Potions

Hemra

This potion is made from the boiled leaves of the hemra plant and some simple additional ingredients. The potion is a slightly bluish green and heals 2d4+2 hit points. Partiqularly high quality potions have a deep blue color and heal 4d4+4 hit points.

Rusan

This potion is an oil made from the leaves of the rusan shrub. A full dose causes unconsciousness for 1d4 hours, while drinking a third of that amount put a person into a hazy state that gives an advantage on saving throws against being frightened and disadvantage on all Dexterity and other Wisdom checks, which lasts for 1 hour.

Valkar

Eating one of these seeds gives advantage on saving throws against exhaustion for 6 hours. Eating another within 24 hours requires a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or it causes the poisoned condition instead.

Satak

This vile potion is made from a mushroom found in Venlad. For 6 hours it gives advantage on Strength and Constitution ability checks and saving throws, and disadvatage on Wisdom and Charisma ability checks and saving throws. When the effect ends, the drinker takes 1d4 points of poison damage and is poisoned for 6 hours.

Tamgut

This potion is made from specially prepared berries from the Tamgut shrub of the Wyvern Mountains, mixed with rusan oil. It causes incapacitation for 6 hours, at the end of which a DC 15 Wisdom check must be made. If successful, the drinker gets the effect of a divination spell.

Armor

Shield: AC +2, 50 sp, weight 1.

Helmet: AC 11 + Dex, 100 sp, weight 1.

Light Armor: AC 12 + Dex, 450 sp, weight 2.

Medium Armor 1: AC 14 + Dex (max. +2), Stealth disadvantage, 500 sp, weight 2.

Medium Armor: AC 15 + Dex (max. +2), Stealth disadvantage, 2,000 sp, weight 2.

Heavy Armor 1: AC 16, Stealth disadvantage, 750 sp, weight 3.

Heavy Armor 2: AC 17, Stealth disadvantage, 3,000 sp, weight 3.

I made a better thing!

I love working with Krita. It’s so much fun. I think it looks amazing.

I’m not happy with the labels on the map because the only fancy way of writing I ever learned was back in primary school and this still looks like written by a 10 year old. But they are all on a separate layer so I can easily switch them out for something nicer later.

One issue I already discovered with the previous map is that at this scale it becomes quite difficult to make city names at a readable size. There just doesn’t seem to be enough space for it. But then, when you look at actual medieval maps, they seem to have had the same issue as well, and they often look incredibly messy and crammed. Maybe I’ll give that a try later, but for now I think this looks really good.

Adventure like it’s 2003

Terry Carr once famously quoted a friend who said “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” And when you look at any big list of “Greatest Songs of all time”, you will always find it consisting almost exclusively of songs from the 60s and early 70s. When the generation of today’s music journalists were in their teens. So it really came to absolutely no surprise to me to realize that the really big aesthetic influences on Green Sun all come from around the year 2000, when I was 16.

The seed of the aesthetic that fills my brain was planted by Star Wars, in particular Dagobah, Cloud City, Jabba’s Palace, and Endor. I had first seen the movies in 1994, but my undying love really began in 1997 with the rerelease of the movies and us getting them on video.

Albion is a neat but rather obscure little German RPG that was released in 1995, but which I only became aware of a couple of years later once I had been hooked by RPGs. It’s a game about a prospecting ship crashing on a planet and discovering that the clouds and strange magnetic field had been hiding a jungle world swarming with life. The two starting characters are rescued by local cat people living in cities consisting of houses made from living trees and I believe there was also supernatural powers involved. From a technical point the game is really ugly and I think it also was even back when it was released, but the design of the world is really quite amazing.

Riven is probably the best remembered adventure game today after The Longest Journey and was released in 1997. The aesthetics of the game are literally out of this world, which I think comes partly from the primitive 3D-pre-rendering technology used to create the environments.

Baldur’s Gate was my gateway to both fantasy and RPGs, but it’s successor Baldur’s Gate II in 2000 surpasses it in every conceivable way. I felt a bit conflicted about the change in visual aesthetics that was quite a move away from the traditional medieval style of the first game. But it is precisely that change to a mediteranean aesthetic with influences from Planescape that stayed with me over the years. I also did play Planescape: Torment around that time and while the game itself never fully won me over, it’s very faithful adaptation of the setting’s visual style and the perfectly matching soundtrack that came with is still nothing but astonishing.

