When I wrote my first post outlining the purpose and goal of my latest worldbuilding efforts, I got a lot of replies, including this interesting link from Oliver Simon to a great academic article about the role of the environment in Conan: Exiles. It gave me a couple of great ideas for Planet Kaendor and I made some notes for a new post, and then completely forgot about it for the next six weeks while writing other posts I had already planned. Of my three notes, I only remembered the meaning of the first one, and I had to reread both the entire article and my post that led to it being recommended to me to figure out the second. And I still have no clue what idea the third note was supposed to be about. Don’t be me! Take better notes when you get great ideas for your own work.
The article takes a look at the open world survival game Conan: Exiles as a horrifying analogy of the cruel exploitation within human economic activity. While many of these survival games have the killing of other player characters and the looting of their equipment and resources as a key gameplay element, this game uses the well established and accepted norms of the Hyborian Age to take it to a much more grotesque level. Not only can you loot the possessions of your slain foes, you can also butcher their dismembered corpses for meat and crafting materials. Nonplayer characters can be taken alive and made slaves, that are a hugely important resource for expanding your own base. And some magical powers require human sacrifice to attain. Other people are reduced to “human resources” in the most literal sense. They are commodified as tools to be exploited for your own quest for wealth and power.
Being basically a sociological paper, it’s not an easy read, and the first part is crammed full of attributed quotations of other writers that don’t really add to the topic and mostly seem to be there to pad out the references list at the end to boost academic credibility. But after that it goes into how the environment with its ruined buildings, abandoned weapons and tools, and human remains also tells a story of how economic exploitation build the fallen civilizations as well.
I didn’t expect Marx and Derrida to contribute to my worldbuilding, but I guess stranger things have happened. One passage in particular really got me thinking about how I can give the ruins that fill the environment of Kaendor a more meaningful presence in the actual game instead of being irrelevant pieces of lore in some file.
Faithful to Howard’s original Conan stories, the landscape is one which Derrida would have recognised as being distinctly hauntological; it is a world scarred by its past. This environment is shaped by forces which still have agency but no agent, generating effects which exert great power over the player’s experience of and interaction with their surroundings.
Agency without an agent. Now that’s an expression that really appeals to me. In this case, we have to treat agency as different from the concept of player agency in roleplaying games, which is the ability of players to make choices about the actions of their characters that meaningfully affect the outcome of the developing story of the game. Without an agent, there are no choices that are being made or actions that are being taken. Instead we have the idea here of choices that were made and actions that were taken long ago by the long dead builders of the ruins that led to the creation of the current environment. The choices were made many centuries ago, but their consequences still affect and constrain the options that are open to the player characters in the present. The idea is that the ruins are not simply featureless and inert stones that litter the surroundings, but active entities that challenge and threaten the intruding explorers.
(At this point I want to apologise for falling into academia speech and getting abstractly philosophical. Four years in cultural studies do this to you. It comes automatically and leaves it marks on you forever.)
As a simple example, take an ordinary arrow trap that shots an arrow when someone steps on a certain part of the floor. To quote the endlessly poetically and quotable Darkest Dungeon:
Curious is the trap-maker’s art… his efficacy unwitnessed by his own eyes.
A trap is not simply a feature of the environment, even though many games treat them like that. An actual trap is not simply just there. It is there because someone made a choice and took action to put it there. With an intent to kill. The builder of the trap does not know who will fall victim to it, and the people it injures will most likely have no idea who caused them harm. In a ruined dungeon, the builder will have died centuries before the victims were born. But still, one person exercised agency to cause serious harm to another person. The agent is long gone, but the effects of the agency are present in the present.
It is not just traps. Every artificial obstacle that characters encounter is there because someone put it there with intent. Every constructed tool or weapon they find is in its place because someone made it for a purpose and put it in its present location as a consequence of choices and actions. And this even carries over to much larger scales. Planet Kaendor is conceptualized as a world in which the natural environment is outside of the control of mortals. Whatever they do in their attempts to shape the world that surrounds them will quickly be negated once the wilderness returns. But things look very different when it comes to the marks left behind by unnatural sorcery. A charred wasteland of ash haunted by ghouls attacking careless travelers surrounding a ruined city does not exist randomly. Its existence is the consequence of choices made by a sorcerer long ago. A consequence that directly affects the characters in the present. And the natural world in Kaendor is often directly controlled by spirits, who can exercise their own agency as well. Though being essentially immortal, this does not fall under the agency without agent. They are merely agents with an invisible presence, but I think the overall effect is quite similar.
The key idea that is presented here (indirectly) to worldbuilders is to create environments for adventures that are not simply passive and interchangeable backdrops that maybe have a couple of unusual but random backgrounds in them. Instead, they should give indications that obstacles and useful finds are the result of someone’s deliberate exercising of agency. Bad things don’t exist in the present at random. They exist because someone in the past wanted it or did a careless mistake. There was a purpose behind it and it was someone’s fault. And that someone’s presence should still be felt as a malevolent force seeking the destruction of any intruders, or a shade lingering among the ruins of its crumbled dreams. Of course this might not be a universal requirement for all fantasy environments. But I had written about looking for ways to give ruins and magical places are more active role in my world, and this article provided great insights on how I could be moving closer to that goal.
All the mentions of cannibalism also got me some interesting idea for ghouls, which have been a favorite of mine since I encountered a new take on them in Dragon Age, and have held a very important position in my deliberations about the nature of the supernatural in Kaendor basically from the start. But those deserve an entire post of their own.
I just discovered that I never actually finished writing this post that I had started five weeks ago. I guess better now than never.
So, Planet Kaendor. I used the name in several posts last two months ago as a tag for a new campaign I am planning, which is set in the same world as the Green Sun campaign I ran for the last half year, but with a very different approach. The world Kaendor is undergoing constant evolution, changing after every campaign to reflect what I learned from my experiences. Mostly this consists of throwing out stuff that I put into the world because I considered them regular staples of fantasy campaign settings, or I saw it somewhere and thought it is cool, but I realize as being either useless baggage or stuff that actually conflicts with the core ideas rather than add to them. The world started basically as “everything in fantasy that I like and could work in a Bronze Age setting”. But since then I moved on to the paradigm of “perfection isn’t when there is nothing left that can be added, but nothing left that can be taken away”. Better have a setting that does three closely related things very well than a dozen things that somewhat randomly sit side by side. Of course this frequently leaves gaps that need to be filled in, but that’s always also a potential to bring in great new elements.
