Return to the Forest Moon

Looking proudly at the sandbox map I made over the last two weeks from first rough layout sketch to mostly finished version, I made the disappointed realization that I had once again prepared a D&D campaign. Despite my joy at having found a game in Dragonbane that is free of the underlying mechanical framework shared by all D&D versions and with a bit more substance than Barbarians of Lemuria, and writing a whole post about needing to approach sandbox preparation differently, I was still falling in the old established patterns that I’ve trained myself to adopt for the last ten years or so. Trying to fill the new sandbox with all my favorite D&D dungeons that I always wanted to use one day and taking a new shot at the old Forest of High Adventure concept surely didn’t help with that.

I feel a cleaner break is in order. To really approach a Dragonbane campaign with a fresh perspective on Kaendor.

Seven years ago, I wrote Project Forest Moon, a list of new design principles that I wanted to put at the center of the worldbuilding for a Sword & Sorcery wilderness setting. Which I still consider a huge success and my biggest breakthrough in really finding the right focus and tone for my following work. I think writing down a similar updated concept paper might be really quite useful for me now. When I think of new ideas how I can manifest the style I am aiming for in concrete setting elements, I often remember that I already did come up with something great a few years ago, but it somehow slipped from my mind at some point and I didn’t do anything with it. This post is a collection of many of these ideas for myself, to look up again when I’ll inevitably get lost in the weeds again.

From Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer.

Tone and Style: One thing that has always been core and center of all my worldbuildilg is that I wanted it to be a big forest setting from the very start. And it soon developed into a desire to give it somewhat of a pulpy lost world style. Influences have come and gone over the years, but I think a really good foundation for my own mental image as I further develop environments and cultural elements is “a Sword & Sorcery jungle world collaboration by Frank Frazetta and Moebius”. If they had painted and drawn such a world, how would I translate what I see into descriptions and scenes? Another huge influence I mention all the time is of course Morrowind, which really set the standard for me for fantasy settings that feel like different worlds than slightly rearranged versions of European folklore. And more recently, Kenshi has become a major influence on what I want to accomplish with the setting. While not actually a fantasy setting and very much a desert world, it’s such a fascinating example of small warlord societies on a desolate alien planet.

The Forest Moon: The term Forest Moon comes of course directly from Endor in Return of the Jedi. The visuals in that movie and The Empire Strikes Back have left a giant impact on my imagination since I saw them for the very first time. There are no sci-fi elements in Kaendor, but a lot of classic pulp art blended fantasy and space elements together with no clear separation, and the idea of Kaendor being an alien world around a huge gas planet really resonates with me to evoke that amazing pulp style. It means very little in practice since conditions on the moon are identical to Earth and nearly any fantasy world, but one way in which such a setup would logically manifest itself is in frequent and long-lasting eclipses. I did work out a complete 16-year cycle calendar with 24 months of 16 days and three leap years of 23 months, that also indicates likely eclipse days at some point. I think I need to make renewed efforts to incorporate this into the culture of the world. At least the eclipses that can happen multiple times per year should have some dramatic impact.

Permian Pangea: Dinosaurs are extremely cool. But they also kinda on the nose. Barbarians riding on dinosaurs can be great pulpy fun, but they don’t really evoke a sense of a plausible alien world. I found that a great solution to this is to instead populate the world with animals from the Permian and Paleocene periods directly preceding and following the dinosaurs. They are still very realistic animals, because they actually did exist, but are mostly unknown even to people who can name dozens of dinosaurs on pictures. They seem like they are made up to most people and a bit alien, but nothing exceptionally weird. I think I worked out the main predators and livestock animals for Kaendor years ago and still don’t feel like there’s any more work to be done. Just make frquent mention of drohas and krats as pack and farm animals in places that the players are coming through. I only need to stat them for Dragonbane, which is really quick and simple.

Human Civilization is new and small: I don’t really believe in the idea of lost golden ages and actually find the concept somewhat offensive. It’s the conservative moaning about a better past that never was, and a rejection of change as a matter of principle. But impressive ancient ruins are really cool, and post-apocalyptic anarchy can be a lot of fun. To eat my cake and still have it too, I very early came up with the idea that the past great empires that build monumental castles and made the magic treasures were otherwise actually really terrible and their disappearance a good thing for the world and its people. Kaendor is full of ruins and treasure hoards from the naga and shie who enslaved the early humans or drove them into the most remote regions of the wilderness. Now that they are mostly gone, humans can build civilizations of their own, but they are way too small to fill out the vast territories ruled by the elder peoples, and so numerous huge, empty ruins still cover what is now again wilderness. Still largely untouched and unexplored. Human civilization consists only of a handful of relatively minor city states, separated by vast stretches of wilderness full of terrible beasts.

