A picture says more than a thousand awkward words

Tired of trying to explain to your players the coloration of the peoples inhabiting your setting, and not having any illustrations to show them what you really mean them to look like?

Make a simple color palette and show it to them.

This rally isn’t anything fancy and there might be better ways to display the colors, but this is a fairly painless quick and easy way to it clear to players what I mean when I tell them that the Murya of Kaendor are “red”. That red!

Ducks of Doom

What are they doing at night in the park?
Think of them waddling about in the dark.
Ducks! Ducks!

Sneering, and whispering, and stealing your cars,
Reading pornography, smoking cigars!
Ducks! Ducks!

Nasty and small, undeserving of life,
They sneer at your hairstyle and sleep with your wife!
Ducks! Ducks!

Wings of Watery Death

Most people agree that geese are evil spawn of the devil, and for good reasons. But there are far more sinister feathered fiends lurking in the reeds flanking the Great River. The gavir looks like a black and white duck from a distance, but nothing could be further from the truth. Its strong beak ends in a sharp point like a woodpecker, which it uses to impale fish, salamanders, lizards, crabs, and even the occasional other water birds or really anything that gets too close. Usually it will swallow its prey whole, but can also seen pecking away at the carcasses of much larger creatures like vultures.

They are always watching. Silently judging you.

When seen close up, which generally should be avoided, a gavir has many resemblances with cranes, as well as snakes and otters. But most striking about it are its red eyes that are filled with malice and hatred for all other living things. While even its head looks similar to that of an ordinary duck, its eyes are in fact forward like the predator it is. Its duck-like body also conceals its true size, which is closer to that of a swan.

Death on Silent Wings

Unlike ducks, gavirs are fast and nimble fliers and much more silent when they attack their unsuspecting prey. The only upside of gavirs compared to other birds of prey is that their feet are lacking the sharp claws found on hawks and owls. However, their duck-like feet make them excelent swimmers and they sometimes ambush their targets by leaping out from under the water when they are not in the mood to attempt chasing intruders away.

Gavirs are extremely agressive and territorial, attacking everything getting close to their nests. While their beaks can’t get through the hides of large ubas or crocodiles, gavirs will often resort to attacking their eyes to drive them off. The presence of large one-eyed predators is often an idication of gavirs in the area. As often as not, such confrontations end with the gavir getting eaten, but that doesn’t appear to deter these rampaging birds. The only other creatures they tollerate are other gavirs. Fortunately, gavirs are rare in the warmer waters of the Lower River, but they are a serious threat to travellers going up the Green River.

Their terrifying red eyes and raging demeanor has many people regard gavirs as demons, but their fury is obviously not fueled by the fires of the Underworld. Like all aquatic monsters, gavirs are spirits of the water, though such violent agression is rarely seen in any others of their kind.

Gavir chicks are no less lethal than fully grown adults.

Gavir: 1 HD,  AC 12, Atk +2 (1d4; 1/15), Move 60, ML 10, Skill +1, Save 15. Gavirs are unnaturally resilient in a fight and completely shrug off smaller injuries, making them immune to suffering shock damage.

Peace was never an option.

Doing Drugs, for Fun and Profit

After having started with metaphysics, philosophy, and the undead, I’m continuing the introduction to Planet Kaendor with drugs. Perhaps a somewhat unconventional way to open with, but perhaps this might be indicative of the kind of setting this world is morphing into.


Skok is a thick black liquid that looks and smells like burned plum jam and has a faint but burning taste of bitter roots. It’s often mixed with water to make it possible to drink without sticking to your mouth for the next half hour.

Skok keeps people marching when they would otherwise collapse from exhaustion and there are many stories of people crawling half-dead from the wilderness who would never have made it nearly as far without their bottle of skok. The extra boost that it gives the body has to be paid back later though, and the lingering exhaustion can last for weeks.

Drinking skok immediately recovers two points of System Strain, but at the cost of one point of Constitution, which reduces the character’s maximum System Strain by one. Characters who have lost Constitution this way can recover one point of Constitution when resting instead of one point of System Strain (player’s choice).

Characters about to die from suffering System Stain beyond their maximum can save their lives with skok, but their recovery back to full health will take longer.

Blue Juice

Blue juice is really more like a very dark red, though when mixed with goat milk or staining cotton or hemp cloth, it turns into a slightly bluish purple color giving it its name. Blue juice comes from the tiny fruit of a swamp plant and tastes like unripe berries which is quite revolting to drink, which is why it’s often mixed with goat milk and a bit of kesk honey. It’s quite a potent painkiller and in larger amounts causes severe drowsiness to the point of making people nod off while having severe injuries getting treated.

Characters drinking a good amount of blue juice roll twice for all Mental saving throws to resist manipulation for the next hour (6 turns), but also treat any skill checks as untrained, suffering the usual -1 penalty to the roll instead of their skill level. At the end of the duration, the characters have to succeed on a Physical saving throw or fall asleep, though they can be woken up by others as usual.

The Great River, v0.2

Click to embiggen

This is literally the same river as in my previous diagram, but now made to look like an actual river. It’s composed of maps of actual rivers at different scales, some rotated or mirrored. Green dots are cities, orange dots are trade posts.