Why Planet Kaendor?
While I always intended Kaendor to be purely a fantasy setting, many of the aesthetic influences I am aspiring to evoke come from the Planetary Romance genre and pulp stories that made little distinction between fantasy and science fiction. Going all the way back to A Princess of Mars and its world of Barsoom, and also including the Zothique stories, the movie Wizards, the visual style of Moebius, various adaptations of Dune from the 80s and 90s, and of course also The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. And I always loved reading about Planet Algol. The working title “Planet Kaendor” is meant to be a constant reminder for me for what the ultimate goal of the setting is.
Many worldbuilders really like to just head out into the unknown and see where the process leads them. But in my own experience, this approach of adding whatever feels cool and like a good fit in the moment always leads me down to follow the established generic paths of the Standard Fantasy Setting. And there are more than plenty of those already, and I am doing worldbuilding primarily because the kind of setting I really want to see doesn’t exist yet. So ending up with another version of Fantasyland would completely defeat the purpose.
The Basic Premise
Kaendor is a world inspired by the continent Pangea during the Permian period, before the age of the dinosaurs, the Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean Sea (Mycenaeans, Hittites, Egyptians), and the Hellenistic Period (Macedonians, Achaemenids, Mauryas, Scythians). But the focus is on “inspiration”, not “adaptation”. A fantasy version of the Persian Empire surely exist somewhere, but Planet Kaendor is nothing of that type. Instead they are references for what kinds of animals can be found in the world, what technologies are available and what forms of social organization exist, and what kinds of sounds are used in personal and place names of the different cultures.
Two fictional settings that were hugely influential for me in inspiring the tone and aesthetic I am aiming for are from the videogames Morrowind from 2002 and Albion from 1995. Morrowind is really the gold standard for me for how alien you can make a fantasy world. The one thing that I found most disappointing about it was that the Dunmer, Drakonians, and Kajiit are sharing their amazing world with Romans and Vikings who live in English villages and castles on the southern coast of the great island. Their presence always broke the spell of having a unique fantasy world that isn’t like the regular generic stuff. Not too much to say about Albion, other that it made a huge impression on me with its alien jungle world. And again, it’s actually a sci-fi story about human astronauts crashing on an alien planet, which turns out to feel a lot like a fantasy world.
In the early years when I came up with the idea for Kaendor, I had the goal to make it like a classic Sword & Sorcery world. In hindsight, I think this desire held me back by years, as many of the elements that are rightly considered “classic” are not actually things I much enjoy in games. In particular the personality and motivations of Sword & Sorcery protagonists are not exactly what I consider fun to play for prolonged time.
One of these aspects that many people adamantly insist on as being essential is that a Sword & Sorcery world must only have humans. Which I disagree on, and creating an archetypal Sword & Sorcery setting is no longer a priority for me. But after my recent experience with planning encounters for a D&D 5th edition campaign, I really see how it’s not just dwarves and halflings being tonally out of place, but also orcs, goblins, lizardmen, and githyanki becoming a real crutch to pad out content with meaningless fights. Following the D&D encounter model is also something that has stopped being relevant for the Planet Kaendor campaign, but it still had me thinking about the subject.
Now because I really like the idea of a fantasy world that also is an alien planet with its own unique life forms, there are no people on Kaendor who call themselves humans and who look like humans. But for all intends and purposes, the Kaendorians are identical to humans. In the same way that Red Martians, Arkanians, or Quarians are virtually indistinguishable from the humans of their settings, except for exotic looking colorations. I also like about this approach so that you can’t say that these guys are the Europeans of the setting, these guys are the Africans, and these guys the Asians, and so on. As with their cultures, it doesn’t make much sense that you have direct analogs to human phenotypes on a planet that is meant to have evolved completely independently from Earth.
But in the end, I decided that the Kaendorians are still just like humans in all the ways they count. I did at some point consider making them like alien species in a world with no humans, but in the end we are dealing with a medium that is entirely verbal, and where the characters are played by people who are stumbling around trying to improvise a person more or less on the spot, which does include the GM, and so they all will act like humans anyway.
To some degree it lies in the nature of roleplaying games as systems of rules and mechanics that the applications of magic become formalized and follow regular structures. As someone who really got into RPGs with D&D 3rd edition, which is quite possibly the most mechanical and structured game that ever reached the market, this has been something that’s really been bugging me for a very long time. Magic does not feel magical when it consists mostly of math and geometry. The magic that you encounter in stories (which are not based on RPGs) is much more elusive and uncertain. You rarely have spells where a beam of light shots from the finger of a wizard and a breastplate of glowing light appears on the person it hits. What you have is sorcerers mumbling strange chants and throwing powders into a fire, and there might be hints of images in the flames or the shadows surrounding the clearing, and the sorcerer says that the deed has been done and whatever had been your problem or your wish has been taken care of.
Magic in Kaendor is not quick, easy, convenient, and reliable. There is no magic to fart lightning or make a lantern hovering over your shoulder and following you around. Magic in Kaendor is mostly invisible and concerns itself with knowledge, the manipulation of minds, and the control of spirits. There is limited transformation of living things, but a wizard won’t turn into a huge dragon in a puff of smoke or turn a pumpkin into a luxurious carriage.
This elusive uncertainty also extends to magical creatures. The world of Kaendor knows only one kind of supernatural creatures which are simply spirits. No complex system of opposing cosmic armies with detailed hierarchies modeled after human societies. While spirits in physical shape resemble people, animals, or even plants, in their minds they are truly alien beings with incomprehensible thoughts and unknowable reasons. They are not helpful guides or protectors to mortals or demonic slavers and conquerors, but wild forces of nature whose reasons and motives are their own, and who generally care very little for the affairs of mortals.