Off all the influences after Star Wars, Morrowind was the big one in 2002. I was captivated by the previews that I had read that I even got the English version before the German version was translated several months later. And I have to say that at this point, my English wasn’t quite up to the task yet. I could kind of manage, but it turned out to always be a strugle. And it certainly didn’t help that Bethesda RPG design still doesn’t click with me to this day. I still don’t understand how you’re meant to play them to get the proper experience. But the world was a whole different story. I was still in the mindset that proper fantasy way was magical rennaisance fair and Morrowind was most certainly not that. Not knowing anything else about the setting, this was more like an alien planet with medieval technology. And I found it to be just pure awesome. Huge mushrooms side by side with trees. Giant insects used for transport, and dinosaurs as farm animals. And of course living god kings represented by their soldiers in bronze armor with bronze masks. I never progressed far into the story and I tried getting back into the game many times, never being able to maintain my interest into playing it for more than a week or two. But every couple of years it’s the strange and alien setting that makes me want to go back.

Shortly after, in 2003, came Knights of the Old Republic, still widely regarded as the best Star Wars game ever made and in hindsight the clear prototype for Mass Effect (a series that ended up being super-80’s-retro itself). When I played it again recently, I found the game to be quite lacking in many respects, but the style and feel of that game still is as outstanding as it always was. The visual and audio design feels like it is what game creators would have wanted to make a decade earlier if their technology had been up to it.

The Savage Frontier is a sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons that was actually released in 1988, but I think it must have been around 2003 that I first read it. Having played Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights, read all the Drizzt books that existed at that time, and becoming involved in the development of an NWN server set on the edge of the High Forest, I hunted down and devoured all material available on the North. And I have to admit that I thought The Savage Frontier was pretty rubbish. To start it all off, it was short. To a teenage German fantasy nerd, detail and minutia are everything. The information was also outdated, and when you have bought in entirely into metaplot and the need for accuracy, old information superceeded by newer sourcebooks is entirely obsolete. It also felt somewhat off. Not sufficently traditionally medieval in style as the 2nd Edition material. But the later, much bigger box  of The North has pretty much faded entirely from my mind years ago, while the thin little The Savage Frontier still inspires me again and again.

Given how strikingly memorable things in the 80s were, the 90s often feel very much overlooked or even forgotten. But in hindsight, there was a huge sphere of fantasy works that shared a common and actually quite distinct style that was still similar to its precursors from the 70s and 80s, but also evolved into a new form of otherworldly strangeness that at the same time felt weirdly inviting. Like Masters of the Universe, but with a slightly more dreamlike quality. At least to me. I’ve recently become quite a big fan of the wave of Dune games that followed the 1984 movie and tried to evoke it’s aesthetics. I don’t know why, but somehow desert space fantasy settings seem to be one of the biggest influences on my own forest bronze-age fantasy setting.

But yeah, I don’t really have any actual insights to share. I basically just wanted to gush. This style of fantasy settings is awesome but seems to be getting almost no love. Well, I still love it and I feel no shame in fully embracing it’s slight kitshy undertones.

Give me the unicorns at sunset!

Genericness in a Sandbox of Modules

When it comes to setting up a sandbox environment for a new campaign, one suggestion you can frequently come across is to begin the process by assembling a pile of your favorite modules and adventures that you always wanted to use or reuse. Arrange them around the map and then look for opportunities to make connections between them, perhaps by doing some reflavoring of NPCs or switching out some monsters.

Having tried that out in the past, this process really does work quite well. You get something pretty solid with a good amount of inviting content quite quickly. But as someone who has a big thing for worlds that are high concept, with distinctive traits that create a specific and unique style, I discovered this approach to come with a considerable drawback. If your planned campaign is a fantasy adventure game, the pool for material to draw from will primarily consist of Dungeons & Dragons releases and third party offshots. The problem with these is that they have been created to either fit neatly into first Greyhawk and later Forgotten Realms, or to fit easily into most people’s campaign. Which are generally quite comparable to Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. It is what we can today confidently call Generic Fantasy or the Standard Fantasy Setting. Gaming Fantasy has also seen some use as a term in recent years.

That is not to say that such adventure’s aren’t good. Of course, 90% of everything is crap and so are most adventures, but there are some real gems among them that really make you want to run them. In fact, I would say that the best adventures are so good that they can grab you and you can get deeply immersed in them. Which generally is a great thing, but I found it to be a great hindrance when you are trying to create a new campaign with distinctive fresh style.

