Turning any map into a hex map with GIMP

There are a number of programms out there that allow you to make a hex map out of hex tiles. I used one of them to make this map of the Savage Frontier five years back. However, I am not a fan of these maps, at least not as something to put into the hands of the players. I feel it creates too much abstraction in the minds of players that works against them mentally visualizing the setting of the game as an actual world. As a setting creator, I see even myself getting affected by that and it significantly hampers my work on the world.

But hexes are very useful as tools to keep track of the party’s position as it is moving through the wilderness. In most situations you want to have separate maps for the players and the GM anyway, so you can keep track of where hidden and unknown sites are located without giving it away to the players. You can also overlay a hex grid on top of the GM version of the map along with the hidden sites and other notes. The terrain type of each hex won’t always be completely clear, but that’s not really an actual issue. Make a best guess which terrain on the background image dominates, and when you don’t stay consistent between different occasions the players are passing through it nobody will notice.

Finding an image of a hex grid on a transparent background to simply slap on top of a map you have in Photoshop or GIMP has been a huge pain in the butt for most of this afternoon. But at least for GIMP I found a great solution to add a grid on top of any image.

  1. Open your image file of your map.
  2. Add a new layer: Layer > New Layer > Press “Okay”. Make sure the new layer is above the layer with the map.
  3. Open the Mosaic dialog: Filters > Distortions > Mosaic.
  4. Make sure Tile Geometry is set to “Hexagons”.
  5. Set Tile Size to your prefered size of tiles.
  6. Set Tile Height to 1 (to remove reflection effect).
  7. Set Tile Neatness to 1 (to make orderly hexes).
  8. Set Tile Color Variation to 0 (to make all tiles blank).
  9. Set Tile Spacing to 1 (or higher, if you want wider grid lines).
  10. Joints Color: This will be the color of your grid lines.
  11. Light Color: To remove shiny reflections on each hex, click on the color to open the “Light Color” dialog. Set the value for “A” to “0” or move the slider all the way to the left. Click “OK” to close the dialog. (You can’t disable the reflection, but this makes it completely transparent and therefore invisible.)
  12. Click “OK” in the Mosaic dialog to apply the grid to the player.

And that is the entire process. The tricky part is to find the right value for “Tile Height” to get the tile size that matches the scale of your map. But if the map has scale markings on it, move the view of the image to that corner of the map and try out different sizes in the Mosaic dialog until the hexes line up with it. (The “Preview” box has to be checked to see how the grid would look like with the current settings.)

The only issue I noticed is that with hexes of sizes below 20-30, the hexes tend to get a bit squashed as a result of the image consisting of pixels, but I think you’d get this with any other method to get a hex map as well, unless it uses vector images (which I doubt any map software does).

The Truths of the World

Last week I watched a video by Matt Colville that as a short side note had him mention that from the perspective of a writer, a major part of making the game compelling is “the ability to convey the truths of the world in an easy to grasp manner”. He didn’t go much more into detail than that, but this stuck me as something very close to my unconscious motivations to create a setting like this to begin with. There are of course the aesthetic things. I think huge forests, dinosaurs, giant insects, giant mushrooms, ruined towers, and dramatic weather are cool. But they are not just cool in themselves, they also mean something to me. They are not just elements of a surface picture of the world, but also components of a deeper character and identity of the setting that fuels my inspiration and sense of purpose for all this work. “The truths of the world”is a great phrase to describe it. Maybe you could also call it the internal dynamics or logic of a setting. I think this is where settings really start to shine and become something special. Like Planescape, Dark Sun, Morrowind, and Star Wars. People in these worlds approach the things in their environment in a unique way, and think in concepts and a logic that make sense only in this particular setting. When you get the players to internalize this unique way in which the setting ticks and start to think in its logic without conscious effort, then you succeeded in conveying the truths of the world.

I have written about basic concepts for the serting before, in the very first post. And of course there mostly is an overlap with this post. But those concepts were rather abstract, and don’t answer what they actually mean when it it comes to creating adventures for the setting and running the game with players. “Conveying the truths” was a very useful phrase for me to figure out how to translate it into practice.