Once I overlayed a hex grid in GIMP and set it to correspond to 100 miles for the river delta, I was able to count the actual distances, and it turned out that just by eyeballing, I got amazingly close to the numbers I had drawn up with no references yesterday. The Black River and Western Green River are 200 miles shorter than I had planned, but the length of Eastern Green River and the junctions of the main branches are all only 10 miles off from what I wanted. For reference, the Black River and the Lower River are based on the Mississippi at half-length, so it’s still a really big river.

I’m not quite happy with many of the side branches and will probably bend the Black River more south to make room for a big mountain range between it and the Green River, and maybe turn the Western Green River more southwest, but other than that I am really happy with this for a first attempt.

Row, row, row your boat, bravely up the stream

So, if you have a setting idea that is not centered around kingdoms and cities, what other reference frames can you use to give structure to the peoples and societies of a vast wilderness setting? How about rivers? All the earliest civilizations of the Bronze Age first appeared along the largest rivers in the old world because big rivers are really really useful. They provide a steady source of water, which in the sub-tropical zones where you find these civilizations can otherwise be quite a problem. But they are also extremely useful for transportation. Rivers allow you to transport large quantities of cargo just as easily as by rail. Load all the stuff on a boat, add a sail or go with the current, and wait until you’ve reached your destination. If you have goods to move, rivers are the way to go. Or to float. While water isn’t as much a problem in Central Europe, the region between Germany and France has been constantly contested for many centuries because it’s the origin of the Rhine, the Seine, and the Rhone, having easy access to the North Sea, Atlantic, and Mediterranean.

It’s been one of the design elements for Planet Kaendor very early on that all civilization has to be on rivers or the coast, with the deeper forests being more or less inaccessible for heavy cargos. When I was thinking of city states, I was mostly thinking about the coasts and large ports, but that’s not where the adventure is. Adventure is deep in the forests where the ancient ruins are hard to get to. I am now thinking about moving all the pieces on the map to correspond to three huge river systems and one archipelago of islands of the coast. I really like ocean beaches, but Planet Kaendor is meant to be a forest world foremost. While there won’t be any along the major rivers, there’s more than enough in the islands region. While I have plans for a sub-arctic and a tropical forest set in Kaendor, for practical reasons it makes the most sense to only go with the temperate-subtropical one for now. I think any single campaign is best served by being based entirely on a single river.

The Setting

Since this first river is located in what I used to call the Dainiva forest, I’m going to call it the Dainiva river here for convenience. And since nothing is a permanent as a temporary fix, that’s probably now going to be its name forever. The great Dainiva river has been the home to many great civilizations over the ages. Cyclopean castles of the giant Rock Carvers overlook the river from cliffs towering over the meandering courses of the upper rivers, with the lower river being home to many old Naga cities. Ruins of the sorcerous Tower Builders rise above the dense trees flanking the river banks, as well as the magnificent living citadels of the Tree Weavers. All these civilizations have long ago faded from history, and it was many centuries after the Naga retreated to the jungles of the south that mortal peoples began settling on the lower banks, gradually but cautiously moving into the abandoned palaces of the serpentmen. Among the ruins they discovered the arts of casting bronze and mastering the secrets of alchemy, leading to the rise of the first mortal civilization. Over many centuries and generations, explorers ventured further up the waters, but even a thousand miles upstream, there were still no signs of the headwaters of the major branches. Only more water and trees, and the wrecks of explorers who had gone before them. And more ruins and monsters.

The Map

A setting of this type is perfectly suited for pointcrawls. Since travel is basically linear along the river branches or their banks, and ruins have to be visible from the river for characters to have any chance to find them, using a hexmap would not provide any actual benefits. Instead, a map showing the various main branches can show the distance between any fork, settlement, and ruin right next to them, and you can also use color to mark different types of water. For example, the common speed for rowing a canoe with no current is given in most places as 3 miles per hour. Currents of 1 or 2 miles per hour also don’t appear to be anything unusual, and while many rivers are much faster, the current generally is slower when you stick close to the shores where it’s more shallow. So you can mark the river conditions in three colors. Dark blue for the slowest water, in which rowers go 2 mph upstream and 4 mph downstream; medium blue for faster water, in which rowers go 1 mph upstream and 5 mph downstream; and light blue for waters too rapid to paddle against, that require continuing on foot. But you could still build a single-use raft from trees and go downstream at 6 mph. If you want to, you can also convert straight from miles per hour to miles per day, if hourly precision isn’t desired, but if you don’t have to deal with things like traveling 2.33 hexes in a day, I think tracking distances by the mile isn’t really any nuisance. On the major branches of a river of this size, there is easily more than enough room to navigate large cargo ships like a junk. With a slightly more sophisticated sail than just a plain square cloth, it is possible to sail up a river against the current, even with quite moderate wind coming from the sides. Merchant ships like these would replace the trade caravans seen in many land-based settings.

