Tag Archives: OSR

Three Degrees of Civilization

Over the last couple of months I have been steering the design of the  Ancient Lands away from true sandbox environments towards something more of an expedition focused nature. Adventures more in the style of David Cook’s The Isle of Dread and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Civilization and culture is increasingly moving into the background in favor of greater attention to environments in which actual adventures are playing out. But the setting is not just aimed at being a stage for dungeon crawls, but for entire expeditions from the planning to the eventual triumphant return laden with gold. This makes the settlements through which the party passes along the way an important and integral element of both the adventures and the setting.

During a discussion about the development of the setting I mentioned that all proper civilization is located along the rivers and coast, which led to the natural question what the deal is with all the communities not located directly on this primary trade network of waterways. While trying to express how I was imagining minor settlements, this idea of Three Degrees of Civilization evolved naturally while I was typing a response. (Which is why I always love writing about my design process. A lot of great ideas arise from that.) It all goes back to the Hill Cantons idea of Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird, with which it overlaps, but is not identical. In the Ancient Lands, the starting towns would be corelands where everything is ordinary; the wilderness is the borderlands, where things are getting strange and threatening; and the ruins and caves of the main adventure sites would be the weird, where the Mythic Underworld is fully realized. In a slight twist, cities are not part of the corelands but of the borderlands. So many people living together in a massive construction of stone is just not natural and alien to the ordinary clanspeople from which PCs come.

But not all villages are equal. While the towns from which expeditions start are clearly part of the corelands and some of the early settlements are welcome islands of safety in the wilderness, the further away from the main waterways of civilization you get, the more foreign even the villages become. As the title indicates, I came up with three categories of settlements that are meant to make the players experience their gradual transition into the weird.

First Degree Communities

Settlements of the first degree are all places that are regularly visited by travelling merchants and who are part of the international network of trade. They import goods from foreign places and in turn export local products to pay for them. Almost all first degree settlements have some kind of port or pier where merchant ships traveling on the major rivers and along the coasts can trade their goods. Even though cities are strange places, they are also communities of the first degree.

The first thing that is of importance to player characters in these settlements is that business is done with coins. These settlements have stores, taverns, and sometimes inns near the port where they can get any supplies and services they need by simply paying for them with money. If they require mounts and pack animals, there are traders who sell them.

The other main feature of these communities is that visitors are common and that most of the locals enjoy some social mobility. This makes them the best places to easily recruit hirelings, guards, and other specialists. The idea of paid labor and going on long journeys is not foreign to these people, even if the majority of them has never traveled furthern than one or two settlements away from their home.

Bronze is a common material in these communities and soldiers are regularly equipped with lamellar cuirases and bronze spears, axes, and swords.

Second Degree Communities

Communities of the second degree are not directly on the trade network that transports goods across the world but they have regular contact with settlements that are. These are almost universally fully argarian communities that are mostly self-sufficient but have some frequency of bartering surplus food and animal skins for manufactured goods with their neighbors.

Second degree communities don’t normally use money for everyday transactions but as they have regular contatact with places that do it has still value for them. While there are no stores to buy supplies, parties can stock up on food and other basic necessities by offering coins to locals that can spare some. Getting new equipment in these places can be quite difficult as there simply aren’t many tools or weapons with which the locals would part.

Ocassionally traders from neighboring settlements might arrive with a few ogets carrying some goods for barter, these communities don’t see any regular visitors and as such there are no inns and taverns. The center of the community is usually the hall of the chief and the only accomodations are those offered by local families who invite the PCs as guests. If they are travelling with a considerable party of hirelings and guards, this hospitality probably won’t extend to them. Usually getting such an invitation is not difficult, as hosting travellers is widely considered a previlege among wealthy families who are proud to have such honored guests.

Since labor is limited and everybody needed, recruiting new hirelings in these communties is difficult. Player’s might be able to find one or two people eager to leave before they are being cast out, but other than that a local guide to show the path to a nearby ruin is usually the most that they can get unless they have become close friends with the village leaders.