The World is huge

Of course, every world is world-sized. For all intents and purposes, all non-multi-dimensional fantasy worlds have the same planet size. But in practice, we never think of a world in planet-scale. Most of western society exists in the modern cities and towns located in the cultivates coastal lowlands. Our native environment consists of landscapes heavily modified or purpose build for humans. The plants around us have been cultivated to grow to sizes that are convenient for the purposes humans intend for them. They only grow in the places and the amounts humans have decided to be the most convenient to them. If you see a very large tree in or near a city, it’s because city planners have decided that a very large tree is perfect for their plans for that spot. We also have no more sense of distance. Flying from Europe to Australia is an 18 hour flight? Wow, that’s long. No! That’s not long! We think of any place in the world as being reachable within a day.

Of course, nature isn’t that way. Nature does not care a single bit what environments would be convenient for human use. Nature is not human-scaled. The world is absolutely massive in scale. This does not mean that the setting needs to have large amounts of content, but for the purposes of player characters, everything in nature is just really inconveniently big. In practice, this means that overland journeys should always be long. On how to make this fun and not a chore, I plan to write some ideas later. But no simple leaving in the morning and being back before sunset. In most cases, I would say getting there should take at least a day, with exploration only starting the next morning at the earlierst.

When it comes to environmental features, everything can be big. Maybe the single biggest influence on the style for this setting is Endor in Return of the Jedi, and those are the biggest trees found anywhere in the world (and quite probably of all time). But that’s just visuals. Tree height has little practical impact. But whenever something would be a serious problem of major inconvenience if it were bigger, that’s a great occasion to make it bigger. When cliffs become really high, gorges really deep, and rivers really wide and strong, they become obstacles that the players have to come up with solutions for to get past. Or monsters could be making their lairs up in trees, but the lowest branches are really high up. Fallen giant trees can be included in ambush sites, serving as 3 meter high walls that affeft the tactics of a fight.

If it were inconvenient if it were bigger, make it bigger.

The World is ancient

Very ancient civilizations like the Sumerians and Egyptians are fascinating. 5,000 years ago is an incredibly long time and most people couldn’t even imagine that. It seems like civilizations have been around for practically forever. But what would things have looked like to the ancient Egyptians and Summerians? Their records and historical accounts would go back maybe 400 or 500 years, and then what? Of course there had been people before that for hundreds of thousands of year, but how much would they have known about them? To them, as for us, 99% of humanity’s past would likely have been unknown. But the amount of known history for them would have been much smaller and a much shorter timespan than it is now for us. In a similar way to how we don’t really perceive the size of the world anymore, we are also ignorant of how tiny a fraction the history of human civilization makes up in the full history of the Earth. Unless you are into early Bronze Age cultures like me, you can pick any culture or period from history, and always see how it’s the continuation of something that came before. You can always ask what came before that? My intention with the setting is to make it feel like whatever civilization exists now is just a drop in the vast ocean of time.

One way in which this is already worked into the setting is the lack of a historic timeline. The currently existing cities have an age since their founding, and the most recently ruined cities have have an age since they were destroyed, but those are all mostly in the last 400 years with the founding of the very oldest existing city being 800 years ago. Before that, nothing is known. No stories, no names.

Without a history of the wilderness and the spirits, it’s pretty much impossible to convey their age. But what can be done is to show practically how civilizations come and go, but nature always persists the entire time. While barely anything is known about the most recently destroyed cities, other than stories of how they were destroyed by one of the still existing cities, and nothing about the cities that came before them, there are still plenty of ruins left behind by the Ancient Builders. When showing how much these have been overgrown by the forest, you get some vague implications about the timescales in which the wilderness exists. Imagine a giant ancient palace that has its roof collapsed long ago, and the through the hole get trees growing that are a hundred meters tall and 20 meters in circumference. These giant trees must be ancient, and they only started to grow after the palace had already be turned into rubble. Or you could have the remains of ancient harbors, a hundred miles away from the coast. Occasional signs that there was a large city in a place a long time ago, but there are only the faintest of hints left. Which does come with the implication that there could be even more even older cities pretty much anywhere that have already been completely erradicated by the forest. I also like to put large underground halls under simple unassuming grounds holes in the ground where the ceiling has collapses, burried by several meters of dead leaves that have build up over the centuries. Corral growth on coastal ruins are also fun, showing that the area was at one time beneath the sea and at some point rose above it again. (I’ve seen one such case in Italy, which was the evidence for the discovery of plate tectonics.)

