cooler, but looking back at those years now, I again have to ask “what where we thinking?!” Also, when I got older, I associated 80s movies primarily with dumb, ridiculous action movies. You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Just stupid explosions and lame jokes, with poor excuses for a plot. At that time, I was still too young to watch them and when I finally got around to see them 10 years or so later, but my oppinion of them was not very high.

But now that I am older, and therefore wiser, I see things quite different. Part of it might be simply nostalgia. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and we always kind of like that, even if we were not big fans of it back then. Another factor is plain and simple, that we only remember the best things. Those that were outstanding and so influential that their legacy survived to this day. I am certain there probably hundreds of action movies that were actually really stupid and nothing but explosions and excuse plots. But there also were some really good ones, which now pretty much make up my favorite movies of all time.

  • Alien (1979)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Outland (1981)
  • Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981)
  • Blade Runner (1982)
  • Conan the Barbarian (1982)
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
  • The Thing (1982)
  • Dune (1984)
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
  • The Terminator (1984)
  • Enemy Mine (1985)
  • Aliens (1986)
  • Lethal Weapon (1987)
  • Predator (1987)
  • Die Hard (1988)
  • Total Recall (1990)
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

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Primeval Thule Campaign Setting: Having a William Gibson moment

Damn you, Richard Baker! Did you steal my notes?

While browsing around on my continuous search for inspirational material for my Ancient Lands setting, I stumbled on Primeval Thule, a new RPG setting by Richard Baker, David Noonan, and Stephen Schubert that had a Kickstarter last year, but never really got a second glance from me. The final version was completed and released just last month, and with the 272 pages pdf being only 15€, I decided to make the gamble and give it a try without any helpful reviews of it being around it. And it looks good. Really good. You might even say too good!

Just after the first two pages I was starting to get a William Gibson moment. The story goes that Gibson was just in the process of finishing up the last touches on his groundbreaking novel Neuromancer, went he went to the theater and watched an obscure sci-fi movie called Blade Runner. And realized with a shock that he was seeing almost exactly the same thing as his own original and entirely new vision. Primeval Thule looks a lot like the outline for my own Ancient Lands setting on which I have been working for the last four years. A large, mostly unexplored continent of wild forests, where humans have arrived just 300 years ago, finding a world inhabited by the remains of the kingdoms of elves, snakemen, rakshasa, and cyclops, with much older and stranger beings slumbering underground and the weapons and armor technology being primarily bronze. Replace “cyclops” with “mountain giant” and make the elven kingdoms still powerful, and the description matches perfectly with the Ancient Lands as well.

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Ancient Lands: Cleaning out the Bestiary

The bestiary for the Ancient Lands is taking shape nicely. Selecting the wildlife and monsters for a setting is a part of worldbuilding I find particularly interesting, but doesn’t seem to be given much attention most of the time. There seems to be a common tendency to throw in pretty much every beast and critter the creators find interesting, but personally I think that’s something that doesn’t really work well. I’ve been reading through the old AD&D monster manuals again some time ago, and those who always surprise me the most are the Forgotten Realms appendices. Those are meant to cover creatures specifc to the setting that are not covered by the regular monster books. However most of them ended up completely forgotten and never mentioned again in other books, box sets, and 3rd edition. It’s not enough to simply write up a creature, it also needs to be woven into the rest of the setting and become part of it.

Take for example Dark Sun, which has the kang, mekillot, and inix, which barely resemble any animals found on earth and have no special abilities. But they are memorable because they have a very important role. They are the horses and camels of the setting, which are used by everyone who is sane enough to not try crossing the desert on foot. Eberron has such unique creatures as the quori and the warforged, which could easily be dismissed as silly ideas, but are among the best known features of the setting because they play an important role in the world. Dinosaurs are implied to be existing in some remote regions in almost all D&D settings, but only in Eberron is their presence really acknowledged. By having a race of deinonychus riding halfling barbarians!

Quality goes over quantity, and I vastly prefer the approach of not adding anything to a setting unless it is relevant in some way.