Settlements are all either directly on the river or at least have an accessible pier that connects to the actual village by a short path. Since they would want to be visited by traders, such piers would be clearly visible. But you could also have lairs of rivers pirates or secret cults hiding in barely visible side branches much too small for larger merchant ships. With civilization being based along the lower river near the coast, settlements become more scattered and smaller in size as one travels upstream. This can be used as a great indicator for players about the dangers they can expect to encounter. In civilized areas on the lower river, big monsters have long been driven out, but all the best ruins have been picked completely clean generations ago. But on the upper river, few mortals have ever set foot and there are both more dangerous monsters and much greater treasures to be found.

Since traveling on water is relatively simple and allows for the transport of great loads with little effort, I think a campaign of this type works best if you make it really big. Make it a river as big as the Volga, the Mekong, or the Columbia, where characters can go exploring for months between the end of the spring floods and the onset of winter. With the help of rafts, parties will be able to return with huge hauls of treasure, so the journey back to civilization should be a long one to compensate. Bigger hauls should translate to fewer hauls.

Basing a sandbox around a river system is also really convenient for a GM. By its nature, its close to a fractal, allowing you to just keep expanding it with more and more side branches as the party continues exploring upstream. A river map does not have to bother with mountains or elevation, and generally there’s no need to be exact about the width and depth of the water. And if you should end up with a branch that gotten too narrow and shallow to continue on, the party can always go back downstream a couple of miles and go up another branch. Now for the lower river, I think the players should have a map of the main branches and major side branches, as those are areas frequented by river merchants making their regular round. But once you leave civilization behind, there’s no limit for how far you can continue.

Similarly, it’s very easy to create villages and ruins in a vacuum and just plop them down on the map wherever the players decide to go. That goes a bit against the common ethos that players should have control over where they go by making informed choices, but I think in a setting like this, there really are not a lot of choices to make. Check it out or continue up the river? And given how many branches a river system of this size has, I don’t think working with fixed locations would actually be feasible. You’d end up with a lot of “this branch gets too narrow to continue and you’ve not seen any signs of a ruin”. That’s not player agency either. You could very well establish some facts about a ruin when the party stops at a village or trade post and gets a tip from the locals. But there wouldn’t be any need to establish any of this before the party arrives at this part of the river.

Encounters and Sites

I think for a campaign of this type, random encounters might actually the bread and butter of many adventures. Ruins are cool, but when slowly travel up a river for hundreds of miles, you’ll be doing a lot of encounter checks.

In a world with river merchants, you’d also get river pirates. Those pirates would know not to bother explorers going up the river in the spring, unless they are desperate for supplies, but be waiting to pounce at any explorers coming back down the river in the fall with their big hauls of loot. Merchants might invite the party to get a free ride with no paddling on their ships in exchange for protection against pirates while they have the same route. On the upper river, you can have encounters with aquatic and semi-aquatic humanoids, who could either be friendly or hostile to rare visitors from downriver with goods to trade. There can be the wrecks of failed expeditions, which might even be salvageable and be sold for a huge profit if floated down the river without sinking. Or repaired and used for further expeditions the next year. Or there could be ancient crumbling dams from the old civilization that threaten settlements downstream with disastrous floods, allowing for some variation between dungeon crawls.

And then there’s of course the river creatures. Obviously crocodiles and big snakes, but I’m really giddy at the idea of giving players a paralyzing phobia of hippos. Someone suggested to me adding dire beaver dams to block of some rivers and require hauling boats over land to continue. I also really like the idea of creatures in the trees following the players in their boats from shore, waiting for an opportunity to attack.

It really is a fairly simple concept for a sandbox setting, but one I think has huge potential, while looking very manageable at the same time.

Torch the Palaces, for fun and profit

Rome wasn’t build in one day, but burned down in one night.

Two weeks ago I wrote about a problem I had with making Planet Kendor really feel like a wilderness setting instead of a cluster of city states that kept emerging from my pages of notes. While learning about the fantastically weird setting of Kenshi and the strange wasteland it is set in, I had a sudden insight that I had tried to create the map for Kaendor with completely the wrong reference frame in mind. One of my earliests concept ideas for the setting was “Dark Sun, but green”. The many strange desert creatures and equipment used by characters are cool of course, but I also was very much drawn in by the powerful sorcerer kings, who rule from their great palaces over their fortified cities with the help of their armies of templars. I still really love the idea of sorcerer kings and templars, but they might actually be something that doesn’t really work for the way I want the setting to be.

Dark Sun in green is a cool initial inspiration for an aesthetic, but the world of Athas is more than just a look. But it is not set in a desert world by accident, and the desert actually shapes the civilizations that inhabit it. Dark Sun is based around six city states because it is a world of extreme scarcity of resources. The people of Athas concentrate on these cities because they are the only places where various critical resources can be found, and the sorcerer kings are what they are because they have a monopoly over these resources. People live in these city states because there are no other places where they could survive. This is a completely different situation from a jungle world, and why you can’t simply take Dark Sun and make it green.

The idea for Planet Kaendor is a world where natural resources and particularly access to food and water are plenty. You can always go into the forests with a few dozen people and survive on what you find around you, with nobody coming to disturb you for most of the time. Lots of people actually do that. This completely flips the social pressures on society from a desert world with limited oases. Instead, the limited resource in Kaenedor is magical knowledge and magical artifacts, which are buried in the ruins of ancient non-human civilizations.