It’s impossible to convey the sense of millions of years of past ages, but showing the short lived nature of current civilizations and how the forest completely erases any of their traces might perhaps evoke some feeling of incredible age.

The Material Realm is not the full world

I’ve been somewhat undecided about how the Spiritworld and other planes are supposed to work in this setting, and I am still not fully commited to any specific solution. But thinking about the truths of the world, I believe that this definitely should be one. The world that mortals perceive and interact with is only the surface of true reality. The specific mechanics might still change (probably), but the wilderness through which characters are travelling when they go beyond the borders of settled and explored areas should be full of magical phenomenons that have causes that are invisible to them. When they enter the domains of particularly powerful spirits or descend into the Underworld where the distinction between the natural and the supernatural is no longer as clear as it seems to be in settled areas.

One way in which I think this can be done in practice is to have areas in which the passing of time is inconsistent with what they think of as normal. The length of a day could be considerably longer than 24 hours, or the sun and moons appear to not be moving in the sky at all. Spirits don’t get bored staying in the same place for ages and people could be trapped for decades or centuries without growing hungry, old, or completely insane. Castles could collapse into rubble within minutes, or wildfires burn in place for decades without consuming the trees. And of course, a journey into the wilderness could have you be away for considerably longer than the time you thought you had spend there. (Though in practice I think I want to keep the lost time in months or a small handful of years at the most.)

Spirits are powerful

I am not a fan of the fey from Monster Manuals for several reasons. One thing I realized is that they are pretty much always very weak. This is a world that is not at human-scale, and that also means that its spirits are on a different scale as well. Not much deeper philosophy than this. In practical terms, this means that most spirits that are encountered should be in the mid-range of difficulty, about CR 6 to 12. Alternatively, they appear in groups. I recently revised my naga and shie by downscaling them from their base stats as a yuan-ti from CR7 to CR 5, and a succubus from CR 4 to CR 3. Otherwise, even small groups could slaughter even 6th level groups of above average size.

Another modifications to creatures that serve as spirits is to give them both lair effects and perhaps even regional effects. The bigger spirits are the gods of the land after all.

One of the main ways in which spirits affect the world is in their control of the weather and climate. To show that the spirits are powerful, I want any weather effects to be big. When there are storms, they should be big storms. Not just background flavor, but actually impacting gameplay. And they should be used frequently. The Wilderness exploration system I am working on will have the current weather as one of the random parameters in the rolling of random wilderness encounters.

Spirits are alien

The other thing that I don’t like about fey from the Monster Manuals. They are too human. Fey should be dangerous, not just because they have great powers (lots of mortal NPCs do so) but because you don’t know what they might want to do to you. Even when a spirits does not intend to do harm, or feels actively hostile, there is a risk that they could do something that would be harmful for mortals. Even if they intend to help, they might make things worse, and then be unaware that anything is wrong. The concept for the shie is “they look like us, but they are not us”.

Complete random behavior is not desireable, though. To have meaningful interactions with anything, players need to have at least something to work with. My approach to this is to run spirits with “predictable patterns, but unintelligible motives”. Some spirits to certain things. That apparently make perfect sense to them, but not to anyone else. They are incapable of fully explaining themselves to mortals, and in most situations don’t see any need to. They have priorities that stay consistent, even extremely so, but the purpose of those stays completely mysterious. Spirits should never really make full sense, but they must never be random. Before players start to interact with them, their priorities and main behaviors need to be established and fixed into place.

People don’t really matter

This truth is a consequence of several other aspects. The wilderness is huge and ancient, and eventually will swollow up anything that people have made. Spirits are much more powerful and very inflexible in their wishes and as such pretty much always get their will, but what that will is is not only outside of people’s control but also understanding. In the big picture, at the end of the day, all the things that mortals do don’t have any meaningful impact on the world as a whole. Nothing lasts forever. Except for the forest.

The first way in which I approach this is to think that in the hierarchy of creatures, people are the weasels. They are predators who can be very deadly to most smaller creatures and even cause unpleasantness for several larger ones. But against determined bigger beasts, really the only thing they can do is to get out of the way. They don’t rule this world, they are really more at the smaller side of things, their impact not really that visible from a zoomed out perspective. Far from helpless, and far from harmless, but they aren’t anywhere where near the top of the food chain.

