Ancient Lands: Cleaning out the Bestiary

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

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

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

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No time like the present

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

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

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

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

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

Magic Item: Shaman Mask

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

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

Function and Purpose, Part 3: Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good artists borrow, great artists steal – Laying the foundations for the Ancient Lands

When I started working on the Ancient Lands, I wanted of course to create a world that contains many of the things I already love in other settings, but would wish to be more explored or developed a bit differently. Not all the things I love, because that doesn’t really lead to consistend and belivable world, but rather to a mess of randomly thrown together pieces. But still a selection of a good amount of things from my favorite settings that I have come to love a lot. Here, I want to provide an overview of the major geographic areas of the Ancient Lands and the works that inspired them. These don’t cover the whole world, or even the whole continent, but are the selection I made for those regions I want to develop in detail, while leaving the rest simply untouched. There’s something there, of course, but I don’t know what it would be either.

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What I learned from reading Fate Core – Part 2: Starting a campaign

One thing most GMs will realize probably quite quickly is that you can’t really start a great campaign with “You are all meeting in a tavern” (unless you’re going for a pure treasure-hunting dungeon crawl, I suppose). Even if you have an overarching story in mind, it’s often difficult to slowly build up to the really big issues that will define the campaign. At first you get to kill some rats in the basement and then slowly work your way up until you eventually get to explore a goblin lair where the actual hook for the major part of the campaign will be found. And as easy as it sounds, it’s quite difficult to make it work well and be exciting and enjoyable for the players.

Fate presents an interesting take on this: Every new campaign should start with at least two big issues (though don’t overdo it or it gets too cluttered and confusing). These can either be current issues or impending issues. Impending issues are the things I just mentioned. The definitive story with a clear villain and a specific goal for the PCs. But something that seems to be usually overlooked in RPGs are the current issues. Instead of dropping the players into a world where everything is mostly fine until they run into the plot hook, you can (and I think should) also start the campaign with some kind of major conflict or other problem already in place. It’s something that is very common in fiction and in many videogames as well. Take for example, once again, Star Wars, where there is already dissent against the new public order and rebellion brewing in secrecy before Luke and Han get involved in the actual plot at all. It’s the background environment in which the specific adventure of delivering the Death Star plans and saving the princess takes place. It’s the context for what they do and makes that simple delivery run matter, even before they end up joining the rebellion and taking up the goal of defeating the Empire. The game Skyrim is also a good example. You get the Dragon storyline as an Impending Issue that slowly builds up during the first three or four hours of the game, but there is already the Stormcloak uprising against the Empire as the Current Issue, which has been going on for quite some time before the players character gets drawn into the story.

Now I really wish I had been thinking about this a week ago, so I could have made use of this simple method to start my new Castles & Crusades game, but with only the first session played so far, it should be easy enough to do this retroactively.

Enhancing the Ancient Lands

I am starting a new campaign set in the Ancient Lands tomorrow, and as so often I find myself a bit doubting about the setting really being something different and not just another case of generic european middle ages fantasy. So kind of as a last moment effort, I sat down once more, going over notes to remind myself of some special features I’d fallen in love with over the last years.

  • Giant Fungus Trees: These are the one big thing that really makes Morrowind look very different from any other well known fantasy setting, even those of the other Elder Scrolls games set in the same world. Of course, it’s not an original idea now, but I think by including them, it’s adding a certain look to the setting that is still rare.
  • Magic Ponds and Wells: I like the idea of water being a substance with inherently supernatural traits. As the Japanese say, water is the only substance that can clean itself. It evaporates at the ground and when it returns as rain, its perfectly clean and unsoiled by anything, which is the reason it’s so important in cleansing rituals. In Warcraft III, the night elves can build Moonwells that replenish the health and mana of nearby units, and there are also natural magical fountains found throughout the world. The spring in Treebeards house in the Lord of the Rings would be another example. Given that the spiritworld plays a prominent role in the Ancient Lands, magic springs seem right in place as locations of strong magical power, which I prefer a lot over ley lines and the like.
  • Large Insects: Giant Spiders are one of the most generic fantasy creatures and giant beetles, centipedes, and scorpions are also quite common. Much more rare is the use of domesticated insects. Dark Sun has them, as the world isn’t very hospitable for most mammals, and again, Morrowind has giant long-legged beetles as transports in swamps and other difficult terrain. Not quite sure how to implement such things in the Ancient Lands, but it’s something I want to come back to and give some more thought.
  • Giant Lizards: Dinosaurs in fantasy are always a difficult subject. They don’t feel a lot out of place in cavemen worlds, but usually people tend to feel that they just don’t belong into a world of knights and wizards. However, the Ancient Lands is not such a world, but one of barbarians and witches. Outright using dinosaurs still doesn’t feel right to me, but there’s a middle ground here. Instead, I am going with large reptiles that are very similar to dinosaurs in all respects, but not actually based on real species. Crocodiles and comodo dragons are still existing species, and many extinct dinosaurs had an anatomy not much unlike rhinos or cattle. I created two new creatures some months ago, which really were just a bison and a camel with a different appearance. A feathered deinonychus might look a bit strange to people who grew up with dinosaur books from the 90s, but I think it makes a cool fantasy creature. I think they make good replacements for bulls and horses in the southern jungle regions of the Ancient Lands.
  • Limestone Karsts and Sinkholes: While not exactly rare in Europe and North America, large areas of limestone erroded by water has formed amazing landscapes in many parts of Southeast Asia, that actually look quite unreal and fantastic if you’re not commonly used to it. Particularly in coastal areas you get this massive monoliths rising out of the water at vertical angles, sometimes riddled with caves and forests growing on top. A bit inland, you get huge mazes sretching out of sight into all directions. It’s a natural and not that uncommon landscape feature, but one much more exotic than meadows and marshes.

These are not things that are going to feature in any significant way in the first adventure of the new campaign, but by mentioning these things every so often while describing what the PCs are seeing, I am hoping to get the players to see the world as more than just Europe with orcs and dragons.