My problem has been for many months that this version of Kaendor keeps getting too focused on the city states, with the wilderness settlements disappearing in the shadows of the palaces of the sorcerer kings. So to get forward with the setting to the kind of world that I want to be, the solution seems clear. The palaces have to go. Not only are they not needed, they keep actively getting in the way.

I think I am going to keep only two of them in their current form, two neighboring cities that glare at each other accros the water. Ven Marhend, the cliffside city of the Sorcerer Lords, and Tanis, the great city of the god-king, son of the Moon Goddess and father to all mortals. All the other cities that I have made for Kaendor instead get scaled down significantly in size, remaining only as noteworthy towns that are the main trade centers for the nearby villages and barbarians. Hopefully this will get the whole thing out of the rut and back on the road.

The Burning Dead

The undead creatures of Planet Kaendor, with stats for Worlds Without Number.

While fire has a part in the natural world, its true origin lies in the Underworld and is the animating energy of demons. Forests have adapted to survive fires and adjust their natural cycles to deal with it, and ancient mortals of ages past have learned to harness it as a powerful tool and weapon that makes civilization possible. The ability to contain the fire and to use it what sets them apart from the beasts of the Wilds. But even though fire is useful and potent, it remains a power fundamentally hostile to life. Usually fire simple kills and destroy any living things it touches, but under the influence of sorcery, the two can merge together, creating horrifying and unnatural abomination, neither living nor dead.

Charred Husk

Charred Husk: 2 HD, AC 11, Atk +2 (1d8), Move 20, ML 12, Skill +0, Save 14.

As undead, husks are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness.

Charred Husks are the most basic of undead creatures. They are corpses burned by the flames of sorcery and demons, which continue to smolder even after there’s nothing left to burn. Nothing of a living creature remains in a husk other than its charred bones and flesh. They commonly arise from creatures killed by sorcerous fire or demons, but can even be created when old corpses are consumed by the flames of sorcery. The animating energy within a husk is driven to spread itself to other living beings, and they typically attack all creatures they sense with blind ferocity.


Ghoul: 3 HD, AC 13, Atk +4 (1d8), Move 30, ML 10, Skill +1, Save 14.

As undead, ghouls are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness. Unlike husks, ghouls never actually died and resemble the living in many ways. The fire consuming them manifests itself not as flames, but as a slow smoldering corruption that eats away their bodies and minds. Many ghouls are the close servants of sorcerers who have been exposed to demonic magic for many years, but they are also found frequently haunting the ruins of cities destroyed by sorcery, from breathing in the ash of buildings, trees, animals, and people consumed by demonic flames.

Ghouls can often be mistaken for living people or beasts, but they soon develop a sickly appearance, with their skin and clothing smeared with ash and soot, and eventually developing burn-like scars all over their bodies. The mental state of ghouls can vary widely, regardless of the visible corruption of their bodies. Some act like slightly unhinged but otherwise sane people, while others are ravenous beasts. Like living creatures they still have to eat, and those surviving in the ashen wastelands rarely are particular about the kinds of meat they eat and hunt people just the same as animals, or will feed on old meat, unaffected by disease or poison. But not being truly alive, ghouls are unaffected by extreme heat or cold, but they still instinctively spend the nights huddled around fires if they can find something to burn. Eventually, most ghouls are consumed by the slow fire within them over the course of many decades and end up as charred husks. Though in some cases they also transform into wights.


Wight: 5 HD, AC 15, Atk +4/+4 (1d8; 2/15), Move 30, ML 10, Skill +1, Save 13.

As undead, wights are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness. They automatically stabilize at 0 hit points and require decapitation or similar destruction of their body to be permanently killed. Living creatures hit by a wight must make a Physical saving throw or be paralyzed for 1d4+1 rounds.

All wights began their transformation into undead as ghouls, though the exact conditions that turn only some ghouls into wights and not understood even by most sorcerers. There appears a strong connection to sorcery, as ghoul sorcerers rarely end up as husks, and they are often accompanied by the wights of their most loyal guards and servants. In other cases, wights have risen from killed ghouls who have been laid to rest in tombs and ruins highly corrupted by sorcery. Most wights appear to be sane, but also very hostile to living things with no interest in any kind of talk. They almost always attack any intruders into their lairs, but usually wait for an opportunity to ambush them instead of charging blindly into a fight.


Shade: 1 HD, AC 13, Atk +1 (1d6), Move 30, ML 12, Skill +0, Save 15.

As undead, shades are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness, and can only be harmed by obsidian or iron weapons. Living creatures hit by or walking through a shade take a -2 penalty to attack rolls and -1 penalty to damage rolls, shock damage, and skill checks for every hit, which remains until the end of the scene.

