A few weeks ago I’ve been pondering what kind of format to use to turn all my ideas for the Ancient Landsinto 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.
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 MandaloriansQunari Sakaya as a scarily efficient army of compulsive conquerors.
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,
While the Ancient Lands that are floating around in my head is a pretty great place (yeah, the actual writing isn’t really comming along that well so far) it often feels to me like it’s still missing a certain something. Worldbuilding at the drawing board is a technical task of deliberate consideration and choice, and while it’s a wonderful assembly of parts, it is lacking life. What I really need is that spark of emotional value that can make it truly ignite.
“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
Project Forest Moon was my first attempt to really give the setting an aesthetic core, and seeing how often I am refering back to that post it apparently was a very successful one for me. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi both defined by inner ideal of fantasy atmosphere with Endor, Bespin, Dagobah, and also Jabba’s Palace. (While I also love the atmosphere in several parts of Mass Effect, those are actually just recapturing that Star Wars magic very well.) Obviously, I also love Morrowind as a main source of idea, but the actual game itself feels much more bland and lifeless than it looks on pictures, just like the other Elder Scrolls games.
But today I somehow ended up listening to some samples of the soundtrack of Nier: Automata (still have not even played the first game) and I really quite like it. It really very much reminds me of the music from the last Final Fantasy games, which now actually brings me to todays topic.
I only played Final Fantasy 10 up to and failing at the final boss, finished Final Fantasy 13, played a couple of hours of Final Fantasy 7, which I found very much lacking, and tried out the beginning of Final Fantasy 12. So in the eyes of true fans, I probably don’t actually know shit about real Final Fantasy games. But while I have not seen much of 12 and 13 has some really big problems in the gameplay and story department, from an aesthetic perspective I really like them and 10. Sure, they are cheesy and overly dramatic, and not in a fun camp way, but the visual and aural presentation of the world outside of combat and cringy dialogs is really working for me. It hits that Star Wars nerve and actually does so a bit stronger than even Star Wars.
These environments are like 70s Sword & Sorcery art brought to life with light and sound that you can walk around in. The games also manage to create the impressions that these worlds are vast and also almost uninhabited, which is another thing I really like and that you rarely find in contemporary fantasy anymore. Books have huge numbers of characters and countries, while videogames are forced to cram all their content into very dense spaces because of their technical limitations. By not having an open world like The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher 3, or Horizon, Final Fantasy games can show vast landscapes stretching to the horizon that only have to look good from one perspective. But the inherent flaws of the open world videogame concept are a completely different discussion.
But another thing I think Final Fantasy gets right is that these worlds don’t feel like they could have been alternative Earths if magic were to replace technology. You can buy them as alien planets on which magic doesn’t exist besides physics but is inherently interwoven with it. Magic doesn’t just express itself in spells, magic items, and demons, but also in the shape of the terrain, the growth of forests, and the anatomy of impossible animals. Which are all things that I’ve consciously decided to have being part of the Ancient Lands, but which in the past I didn’t really feel being part of it. When writing the setting as a readable text, this is something that really needs to be woven into the subtext and the style. A technical listing of the parts that constitute the setting won’t be enough to really make it what I want it to be.
I frequently see well meaning critics demand that more writers should include their own “cultural heritage” in their works. To get more diversity in fiction, particularly in fantasy, als also share new ideas and perspectives with the global audience. Does this also apply if you’re a writer from Northern Europe? We have lots of cultural heritage here. I am sure there’s lots of people who would really be into fantasy inspired by vikings.
But to be honest, we do have a bit more history than that here in “the land between the seas”. (No, not Denmark. Schleswig-Holstein.) And it’s all about sailing and the sea. Some time after the Viking Age, Lübeck became the gateway to Northern Europe and central hub of the whole Baltic Sea trade. While I mentioned once before the whole story of Margarete I, the Kalmar Union, the Battle of Visby, and pirates is excelent Game of Thrones level material, the history of the Hanseatic League is mostly a story of commerce and diplomacy, which lies somewhat outside of my own field of interest when it comes to fantasy. If someone would write it, I’d totally read it, but I’ve got other things to do with my own writing efforts.