Ruins of the Past
Something that has always been central to the concept behind the world of Kaendor, but never really became important in any of my past campaign, is the dominant presence of ancient ruins. The final act of the Inixon campaign played out in the ruins of a naga city, but in the end it really was just a backdrop and not an actual story element in itself. Nothing was learned about the city and there wasn’t really anything to learn about it. This is perhaps the biggest element that really needs to get a very different treatment as I am going on with Planet Kaendor.
Kaendor is a world drifting in time, with no clear understanding by the people currently alive about its ancient history, and no real sense of a meaningful future that lies ahead. As the people of Kaendor are concerned, the world now is the same as it has always been, and as it always will be. Evidence for this is found everywhere with countless ruins covering the forests and islands, lining the coasts, and sitting atop mountainous peaks. In fact, almost all major cities and towns are build on the ruins of older forgotten civilizations, with even older passages and halls being found beneath them. Constant slow changes of the environment regularly force people to abandon their cities as rivers dry up and fields turn into swamps, and castles fall into the sea. But they also open up new places that become suitable for farming and habitation, and each time new settlers arrive in these places they find that they are not the first ones to make them their homes. It is impossible to say for how long this cycle has been going, and the inevitability of all mortal achievements falling into ruins and being forgotten is an accepted fact of life.
Yet even when the people abandon a place that is swallowed up by the forests or sinks beneath the waters, there are always many things that are left behind. Vaults that were sealed by lords fleeing disasters, but who never returned to claim their riches. Treasures hidden away whose secret locations died with their owners until they are revealed again by crumbling walls and eroding hills. As well as ancient evils trapped where no one would disturb or free them. Sorcerers are notoriously secretive about their arcane knowledge and rarely share their discoveries with others. Countless magical secrets were discovered and their knowledge shared only among a handful of people to be lost to the world with their death, but still exist on ancient crumbling scrolls beneath overgrown ruins in the wilds, waiting to be found by whoever stumbles into these old places that have seen no mortal feet for centuries.
Planet Kaendor is being written specifically with searchers of ancient magic in mind. Outside and beneath the major cities, ruined tunnels, castles, temples, and towers make up the majority of important places. The various factions playing major parts within the politics of the setting are all greatly invested in the rediscovery and control of lost magic. These take the center stage in the design of the world, with other elements like economics, religions, and the everyday politics of the various city states fading into the background. The politics that are important to the setting are the relationships between powerful sorcerers and high priests who have the wealth and armies of their cities at their disposal, but whose conflicts are centered around the control of magical power.
The saruma is one of the biggest and most feared predators hunting in the jungles of Kaendor. This giant lizard can grow to a height at the shoulders as tall man and can take down most animals smaller than a burak. Not being an efficient runner, a saruma usually attacks from ambush in an attempt to land a fatal bite wound and then follow the blood trail of wounded prey. While a saruma is not particularly fast, it will often follow prey for hours or even days.
(quality 5, scale 4)
A straig is a giant winged reptile found in the mountains of Kaendor. It mostly hunts large herbivores like drohas and krats and is the only predator large enough to bring down a burak. It has a very long serpentine body and its short snout is filled with poisonous teeth that paralyze creatures of any size within minutes. As they usually hunt large animals, the bite of a straig is almost always lethal to even the largest and healthiest people.
(quality 2, scale 2)
Surals are large aquatic animals similar to fish or eels that have some resemblance to snakes. Surals are found mostly in swamps and slow flowing rivers where they have few natural enemies other than mora. Surals mostly feed on small aquatic animals but will readily attack larger creatures that are going into the water and can easily kill hunters or fishermen. If a sural can’t kill large prey quickly with its bite, it will try to kill it by drowining.
(quality 2, scale 2)
Taregs are large arthropods that have some resemblance to a spider, crab, and preying mantis and often grow to sizes bigger than a large stag. Taregs are semi-aquatic creatures that are usually found on rocky stretches of coasts and reefs where they hunt for smaller animals, but readily attack anything that presents itself as potential food. While no more or less dangerous than other predators of its size on an open beach, they spend most of their time crawling on jagged rocks where other large creatures have a very hard time to run away or fight effectively.
(quality 2, scale 3)
Tasdar are large reptiles similar to a long-legged crocodile with some resemblance to tigers. They are found in many of the warmer forests and mountains and known as feared predators. While considerably smaller than the much larger sarumas, tasdards often hunt in small packs of four to six animals and pose a much greater threat to hunters or even bands of warriors than arags.
(quality 1, scale 1)
Tauns are small and stocky reptilian animals with beak-like snouts and strong claws that are found throughout all the forests of Kaendor where they feed on roots, mushrooms, and young plants. They are one of the main prey animals for arags and tasdars and one of the most widely kept farm animals after ogets. While their teeth can cause very severe injuries, tauns are usually very agreeable animals when they are kept well fed and content. They are kept primarily for their meat but taun hides also make a good leather that is considerably tougher than that of ogets.
(quality 2, scale 3)
The toba is a giant snake that is found almost everywhere in Kaendor except for the most northern lands. They come in a wide range of colorations that are usually green or brown, and as they age they can grow to enormous sizes. Unlike other large snakes, the bite of the toba is poisonous and it will attack even other large predators.
(quality 2, scale 3)
While ubas are not predators, they are very ill tempered and highly territorial, and even though they are smaller than krats, they are much more dangerous. Ubas are semi-aquatic animals and spend much of their lives in lakes and large rivers where they feed on aquatic plants. An uba resembles both a rhino and a hippo with two thich horns on its forehead that it uses both for stabbing and bludgeoning anything that provokes its anger.
Kinas are large flying reptiles similar in size to big eagles. They primarily feed on fish and are common sights along all the coasts, but also frequently found living near major rivers and great lakes. While they usually don’t hunt people, they can be quite aggressive fighting off intruders getting close to their nesting sites, which are often found on steep cliffs or atop rocky hills.