Bronze is a rare and valuable material in these communities and lamellar armor or swords are uncommon, while leather scale armor and bronze spears dominate.

Third Degree Communities

These villages are almost always very small and isolated and located far from any major trade routes. Their only contact with civilization is through neighboring comunities of the second degree and even that could be very limited.

Unsurprisingly, these settlements have no use for coins but might accept gold and silver jewelry when bartering for food. Outsiders are often invited into such villages only if the locals are desperate for help with outside threats and then it is only the chief who has the right to make such invitations.

Hirelings can not be recruited in such communities but if one of the PCs somehow ends up having a strong relationship to specific NPCs these could still join the party as henchmen.

Most such communities have very little bronze and as such large numbers of spears and arrows are using stone blades. Only high ranking warriors have bronze weapons and armor is generally limited only to shields and small numbers of bronze helmets taken as trophies.

What does an Ancient Lands adventure look like?

In the end, a campaign setting really is just a stage for adventures. And adventures are generally the only way through which players are interacting with it. This really deserves an article of its own, but when it comes to designing a campaign setting you really need to start with chosing the kinds of adventures that will be set in it. I believe the fact that I am only explicitly making such a list now has a lot to do with all my worldbuilding work only really taking shape in the last half year or so.

So here you go. When I think of the Ancient Lands as a stage for adventures, these are what I have in mind:

  • The Lost City
  • The Isle of Dread
  • Quagmire!
  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God
  • Dwellers of the Forbidden City
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Deep Carbon Observatory
  • Slumbering Ursine Dunes
  • Aliens
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Dark Souls
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Red Nails
  • Stalker
  • Super Metroid

You could say a microsandbox. Or a mesodungeon.

Veins of the Earth

So Lamentations of the Flame Princess has released a new book by Patrick Stuart that is about weird adventures in the Underdark, and it’s almost 400 pages long, and starts with a big monster section, and has special rules for light, and a system for food and cannibalism, and random 3D cave environments, and…

It’s looking really good so far. Though most of it is so weird that I am not even sure what I am looking at. Many times it is more tell than show, but it still works quite effectively. Not sure what I might be using from this book, but it sure gives me ideas what I want to do in my game.

The darkness is following them, surrounding them. It infiltrates slender claws behind shadowed columns, reaching towards the lantern, hungering to snuff it out. It backs away reluctantly before the light, it follows carefully and relentlessly, creeping as close as it can. It leaves chew marks in the corners of your sight.

The darkness is a character. It only wants one thing. Rules are hard to remember and details are easy to forget under stress. Intent is not. Intent is easy to recall and unlike detail it actually grows more powerful under stress. You remember who hates you. The more stressed you are, the more you remember it. The dark hates the players; you play the dark. You will probably forget that a candle has a ten foot radius but you will never stop waiting for the candle to go out.

Domains and Endgame in the Ancient Lands

These last couple of days I’ve been thinking about and rereading the rules for high level characters and ruling over domains in the Expert and Companion rules. Domain play has always been something of an elusive beast that few people seem to have any real experience with. Got there once but didn’t stay with it long seems to be the most common statement.

When you look at the Cook Expert rules (1981), domain play is almost completely absent. It tells you that characters at 9th level can become rulers of a domain, tells the GM to handwave a monthly tax income, and has a half page of price lists for constructing a castle. But it doesn’t really go into what play as a ruler would be like.

In the Companion set, a lot more ink has been spilled about it. There’s lots and lots of rules for management and accounting. But as far as I am able to tell, there still is no real guidance of any kind what players would actually be doing in play. Doing the accounting for a domain and occasionally fixing the mess caused by raiders or disasters? How would this be appealing to players who so far have been exploring exotic places, navigated deadly dungeons, and had dealing with monsters and evil sorcerers?