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No time like the present

I’m currently reading again the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding (it’s that damn good), and it got me once more thinking about the role of history in setting design. Lots of settings have backstories that cover thousands of years, while for the players the only thing that matters is the present. Past events only matter when they return and become a problem in the present day.

But stories of ancient heroes and how they shaped the present world are often pretty cool ones. Sometimes even more than the things that are happening right now. It’s a common standard that the golde age of great heroes is long gone and the present day is just a shadow of it. I understand why Plato and Tolkien loved the idea (to tell the rest of the world how much they suck), but this isn’t contemporary criticism, this is roleplaying! Why should we play in the boring times after the interesting things are mostly over?

So I was thinking, that I like the idea of campaigns where the players are not just drifting around in the wake of great history, but are actually riding the crest of the wave. However, paradoxically, I’m not a fan of epic stories. My interest lies much more in the outstanding individuals among the common folk. I also loath metaplots in campaign settings and am still considering the option of a small-scale public release of my own setting. How to solve these conflicting goals?

I think one quite interesting approach is to make the timeline rather short and most of the defining events rather recent. Why set the current year for a campaign in the year 2437 when you can also set the date to 437? The great city state does not need to be 900 years old. If it’s just 90 years old, thats still longer than anyone can remember. A setting does not need to be still entirely dynamic, but it’s sufficient to have things seeming to be settling down instead of being firmly established. Drastic changes like new empires or collapsing ones might be unlikely in the lifetime of todays people, but the long-term survival of recently established dynasties could still be uncertain and specific borders not yet be set in stone. I think one reason histories are often set at such long periods are because elves and dwarves live for so long, and something just doesn’t seem that ancient if your grandfather has told you how he has seen it with his own eyes. But the simple and obvious solution here is just not making such races that extremely long lived. If elves live only for 300 years, that’s still amazingly long for a human to consider. But a 150 year old elf wouldn’t ever have talked to anyone who was alive just 500 years ago.

Since I haven’t yet nailed down a clear timeline, I’m quite curious how it might turn out approching it from this perspective

Magic Item: Shaman Mask

Shaman’s Masks
These masks are made from wood or bone, but sometimes more exotic materials as well. Most cover only the upper half of the wearers face or leave an open space for the mouth. They are usually painted in stark colors or decrated with feathers or leaves. These masks are used by shamans to help them communicate with spirits, as it makes them appear not quite human and separates them from the mortal world, and allows them to peer into the spiritworld and see things normally hidden from human eyes. Each mask is different in both appearance and specific abilities and the more powerful ones have often been handed down from masters to apprentices for many generations. Common abilities are:

  • Infrared Vision (as the spell).
  • Detect Magic (a limited number of uses per day or permanent).
  • Surprised by spirits only on a 1 in 6 chance.
  • +2 or +4 Willpower bonus on saving throws (replaces and does not add to the modifier from Wisdom).
  • Immunity against fear.
  • Immunity against mind reading and mind control.
  • +2 or +4 bonus on reaction rolls against spirits.
  • Observers are unable to identify the wearer of the mask and can only remember his clothing (including the appearance of the mask).
  • Wraithshape one or three times per day.
  • Permanent charm person.
  • Suggestion three times per day.

Function and Purpose, Part 3: Application

Now, after I made a list of the kinds of behavior I want to encourage in players of the Ancient Lands in the second post, the next step is to think about what elements would be required or very vulnerable to risk,  in achieving that. In a way, this is defining the Purposes I’ve been talking about in the first post. You don’t necessarily have to start with an idea for an element and then find a place for it to fit. Particularly in the early stages it makes s lot of sense to consider what roles there are that need to be filled.

As I outlined in the previous post, I want players to be suspicious about authority, stand up to their convictions, and question established structures, yet accept their limitations and coming to terms with doing things they are not proud of. How is that done in the works I mentioned as references? What makes those characters develop in the direction that they do?