Shades appear as vague outlines of people made out of hazy smoke and shadows. They are not actually remnants of the dead, but rather the lingering remains of the demonic flames that consumed them. They appear somewhat related to charred husks, but the bodies that created them have been entirely reduced to ash, with nothing left for the flames to possess. Shades are just as mindless as husks, but show even less awareness of their surroundings. Shades often stand nearly motionlessly in the very spots they were created, not moving from their place for decades or centuries. Though they are created by fire, they have nothing left to burn, and instead draw in any warmth from their surroundings. Places haunted by shades are often unnaturally cold and touching them seems to drain the very life out of living creatures. Shades may attacking living creatures that are getting very close to them, though they might just as well completely ignore people walking straight through them.


Wraith: 4 HD, AC 20, Atk +5 (1d6; 2/-), Move 30, ML 12, Skill +1, Save 13.

As undead, wraiths are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness, and can only be harmed by obsidian or iron weapons. Living creatures hit by a shade (but not when taking shock damage) take a -2 penalty to attack rolls and -1 penalty to damage rolls, shock damage, and skill checks for every hit, which remains until the end of the scene.

Wraiths appear somewhat similar to shades in that they look humanoid beings made of smoke and darkness, but their nature and demeanor is completely different. A wraith is the spirit of a highly corrupted being that has been so completely consumed by the fires of the Underworld that it burned its own bones and flesh into ash, leaving behind only a spirit of fire, smoke, and hatred. Like ghouls and wights, wraiths appear to retain much of the memories of their former lives and their intelligence, but all the trappings of a mortal life have long lost all meaning to them and the only thing driving them is a blind rage against all living things.

Philosophy of Heroes and Villains in Kaendor

I like when people are putting stuff into their works that reflects what they value and believe in. That isn’t to say that I will enjoy a work whose values I find objectionable, but I rather have those things getting put out in the open for everyone to see than everyone trying to please everyone and being afraid of being embarased by audiences who think your believes are stupid. It took me decades to understand the meaning behind the claim that “irony is ruining oir culture”, but I now think it’s true. It’s not about using irony in harmless jokes. It’s about treating everything you say as a harmless joke. Mainstream movies are full of silly nonsense, and when someone points it out, even the creators are quick to claim “it’s just a silly movie, you’re not supposed to take it seriously”. And now we have reached the point where the perpetrators of failed coups build their defense on “obviously everyone would know that I wasn’t serious”. While everone wants to “support” the civil rights struggle of the day, nobody wants to commit to actually stand for anything, out of fear that someone might disagree and crack jokes at you.

Well, I’m just playing elfgames here, with people who already agree with me, so it’s not like I’m doing anything to fight the evils of our society. But that doesn’t mean the games have to be all banal and trimmed of any possible sharp edges. I like seeing stories in which the writers truely believe with sincerity that certain characters are good and what they do is just, without precautiously making sure nobody can tie them as a noose with it. And I like doing that myself. Now I am a big believer in universal equality, opponent of previlege, and basically a lifelong pacifist in the sense that I don’t object to all violence categorically, but set the bar for it’s justified use so high that it almost never is reached for most people in real life. And Sword & Sorcery is none of these things. But it’s still fun, and I think there is room to combine elements of Sword & Sorcery and my sincere convictions without invalidating either.


Fate is the endless weave of circumstances, coincidences, and accidents that determine the options and opprtunities that a person has in life. Some are caused by the decisions of other people, but most are down to random chance outside of any person’s direct control. It is the cards that everyone is getting played. It is not fair and it’s not fun, but that’s the way it is. The world is not obligated to conform to your wishes.

But the fate in which everyone finds themselves does not determine their unchangable destiny. All are still able to choose what they will do with the fate they have been given. Seers and spirits can read the fates of people and the paths that lie ahead of them. And the wisest of them know that even with the freedom choice, the choices of most people are very predictable. Oracles can fortell of great battles, but if both sides are of equal strength and cunning, no magic can forsee the victor.


Heroes in Kaendor are classical Heroes with a capital H. They are not simply people who have great courages, but people who fate has put into positions where they can accomplish great things that change the world around them for good. No birth or education, nor training or dedication will make a person a Hero. Heroes are not born, nor are they made. Heroes happen. Of course it helps to be the child of a great king or demigoddess, but that alone does not make a Hero. At the end, it all comes down to fate whether a person is in a position to become a Hero, and even then they still all have to grasp the opportunity and survive the trials they are facing.

Heroes are not mere ordinary mortals. Fate has given them a chance to rise above the common masses and become something extraordinary. And while no scholar or philosopher could ever put into words what exactly a Hero is, all people in Kaendor know them when they see them. Even when nobody in a place knows their names of faces, people will recognize them as Heroes. Though whether for good or ill is impossible to say. Unless heroes take care to conceal themselves from casual sight, people will recognize their extraordinary power immediately.

Many Heroes are natural leaders, or at least they are people who others want to follow. New settlements in newly claimed lands usually grew around a stronghold established by a leader. The status of Heroes often preceeds the status of birth, and many kings and queens select Heroes from among their families or even their most loyal retainers as their successors over their own descendants. Not all lords in Kaendor are heroes, but most are, as are all the high priests of the major temples, and even many guildmasters, bandit lords, and cult leaders.

