Note to self: Take better notes

I was just updating my monster manual for the Ancient Lands and found a note that I still need to write stats for the Sand Bision.

I have no idea what a sand bison is.

The next item on the list is a Riding Goat, so it’s probably some kind of actual bovine, but I havn’t the slightest clue what I could have meant with the name. There aren’t even any deserts in the Ancient Lands!

Update: I believe I simply meant an upsized version of the regular old musk ox.

musk-ox-vegan

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?

Continue reading “Function and Purpose, Part 3: Application”

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.

Continue reading “Function and Purpose, Part 1: Purpose in the Ancient Lands”

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.

Continue reading “Good artists borrow, great artists steal – Laying the foundations for the Ancient Lands”

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.

Help! Starting a new nonlinear campaign

Earlier this week I mentioned between classes that I’d really like to play an RPG again. And as luck has it, my friends all got quite excited about the idea. Only two of them have actually played any games before, but all the others are also quite enthusiastic and so I know have 6 players already and a good chance that this game will keep going for two or three years. The kind of opportunity every small-time GM would wish for.

I’ve decited to ditch Pathfinder and instead go with Castles & Crusades, which is much easier to learn, faster to play, and allows much more freedom because preparing for multiple possible outcomes requires much less time and work, and I can even make up things on the fly. However, having always run rather linear games in which there was a clearly structured sequence of setpieces, I don’t really have any experience with planning a much more open-ended campaign. While I like the possibilities of sandbox games, I don’t want to make it a hexcrawl, but instead provide an interesting starting situation in which the players are free to take sides and steer events towards and outcome that is in their favor. There probably is a huge amount of information out there on the subject and reports of campaigns that people actually ran, but finding those is the difficult part.

If anyone has any pointers towards articles, campaign reports, and similar sources, it would be hugely appreciated if you could share the links in the comments.

What are the Ancient Lands?

One of the reasons to start Spriggan’s Den was to have a place to post updates on my work on the Ancient Lands, and I also plan to use it as a label to publish my RPG related material in the forseeable future. So I guess a short introduction would be in place.

Ancient Lands is a campaign setting that goes back to 2005 when I was working on the setting for a larger online project that never really got off the ground, but from which I learned a lot of things about the creation of campaign settings and my personal preferences. Work on the Ancient Lands began in earnest in early 2011 when I was dabbling in creating a revised version of the generic character classes variant rules of D&D 3rd Ed. for E6 and I really started to like the idea of a low-level setting as in the worlds of Conan or The Witcher. While I eventually abandoned the plan of using the E6 variant in favor of simply establishing a sort-of level-cap at 10th level (on which I might elaborate on in a separate post), and switched to Pathfinder over D&D, the basic premise remained the same and has seen significant development over the last two years.

One of the primary reasons to consider creating a setting myself was my dissatisfaction with the fact that most “high fantasy” or “generic” fantasy setting portray a world in which dragons, giants, elves, and dwarves do exist, but they are all way past their prime and fading into obscurity in the face of a rapidly spreading humanity. Now, in the Lord of the Rings this is an important plot element; the whole story is about the end of an era and the transition from myth to history. But there really is no reason to make this the standard for all fantasy settings. Also, settings like Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, or Eberron portray worlds that are actually emulating the Renaissance and early modernity, while I personally much favor the early Middle Ages and Iron Age. When reading sourcebooks on other campaign settings, there is almost always lots of references to the old kingdoms of elves and dwarves and their wars against dragons, giants, and massive hordes of orcs. These sections always intrigued me much more than the current age of these settings and so the basic idea of the Ancient Lands was born: A wild and barely explored world of the Bronze or early Iron Age, where humans are simply one of several races of “barbarians” and ancient nature spirits still possess great power of the lands and their creatures.

Continue reading “What are the Ancient Lands?”