It could be a fun game to some people, but doesn’t seem to mesh at all with what D&D has been up to that point. And much more importantly, it’s not a group activity. One player rules a domain and makes all the descisions for it. If all the players have their own separate domains, how would they be playing together? You can of course play a game of warlords, but that would be a competitive game, not a cooperative one. And a group of characters who have been working together for years wouldn’t suddenly become rivals and send their armies against each other. The only practical way I can see for having PCs become rulers over domains would be to have them retired from play and have them occasionally appear as quest giver NPCs played by their old player. Who would then be playing a new adventuring character to actually go on that adventure. If you have a large scale campaign with dozens of players and multiple GMs I could see that working for a handful of high level characters. But this simply isn’t the reality of how D&D is played. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of such groups that still exists today could be counted on the fingers of one hand. If there even are any.

One argument for domain play in a campaign with more Sword & Sorcery leaning that occasionally comes up is that Conan was a king. Kane was a sorcerer-warlord and Elric was an emperor. But the important part is that their stories are never about ruling and managing their domains. Sword & Sorcery tales about rulers are always about leaving the court with a sword in hand and fighting monsters. If you want to emulate the high level adventures of popular Sword & Sorcery heroes then domain management rules are completely irrelevant and out of place.

Occasionally there are big battles between armies, but even then those stories are not about being a field commander. It’s always about personally going after the enemy commander or pulling awesome stunts to destroy the enemy forces without having your own troops stab them dead one by one. Mass combat isn’t something that happens in Sword & Sorcery either. What you get is raids with a group of maybe up to a dozen people. Which would be a group of PCs and their henchmen.

So I’ve come to the descision that the high level elements of the Ancient Lands setting will simply assume that there is no such thing as domain play. Taking control of a stronghold and gathering followers will simply be down to players actually fortifying a place and talking to people. It may be done at any level and take whatever scale seems appropriate for a given situation. But for all intents and purposes characters will pretty much stop to advance after 9th level and only gain small increases in hit points at a very slow pace from their continued adventures, plus skill points for specialists and spell points for witches. (In my War Cry of the Flame Princess rules fighters reach maximum attack bonus and witches maximum spell level at 9th level, and scouts maximum Bushcraft and Stealth skills at 10th level.) I only ever had two campaigns reach 11th level and that was both in 3rd edition which has pretty fast level progression. So chances are pretty high I won’t ever see a 10th level character in the Ancient Lands anyway.

Adventuring seasons and long term campaigns

A few weeks back, Joseph had been writing about the idea of having parties going on adventures only for some months of the year when weather permits it and then returning for the winter to deal with business back home. It’s an idea that goes back at least as far as Pendragon, but also more recently appeared in The One Ring. And in both cases it seems to be an element that is quite popular with players and that constitutes a pretty important part in giving these games their unique spin. It basically has to main effects on a campaign.

One is that players have to regularly return to a safe haven for overwintering, which can nudge players to get involved in more urban or social adventures which they normally wouldn’t seek out. It also allows for a good blend of exploration adventures and domain management if that later aspect is desired.

The other thing that it does is to create a much stronger sense of the passing of time. One oddity of megadungeons, super-modules, adventure paths, and other kinds of published campaigns is that they often take characters from first level to high levels at an incredibly fast pace. Often just a couple of weeks or a few months at the most. After which they are as powerful and experienced as NPCs who have been at it for decades or even centuries. Even if the campaign includes time jumps like “after 5 weeks of sailing” or “several months later”, these things don’t tend to be felt by the players, to whom it might just as well have been “later that afternoon”. By regularly alternating between adventuring season and winter camp, you at least communicate the idea that the campaign stretches over a couple of years.

To add this aspect to your game, you don’t actually need any specific rules for it. All you really need to do is track the passing of days on the calendar. Even if it’s just a simple campaign of going to the dungeon and poking around, placing the dungeon a few days travel from the next village and putting each village with a dungeon a week or two apart  from each other will lead to a lot of time passing between each session. If you have a sandbox (one that isn’t about filling out a 6-mile hex map), put the various locations a good distance away from each other and players should very quickly rack up pretty long travel times. Once the campaign reaches the end of the ninth or tenth month, simply tell the players that weather is getting increasingly awful for camping in the wilderness and that they should find a place to stay until the fourth month or so.