(quality 0, scale 0)
Kesks are large flying insects similar to bees that grow as big as a medium sized bird. Like bees or ants, kesks live in large swarms that build extensive hives, which are often found in caves that are surrounded by dense forests, but might also dig into the sides of earthy hills. Kesks store large amounts of honey in their hives that is a valuable resource for nearby villages. Kesk keepers use smoke from various plants to pacify the swarm to allow them to harvest the honey, but have to take extreme care to not get too close to any larvas, which will result in a violet attack. Kesk keepers also usually wear suits of heavy leather, as a sting from a kesk can be very painful, and multiple stings quickly lead to death. Kesks hives that are located in caves large enough to be passable by people often make up a large part of the economy of villages that control access to them.
(quality 3, scale 5)
The krat is a very large and heavy reptile found in some of the more open forests of the south. Their size is similar to an elephant but with shorter legs and a long tail, and they have to very large and thick horns on their heads like a bull. While krats are extremely strong, they are not very fast, slow to train, and require great care and attention from handlers, which makes them rare as pack animals, but highly valued by those able to keep and maintain them. Wild krats can be quite mean creatures and only a small number of them is suitable for training.
(quality 0, scale 0)
Liaks are small mammals resembling deer or antelopes. They are found in forests and mountains everywhere and commonly hunted for food, but rarely kept as lifestock, as they have a tendency to constantly escape from enclosures.
(quality 4, scale 4)
The mora is a huge otter-like creature that can be found in many of the world’s major rivers. It can grow as long as four or five men and preys on large fish, crocodiles, snakes, and almost anything else that comes close to the water to drink. Fortunately, moras are mostly solitary creatures with large territories, and they don’t usually attack larger boats, so they are not seen very often. But moras that start preying on people often become very serious problem and are very difficult and dangerous to hunt and slay.
(quality 1, size 1)
The mutak is a large insectoid predator with a body that can grow as long as a big man’s lower arm. While they mostly hunt animals smaller than themselves, their poisonous sting is quite deadly to creatures considerably larger and they can be a real threat to people. Mutaks are solitary creatures and not territorial, but it’s not unusual to see up to a dozen hunt in the same place.
(quality 2, size 2)
Neskas are large two-legged and feathered reptiles with beak-like maws that inhabit many of the forests and islands of Kaendor. A neska typically grows as tall as a large man, but large males can grow several heads taller than that. Neskas are predators who hunt various small forest animals, but when provoked they fight back viciously and their bite can easily kill a man.
(quality 1, size 1)
Ogets are common farm animals that are found in villages and town throughout all of Kaendor. They resemble wild goats or sheep, but many breeds grow as big as a donkey and can be trained as mounts, though they are more commonly used as pack animals. Most breeds are smaller and are kept for both milk as well as meat and leather. While they are found in many coastal settlements, ogets are particularly important in villages in the mountains, where they are often the main source of food for people, as they can graze on hardy grasses and shrubs where few crops can be grown.
One of the things that really impressed me about Dark Sun and Morrowind, and which are a great part of the inspiration they have on Planet Kaendor, are the very unique wildlifes that inhabit these settings. They are creatures that look very different from the animals that are common in Europe or even outright alien to anything that can be found on Earth. It’s one of the things that makes these settings feel like alien worlds instead of alternative versions of Earth, and something that’s found in others of my favorite settings like John Carter’s Barsoom, or the old videogame Albion.
The wildlife on Planet Kaendor is dominated by giant reptiles and many kinds of huge arthropods. Some well known ones like crocodiles and snakes don’t seem to stand out too much, I think, but most of them are loosely based on obscure extinct animals that your average four-year-old won’t be able to name in under a second. I want to avoid animals that feel immediately like being specific to Europe and North America, so there are no wolves, bears, or boars, and also no horses, cows, or ducks. I’m also avoiding spiders and scorpions, but I am making some concessions to deer and antelopes, as well as various kinds of weasels. (Because weasels are cool.)
I am writing under the assumptions that my next campaign will be using the Forged in the Dark rules from Blades in the Dark, which don’t really assign specific stats to NPCs and creatures. But in some cases it’s useful to have some number to judge the relative strength of beings the PCs are facing, to determine the specific effects and consequences of a confrontation with them. I use quality as primarily a measure of skill in a fight, which can be relevant to judge the severity of injuries if PCs get hit by them. It’s also an important number for rolls when a PC tries to lead them into battle against an enemy. Scale is simply an estimate of a creatures total mass. It’s usually used to estimate the size of groups of people, but also seems useful for particularly big creatures. It can serve as a guideline for how much effect common attacks by PCs have on a creature. A relatively small insect could easily be killed with a single kick, while much more massive creatures would barely notice getting hit by arrows. Ratings go from from 0 to 6, but these are purely ordinal numbers. They indicate which creatures are more or less dangerous, or larger or smaller than others, without stating specifically how much.
(quality 1, scale 2)
This common predator is found throughout the known forests and mountains. It’s about the size of a very large dog, with a big head that resembles both a lion and a fish. The hide of an arag resembles a snake with a gray-brown coloration that sometimes has greenish streaks that help it blend in with the environment. Arags hunt in small packs that generally stay away from settlements, but can be very dangerous when they attack small groups of travelers in the wilderness.
(quality 3, size 6)
The burak is a giant behemoth that has some resemblance to a rhinoceros, a horse, and a giraffe that towers about anything else moving through the forests. Because of their massive size buraks have very few predators and generally ignore other creatures unless they are guarding a nest or recently hatched young. While nesting, pairs of buraks while share the guarding of the nest while the other goes off to forage for food. Once the young are hatched, families rejoin small groups of up to a dozen adults. While some buraks have been captured alive and tamed to some degree, nobody has ever had any success with training one.
(quality 2, size 3)
Drohas are large four legged reptiles that somewhat resemble very big and heavily build camels. They are primarily found in the south, where they can often roam in large herds across the open swamps and heaths, but can also be found in smaller numbers all the way up to the shores of the Misty Sea. Drohas are relatively easy to capture and train, and are one of the most common pack animals both among the city states and wilder tribes. They are not particularly fast compared to other mounts, but can carry huge loads over long distances.
(quality 2, scale 4)
This huge animal resembles antelopes, giraffes, and horses and is the largest mammal to be found anywhere in the forests of Kaendor. While larger and stronger than drohas, giras are more difficult to train and not very popular as either mounts or pack animals.