Nature Always Wins: People always seem to think of themselves as the masters over nature who have taken control over the world they live in. But that perception is simply the result of a limited perception. They see the changes to the environment within sight of their homes and think of history on the scale of decades and centuries. But on the global scale, and the cosmic scale, none of the works and accomplishments of mortals mean anything. Eventually, everything will be reclaimed by the wilderness and forgotten, leaving behind only a few mysterious traces that hint of something that came before. And even those will completely fade away eventually, when the mountains still stand and forests still grow.

Bronze Age Technology: Bronze age weapons and armor, and architecture and administration. Because it’s a cool style.

A World of Demons: Unlike many other fantasy worlds, Kaendor has a clear separation of the natural and supernatural. Creatures are either ordinary animals, even if huge and deadly, or they are supernatural monsters. For many people, the common term for the later beings is demons. They don’t come from some other dimension or realm and are creatures of flesh and blood that are born, need to eat, and can be killed. But they do have magical powers and age very differently, if at all. Another class of creatures does exist that are pure spirits without physical form that come from another world, and they are typically referred to as demons as well, but they are actually a completely different type of beings.

A World of Heroes: Just as there is a clear difference between ordinary animals and monsters, there is a clear distinction between heroes and ordinary people. Like monsters, heroes are in some way connected to the supernatural. There are countless different beliefs of what makes a person a hero, from being blessed by the gods or chosen by fate, to circumstances of birth and the heroism of ancestors, or that it is something that can be attained through devotion to the divine or a form of enlightenment. None of these might be true, or all of them might. What is clear is that all heroes are destined for greatness, be it for good or for ill. And it usually does not take long for people to recognize heroes for what they are. All PCs and mages are always heroes, as are many kings, chiefs, and warlords. Rulership is often inherited in the lands of Kaendor, but close relatives who show the traits of a hero are almost always seen as more legitimate successors than those who do not. (In Dragonbane game terms, all PCs and all NPCs who have Willpower Points are heroes.)

Sorcery is corrupting: Magic is a power that does not come from the natural world but from outside of it. It is not inherently evil or destructive, but it is not bound to respect the natural laws that govern and sustain all living things. In the presence of poorly controlled magical energies, living things become corrupted and warped from the inside out until they become sickly and twisted and eventually die, or continue to exists in a state between life and death, sustained by the very magical forces that are destroying them. Even rocks and metals can become brittle and crumble after long exposure to extreme corruption. The spells most commonly known and taught by most mages are the result of many centuries of careful study and research and dangerous and costly experimentation to minimize any unintended corrupting effects on their surroundings and nearby creatures. But those with the ambition to explore and discover new and greater magical powers rarely take the caution to have the care and patience to keep their work from corrupting their surroundings and themselves. Making ambitious sorcerers seen as very dangerous and rightly feared.

Everything is a Cult: In the lands of Kaendor, every gathering of people with a common purpose prays to one or several gods to protect them and bless their efforts. In some places, all groups, factions, and organizations might pray to the same god worshiped in the local temple, while in others there might be dozens of different gods and spirits, which might be so obscure that barely anyone outside the group has ever heard of them. But every group has some kind of altar in their main gathering place, and members show their status as initiates with talismans displaying the symbols of their cult.

Gods are not People: I have still not yet fully decided on the actual nature of gods in Kaendor, but while they might be depicted as such in iconography, they are definitely not people or even individuals. They are more like divine forces or powers that are believed to have a real influence on the world and who can be influenced through worship and rituals, but they are not beings with a defined shape or who exists in precise locations, and won’t directly communicate to mortal creatures through words. Ultimately, priests with magical powers are mages who have studied and mastered spells just like sorcerers do, but who pursue the advancement of their magical skills within the teachings and philosophies of their faith.

FHA Advanced and Improved Map

I hadn’t been quite happy with how the first draft of the map for the Forest of High Adventure campaign came out and so I did some big revisions to it that still mostly stuck to the original sketches.