In game terms, all characters who reach 4th level are Heroes. The vast majority of people in Kaendor are normal people or 1st level warriors, but training, courage, and dedication allows all who are physically and mentally capable to advance up to 3rd level. Elite personal guards of a great sorcerer king can consist ofna dozen 3rd level warriors, but people of 4th level and higher level are exceptionally rare and unique. They always have to be full NPCs with names and  backstories. In situations that demand faceless and interchangeable supporting extras, these are automatically limited to 3rd level at the most.

By virtue of being the protagonists of the campaign, all player characters have been given the potential to become heroes by fate. If they choose to see it through and survive the trials.

Rage and Indifference

The three realms of Earth, Water, and Fire do not concern themselves with the morals of mortals. They simply are what they are, as are the spirits they bring forth. There is no judge to speak judgement over the living and the dead, and no afterlife to sort the souls for reward or punishment. As such, there is no Good or Evil. But the people of Kaendor still recognize that some things fill them with greatfulness and others with with horror and revulsion, and that some people are a constant source danger and fear for those around them.

Some people who are driven by their anger, filled with hatred, and revel in cruelty are considered to be red of heart. They are people who strike without need and seem to hunger for violence, which can even seem to be their only joy. While red-hearted people are recognized as being dangerous, not all necessarily see them as all bad people. Some never lash out with violence, while others have no control over their anger and grief deeply over the harm they cause.

But there are also those who are regarded as black of heart, and they are often feared much more. Those who are black hearted are not driven to cause harm by anger and blind rage. Many of them do not set out to do harm. They just really don’t care when they do. The wellbeing or suffering of others is simply no their concern. They are polite and peaceful when it suits them, but have little hesitation to resolve to violenc and cruelty when that seems more convenient. While people with red hearts are often considered to be haunted by demons, those who are black of heart are regarded as something much more sinister than that.

Top-Down Worldbuilding, and when not to

I recently noticed an issue with my worldbuilding work for Planet Kaendor that I remember having run into several times before over the years. The whole concept is to be a vast world of magical wilderness filled with strange supernatural forces, but a good amount of time I spend working on it actually ends up going on working on the half-dozen major city states, the powerful sorcerer-kings who rule many of them, and the main power groups in the region. None of which is actually supposed to come up much during actual play in an ongoing campaign. I want to have them as part of the setting, but primarily as a form of background flavor that gives a bit more context to what’s happening during play, and help maintaining the appearance of a larger world. You find that applied very well in the Dark Souls games, where you often run into mentions of the far away countries of Astora or Carim, which are given just enough background to make it seem like there’s a story to them, but which never get any actual specific information. You meet a couple of people who say they are from those places, and some item description mention that they are the typical shields of the Knights of Astora or something like that, but that’s really it.

I think part of the reason why I keep getting distracted working on places that I don’t actually mean to make any appearances is that most suggested procedures you can find on making a world larger than just a starting village and a dungeon approach the entire  process top down. And also assume campaigns dealing with international affairs. First you draw your continent, then you draw the borders between kingdoms, define their governments, identify the influential power groups, and work your way down. An approach that works, but for a setting like Planet Kaendor, it’s already gone completely off target.

Many, many years ago (almost 10 now, wow) Hill Cantons had a neat little concept of defining different regions as Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird. And the part that always stood out to me the most is that in the Hill Cantons campaign, the Corelands were considered outside of the play area. They exist, but there’s no adventures there.  All adventures happen in the Borderlands, where the fringes of civilization merge with the supernatural, and in the Weird. I think it might be useful, as least for me in my situation, to take this even a bit further. How about actually leaving those city states, which the concept for the cultural level and presence of ruins requires, as blank spots. At least during the primary development of the setting. If their main role is to serve as background detail for some NPCs who are foreigners visiting the places where the actual adventures take place, the city states can be left for last.

In a wilderness campaign, the things that matter the most are what the PCs are actually seeing on the ground, at that moment. When politics and diplomacy become important in such campaigns, it concerns the village they are currently in, and its relationship to one or two neighboring settlements. When you actually look at historic examples, like the Roman wars in Gaul and Germania, you find that those barbarian tribes two thousand years ago were highly organized and very well connected, and everything only makes sense when you account for organized armies from different tribes coordinating their campaigns hundreds of miles away. But here we’re talking about fantasy wilderness, not historical antiquity. And at least in my concept, creating a sense of vastness and desolation, and of a largely unknown and untamed world takes precedent over any kind of realism.

The alternative approach to creating a setting from the top down is to work from the bottom up. You very often find this approach by people recommending to start building just one town and one or two nearby dungeon, and then expanding your map as the players start getting closer to the edges. Absolutely viable approach to having quick and easy adventures, but a side effect of this is that it automatically tends towards creating a very generic Elfgame Fantasyland. When you have to come up with something behind the next hill, you search your memory for what you’ve seen other people do in similar situations, and it’s very easy to end up doing something similar too. It becomes either generic or random, unless you have a bigger picture in mind ahead of time, which defines a different specific style for what fits into the world and what doesn’t.