(quality 1, size 1)
Gren are large, four legged arthropods that resemble crabs and spiders. They primarily live in large burrows under the forest floor, but sometimes also make their nests in caves higher up in the mountains. Grena can grow as high as a man’s waist and often hunt in groups to take on prey significantly larger than themselves. A gren’s bite can kill either by blood loss or poison.
(quality 1, size 2)
The heor is a powerfully build deer found throughout the northern forest and roaming the heaths of Venlat. Like all deer, a heor can be quite skittish, but it’s large enough to carry a rider even across difficult frozen ground. Domesticated heors are calmer than those found in the wild, and have been bred with shorter antlers to decrease the risk for riders, but they are still not easy animals to train and control. This makes them somewhat rare as mount, but they are highly prized for messengers and scouts.
(quality 3, size 2)
This large feathered reptile is found in many parts of the Mountains of the Moon and the Mountains of the Sun. The huliar is a dangerous predator that makes its home far from civilization, but its size and intelligence makes it an exceptionally valuable mount, as well as an exceedingly rare one. Huliar’s can have a wide range of coloration, which come in various patterns of orange, yellow, red, black, and gray feathers.
(quality 1, size 2)
Keriks are giant centipedes that grow up to three yards in length and are found throughout all forest, as well as many mountain ranges and islands. They are ambush predators that mostly feed on small animals, and their large size is mostly for defense. But they can be very aggressive when threatened by other creatures that are getting too close for them and have a very painful poisonous bite. Fortunately, keriks are not particularly fast runners and rarely pursue fleeing enemies for more than a few paces.
I was browsing through some of the oldest post I’ve written way back when I started this site, and discovered that I first wrote about pre-medieval wilderness worldbuilding almost exactly seven years ago. (I’m also well over 500 posts currently. Yay, me!) I often feel frustrated that despite my years of work, I seem to be making barely any progress. The amount of material I have doesn’t really appear to grow and it often feels like I am only moving pieces around a bit instead of actually creating anything new.
Of course, my motivations and inspirations to work on a setting of this style have not really changed since then. A dissatisfaction and boredom with Fantasyland, and a great appreciation for Conan and The Witcher. And some of my favorite elements of Planet Kaendor can be found all the way back in those early posts about the Ancient Lands. Even back then, I was already writing about populating the world with giant reptiles and insects and forests of giant mushrooms. I wrote about wanting a lower amount of magic and a stronger presence of spirits. But quickly I started to run into surprises.
Looking at them side by side, Planet Kaendor really isn’t Ancient Lands v4.0. A blend of cultural elements from Northern Europe and East Asia? When did I ever had that idea? Well, in 2013, according to the date. I do remember having had such an idea, but I had totally forgotten about it for years. Planet Kaendor is very much inspired by the Mycenaeans, Hittites, Egyptian New Kingdom, Achaeminids, and Mauryans. Those aren’t even remotely similar.
The Ancient Lands were meant to be a setting about the age of the great empires of elves and dwarves who shared the wild world with tribes of human barbarians. A contrast of city states and barbarians still exists in Planet Kaendor, but there aren’t any empires. Or even elves and humans.
The Ancient Lands also had major populations of gnomes and beastmen. And a great underground city that was ruled by demons bound into giant crystals, south of which live dark elves and lizardmen. None of these have anything comparable in Planet Kaendor.
The new setting is certainly drawing from the same well of ideas. Or perhaps better, it is being build from the same big box of Lego pieces that I used seven years ago. There are a few elements that I spotted that have endured through my various setting to this day with seemingly very little change. The Sorcerer Lords of Ven Marhend, who rule an an oligarchy over a great port city build into the side of a huge cliff are still there. As is the fey witch Queen Meiv of Halva, a city build of white stone at the feet of a great northern mountain range. But at the same time, there seem to be more things that are completely different.
The truth remains that I don’t really have more material now than I had five or six years ago. But it doesn’t mean that I didn’t make any progress in all that time. For every step forward, I seem to have made a step back. But I now realize that at the same time I have made a huge number of steps sideways, finding myself in a very different place from where I started.
Some years ago I had already be thinking about how the supernatural abilities of Apocalypse World could be translated into a fantasy magic system. It had informed how I had been thinking about magic in Kaendor, but when the Inixon campaign ended up running in D&D 5th edition I didn’t want to bother the players with significantly altered spell lists. Offering none of the regular D&D character races had already been a significant change and I didn’t want to cause too much chaos for players who thought they were going to play D&D. But it turns out that my interpretations of AW powers maps very well to the Forged in the Dark rules.
The concept of Wyrd describes the infinite and eternal web of connections between all beings and all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the world together. (Yes, not original, but if you steal, steal from the best.) Everything is connected to everything, and affects everything else. The Wyrd is a weave of fate, but it is not immutable nor inevitable. The Wyrd merely shows how being have been affected by other beings in the past, and will affect other beings in the future. The Wyrd shows where everyone’s steps are leading if they stay on their current paths. It can show what decisions people will make and what actions they will take in encounters that lie ahead of them if they don’t change their way of thinking. The Wyrd does not dictate what mortals and spirits will do. It only shows the paths they are on, both in body and in thought.
All beings sense the Wyrd, even if they are not aware of it. To most people, it is simply intuition, but wise ones know to trust the feelings in their guts. Spirits perceive the Wyrd just as they see, hear, and smell the world around them, which gives them the ability to sense both the future and the past. But it is an infinite number of futures that could lie ahead, and pasts that could have led to this present. Though most spirits pretend otherwise, the pasts and futures they see within the weave are not infallible.
(Wyrd is a Germanic term, while I am going for a more Indo-Iranian style with the setting, so the exact term might still change.)
Changing Fate and Fated to Change
Characters can use their connection to the weird to get a subconscious impression of the causes that led to a situation and the likely effects of an action about to be taken. This ability is open to all characters, regardless of whether they have any education or experience in magic. This covers the options to push yourself, assist another character, or lead a group action. It can also be used to resist and suffer only less severe consequences than would normally have followed from a failure or partial success.
When using any of these options, characters are listening to their intuition to give themselves an advantage in a tense situation, or advise others about things that feel like they would be important to overcome an obstacle. When using such actions to add additional dice to an action roll, characters are opening themselves up to the effects of the supernatural world that is usually kept out of their minds.