If it fits the campaign, you can then simply jump ahead to the next spring and continue from there. There are also a good number of great adventures that can be had during the winter. But these are usually not long expeditions into the wilderness. Much more commonly these are things with isolated villages being threatened and no help coming until spring. The kind of places where you would expect adventurers to stay for the winter. These don’t have to be elaborate adventurers. They can easily be just simple one-shots for a single session, but can also be pretty big things as well. The advantage of this is that you will have the players remember that they actually have experienced a winter and it’s not something that was only mentioned once in passing. For my Ancient Lands campaign, I am planning to make a simple Random Event table, on which I will make one roll for every month in winter camp. With a 1/6 chance four times in a row, something is almost certainly to happen; perhaps even two things. These would probably have to be rolled in advance and not at the table, so you can prepare some material for it. But again, it doesn’t have to be big things. “Frozen Zombies” or “Winter Wolves” would be enough as a hook for the GM. Then you can start with destroyed farms or dead cattle in a stable and have the players deal with it as you usually would in a sandbox. Since the players are kind of stuck in the place and have nowhere else to be, they probably wouldn’t resist looking into it.

But when it comes to running an campaign with a level based system I also got another idea. There’s a small and perhaps not too well known rule in the 1981 Basic Set that characters can never gain enough XP to level up twice after a single adventure. However, the book doesn’t really specificy what constitutes an adventure. I am assuming it means a single session, but when you’re playing the long game you can also think much bigger. Like a whole year bigger. Which, when you consider it narratively, still isn’t really that long. A young adventurer who goes adventuring every year could easily reach 9th level well before age 30. Make it twice as much and you end up with PCs reaching their maximum number of Hit Dice around 40. That seems very appropriate to me.

In fact, it would be quite critical that the campaign is laid out so that characters don’t reach their annual XP cap on a regular basis. The required XP scores for advancing to the next level are roughly doubling with each level which leads to lower level characters catching up to higher level characters pretty quickly. Be they replacement characters for dead ones, new additions to the group, or characters who have suffered energy drain. If all the characters in the party reach the XP cap every year, then the lower level characters will never be able to catch up. So when you estimate how much adventuring the party will be doing in a year, I think aiming for half the XP needed to have the highest level PC reach the next level would be a good baseline.

If the difference in character levels gets really big you run into some problems with encounters anyway, but it’s going to be troublesome here as well. You can easily have characters with an XP cap a hundred times higher than others, which can very likely mean that the lower level PCs would reach their maximum right after the first session of the season, which I guess wouldn’t really feel that fun for the players. One possible option would be to have a year in which the highest level characters don’t go on adventures. However, unlike with spliting the players into two groups and having them adventuring separately for one or two adventures, you can’t really have these adventures simultaneously when you want the lower level characters to catch up with the higher level ones. The players with the higher level characters would have to wait until the other group has finished its adventuring season before they can get back into the action. I think that wouldn’t really be feasible for more than one session or two. Perhaps those players might like to play henchmen or create secondary characters, but I am not sure if they’d be really happy with that either. While I’ve heard that it used to be quite common for players to semi-retire their high level characters and start new ones in paralel, I don’t know if this is something players would still enjoy doing with the expectations they have today.

Heroic Fantasy Handbook and Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu for ACKS.

Autarch is running a Kickstarter campaign for two new books for the Adventurer Conqueror King system. They are already funded, which I guess was pretty much a given, but I’ve heard of the announcement only now.

The Heroic Fantasy Handbook is an ACKS supplement for campaigns set in more low-magic settings, such as the Hyborian Age or Middle-Earth, and contains three new magic systems. It also has 10 new classes (as it is the ACKS way) and also some other rules for running a more literature inspired game. While I am usually sceptical of “Sword & Sorcery” OSR games, as they usually end up just being D&D without demihumans, the announced content for this one sounds actually really good. I am pretty sure I am going to buy it when it’s out. As these things go, I expect it probably some point in 2019.

Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu appears to be a campaign setting based on a mashup of Conan, Barsoom, and Star Wars. The announcement doesn’t sound nearly as good as for the other book, but I am a huge Conan and Star Wars fan and love Barsoom as a concept as well. While I don’t have high expectations for it, I am probably going to end up buying it on release as well, simply out of curiosity.