In practical terms, this means that players don’t have real hopes to defeat or even stop a god. When a change comes down from the top, the task of the players is to help the population to adapt to the new conditions or escape before it is too late. The only situation in which a coming disaster can be averted is when appeasing the wrath of a god. These things started with people trying to make a change and can only be stopped if the change is reversed and things returned to how they were. When people are the cause of a god’s wrath, then only removing the cause will end the god’s wrath. This builds on the concept of spirits being utterly inflexible in their priorities. It is not possible to prevent the god from using its power, or to change its mind while the cause still exist.

Whatever accoplishments the players might reach can only be important in the here and in the now. They can not fundamentally change anything in the big picture. You can not claim any new land for settling unless it is offered by the local gods. You can not remove a god or make any changes to the environment. You can not remove a type of dangerous creature from its habitat. You could kill a monster that has started to attack farms at the edge of the forest. But you can not clear the valley from which it origially came to make sure none will ever come again.

Adventures should be planned arounf this truth. At the end of the game, the players want to feel that they have accomplished something and have made a difference. When dealing with purely mortal opponents this is not an issue. But when the main threat is supernatural and unstopable, the adventure should be framed in a way that makes it clear that the goal is not to prevent the disaster, but to save the people who will be affected by it.

Overreaching is disastrous

This is part of the ecological subtext of the setting. I’m a trained gardener and was in cultural studies and geography at university, and all of this has given me a perspective on the relationship between people and the environent that “there are no natural disasters”, as one researcher put it. What we percieve as natural and ecological disasters are not random freak accidents of nature, but simple the environment doing what it always does. It’s just that people didn’t look at the patterns in a long enough scale, and build in places where they shouldn’t build, refused to move aside or adjust when a predictable and regular change was coming, and then had no plan what do if anything changes. Or when people made changes to the environment that benefit them in the short term, but didn’t consider that they removed important regulating and moderating from the ecosystem. When you get hit by a massive asteroid, that’s just bad luck, and when you drown in a tsunami that really isn’t your fault. But if you die from disease or starvation after a tsunami or an earthquake, that’s entirely on the people who build build your city. Humans are amazing creatures. In nature there are only a small number of creature that can threaten us and almost none of them want to get anywhere near us if they can avoid it. Pretty much anything else bad that nature can do to us is because people thought they had great ideas to improve the environment and were not aware of the full impact their modifications would have. This really is the underlying philosophy of the entire setting. If you try to make big changes, you get a huge risk. If you want to improve your situation, adjust and try to adapt to the environment. Don’t try to change the environment to suit your wishes.

People don’t really matter in the bigger picture and what threy can accoplish is pretty strictly limited. This doesn’t just apply for the players, but for all NPCs as well. If people try to go beyond these limitations, they will always fail. And the harder they tried, the worse the resulting damage will be. Sometimes the opponents of the players can be villains who want to do evil things. But in this setting, the opponents can just as well be people who have put ambition over caution, setting events into motions that will have disastrous consequences. Not only is there a need to save people from these consequences, the players will also have to get the opponents to give up their ambitions and change their plans. Warlocks are great candidates to play both role, as their art of sorcery is all about getting around the rules of regular magic and the God Kings and Sorcerer Lords of Senkand all work on wrestling control over the environment from the spirits.

Humility will keep you safe

This is the inverse of the previous truth. To survive in the wilderness and deal with the spirits, the key is to aknowledge the limits of your powers and to adapt to the situations you are facing. But I think this approach should apply to all challenges that the players will encounter during adventures. Whenever the players use trickery or make offers of cooperation, this should increase the odds of leading to success. Taking great risks to themselves for the benefit of other should be held in their favor as well.

On the other hand, relying on force and threats, and acting selfish or with pride should not be doing them any favors.

This does not mean that all PCs are required to be humble and kind all the time. But use of force and intimidation will not quickly be forgotten, and the target numbers for success might be a bit higher. Bull headed characters can still succeed. They just are not making things easy for themselves. On the other hand, if such characters do show moments of humility and reserve, this should be held in their favor when deciding on NPC reaction and target numbers.

Trade Goods as Treasure

This is one of these “I made this, so I might as well share it” things.

In my setting, travelling merchants are supposed to be a really big deal. And I also enjoy the players having to deal with encumbrance. Making exotic goods into a type of treasure that can be found is the sensible thing to do.