It’s still a 10-mile hex map, but the area it covers has now been reduced to one quarter the original size. This is still a very sizable area about the size of Northern Germany, but I feel that the density of major settlements feels now much more plausible at this smaller scale. It’s still a 300 mile journey up the river from the coast to the northwestern mountains. Going there and back again could easily turn into a two month expedition. It’s not Lewis and Clarke scale, but actually still a really major undertaking when you think of it.

The black dungeon markers now look much more dense as well. This sandbox feels packed. There’s a pretty empty region on the eastern side of the coast, but that area is supposed to be the region that’s been somewhat settled by civilization, so there’s not being a whole lot of exploration adventures to be done there doesn’t seem like a problem.

And so far this really is just the big impressive ruins and cave systems with a backstory. I have not even added any regular small monster lairs yet. With so much stuff going on, I feel I’m probably not even going to need to skip over the middle part of long journeys. One random encounter check for every hex of travel still shouldn’t result in an overwhelming amount of encounters when traveling between any two hexes.

Short thoughts on condensed Hexmap travel in Sword & Sorcery campaigns

As I outlined in my previous post, I really do like the general idea of hexmap travel through the wilderness, but also think that Sword & Sorcery adventures have their focus on the most exceptional events in the travels of their protagonists and don’t concern themselves with the regular day to day stuff, like the majority stetches of long distance journeys.

Reading up again on Chris Kutalik’s great introduction to Pointcrawls, I’ve been considering that system as an option, but couldn’t quite get myself to fully leave the hexmap behind. I don’t really need it for what I now plan to do with campaign I’m preparing, but it still just feels really right to have one, especially since I want to capture a bit of a retro-feel of how I perceived fantasy RPGs in the late 90s. (I’ve even been playing around with a neocities site as a compendium for world information and play reports.)

One thing that is easily done is to draw a Pointcrawl map on top of a hexmap. After which the hex grid basically becomes purely decorative and serves no more mechanical function. While that would provide the useful additional information as described in the page linked above and simplify things for me as GM, it would still not actually do anything to deal with the question of how to play out long distance travel in Sword & Sorcery campaigns. But it gave me the following idea.

The upper path is an example of regular pointcrawl notation laid over a hexmap grid. Going from the blue site to the read site means going through six hexes between them, costing six time intervals to travel through, and perhaps causing six rolls for random encounters.

The lower path shows the same situation, except that the markers for random encounter checks are placed only within two hexes of the blue and red sites.

The idea here is to only have the players actually play out travel on the solid path sections with random encounter rolls, supply consumption, and whatever else your game of choice might include. The dashed section of the path represents a time skip during which the world still turns and the sun rises and sets, and the PCs might even have some side adventure or another, that isn’t of particular relevance to their main tale. Events that didn’t result in meeting NPCs who make later reappearnces or in any of the PCs being meaningfully affected, and their supply situation will be about the same when they reach the other side.  It’s only when they are getting close to the red site again and the path resumes being solid that the whole procedures of covering one segment of travel are being played out again. It still preserves some of the aspects of hexmap wilderness travel, but can greatly reduce the play time of long distance journeys as I am planning for. Any random encounters with NPCs or monsters will happen relatively close to a site where they can have some kinds of effect or connection to the inhabitants of that site. If the players encounter a group of bandits deep in the wilderness, nobody will care about what happed there in the towns they left or are headed to. But if the encounter happens within one or two travel segments from a town, people there might have had problems with the bandits in the recent past, or might be friends of them. The random encounter in the wilderness could very well be quite important to an adventure that happens at that particular site later.

For longer joureys between towns and famous big dungeons, there can also be squares for minor sites to break up thr long journey between the start and destination into multiple smaller adventures. These can also have their own random encounter check ponts near them.

I think this could be a quite interesting solution to having most of the aspects of hexmap travel and pointcrawls on a map that is at continent scale and doesn’t really try to map and describe its whole area at a 6 or 10-mile scale. You do lose a bit of it, like getting lost deep in the wilderness and running out water in the desert while one PC has to be carried. But in a Sword & Sorcery themed campaign, there probably isn’t even the time to spend much focus on these things, so I think it might be a pretty good trade.

Sword & Sorcery Sandboxes?