But still, there’s the sea…
If you’d want to condense the culture of Schleswig-Holstein in just two images, it’d be dairy farming and the sea. Those are our things! (We don’t have anything else.) Including sea travel has always been a priority for me in my work on the Ancient Lands and it has remained so even after I gave the setting a tighter focus as a forest world. Forests and the sea, that’s the two worlds of the Ancient Lands. Today I was thinking about the role of sea spirits within the setting and I didn’t have a lot on my list. Mermaids that can shapeshift into humans and like to eat people with their shark teeth was about the full extend of ideas I had about it. That and Deep Ones, but those fishy friends are not actually spirits but more in the league of trolls and harpies. I had stopped worrying about sea monsters a good while ago, because when are you really going to have players fight those. I certainly don’t want to do fantasy kingdoms on the bottom of the sea, as throughout the past four decades those have always universally sucked. And when you’re on a ship, most sea creatures can’t actually fight with player characters. So what to do about the sea as an element of the Ancient lands?
Here’s where all the talk about cultural heritage comes into it. When you think about fantasy and the sea, you probably first think about pirates on tropical islands, and maybe Odysseus in the Aegean Sea as a distant second. But here up north, the image of the Sea is a very different one. The Baltic Sea is pretty tame (and boring), but the North Sea and particularly the North Atlantic Ocean are a different story altogether. There is very little romantic about how they are seen in local folklore and there aren’t any pretty mermaids in coral castles and friendly dolphins. The beach is a nice place to take walks and think about going for a swim if the weather were just a bit warmer. But the sea itself is a vast, black, cold void of watery death.
In Northern German folklore, the North Sea is given some degree of personalty, so you could think of it as a kind of spirit. But a more accurate word would be demon. Yes, the sea has always been a provider of food and the source of our wealth through trade, but that’s only as long as you stay above it. Below the surface there is only darkness and death. If the sea is worshipped, it’s not to ask for plenty or good fortune. It’s begging it to spare your life. The sea can swallow everything that floats on it or that is close to it, and what it devours is never heard from again. It is literally forever vanished from the face of the Earth. Only very rarely do things come up from below, and these are the massive corpses of things unlike any creatures seen on land or in the air. Things with no resemblance to what can be found in rivers and lakes. Below the waves lies a world that is not meant for people. A world in which people can not exist.
While I like the idea of shapeshifting cannibal fish ladies, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are actually much too human like for a place like this. Instead of making the sea part of the Spiritworld, I am going to assign it to the Underworld. It’s not the world of spirits that seem related to people, but the world of alien demons. I had not really decided on any details about the Ocean God yet, but going with Dagon would be a much more interesting choice than some happy dolphin god. Another interesting aspect of the sea in the Ancient Lands is that aside from the highest mountains, it’s the only part of the world that is open to the sky without any cover. For people used to life under trees, this would be a very alien environment.
Of course, there are still some major sailing peoples in the Ancient Lands and I am going to keep sea travel an important part of the setting, But sailors will be a much more odd group of folks. Even staying close to the coasts, they are always living on the edge to the Underworld, much more so than any other people. And their own culture should be influenced by this proximity to demonic influences. Discovering remote islands will also take on a somewhat different character. I have not thought of any specifics yet, but reaching such a place should have some traces of feeling like arriving in a different world after having passed through an alien and malevolent otherworld of the open sea.
I admit that I fell into this trap myself when I started to seriously work on a fantasy world six years ago. So let’s call it a typical beginners mistake. I was young and stupid, just like probably everyone else. I frequently look around in RPG forums for discussions about advice on worldbuilding and I’m always more than happy to share my experiences and discoveries and present various options that I think might be of interest and useful for the people who asked.
But there is this one thing that regularly comes up, almost always by people who are just starting out, that makes me somewhat… let’s say “frustrated”. It’s people trying to make a fantasy world by attempting to model a physically, chemically, biologically, and even astronomically realistic planet. I think the initial consideration is valid. You don’t want to end up people pointing out that your rivers are running upstream or in circles or that you can’t have an ecosystem in which all the animals are carnivores. A basic understanding about geography and ecology is a good thing to have to avoid the most embarassing blunders.