Which leads to a third option, which is kind of a hybrid of the two, but not simply the middle ground. You start at the top, but instead of working your way down to the bottom step by step, you only do the very most top level stuff to define some basic parameters, and then immediately go all the way to the bottom and work your way up. For example, begin by defining what creatures exist in the setting, how magic works, what levels of technology are available, what religion is like, and how supernatural beings interact with mortals. That’s all at that point. There’s no specific countries, no cities, no rulers, and no major organizations. That’s the kind of stuff that I have developed very highly for Planet Kaendor, and created a style that I find very compelling and well suited for adventures. But it was the cities, rulers, and organizations where I got mired in the mud and found myself unable to create much content that is actually useful in play. Because that’s all stuff that isn’t actually supposed to appear during play.

Here’s my new approach to attempt creating more playable content. For now, I’ll put aside all the notes I have for the city states and their people. Some of that I might bring back, but others could very well end up on the cutting room floor. There’s some really cool ideas I really would want to use, but perhaps Planet Kaendor is just not the place to use them. Instead, my plan is to create one “starting town” for each of the primary environments that I want to be able to visit with a good amount of detail. Instead of continuing to create things abstractly, I try to go specific. Have villages with actual maps, name and describe specific NPCs and their relationships, come up with specific threats to those specific villages. Because at the end of the day, all cool settings in fictions are cool because of the things the main characters see and touch, and the people they talk to, about the things that is directly concerning these people.

My hope is that at the end, I will have six to ten such villages and small towns that each stand as a showcase and reference point for the entire region they are in. Because in practice and actual play, I mostly will need only one settlement when the players arrive in a new region. That village does not need to have a specific location on a large scale continent map, and could be wherever the party enters the region from. (I think this is where large hex maps had part in sending me down the wrong path.) We also find something very similar in Space Operas. There’s the cliche that planets in science fiction are all homogenous, but that’s highly misleading in most cases. Almost all the time, the protagonists land in only one place and stay within a few kilometers of that landing spot before returning to space. What does the rest of the planet look like? We don’t know. What of all the other planets that the protagonists don’t visit? We don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. In fiction, most of the time, all that matters is within the range of what the protagonists can see. Unless you have a story about international politics, everything beyond that range basically doesn’t exist. And even the Star Wars movies, which are about a galactic political conflict, don’t worry about it one bit. How is the empire actually run? We don’t know, because for the story at hand, it doesn’t matter.

Adventurers, Heroes, and the Endgame for high level PCs

“Excuse me, but why are we doing all of this again?”

One thing that has troubled me with fantasy adventure games for a very long time is the nebulous concept of adventurers, and how they could actually stand up to scrutiny in a fantasy setting that aims to be internally plausible and self-consistent. Something I’ve been writing about many times over the years. There have been precedents of fantasy protagonists who just wander around and happen to run into adventures long before the inception of D&D player characters. But books are a different medium than RPGs and concepts don’t generally copy over neatly between the two, especially when narrative structures are concerned.

The original RPG adventurers where people who risked live and limb to gain huge piles of treasure, because the campaigns where relatively simple and straightforward games of facing monsters and collecting treasures. The game was about the gameplay, not about creating a story that exists in a wider world outside of the current dungeon the PCs are in today. Of course, it expanded to be just that, and very quickly, but there was never a real serious overhaul of what kind of people adventurers actually are how they fit into the societies of their world. We go to fight monsters and loot dungeons because there are monsters and dungeons over there. And monsters exist to the fought, and dungeons to be raided. For the sake of gameplay, this isn’t generally questioned any further. Just do it and have fun.

But the idea of playing campaigns that are more about stories than gameplay has always had a huge appeal, and there are two main justifications, and I wouldn’t shy away from calling them excuses, for why adventurers go on these adventures they go on. The first is the plain old treasure hunter, tomb robber, or murderhobo. These characters just don’t bother with any logical explanation. Fighting is fun, getting stupidly rich is fun. But the risk that adventurers typically face in RPGs is ridiculously high, and adventuring just seems like a fast track to a horrible death. These characters make only questionable sense to begin with, but just don’t hold up at all for the wide variety of personalities players like to give their PCs. At the very end of this path lies the insanity of Shonen anime where 12 year kids end up with a happy childhood of friendship and the daily slaughter of dozens. The other common alternative are the knights in shining armor or superheroes. They do all the same things as the murderhobos, but they don’t do it for the riches. They do it out of compassion for the innocents. They are heroes; that’s what heroes do. It works as a justification for gameplay, but it also doesn’t work for stories with even a little bit of depth that aim for some amount of plausible believability.

What is needed to make the existence of adventurers plausible, is to create a concept of what adventurers actually are alongside with creating a setting in which they serve a believable function and role in society. The typical D&D solution, or you might call it the Forgotten Realms solution, is to treat adventurers as private security contractors and exterminators that deal with various trouble when the official authorities can’t be bothered right now. It’s considered a valid career choice, but don’t question how it’s so easy to get established in the business as complete newcomers when the typical contracts are stuff that the army can’t handle. It also stretches plausibility how in a world with absent official authority, roaming vagabonds get invited into communities to protect them. Yes, it worked in The Seven Samurai, but much of the three hour movie is about how unusual this is and the struggles of everyone involved to make it work. Great for a stand-alone story, but not something you want to deal with in every new village the party comes through. But there are other games where the role of PCs is tailored to a specific campaign concept and setting, like in Blades in the Dark or Band of Blades for example.