Unbe or not unbe?

Undead! One of the great classics of fantasy monsters with a history that goes back to the earliest beginnings og culture. Could you even imagine a Sword & Sorcery world without any undead in it? They are probably a much more common representation of sorcery than sorcerers themselves.

Yet I am finding myself beginning to seriously doubt my concept for undead in the Ancient Lands setting. The problem begins with the basic assumption that for mortal creatures body and soul are an inseparable whole, from which follows that people do not face troubles with the certainty that a better life awaits them after death. This really is one of the core premises of the whole setting that forms part of the basis of its many cultures and religions. This is something that just can’t go. But I still love undead and so reduced them to half a dozen forms that are mostly mutations caused by sorcerous energy (ghouls, wights) or or elemental-like entities that have some faint resemblance to the people from which they were created (shadows, wraiths) But the downside is that you can’t really have conversations with the actual dead. Hellboy has a lot of scenes where he discovers old battlefield and the frozen skeletons whisper warnings and advice to him. That’s an element that is just so cool and I don’t really want to have missing out on it.

And sometimes they aren’t even human.

But the problem gets even bigger. The Ancient Lands are a very nontraditional setting while zombies, ghouls, wights, and wraiths are all as generic Standard Fantasy as orcs and goblins. Now that I’ve started looking again over towards Final Fantasy, Star Wars or Kalimdor from Warcraft 3 as stylistic inspirations and references they’ve started to stand out to me as somewhat out of place. Morrowind has lots of undead but those exist within a context of a complex culture of worshipping dead ancestors. Can’t worship your ancestors if they’ve ceased to exist.

What am I going to do with unbdead that really makes them seem like an integrated part of the setting instead of something foreign clumsily tacked on? No afterlife has to remain integral to the religion and cosmology of the Ancient Lands. Removing the spirit of a mortal (and putting it somewhere else) also must remain an impossibility. But there is still the Spiritworld. The limitation that spirits have to be tied to the body applies only to mortals, such as people and animals. For spirits this is not the case and they can manifest physical shapes separate from their actual “bodies” (mountains, lakes, trees, …) and possess the bodies of mortals. In Final Fantasy X, there are the fayth, great mystics of ancient times who have somehow preserved their bodies in an eternal sleep within sacred shrines and gained the ability to create powerful spiritual phantoms that can aid living summoners in battle. I really quite like that concept. Putting great shamans into an eternal sleep between life and death to become something similar to spirits that can advise the living in times of need would be pretty cool.

And it could also be extended to undead. Instead of people simply dying in places of great sorcerous power, they could become part of the place. Their bodies may be dead, but the energies of the place keep their spirits together to at least give them some ability to communicate with living visitors through visions. It would also mean that they can never leave the place, which is not just an interesting image but also keeps them neatly confined and unable to spread across the world. For simple animated corpses an exception could easily be made. They would be mindless and only be moving on magic strings created by a sorcerer. Scary, but not really returning from death. The bodies move again, but this time there is no spirit inside For ghouls I think the idea of sorcerous mutants that are technically still alive, just really sick and unnaturally strong, could still work really well.

That would only really leave the wight, which I had already fused with the mummy and the lich, I think those are all really different expressions of the same idea, I could simply scrap them and leave it at that, but perhaps I could also find a different background and role for them that would fit better into the setting.

Or an AL-Series perhaps?