On Planet Kaendor, this replaces stress from FitD in the form of strangeness. Strangeness is mechanically identical to stress, but translated into terms that are more in line with the fiction of the setting. Any time characters reach 10 points of strangeness, they are affected by a permanent change, which works the same way as trauma caused by stress. A change adds a new aspect to the personality of a characters. Players are free to choose how much and how often they want the changes to impact their characters’ behavior and actions, but any time they do, their character gains XP towards learning new special abilities.
Characters can have up to three changes. When characters get their fourth change, they either join the folk of the forests or turn into a ghoul, depending on how much they have been exposed to sorcerous corruption. (Player’s call.)
Characters can always try to reduce their current strangeness as a downtime activity. Many practitioners of magic use meditation rituals or prayer to calm their minds and ground themselves in their mortal nature. Though characters can choose to do whatever helps them keeping their minds from gradually unraveling. Characters who don’t take such actions after an adventure and have already gained a first change continue to accumulate strangeness even back in the comforts of their homes. (This works just like vice, except that there is no risk to overindulge.)
I am currently very much considering that changes will give characters additional options for special abilities to learn during character advancement. Changes don’t have to be negative things, and thinking more like spirits could be regarded as a beneficial transformation by many sorcerers. Having changes can also be used as a factor for determining the effect level for actions like Consort and Sway, reducing the effect when talking to ordinary mortals, but providing increased effect when talking with normally inscrutable spirits.
When characters use the Attune action, they are attuning their minds to the Wyrd. Through the Wyrd they can sense the connections between all living things, and connect their thoughts to those of the spirits to see what they have seen, hear what they have heard, and rely on their ancient wisdom to make sense of the sensations. Divinations like these are the most common form of rituals.
Rituals can also connect to the minds of other people, altering their memories or giving them ideas that are not their own.
Alternatively, characters can attempt to make a bargain with a spirit or compel it to perform a service. Almost all magic that doesn’t fall into divinations or charms is of this kind. What services spirits can perform depends on their powers, but most commonly it relates to controlling the natural forces of the environment. Sending a demon to attack or abduct an enemy is also a possibility, though.
Performing rituals exposes characters to strangeness, the amount of which depends on the scope and strength of the desired effects.
While alchemical substances are inherently magical, working with them is a regular trade using the Tinker action and not relying on the Attune action. As alchemical creations are important components in many rituals, most sorcerers and shamans have at least some basic knowledge in the alchemical arts, and the nature 9f their work leads many alchemist to have a rating of one or two dice in the Attune action.
One of the most important alchemical substances is iron. When using implements made of iron, they have the standard potency against spirits. Items made from bronze, like most weapons and tools, only have limited potency when used against spirits.
Performing alchemy does not expose a character to strangeness.
The house of the merchant Perang sits on top of a tall spire of rock, similar to the homes of most wealthy and powerful people in Tual. The poorer people live in shacks clinging to the base of the spires, resting on wooden posts, where they frequently get flooded or swept away by the stormy seas.
In the Green Sun campaign, Perang turned out to have been replaced by a doppelganger, who died at the hands of the heroes. Tual still exist in Planet Kaendor, and I might use Perang again as an NPC.
Despite my expectations, I actually stumbled across a great idea for my Planet Kaendor reworking yesterday, shortly after writing the last post.
I’ve had a long on-again, off-again relationship with Sword & Sorcery campaigns. I’m absolutely a huge fan of Conan and Kane, but generally enjoy reading them in small portions. For long term campaigns, the typical bleakness and violence seems like a bit too much for me, and when you descend down into the abyss of Sword & Sorcery fandom, you get quickly swept up in the currents of hyper-violent grimdark orthodoxy. Which in my opinion is considerably more extreme and intellectually hollowed out than the tales of the great masters ever where. Yes, they always were violent, reveled in (implied) debauchery, and had elements of horror. But the popular perception today is like a copy of a copy of a copy that only captures the most extreme expressions of black and white and losing all nuances.
But I digress.
The piece of advice for S&S campaigns that I came across was a reminder that the stories are usually highly episodic and the heroes begin each new adventure in a completely different place, with all the gains from their last undertaking already lost and forgotten. Which was put in direct opposition to the infamous quote from Gary Gygax that “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT”. I never was a fan of Gygax and his ideas of adventures and gamemastering (*boo*, *hiss*, I know…), but this piece of advice I always found very compelling. And I did rigorously apply it during the Inixon campaign, though that turned out to not have made any difference because we never went through with managing long expeditions into the wilderness from a fortified base camp.
But now that I think about it, this is really an approach to managing time that works in direct opposite to the aesthetic goal of making the world feel unmoored in time, with no real sense of either the past or the future. The rest of the world is not keeping track of what happened before, then why would the hero. The inevitability of all their deeds being forgotten and leaving no lasting legacy is supposed to be part of the setting’s tone.
To take it a step further, you could not just stop using a calendar (even though I made such a cool one) but also forgo keeping detailed records what the players did entirely. Taking notes about what is currently going on in the current adventure is of course still a good practice, but once it is wrapped up and the campaign moves on to the next adventure, you can discard them and rely entirely on your own fallible memory. When the players ask who exactly an NPC was who they supposedly had been talking to some adventures earlier, just shrug your shoulder and tell them that their vague memories of those encounters are probably reasonably close enough to what really happened. Don’t try to help them remember. At this point it doesn’t matter anymore anyway and whatever they can agree on now becomes the new reality. Even if as the GM, you still remember what really happened.
So here I am, again, planning a new fantasy campaign, again, determined to make it so much better than previous attempts. Again.
Now my last fantasy campaign did end differently and sooner than I had expected. But it did finish with an actual conclusion. With the villains beaten and the day saved. Which by this metric makes it the most successful campaign I’ve ever been involved with. At 19 sessions in total, it was also the longest campaign I’ve ever been involved with. And in the early and middle parts, I felt that my performance as GM was leagues above anything I’ve ever done before. In part because I really learned quite a lot about gamemastering in the four years or so since I had last run a campaign, but I think at least to an equal if not even higher degree because I used a much more open-ended approach to what the story will be. Despite my initial plans, it wasn’t really a sandbox campaign by any stretch of that term, but dropping the players off in a place with only vague hints that there are some useful things in the area that could help them later on their journey directly resulted in the most fun sessions I’ve ever had as either GM or player.