In my encumbrance system, weights are rounded up to the next multiple of 10 and then divided by 10. So the average weight for an item with an Encumbrance load of 1 is around 5 pounds. (Equally, the encumbrance limits for characters are divided by 5 to get the number of items that can be carried instead of the weight in pounds.) The quantities listed in this table have been chosen accordingly and the resulting prices and container capacities are based on the numbers from the 5th Ed. Player’s Handbook. If players come across these goods and want to take them as treasure, the only relevant number at that moment is how much they can carry while staying under the Encumbrance limits. Players won’t be trading in silk by meter but by encumbrance unit.

For the sake of simplicity, the numbers for kegs and barrels of ale and wine are rounded to easy number. The actual values for any of these goods are completely made up anyway.

Item Quantity Price Encumbrance
Sack of grain 30 lb. 3 sp 3
Sack of flour 30 lb. 6 sp 3
Pouch of salt 5 lb. 2 sp 1
Pouch of ginger 5 lb. 50 sp 1
Pouch of cinnamon or pepper 5 lb. 100 sp 1
Pouch of cloves 5 lb. 150 sp 1
Pouch of saffron 5 lb. 750 sp 1
Keg of ale 20 l 10 sp 4
Barrel of ale 200 l 100 sp 40
Keg of wine 20 l 20 sp 4
Barrel of wine 200 l 200 sp 40
Bottle of expensive wine 1 l 100 sp 1
Keg of expensive wine 20 l 2,000 sp 4
Canvas 6 sq. yd. 6 sp 1
Cotton cloth 20 sq. yd. 100 sp 1
Linen 12 sq. yd. 600 sp 1
Silk 24 sq. yd. 2,400 sp 1
Iron 5 lb. 5 sp 1
Copper 5 lb. 25 sp 1
Tin 5 lb. 100 sp 1
Silver 5 lb. 250 sp 1
Gold 5 lb. 2,500 sp 1

 

Peoples of Kaendor

Fitting the overall style of the setting, it’s not populated by the generic D&D races. Instead, the mortal inhabitants of Kaendor have their own styles, though not necessarily very original ones. They are listed here without their full stats, but they are represented well enough by wood elves, half-orcs, high elves, tabaxi, half-elves, tritons, and goliaths. All taken from either the PHB or Volo’s Guide.

Fenhail

Kaska

Kuri

Macan

Murya

Sui

Yao

Planescape/2

Planescape has always been hugely fascinating. But everyone will agree that it is very big. And I think many will admit that perhaps it might be too big. 17 outer planes, most with three or four layers, some with much more than that; and 18 inner planes. It does get a bit overwhelming.

While I was working on my Green Sun setting, I was drawing inspirations for the Otherworlds very heavily from Planescape. However, only from a small number of planes, all of which I would consider to be among the somewhat more obscure ones. You know which ones are the famous and popular ones: The Abyss, Baator, Limbo, Mechanus, and Celestia, with Hades, Elysium, and Arborea also having some claim to minor fame. These happen to be the “even numbered” planes; the ones that correspond directly to the nine alignments. It’s the “odd numbered” ones between them that very rarely seem to be given any attention. And I have to say, after 20-something years, the primary planes have started to feel a bit stale and overdone, while the secondary ones still hold much more fascination for me.

This got me the idea: How about running a Planescape campaign in which the outer planes only conist of the secondary planes? And only having four elemental inner planes should also be enough.

I admit, Bytopia and Arcadia still look pretty bland and boring in the Lawful Good corner. But then, I don’t think Celestia and Elysium ever did any better. But I do think that you could do something interesting with players having to do errands in Arcadia and the place feeling slightly too lawful for being balanced in its lawful goodness. After all, this is where the Harmonium has its main base, and these berks aren’t quite known for their politeness and ompassion.

I’ve never been thinking much of either Bytopia or Archeron, but their crazy landscape should be able to provide some short term fun. I think the odd one out is actually Ysgard. I can’t really imagine it as anything other than Viking Land.

I fully admit that Gehenna, Carceri, and Pandemonium are where my real love lies. These are the more desolate hells, which I really like. Very Dark Souls, I might say.

I’ve put so much work into my Green Sun setting that is finally turning into something really playable, so my next campaign just has to be set there. But the idea of using only half of Planescape without the worn out standard planes makes me once more quite exited to jump into that setting as well.

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.