A few weeks ago I’ve been pondering what kind of format to use to turn all my ideas for the Ancient Lands into a single unified document. A task that turned out to be more daunting than I anticipated and as of now progress is still negligible, to put it diplomatically. One particular source of grief would be chapter two, after the section on classes and special rules. The races and cultures of the world. Right from the start I knew that I didn’t want to continue the lamentable practice of having a dozen human cultures, three or four elven ones, and then one dwarf culture, one orc culture, one gnome culture, one lizardman culture, and so on. Aside from just being lazy it’s blatantly using the silly racist mode of thinking that all members of a group of foreigners look the same and are the same. Diversity doesn’t just mean that you need a few African and Asian looking humans in your Anglo-French fantasy land. You need to consequently carry this mode of thinking through the whole setting. The problem that arises from this is that when you already start with 7 different humanoid species, giving each one of them multiple ethnic groups leads to really large numbers very quickly. At my last count I was at 15, which is already way too many for a semi-lightweight setting, even when you give them only one page each. And I’d actually want to diversify them even further. This would be much too unwieldy and not result in the kind of content I want to deliver.

Similar problems have been troubling me with the geography aspect of the setting and how to present the different regions and the vast amount of efectively empty space between them. Thinking about this conundrum led me to consider a different kind of format to present the setting to readers. I’ve frequently been praising the Forgotten Realms sourcebook The Savage Frontier as a really good way to present setting information in a useable way to GMs, and it’s actually only one entry in a series of 10 or so setting modules. The same approach was also used in the Gazetteer series that comprised the Mystara setting of BECMI. While I think that doing 12 region books of this scope would be both too large a project for me and also an overload of information for readers who actually want to play the setting at the table, presenting each region as a semi-contained and complete setting on 10 to 20 pages would have some real merit to it. It’s something that I should be able to do in a reasonable time scale (even if it’s only one or two per year), that would be compartmentalized in small projects that would result in regular accomplishments even if I don’t end up completing it but also could be expanded to additional regions added later, and that would also set a low entry barrier for people who are interested in the premise but don’t want to invest the time of reading a 200 to 300 page tome.

A regional module would allow me to present the local people as tribes specific to that region, with maybe three or four of them per module. In the end I might very well end up with 40+ tribes, but they would be spread around over the different modules and readers would only be faced with the descriptions of those tribes relevant to the region. Regions would probably be rather small and even when taken together not represent the whole world and all it’s people. I find it difficult to really get this aspect across in a continent book, but it would be quite easy in a region book. Instead of a book that covers The North, it would be a module about Icewind Dale, one about the Moonlands, and one about the Fallen Lands, and the other 90% of the broader region just wouldn’t be covered at all. This approach obviously only works in settings where populations are widely scattered in small clusters. And it really lends itself to making effectively sandboxes in different parts of the world. But since that’s the type of setting the Ancient Lands are and the kind of game they are made for, this isn’t an obstacle in any way.

Random Campaign Idea: Diadokhoi

All PCs start as 10th level characters as officers in a massive army that has been on campaign for years. The campaign starts with a huge battle that aims to crush the enemy army at its last stand. The party leads their soldiers against the enemy’s royal guard and as victory is certain a call arrives over the battlefield: The Emperor has been killed!

The enemy army has been destroyed, its king and generals slain, the survivors routed. But the emperor has no heir. The imperial court is thousands of miles away. What is going to happen now?

I always thought the idea of European knights permanently settling down as rulers in Judea was crazy. But I got totally hooked right from the start when I first heard of generals from Alexander’s army establishing their own kingdoms in Pakistan and Afghanistan after they were left without a leader or a plan after the death of their lord. It’s much more exotic and fascinating than most fantasy.

Obviously it would have to be a domain game campaign, with which I have absolutely no experience. But as a setting it would be one of the coolest backdrops I can think of. Maybe I can take elements of this to integrate into the Ancient Lands. After all, I do have the Mandalorians Qunari Sakaya as a scarily efficient army of compulsive conquerors.

Is OSR still about D&D?

Regarding rules: Duh, of course it is. But beyond the use of the mechanical framework of OD&D, B/X, and AD&D, does the common reference frame of the D&D fantasy family still play any meaningful role within the OSR sphere? When was the last time you’ve seen someone talk about beholders, mind flayers, or displacer beast? It still happens, but when I see it, it tends to be regarding campaigns specifically set in Grayhawk or Forgotten Realms. What I don’t see is people describing their own creations which feel recognizably as D&D. Oldschool D&D seems to have very much become a style of playing, but has mostly disappeared as a style of fantasy.