It was only on the final leg of the campaign, when I made it into a more conventional dungeon assault to reach some kind of conclusion, that I felt myself increasingly fighting with the constraints of D&D and my enthusiasm for the game dropped considerably. The players still seemed to have a great time, but my heart really wasn’t into it anymore. I was already looking forward to try again with mechanics that work for me, not against me.
Down the Dungeon
One realization that I made during the later parts of the Inixon campaign is that dungeons really don’t do it for me. I am a huge fan of the idea and the aesthetics of magical caves and ruined cities. But I really don’t like the gameplay concept of the dungeon.
Having a dungeon with a few dozen rooms which are inhabited by various groups of guards and creatures makes sense for a dungeon crawling campaign. But I found that when the players go to a place to meet a NPCs, be it to rescue, negotiate with, or fighting them, going through an entire dungeon really just becomes a drag and a nuisance that gets in the way of making progress with the game. A castle may well have hundreds of rooms, but the story of sneaking into one specific room in that castle does not require hundreds of scenes to play out. Look at books and movies that have cool locations that could be considered dungeons, and I think almost all of them come down to really just three or four rooms in which all the scenes play out. Jabba’s Palace: Main gate, throne room, rancor pit. Thulsa Doom’s Lair: Main stairs, cave passage, throne room. Fully mapped dungeons are for dungeon crawling games. For narrative focused games, they seem to be out of place.
From Crawling to Walking
Very much related to purpose of dungeons is the usefulness of resource management. Typical fantasy adventuring gear is mostly for dealing with the many obstacles that are encountered in dungeons. Most objects can be used in scenes in a narrative focused game as well, but there generally isn’t the expectation that you always have to carry around your golf bag of adventuring gear with you all the time because you know you’ll be needing most of it very soon. Tracking how much stuff characters can carry makes sense when you have an expectation that supplies will run out after frequent use and restocking won’t be easily possible before that happens. It also becomes relevant when the weight of all the stuff impacts how fast or how slow the characters can be progressing through the places they are in.
When I prepared the Inixon campaign, doing a traditional wilderness exploration based on long expeditions into The Isle of Dread had actually been my plan. But while we were playing Against the Cult of the Reptile God we already settled into dynamics and character motivations that were much more narrative focused. And it became even more so during the completely unscripted stay in the pirate town that went on much longer than the one or two sessions I had calculated for it.
The experience with these parts of the campaign had been amazingly positive. Not only did I get great responses from the players, I also felt like my performance as GM went up steeply and the workload both during games and when preparing new content seemed to plummet down to a fraction. You can of course set up a wilderness crawl completely blind and leave it entirely in the hands of the players to do or die. But I feel like this would only be fun with players who really want this style of game and who are quite decent at it. Otherwise making sure that the obstacles they are facing will be challenging but not too dangerous and keeping an eye on how much resources they have left and will need to find in the near future becomes quite a lot of work. Work that I now can absolutely live without. Resource management is another thing I want to leave by the side for the time being.
When I am sitting by myself, coming up with great ideas for worldbuilding, the Sword & Sorcery setting I imagine is full of alien and exotic stuff like Tekumel, Barsoom, or Morrowind. But in every single campaign I’ve run in this type of setting, I always ended up describing a fairly ordinary generic fantasyland to the players. In this case it was generic pirates and serpents fantasyland, but that’s still just in a different climate zone in fantasyland.
And once again, I suspect a primary source of this might be D&D. In particular, it’s power gradient as monsters and other enemies are concerned. I tend to to create monsters of a style that makes them seem like they could potentially be actual animals that once existed somewhere on Earth, or which at least are not inconceivable as hypothetical branches that could have had evolved naturally. When statting such creatures for D&D, it usually is the easiest way to simply reskin some kind of monster that already exists, like an owlbear or rhinoceros. But when you do that, you already have locked in the relative power level of many of your new original critters. And in my case, the more exotic and stranger creatures are almost all more dangerous and powerful than the more mundane ones, so their D&D stats have to be correspondingly higher as well. And at that point I had already trapped myself, making a good portion of the more interesting creatures so powerful that PCs would have to have a good number of levels under their belt to face them with a real chance to win. Now the Inixon campaign ran over 19 games and at the end the PCs would have reached 6th level if the campaign would have continued. It was a long campaign with a not unusually slow advancement, but even so I never got an opportunity to show of many of the creatures in their natural environment without wiping out the party.
What actually happened was that I filled the encounters that the players got up with the smallest and most uninteresting of critters. Mostly cultists and snakes, with the occasional wolf-reskin and yuan-ti boss. Total fail. It also didn’t help that so much time was spend fighting those little critters because you need to get plenty of fights under your belt to get to the higher levels. Time that wasn’t spend interacting with the local cultures. This really ties in directly with the issue of dungeons.
Hopefully I can avoid this mistake when I am converting my material to Barbarians of Lemuria.
This is something that I’ve never got to work. Not even remotely. The aesthetic and tone that this type of Bronze Age Pangea setting is meant to evoke the style of Dying Earth fiction. With a world that is huge and wild and covered in ruins, but barely inhabited by people at all. Nothing of that kind ever came up in any of my previous campaigns. I thought the solution to that would be to have long wilderness journeys on which the players have to chart their course along landmarks and manage their supplies and deal with the difficulties of transportation. Usually that never happened because the PCs never got a level where I thought they would be ready to deal with such a challenge. And with a more narrative focus for the next campaign and ditching resource management, that won’t really be an option either. No real clue how to work on that, but it’s one more priority in which I’ll have to find ways to include it.
Why are we doing all of this?
One thing that had really bothered my for several years when setting up new campaigns was with setting up situations and environments in which it would feel believable to me that the PCs are risking their lives to go on these adventures. Typically in fantasy RPGs, you get two kinds of characters: Murderhobos and magic boy scouts.