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Function and Purpose, Part 2: Function of the Ancient Lands

As I quoted Tao of D&D in my previous post, “Function, then, is always incorporated into the world with an eye towards the desired behavior of the player”. Or in other words, the function of a setting is to encourage a certain style of play. I could just as well set my campaigns in Forgotten Realms or Dark Sun, but they are not quite what I want. And it isn’t even that I think certain elements of those settings are bad or just dumb, but neither quite captures the style I have in mind. A GM should not tell the players how they are supposed to play the game and how their characters should act. Giving the players only one option and denying them any kind of choice never makes the game fun for anyone. You can, however, place the PCs into situations in which the players will want to play in the way you intend. Because they conclude for themselves that this is the most effective and most fun way to deal with the situation. There should still be many options to take and choices to make, but if you prepare the game cleverly, most of these will match with the style you have in mind.

So the first question when adressing the subject of Function in the Ancient Lands would be, what style I do have in mind. My favorite examples of the kind of character interactions I would like tosee have long been Star Wars (movies), Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic (game and comics), and Ghost in the Shell, as well as Alien, Blade Runner, The Thing, The Witcher (games), Princess Mononoke, Yojimbo, and Conan the Barbarian. And you probably immediately notice something interestingly, which is that most of these are science fiction, with only two real examples of Fantasy among them. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Should the AncientLands be a science fiction setting instead? Well, that has been done before. People keep agonizing about original ideas, and here’s something moderately different pretty much happeningby accident. Setting a generic fantasy hero story in space worked out great for Star Wars, so why nottransport postmodern science fiction into the Bronze Age?

With this step out of the way, it now comes to identifying what behaviors of characters from these movies and games I want to see from players in my campaigns.

  • Defeat enemies while minimizing the risk to yourself. Don’t try frontal assaults against enemies who greatly outnumber you.
  • Play dirty and exploit every advantage you can get.
  • Accept cooperating with despicable and untrustworthy people to deal with bigger problems.
  • When things get too hot, cut your losses and run to fight another day.
  • Take what you can get and resist getting too greedy and lose everything.
  • Respect people who deserve it, but refuse to submit to those who abuse their position orrefuse to admit their failures and make way for someone more capable.
  • Never trust the words of known villains.
  • When faced with two bad choices, keep looking for a third option.
  • When there really is no alternative, do the thing that has to be done, but nobody wants to do.
  • You can’t change the world, but you can make a difference here and now.
  • For everything you do, there will be consequences, and you will have to live with them, however things will turn out.

This is what I want to see. This is the kind of thinking I want the players to develop, and the kind of behavior I want them to follow. From here on, all development follows in light of the question “how do you get the players to see this as the right way to go?”. Not every little detail has to contribute directly to that goal. But whenever a new detail is added, be it a dungeon, a magic item, a special rule, a cultural custom, or some kind of organization, it always should be examined in regard to that question. If it doesn’t really make a difference but seems cool anyway, it can still pass. But considering that a setting can easily get overloaded with junk, that makes it harder to find the important parts for players and GMs reading the material, you should really stop and think a moment if it’s really worth bothering with. Even if you work purely for yourself and a single campaign, there is only so much time you’re going to put into it, and it’s rarely worth the effort to develop an elment the players are never going to see in any way.

Function and Purpose, Part 1: Purpose in the Ancient Lands

I found an interesting article on world design at Tao of D&D from about a month ago, that had kept me thinking for the last couple of days. It makes the argument that when outlining the goal of a setting and adding elements to it, you should be considering what the function of your world is going to be, and what purpose the elements are supposed to have. But what exactly is the function of a world? Basically, it comes down to this:

“Function, then, is always incorporated into the world with an eye towards the desired behavior of the player.”

I think he’s really on to something here. I have a pretty good idea what I want the world to feel like, and what kinds of campaigns and adventures I want to run in it. But an important thing to always remember is, that a campaign setting, unlike a movie or novel setting, is not a piece of art to be admired from the outside. It is there to be used by people, and unless you’re a terrible GM, players will use it in whatever way they like. For the players, the campaign and its setting are their toy to play with as they enjoy it. They are not helpers who assist the GM in playing with his toy in the way he wants to. If you want players to interact with your setting in certain ways, you need to design the setting so that the player will want to interact with it in the way you envisioned.

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