But then there’s always people who start worrying about the size of their world’s sun, it’s radiation output, and it’s distance from the planet. Or how spiders can only get so big because of the way their respiratory system work unless you increase the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere considerably. It’s a typical mistake and I made it as well when I started, but such exercises are ultimately pointless.
The first thing is that it’s still fantasy. If you’re writing really hard science-fiction, then I can understand the desire to show off your real-world science knowledge and make the alien environments physically sound. But why bother worrying about the oxygen circulation in (real world) spiders or the maximum weight supported by bones (real world) mammals and then add 50 meter fire-breathing flying reptiles and ghosts? As soon as you start adding fantastic elements, you already establish that real world physics do not apply to this world.
The other thing that makes such efforts futile is the question how such information would ever become known to players or readers? Is anyone ever going to dissect a giant spider and ask for a description of its whole internal anatomy? Is any character ever going to make an atmospheric analysis or calculate the energy output of the star based on its chemical composition and mass? If a detail can never plausibly come up in the fiction, then it’s useless.
The amount of scientific knowledge you need to make a pretty plausible fantasy world is really very basic stuff: Planets are colder at the poles and warmer at the equator. Climate varies little between summer and winter near the sea and varies greatly further inland. You need to have larger numbers of herbivores than carnivores. Water flows downhil; rivers only meet but don’t split up (except for coastal swampy river deltas). As a simple rule of thumb: As soon as you start adding measurements and make calculations, you went off doing exploring real-world scientific phenomena (which is a good thing), but it’s irrelevant for your worldbuilding.
I also want to make an appeal to dream big. An Earth-like planet with medieval culture is unlikely to really inspire people and amaze them. When you set out to build a new fantasy world, then you really should consider to build one that is different and something people haven’t seen many times before. Of course there’s some personal stylisitic preference talking here. I’m unashamedly a huge fan of Morrowind, Planescape, and Star Wars and 70s and 80s fantasy art. There seems to be very little fantasy of this kind to be around these days. But it’s fantasy, you’re allowed to be fantastical.
Dealing with cultures in a campaign setting is always a tricky issue. There are a lot of good reasons to provide a good range of different cultures with unique and distinctive character instead of going with some kind of generic Standard Fantasy Setting. But at the same time there’s always the very real risk of excessive lore dumps that make the setting less accessible to newcomers. While Tekumel and Glorantha always looked quite intriguing to me, I was never able to get even a foot into the door, so to speak. There’s so much and I don’t know where to begin reading. My goal with releasing Ancient Lands material is not just for it to be read but also to be used in actual games. I don’t want to write fiction (at least with this undertaking) but to create RPG material. Good RPG material.
So when chosing a format to present the various cultures I have created for the setting, making it so that it’s accessible and useable are the key considerations. That means it has to be short. Or as Bryce tends to put it in regard to adventures “terse and evocative”. Short enough to make people willing to read it even when they have no investment in it yet, evocative enough that it makes them want to have it in their games, and providing the kind of information they need to actually use it effectively. So the format I am fiddling around with now is the One Page Culture. One page of text of text has to be enough to cover all the essential facts.
But what are the essential facts? By which I mean “necessary or highly useful to present the culture in an actual adventure”. When I read about cultures in RPG books or other fantasy world, there tends to be a lot of stuff that might be somewhat interesting to read as entertainment, but is almost impossible for the players to actually encounter except in the form of an infodump monolog. So the main consideration is: “What aspects of a culture will the players be interacting with?” Limiting the full length of the description to a single page is a means to ensure the whole thing doesn’t get bloated with descriptions of cooking and embroidery. These are the things I found to be the most relevant for GMs to run a game, in no particular order.
Who are the important people? Probably the most important thing for players to know. When they get to a village or stronghold, who are the people they need to talk to if they need something. Who are the people who matter for things related to adventurers?
What can they do for you? Once you know what kind of leader or official you need to talk to, what kind of assistance can you expect to get from them and what are the limits imposed on them by their society?
Who are the troublesome people? In addition to people who could be of help to the players, there’s also those who could mean trouble to adventurers. Witches, inquisitors, doomsday preachers, and so on.
What can they do to you? If the players have run ins with these people, what kind of threat are they likely to pose?