When you’re running a dungeon crawl campaign and the goal of the campaign is to overcome monsters and get their treasure to get XP for being able to overcome more powerful monsters to get their treasure, then there really is no need for anything more complicated than characters who are risking their lives for riches and don’t really concern themselves with anything else. But for something that has more focus on an unfolding narrative where more time is spend on conversations and making arrangements between various competing groups, such characters won’t work. They just want to know where the monsters with the treasure are.
On the other hand you have the shining heroes who have nothing better to do with their lives than permanently wandering around looking for any opportunity to risk their lives against terrifying foes for people they don’t have any connection to. These are characters that work for games where everyone knows the campaign is about brave heroes saving the world from evil. But I don’t feel them being suitable for campaigns where there is no black and white good and evil, and no obvious end goal that all PCs would automatically pursue. Which I think is where all the much more interesting stories take place.
I’ve struggled for many years with finding a good description of what kind of people “adventurers” are in my setting and what players should expect of their role in the campaign. But now I think I always made this much more complicated than it really needs to be. I think all you really need to get players engaged with a dangerous situations and get invested in the outcome is to tell them to make characters who are deep down decent people and put them in situations where they have the means to make a real difference for good. Most sane people really like doing good things but avoid being heroic in everyday life out of uncertainty and fear of doing something wrong or getting into danger. In a game, this isn’t really a factor. Games let you do the right thing without any actual risk or cost, and in these situations most people are more than happy to play the hero. Many videogames check off trophies and achievements for ending the game in a heroic or villainous way, and in most cases you see vastly more players who did save all the kittens instead of kicking the dogs. (And I believe large numbers of those who kicked the dogs did it on a second or third playthrough after having saved the kittens in their first run.)
And also take into consideration my earlier choice to drop the idea of regularly clearing out whole dungeons of all the monsters. This drops the total amount of lethal fights that PCs get into considerably and makes a much higher fraction of them actually directly matter. You get much fewer situations where the players would be killing bands of goblins or swarms of giant centipedes simply because they are there. This makes the life of an “adventurer” seem considerably less suicidal and makes it much more believable that relatively ordinary people would accept the risks that come with it. Think of the four hobbits for example. They didn’t sign up to clear out Moria or conquer Mordor. And the story doesn’t make them do that. I have no idea of their kill counts during their year long quest to reach the heart of their enemy’s power, but I think most of them would be able to count them on one hand. Or at the other end, my two favorite scoundrels Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. They aren’t selfless people full of endless compassion and driven to self sacrifice. But when they find themselves in situation where a terrible injustice has to be stopped, and they have the means to attempt it, they find their decency to not just stand by and ignore it.
Getting away from D&D’s class system probably might help with this as well.
And what is it all about?
Now we’re going to get really pretentious. When I was learning more about ancient cultures and their belief systems back in university, I got the strong impression that all civilizations with organized states and agriculture develop a belief that they are separate from nature and that humans are really much more similar to the gods. They are the masters of their environment, and in some cases the world really was made for them. Today it becomes obvious how that attitude leads to huge environmental problems and disasters, but to some degrees this has been going on for thousands of years. I thought it would be really interesting to come up with fantasy cultures in a world where there is absolutely no doubt that nature does whatever the hell it wants, the constant environmental changes are much faster to be more visible during a human lifetime, and people get inevitably crushed if they think they can make nature obey their wishes. There are no natural disasters. There are only extreme weather events. They only become disasters because humans build inadequate houses in high risk areas and have no plan B for when their human-build infrastructure is destroyed.
My idea for such a setting is to make it an extreme weather world, where typhoons, earthquakes, and active volcanoes are very common, and the nature gods in charge of these phenomenons pay no attention to the needs and wishes of mortals. This world is not made for people to live in and make use of. Going with my favorite Eldritch Abomination quote: “You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.” Except that the nature gods wouldn’t bother explaining themselves to mortals.
One analogy I came up with and that I quite like is that in this world, people aren’t the apex predators like bears or tigers, but sit more in the middle like weasels. They certainly are predators who have no trouble killing almost everything else in their weight class and can even take on other animals considerably larger than themselves. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do against a bear and their only option is to get out of the way. (Not counting wolverines and honey badgers. Those are just fury and madness.)
To bring in the Dying Earth tone, even though it’s a world that is full of life and going nowhere, my idea is for people to have an approach to history that nothing that they do will have a lasting impact in the long run. They can build cities that might grow into small kingdoms, but it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will topple their walls or destroy their farmland, and the people will return to the wilderness to live among the savages, with their descendants knowing nothing of their civilized origin. That’s how it always has been, and always will be. The broken ruins that stand as proof are found everywhere. Refusing to see the signs and abandoning the dying cities for a better life elsewhere will only make the inevitable end worse.
Of course, there are always some powerful people who don’t accept this fate and believe that they have the strength to avert this doom and create a legacy that will last forever. And some of them are turning to dark magic to pursue this goal or even seeking immortality. They always fail, but the terrifying results of their foolishness survive in infamy long after other kings and cities have been forgotten.
I think this is a really cool concept with some real solid substance to it. But it never really came up during low-level exploration adventures. But I think it might be more useful in a campaign with a more narrative focus, where the sorcerer king doesn’t have to be a 15th or 20th level wizard. As with many other things, I don’t really have anything definitive nailed down on this front yet. But it’s something I want to focus on much stronger going forward from here.
To wrap up this sprawling abomination of a past, this is where I stand right now in both my hindsight reflection on previous campaigns and with my lofty ambitions going forward. Currently I am feeling that I don’t really need to change much regarding the worldbuilding of the setting. I don’t think there’s any need to drop existing creatures or create new ones, alter the general geography, or come up with different ideas for the cities. I don’t seem to have to make any changes to my big box of toys. Instead, I feel this process will be a lot more about how I could be playing with them in different ways, and perhaps spend a lot more time with some of the stuff that’s so far been lying unused at the bottom of the box.
So yeah, rambling’s over. I worked three days on this without any real major revelation to share with the world. This is what I got right now, but there’s been quite some response from a number of people for this topic, so I hope it’s not been completely in vain. I’m looking forward to see where this is going myself.