Now to finally get to some kind of point, I think I finally found some kind of concept for what kind of people player characters are and their place in society that integrates well into the kind of world that I want to create with Kaendor.

The primary vision behind Kaendor is a world dominated by wilderness and primordial powers, with small and isolated civilizations being scattered far and wide, in an environment that is constantly changing that swallows up city states just as fast as it creates them. It’s a world in a kind of perpetual apocalypse; a frontier without a heartland. One constant in this world is that there are always people looking for a new home to settle as the cities of their ancestors are swallowed by the forests and fall into the seas. As for any valley or island that becomes uninhabitable, another place opens up for farming somewhere else. But every time people leave their failing city states to begin a new life somewhere else, they are making a huge gamble. If the settlement of a new aspiring lord fails, there are often no second chances to try somewhere else. That’s where Heroes come in.

Heroes in the classical sense are not just people who did something brave, but special individuals who possess an inherent greatness. Always highly extraordinary individuals and even superhuman, and often actual demigods. Our own culture rejects such notions that some people are inherently elevated over others and destined for greatness, but in a fantastical setting drawing on elements from Antiquity and the Bronze Age, it’s a very important aspect of how those societies tick. In a fantasy adventure game, player characters are inherently special because the game is fundamentally leaning in their favor and their victory over almost all opposition they encounter pretty much a given. Working this gameplay element into the culture of the setting seems like a really fun idea. Dark Souls is a prime example of this, and it works out beautifully there, allowing you to get invested and believe in a world that exceptionally absurd as fantasy worlds go. In fantasy, you can get away with almost anything, as long as the the world as a hole makes sense in its own internal logic.

As I was saying, the special socio-environmental conditions of Kaendor create a constant demand for special people capable of extraordinary greatness to perpetuate the cycle of migrating populations and rising and falling city states. That is the social niche I see for the institution of adventurers. Adventuring is an occupation that serves to create individuals capable of being the leaders of the following generations by giving them experience about the many natural and supernatural dangers of the wilderness and testing their resilience and capacity to lead. It is to these heroes who have proven themselves and earned a reputation that has carried their names far and wide that people will look up to when they are forced from the crumbling cities that have been their homes for generations.

Not every player character has to have this lofty goal of one day raising a stronghold that will grow into a great and wondrous city. But even if only a tenth of them are pursuing this dream, it creates a society that values the kind of people who venture into the wild to face the monsters that threaten civilization, scout out potential areas for new strongholds, and recover abandoned resources and lost magic from fallen cities of the past. And it often takes more than just a single Hero to establish and defend a new strongholds. Hero kings depend on an entourage of other exceptional people to serve as their champions, providing other opportunities for those who fought besides them.

Now this is all sounding an awful lot like the classic D&D endgame of establishing a stronghold and running a domain. Which has been covered to some extend throughout various editions, but by all accounts only very rarely became part of actual play. Instead, it was much more common that ascending the throne meant effectively retiring the character from play. And in campaigns where players could have several characters of different levels (because sometimes you want to do stuff that requires a PC to be locked up in a lab for months), having one character retire while the others continue their adventures wouldn’t really be that strange. And I think making this an explicit assumption for a campaign concept might actually be a really nice idea. Domain management is a weird thing that just doesn’t really fit with the rest of fantasy adventure games. These games are group games, while running a domain is a solitary occupation, and the stuff you’d be doing would be completely different from the stuff you’d be doing up to that point. And if you really wanted to play a game like this, it should be about this stuff from the start, not at the end after you spend months doing something completely different.

Instead, introducing a campaign as being about adventurers who struggle to earn themselves a place among the hero-kings of the setting, with the possible establishing of a stronghold and settlement constituting and ultimate conclusion seems like a very interesting and compelling way to approach a game. And like the cool chap in the picture above, the actual ruling and administrating of the domain would constitute the epilogue. Yes, in three of the original stories Conan is a king. But he doesn’t do any ruling in any of them, and leads an army into battle only once. At the end of the campaign, you could have a final adventure of having to defend the new throne of one of the PCs against a rival as the final test, but after that, the campaign would be concluded.

Now one oddity about old D&D is that that the establishing of a domain was generally limited  to characters of at last 9th level. Which seems rather arbitrary, as anyone who clears out a castle and has the money to hire guard could do so regardless of character level. But if you assume it’s meant to be the conclusion of a character’s career, then the whole thing makes a lot more sense. I decided a long time ago that in Kaendor, all mortals are limited to 10th level, so that magic spells cap out at 5th level and everything beyond that being the powers of the gods. The thing with maximum levels in games where much of the motivation comes from advancing to a higher level is what do you do when you actually reach the last level? By the point you reach it, there’s nothing really left to do with it. I quite like the idea that at the point characters reach 10th level, their goal changes from advancing in power claiming their domain. To have a whole final adventure in which the 10th level characters fight for their stronghold and no longer gain XP.

My thoughts on this might be changing in the future, as they always do. But as of now, this is so far the concept for the role and identity of adventurers that I liked the most.