I was planning to write this as presenting a concept that I have worked out, but the more I’ve been getting into it, the more it morphed into sharing a question I am pondering.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve recently become very excited about Dragonbane, which very much matches all the things I was looking for in a game system for the last 8 years or so. I had settled on OSE as the next best thing, but Dragonbane looks like the Fantasy Heartbreaker that I would have made. And I’m now much more interested in launching a Dragonbane campaign in my Kaendor setting than running it as an OSE wilderness exploration campaign as I had planned while working on the regional map and the towns and ruins contained in it. Dragonbane is of course a different game than OSE, and does not have the underlying mechanical framework that makes classic dungeon crawling and wilderness exploration work. Without XP for treasure, or even a mechanic for XP, the typical incentive structure falls away, and resource management also works out rather differently. So a different approach to structuring the campaign is needed.

And of course when this question comes up, my first thought is always “Would this work well in a Sword & Sorcery style?” And I think with Dragonbane the answer is very much yes. If you do the presentation right, the default rules of Dragonbane should work effortlessly with almost any Sword & Sorcery setting.

The longer I’ve been playing RPGs, the more I’ve become convinced that sandbox campaigns are really the only way to play heroic adventure games. The ability to go to any place on the map, try anything, and negotiate with NPCs in any way you think makes sense because you have a GM right there who can have the world and it’s people react to the PCs in real time is the great promise of the RPG medium. The aspect that you can never get from any other. Any campaign that doesn’t put this front and center seems like a waste of amazing potential and a lack of understanding of the medium. RPGs are where you can make stories and experience them at the same time and there’s always more world outside of the current frame. I don’t want to accept anything less when playing an RPG.

But what does a sandbox campaign even mean in regards to the Sword & Sorcery genre?

One major, and perhaps defining, element of Sword & Sorcery is that it’s a storytelling style that isn’t about an ongoing continuity and overarching narrative arcs where everything exists to build up to one big final conclusion that resolves everything. Instead of a heroes entire journey from beginning to conclusion, Sword & Sorcery storytelling is much more like a highlight reel of the most dramatic and fantastic moments in the lives of the protagonists. How their journey actually started is not really that important, and how it all gets resolved eventually even less. We’re here for the cool parts.

Because of this, I think that having a whole Sword & Sorcery sandbox campaign as a single continuity that tracks the events of the PCs lives day by day might not really be that appropriate. “On day 183 the party rested in town. On day 184 the party had one random encounter with bandits on the road and traveled 24 miles. On day 185 the party had no random encounters and traveled 30 miles.” No, that really doesn’t seem right. The same goes for equipment and money. You really don’t have to keep track of how much money precisely the PCs have at any given point and whether they might be 12 gold pieces short for buying a new suit of plate armor after the old one got destroyed.

However, when you play a campaign purely as a series of one-shot adventures with the same characters, then you lose out on one of the great aspects of a sandbox campaign. Making long term enemies and allies and getting to live with the consequences of your actions. I think choices always become so much more interesting when you have consider how they might impact situations that the characters will encounter much later. We don’t generally see that much in Sword & Sorcery fiction, but old enemies coming back to take another shot at you really cool in a game. Especially when you know that these are enemies that you made even though you had other options available to you at that time.

I also really like the aspect of travel on a hex map of the players being free to chart any course through the wilderness with the possibility of evading encounters with dangerous enemies because of good planning on their part, or running into difficult situations because they were trying to avoid something else. But if you go hex map, then you really need to track the miles traveled every day and the food and other supplies running out and being resupplied through interactions with the environment. My thinking on this situation is that the most interesting choices are the likes of “Do we try to sneak over the pass through the mountains guarded by the villain’s soldiers or do we try to take a detour through the Spider Woods?” Soldiers or spiders? Which hexes through the Spider Woods specifically and the speed at which to travel won’t really make that much of a big difference compared to the initial decision. So I guess that perhaps the old Pointcrawl approach might be the best option here. The pointcrawl adventures by Chris Kutalik are set up quite similar to outdoor dungeons, being a large space to explore, with the implication that players likely might try to check out every point. But the principles should work just as well for tracking long distance travel between more detailed sub-regions and offering a great range of possible paths that the players can take to move between them. This system for travel should keep the most interesting and impactful choices for the players as part of the game, but it greatly compresses the majority of the total journey.

As I said at the start, all of this turned out as mostly just sharing what is currently on my mind about the subject, rather than any real system or plan. But maybe something interesting to think about for others as well.