What services are available? Different cultures may have different good that they are producing exclusively or have various restrictions on what may be sold or provided to outsiders.
How do they fight? What type of armaments are used by warriors of the culture and what’s the common composition of a group of armed people? Do they rely on certain tactics or are there special rules who can be in charge of such a group. Where would warriors be found in an average settlement and in what numbers?
What do settlements look like? While the specifics about different architectural styles are of little consequence, it can be quite useful to have a general idea of the common layout of a settlement for each culture. In some cultures the hall of the chief or the shrine may be in the center, while in others they may be found on a prominent hill at the far side of the main gate. Or the shrine may not be located within the settlement itself but some distance away from people’s homes. Some cultures may have tall stone houses, others circular single-story farm house with thatched roofs, or underground burroews. It doesn’t have to be alaborate, but if you keep these things consistent the players might quite likely recognize the patterns.
What are shrines and temples like? Since adventurers tend to have to deal with various supernatural poisons, diseases, and curses and may have other needs for divine aid, shrines and temples are going to be places that are quite likely to be visited on several occasions. Giving a brief description of how the culture builds its shrines, how priests look like, and what requirements and restrrictions are in place for assisting outsiders can be a great boon to making a culture appear distinctive. Deep theological concepts or religious celebrations are usually completely irrelevant in actual play.
What animals are around? This item is important for the Ancient Lands in particular, but can be useful for describing cultures in general. If the animals found in settlements are not the typical European farm animals, then what kind of mundane or unusual critters are around instead? The Ancient Lands don’t have horses, cows, pigs, or dogs, but many similar roles are filled by various types of deer, goats, and large reptiles. A settlement of skeyn would have many ogets (large riding goats), while Takari elves of the Mahiri Jungles would use large caravans of huge drohas (hardrosaurs). This also applies to what beasts warriors would be riding into battle.
Pretty early on in my work on the Ancient Lands I began considering the possibility of making the material publicly available. The comments on the early ideas I shared showed that there clearly is some kind of interest for the kind of setting I have in mind and have continued throughout the years. And since I started reading a wide range of OSR releases and seeing with how little resources and just a good amount of creativity they have been made, creating some kind of book started looking like a real option. Now that the world has reached a pretty clear shape in my head and I more or less finalized the rules I want to use for it, it’s getting time to get started with some actual writing.
The most important decision before even starting with putting words on a screen is to chose what kind of book it’s going to be and what is going to go into it. I am all for making whatever creative work you want to do, but what I want to make is a world, not some kind of special or innovative book. So I find it useful to consider who would be the intended target audience and what kind of book they would find useful to have. In my very early worldbuilding days I used to look at the table of content of the Forgotten Realms and Eberron books, or the old TSR box sets and try to cover all the items they had listed. The results were not satisfying and it’s pretty clear that I won’t be having an audience like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Golarion anyway. I’ve actually come to dislike such books myself and consider it a format that just isn’t really useful for GMs. With whatever I am writing being effectively a homemade book using a retro D&D system, the main audience I might reach would likely be mostly GMs running oldschool game, plus the odd person who follows me to this site through one of my forum signatures. And these people wouldn’t be interested in a big encyclopedia of a complex world with a detailed history and intricate webs of NPC relationships. And neither am I really interested in developing or writing such a world.
I read a good number of RPG books of which many are setting specific, but with no intention to run campaigns in those worlds. What I am really after is ideas that I can incorporate in my own campaign. Almost the whole creation process of the Ancient Lands consisted of collecting ideas and concepts from everywhere and integrating them into the setting with barely more than a fresh coating of paint. The book that I want to make is a collection of humanoid cultures, settlements, adventuring sites, creatures, and one concept of a cosmology unusual for a D&D world. It is all content that I created for use in my own campaign and it all can be used together if someone wants to play in my world as well. But I expect that to happen rarely and so the primary design goal is to make it a collection of working stand-alone pieces that GMs can scavenge to create their own bronze age wilderness Morrowind-esque worlds.