Of course it completely true that you can always reflavor everything. But my experience over the years has been that it’s always been a real struggle for me. When I want to make great adventures my own, I have to constantly fight them. Making them adjust to my setting instead of my setting adjusting to them. In a way, this gives real credit to those adventures.  They get me hooked and immersed just by reading them as a GM. When this happens, the writers certainly did something right.

But it’s not very helpful for me in my effort to create a campaign that feels very different from 15th century western Europe with magic and dragons. So I have increasingly abandoned this approach. Instead I now start by looking at a listing of the key stylistic principles and themes for my planned setting and deduce from that what kinds of adventure locations and antagonist would have the most potential to bring these to life. I still use concepts from some of my favorite modules which I take as the starting point for creating new original content, but no longer use the actual modules themselves. Except for Against the Cult of the Reptile God and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. Those are just too compelling not to use with only cosmetic changes.

I made a thing

A map thing.

Now admittedly a very crude map. I’ve not been using a tablet for drawing much yet. And I realized that a size that might work for a poster map might not quite do the job on a screen. But overall I really like how Krita simulates brush strokes. With some more practice, this could look really good.

This map shows the current state of the setting and I haven’t really been doing any meaningful changes in the last couple of weeks, so I think this is actually pretty close to final. Just let me tell you that trying to draw a setting that is almost entirely just coast is a bit weird.

More things that I made and no GM needs

I’ve been spending most of yesterday turning my predetermined parameters for a calendar from two years back into actual calendar sheets showing moon phases, solstices, equinoxes, and potential eclipses. Turns out there’s actually three leap years for every 16 year cycle in which there are only 23 months instead of 24.

Since the moon is considerably larger in the sky than the sun, I decided that eclipses might not actually happen only on the 16th of a month, but ooccasionally also on a 15th or 1st. And there is a possibility that you get two eclipses two days in a row.

With all these things taken into consideration, the results look like this.

There are of course 16 of these. I plan on making these always available for players, though I don’t expect them to ever look on them. But they should. There could be rather important information on it. Eclipses are no time to be wandering around in the forest or be out on sea, and things might also get a bit more dicy on the equinoxes.

While I put together these charts, I noticed that there are 12 special days every cycle on which celestial events overlapp. There are the four days when the solstices and equinoxes fall  on a full moon, and four days on which eclipses might happen during regular equinoxes. Two days on which the solstices fall on a New Moon, and finally there are the two days on which an eclipse might happen on a new moon equinox. Those are really bad days. Somehow every ancient legend of heroes dying and cities being destroyed seems to date it to one of these days. Crazy shit will be going down on these days, no matter where the party will happen to be then.

As I said, this really isn’t something that any GM needs. But when you do have it, I think it might actually be quite fun.

Demons

When you don’t have a really good name for it, call it what it is. And these are demons.

Yog-Sothoth
Shub-Niggurath
Tharizdun
Pale Night
Ghaunadaur
Reaper
Xel’lotath

Shadows
Darkweaver
Silent Hill
The Marker

The original idea for these dark and dangerous spirits goes back to when I first read about Daedra in Morrowind, without really knowing anything about them before. The description that the elves called the gods “our ancestors” and those other beings “not our ancestors” was really evocative and made a big impression on me. I only actually met any daedra many years later when giving Skyrim a shot, and it turned out that they are actually just very generic demons. They are described as strange immortal spirits with alien minds, but in practice they are really just lizardmen or humanoids who do evil for the lulz. That was really lame.

I was reminded of that image I had had when encountering demons in Dragon Age, which in that world are simply called demons. They are somewhat more abstract, but I found them still not nearly as weird and alien and horrific as they could have been.

The third source of inspiration for what I want demons to be like, comes from Mass Effect. In the first and second game they are woderfully strange and terrifying, and not being able to do something proper with that buildup is one of the many disappointing flaws of the third game. (I’m still disappointed.)

“A god – a real god – is a verb. Not some old man with magic powers. It’s a force. It warps reality just by being there. It doesn’t have to want to. It doesn’t have to think about it. It just does.”

When I decided that I want to run my Green Sun campaign in D&D, I entertained the idea of using yugoloths as the dangerous alien spirits of the underworld. But then, how do you make them actually weird? Ultroloths may have some potential, but the rest are just too much regular humanoid enemies. They really can’t stand up to this lineup, so I might actually discard them entirely.