Sural for Dragonbane

Monsters and animals in Dragonbane are pretty simple. They only have five stats and maybe three skills, and they are all numbers that you assign independently at any value you think seems appropriate. There’s a good piece of wisdom that’s been around for a while that says that almost any custom monster you’ll ever want to stat will be adequately represented by the default stats for a bear, wolf, or giant spider. Nearly every fantasy RPG has these three and they work well enough as stand-ins for most medium or large predator and giant insect. Maybe adjust hit points and armor a bit, but in practice players probably won’t even notice that difference.

However, occasionally, you have a creature that takes a bit more tinkering than that. The sural from Kaendor doesn’t resemble any of these three. But even in such a case, you usually can get pretty far with just combining parts of existing creatures. The Dragonbane rulebook only has 15 creatures and none of them are either aquatic or snakes. But there’s also an adventure book in the set, which does have a few adventure specific creatures as well. And the White Death is just what I need.

The sural is a large eel-like creature that lives in many swamps and partially flooded caves. While it does feed on fish, its main prey are mammals and birds that come to the water to drink, which it grabs with its jaws and then drags into the water to drown.

  • Ferocity: 1
  • Size: Large
  • Movement: 16 (in water)
  • Armor:
  • HP: 16
Monster Attacks (1d6 or pick one)
  • 1-2: Tail Swipe! The sural swipes its tail at a player character within 10 meters. The attack inflicts 2D6 bludgeoning damage and knocks the victim down.
  • 3-4: Ferocious Bite! The sural bites a player character with its strong jaws. The attack inflicts 2D8 slashing damage.
  • 5-6 Drowning! The sural pulls a player character into the deep and the  victim immediately begins to drown. The player character cannot move or perform actions that require body movement, except trying to break free, which takes a STR roll. Others can help.

Monsters in Dragonbane are different from animals and NPCs. They automatically hit with their attacks unless a player decides to make a Dodge check. (They can not be parried.) They can see in the dark, are immune to poison, fear, and some spells, can not be shoved or grappled, and automatically resist the Persuasion skill. They are very much considered to be unnatural creatures.

While I guess surals could be treated as ordinary animals, I think that encounters with them should be memorable scenes in dramatic environments of heroic scope. Making them monsters with everything that comes with it seems appropriate. However, since they are meant to be encountered in small groups and not supposed to be the big monster of the week for an adventure, I decided to only give them a single turn every round (Ferocity: 1), instead of the multiple turns that most monsters get. And while being scaled, creatures like minotaurs and giant spiders don’t have any armor either, so surals can go without them as well.

Dragonworld: A Dragonbane Fantasyland setting outline

Around the same time that I started reading the Dragonbane rules, road constructions made me take a different route back from work in the evening, leading to me driving through the fields and forests of East Holstein during sunny summer afternoons.

And even though I’m neck deep in setting up a Sword & Sorcery style campaign in Kaendor and frequently tinker around with my Iridium Moons Space Opera, I keep having lots of inspirations for a classic, straightforward Fantasyland setting for Dragonbane. That game very strongly comes across as a good old Fantasy Heartbreaker, but one that actually strikes me as having found a really great balance between oldschool B/X D&D and the Basic Role-Playing system, and incorporating influences from contemporary D&D and the Year Zero system, resulting in just the type of game system that I think I’ve been looking for the last decade. And it’s generic Elfgame style for illustrations is kind of charming. Charming in the same way as I remember first reading the 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms campaign setting box.

I’ve been thinking for a long time how I find it disappointing that few fantasy works seem to have any interest to draw on actual medieval history and culture for their settings anymore, and how all Northern European style fantasy is really just Viking stuff and nothing else. And another thing that’s been on my mind last winter was how the Heartlands and Unapproachable East regions of the Forgotten Realms have a couple of interesting ideas, but feel too sparse and thin for me to consider running campaigns in them. But there could be some potential by combining the more interesting parts of both regions into a single region. And then really dialing up the 13th century reference, which the first Forgotten Realms box actually referenced but were then very quickly forgotten and discarded.

And I still think that could work: 13th century Baltic Sea region, with countries shamelessly ripped off from the Dalelands, Moonsea, Impiltur, Rashemen, and Thay. Do I have anything meaningful to add to generic Fantasyland or anything to say on the subject that hasn’t been said before? Not really. I can’t think of any. But there’s still the thought that generic Fantasyland could be done better than it has before, and that I know what it would look like.