The main problem i had when first getting into RPGs and deeper into Forgotten Realms was that I felt the main book not providing me enough information to actually run a game, It was full of hints for what is hidden in many of the dungeons, teased at the resources and plans of various organizations, and gave brief glimpses at the goals and motives of important NPCs, as well as announcing big historic events to come. And I knew that at least for some of these there were actual definitive answers to those questions and much more detailed descriptions of the brief summaries. And as a young GM I felt that I would have to know these things before I could use all those elements in a game or otherwise I would later discover I did things wrong. And that’s a big problem with settings that have these big progressing timelines and continous releases of sourcebooks. You can actually run them wrong and contradict the officially established facts. The second major problem with Forgotten Realms in particular is that all the cool content is for high level parties and completely out of scope for the most common groups of 1st to 5th level. Which means the majority of content you get isn’t even going to see any use for most of the time. What’s the point of NPCs I can not use because my party is not powerful enough and that have to be kept out of any danger because I don’t want to contradict their official description in future releases? The second edition box set and the third edition book are prime examples of how to not make a campaign setting. The Planescape and Dark Sun boxes were much better, but the revised edition of Dark Sun made all the mistakes the first one managed to avoid. Again, the main purpose of a campaign setting is to be used by GMs to run games for their players. They are not for reading fiction. Most big published campaign settings don’t appear to understand it but have a big enough brand behind them to not make it matter.
One of my favorite setting books, that I’ve been praising many times, is the first edition Forgotten Realms book The Savage Frontier. This book is what I want to do. It’s a collection of ideas that inspire GMs to create their own specific and detailed content. To me it’s one of the many old Jaquays classics. Unfortunatly that first version of the North didn’t last and became the quaint bloated mess it has been ever since. Another, and perhaps even better example of what it might look like would be Yoon-Suin. It’s not a book that gives you a world that can be played out of the box. It really is a book of ideas that you are meant to use to assemble your own personal setting, I already can say for certain that I won’t be having any considerable number of random tables or appendices (full of random tables) and will be going for more half-page dungeon descriptions and NPCs meant to be met by and interact (and perhaps get killed by) the players. But it’s an approach I very much appreciate.
I hope that this might have provided some general idea of what you can expect to get. Somewhere in the distant future. However, I am doing this purely for the enjoyment of creation and the intention of getting read and used by other people, so all the content will be available for free. Once everything has been written and the reception indicates that there might be a market for it I could very well imagine doing a very pretty print version with comissioned art sold at a modest profit. But again, this is for my own use first, to see it get used by others second, and with commercial success being a very distant third that is of no real priority.
Things are rather busy at work these days with our main season having started (we sell garden plants so everything needs to be fully grown before the actual planting season starts) and even on the days when I don’t get back home late and tired I mostly spend my time doing other things than working on the Ancient Lands. While admittedly I’ve been writing more here recently than I have for quite a while, most of it is spur of the moment stuff that just pops into my mind minutes before I write it. And even most of that is more theory than specific content.
But I am always more creative in spring and summer (it’s adventuring season after all) and I got quite a number of ideas in my head that are almost finished content that is only in need of being nailed down and locked. Which I always do best when spelling it out in writing. So expect more stuff that is ready to take and use in games in the comming weeks. For now I am hopping on to an idea that someone suggested over two years ago and share ten randomly selected interesting details about the Ancient Lands that make it a unique and distinctive setting:
The Ancient City: Somewhere in the distant past there was a great city of sorcerers known as Sarhat (or Sahal) that rivaled all other realms in power and eldritch knowledge. Of all the legendary ruins in the Ancient Lands, this one is by far the most famous and most searched for, though almost nothing definitive is known about it. Many believe that the sorcerers of Sarhat were naga and that therefore it must be located somewhere in the Mahiri Jungles or Kemesh, but every so often the notes of slain naga sorcerers reveal that their hunts for the ancient city have got them no further than anyone else’s. Some treasure hunters and sages believe that the city actually lies somewhere in the Spiritworld or might even have moved far from its original location. Countless people have died or vanish on their search for Sarhat and among the common people there is a widespread doubt about what one might even find if the city could ever been reached. The search for the fabled city is widely regarded as an idiotic quest for fame without any hope of success or practical purpose, and leading people to Sarhat has become well established as the ultimate folly, both literally and figuratively.