Working with images has always worked quite well for me. It makes it easy to notice the common elements between various different things you think have a somewhat general style. In this case, I think it’s quite obvious. The common characteristics of these beings are associations with darkness and shadows, to the point of not having any really discernable shape. They are more vague impressions of beings than truly physcial beings, combined with a lack of humanoid faces. I can work with that.

Silly Stuff with Statistics

Yesterday I did what I always tell people not to bother with. Work out the population numbers and distribution of classed and leveled NPCs for your setting. It’s almost always pointless and often leads to nonsensical results. But I did it anyway, not because the setting and campaign need it, but because I sometimes simply enjoy the fun of working with numbers.

I went into this  with the following premises:

  • The global population of Murya, Fenhail, Yao, Kuri, Kaska, and Sui is 1 million.
  • 1 out of every 100 people has classes and levels.
  • The highest level any mortal can reach is 10th.
  • For every two 1st level NPCs there is one 2nd level NPC, for every two 2nd level NPCs there is one third level NPC, and so on.
  • Half of all leveled NPCs are spellcasters (half of which are Priests).

I first planned on having a global population of 10 million and make 1 out of 1,000 NPCs have levels. But someone pointed out to me that that seems too high if all the population lives on the coast and given the size of my map sketch. There are about 4,000 miles of coast and I estimated civilization being within 10 miles of the sea (on average, there are also some major rivers and highland settlements), which results in a habitable area of only 100,000 km². That’s about the area of Hungary, Portugal, or Cuba. And three quarters of Greece, which is always my default reference point. That’s not a lot of land to live on, even if the continent itself is the size of Europe. With 1 million people, this leads to an average population density of 10 people per km². Which is roughly the estimate for Greece during Roman times, which does include all the uninhabited mountains. Perfect.

I was also curious what results these premises would give me for the amount of NPCs of each level. And those got really quite interesting. For simplicity, I didn’t calculate with 10,000 leveled NPCs but 8,190. When you’re a bit of a math nerd, you know the powers of 2 by heart, which makes continuous halving of numbers very easy. The distribution I got out was this:

  • 4,096 1st level characters
  • 2,048 2nd level characters
  • 1,024 3rd level characters
  • 512 4th level characters
  • 256 5th level characters
  • 128 6th level characters
  • 64 7th level characters
  • 32 8th level characters
  • 16 9th level characters
  • 8 10th level characters
  • (4 11th level immortal sorcerer kings)
  • (2 12th level immortal sorcerer kings)

That’s really not a lot. And actually gets really fascinating when you consider players wanting NPCs to casts spells for them. The number of those gets really low.

  • 4,098 people can cast 1st level spells
  • 1,026 people can cast 2nd level spells
  • 258 people can cast 3rd level spells
  • 66 characters can cast 4th level spells
  • 18 characters can cast 5th level spells
  • (6 characters who can cast 6th level spells)

Only half of those are Priests who have access to the cleric spell list. Getting one of those 9 priests alive who can cast raise dead to resurrect your friend could be quite challenging. However, if you are among the 100 most powerful people in the world, getting access to these guys might not be that far out of reach.

I’ve got no intentions to track the numbers and levels of NPCs that appear in my campaign. That’s too silly and impractical even for me. Instead, I came up with some rules of thumb, when it comes to creating NPCs for the campaign, that do reflect these population numbers of the setting:

  • If the character does not seem important enough to get a name, personality, and motivations, it’s going to be a generic acolyte, bandit, cultist, guard, tribal warrior, or commoner with 2d8 hit points.
  • Leveled NPCs who aren’t important regional individuals are 1st to 3rd level. (There are thousands of them in the world.)
  • NPCs  of 4th to 6th level are among the most powerful individuals of their region and regionally famous. (There are hundreds of them in the world.)
  • NPCs of 7th to 10th level are among the most powerful individuals in the world and famous throughout the continent. (There’s barely more than a hundred of them in the world.)

These numbers all seem amazingly low, but when I looked at them I really started to like the resulting implications. These are distributions for campaigns in which the players play individuals like Conan and Elric, or the various ancient Greek heroes.

And still this is a world where there are CR 7 yuan-ti and CR 10 aboleths around, and CR 6 wyverns and CR 7 stone giants. A 1st level PC is not yet standing out, but when you get to 3rd or 4th level, you’ve already made it big. You are playing in the top league of heroes.

I am really looking forward to this campaign more and more every day.