Will this go anywhere? Probably not. Will I have interesting pieces to share in the common months? Maybe, but probably not many. Might I actually run a Dragonbane campaign in that setting? Possibly, but I still have a big Kaendor campaign that is in the final preparation phase, which will hopefully go well enough to keep my fantasy cravings fed for the next few years. But maybe, in four or five years, I might find myself in the situation that I feel like running a somewhat different flavor of fantasy. And then, maybe, I might think that this Dragonworld concept I had in 2024 might be worth getting my full attention.

That’s the kind of worldbuilding work you can expect coming from this.

The Lands of Dragonworld

The landscapes and cultures of the setting are very much based on the Baltic Sea region about the time of the 13th century. Temperate to sub-arctic climate and home to various Germanic and Slavic peoples. And the main cultural force that is shaping society throughout all the lands is sea trade. A long an narrow sea protected from the worst weather of the open ocean serves in many ways just like a river for the transportation of goods, but unlike a river there is no way for any powerful lord to block all ships at a strategic choke point and gain control of all trade through huge tolls and taxes. There is even a theory that this open access to a convenient transportation network was the foundation for more egalitarian social structures that eventually made Skandinavia in particular the birthplace of modern Social Democracy, and northern Europe extremely wealthy despite modest to poor conditions for agriculture. (But I digress.) The Baltic Sea became home to many very powerful small merchant republics that ended up playing in the same political and military league as the actual kingdoms of the region. Forgotten Realms also has a very strong presence of free cities and merchant lords, which always reminded me of Northern Europe. I think this is an environment that is really much more interesting than the typical Fantasyland with their English and French kings.

The Imperial Marches are the northern borderlands of a great southern kingdom that fancies itself an Empire but in truth is no more powerful or larger in size than its other neighbors to the south and east. The Empire has long desired to further expand into the lands of the North but has seen almost no successes in the last few generations. The Imperial Marches are home to some of the largest cities in the North and can field large and powerful armies, but most of their excursions into the rest of the region are undertaken by merchant ships trading with the cities of the Narrow Sea.

The Western Duchy is an old and proud nation of herdsmen and farmers sitting on the coastal plains below the Woodsmen Hills. The position of the Duke is a largely ceremonial title as the cities and towns of the country are highly independent, but holds the responsibility of a common leader of the city’s armies in times of attacks by neighboring realms. While the current Duke has sworn fealty to the Emperor as his vassal, in practice the Duchy remains a sovereign nation in nearly all ways that matter.

The Woodmen Hills are a region of densely forested highlands that are inhabited by numerous barbaric tribes closely related to the people of the Western Duchy. While they share very similar languages and worship the same gods, their culture is very different from the plains dwellers down on the coast. Since the Western Duchy has nominally accepted the sovereignty of the Emperor, the Empire has focused its attempts at expansion to the north into the Woodmen Hills, but so far has found very little in the way of success.

The Tyrant Cities are a number of merchant cities with a reputation for lawlessness and the rule of cruel and uncaring despots. They are typically each other’s worst enemies, but also frequently harbor pirates and are busy markets for slaves. Occasionally one tyrant or another attempts to take control over nearby towns in the Western Duchies or Forest Dales, but these conquests are typically short lived as their soldiers are pulled out to defend their cities against rival lords who sensed an opportunity to attack.

The Cold Steppes are the westernmost edge of a vast plain of frozen grasslands that is said to stretch east for thousands of miles. While there are no major settlements in the Steppes, trade caravans from the East occasionally reach the Tyrant Cities or the Western Duchy, and in years of hard winters raids of horse riders from the plains are a common occurrence come spring.

The Forest Dales are a vast region of woodlands on the western shore of the Narrow Sea, though nearly all of the noteworthy towns of the regions are within a few days travel from the coast. There are no significant cities in this part of the northern lands, but it produces much of the special lumbers sought highly by shipbuilders all across the region.

The Merchant Kingdom used to be considered part of the Forest Dales for a very long time until it was settled by merchants from the Empire several centuries before the conquest of the Imperial Marches. Each city is ruled by a council of merchants, and the leaders of each city elect one of their own as their king. A position that is usually assumed for life, but may be revoked by a vote of the grand council. The title of king exists mostly for the merchants to assert their claim to independence from the Empire, which has long desired to incorporate the wealthy and important cities. The merchants of the kingdom gain most of their wealth from trade in lumber from the Forest Dales, iron and copper from the hellish foundries of the Tyrant Cities, and the occasional exotic goods from trade caravans crossing the Cold Steppes, which they sell  in ports in the Imperial Marches and lands further south.