Verticality:Throughout the Ancient Lands and over the countless centuries of its existance, the builders of fortresses and castles have always shown a seemingly universal fascination with height. In a world covered in trees, reaching above the endless canopy and having an unlimited view to the horizon has become an ancient symbol of power. Castles are often build on top of rocky hills or take the form of massive towers, and some fortresses are carved into the sides of massive cliffs. Even in small villages with simple wooden palisades the highest point of the settlement is usually reserved for the chief’s hall or the village shrine.
Truthspeaking: The future is always uncertain until it happens and there are no powers that could say for certain what it holds. Yet the actions and choices of both mortals and spirits are often very much predictable as long as one has sufficient knowledge of their motives and plans. Truthspeaking is the art of peering into the wyrd and observing the countless possibilities and paths that lie ahead of a person and finding the one that seems most likely. Truthspeaking is very accurate when it comes to predicting significant encounters that await a person in the near future if events have already been set into motion to send them and others down certain path. It can also predict how those other people will act according to their natures and motives and a warning of looming treachery can be of invaluable worth. However, while truthspeakers can predict a duel between two heroes before they even know about each other’s existence, they have no way to tell who will win if their skills are equal. And often it is tiny and seemingly insignificant details that decide the outcome of an encounter that even the most experienced truthspeakers can easily miss as being important.
Serpentmen: The serpentmen are servants of the naga who are similar to elves in size and stature but with scaled skin, serpentine eyes, and almost featureless faces. They have never been encountered as anything other than soldiers or guards and seemingly always in the service of naga, which has many people believe that they have been created from elven slaves through alchemy or sorcery.
Iron: While the raw materials for making iron are quite cheap and widely available, the process of refining them into a workable material and forging it into durable blades are much more complex and dificult than working with bronze. While iron pots and nails are common and its often used for making lamellar armor plates, iron blades are very rare and valuable. Even though they are no better than well made bronze blades (and often even less so), iron has the special property of harming spirits just as well as it does mortals. Pieces of iron can be used as wards against spirits and iron chains have the power to securely bind them and even prevent mortal witches from using their magic.*
There are four moons in the sky: One large, one medium, and two small; one of which is moving very slowly in the sky in the opposite direction.
The Old Gods aren’t gone: Nor are they sleeping. They are still around as they always have, since long before the gods of forests or beasts. They have only become almost invisible in this world since life took over the surface of the planet and established the familiar laws of nature. As one leaves behind these familar regions in the Spiritworld they can be found deep beneath the earth and among the stars that are still their domains.
Time is irrelevant in the Spiritworld: While visiting mortals still experience time as they are used to it seems to have no real influence on the Spiritworld itself or its native beings. Castles can stand deserted in pristine conditions for many thousands of years or crumble into rubble within minutes after being abandoned. Some spirits sleep for eons or sit in silent contemplation for centuries without need for food or sleep. Fires burn without ever consuming their fuel and a single night may last for what seems to be months. The Spiritworld is a manifestation of the thoughts and emotions of the spirits and does not have to follow the patterns that govern life in the material world.
Spears and Bows are the Hero Weapons: Swords and axes play a rather minor role in the warrior culture of the Ancient Lands. Since armor tends to be light and not highly sophisticated, reach and speed are the main things that keep warriors alive in battle. A properly armed warrior carries either a spear or a shield (or both if he has attendants to carry them) and short swords and axes are kept primarily as backup weapons or for use in tight spaces. When using one-handed weapons, the other hand always carries a shield if it’s in any way possible.**
There are no horses or dogs: Also no bears, cows, or pigs. Horses and dogs are the two most significant animals in European culture as far as their role in hunting and warfare is conerned. Since I want to go with a style that is more Morrowind/Planescape/Kalimdor, these very familiar creatures are removed and replaced with more exotic creatures that are representative of the world’s unique ecology.
*I really like this one from a mechanical perspective. It’s a simple replacement of the common silver weapons and makes the imprisonment of spellcasters very easy without convoluted magical prison setups. All while reviving the old image of iron having power over spirits.
** This is partly “historical accuracy” but primarily a desire to see these weapons of ancient mythological figures back in their deserved spots. The reach advantage of spears can simply be represented as a +1 bonus to Armor Class, as in practice it makes it harder for an opponent to get close enough to attempt a strike at the body.