Good artists borrow, great artists steal

So let my show you my loot haul.

I am never able to restrain my gushing over the worldbuilding of Morrowind. While the gameplay of that game is of somewhat dubious quality and characters and quests leave a lot to be desired, the kind of very unique world it presents always had a huge influence on my perception of fantasy world, similar to Star Wars for space settings. There is a lot of the world of Morrowind, and to a small extend also Skyrim, that I am just blatantly ripping off for the new setting. The dominant civilization are strongly bases on the Dunmer and their three living gods, Almalexia, Sotha Sil, and Vivec. Except that in my setting, they are not a tribunal ruling over one kingdom, but three bitter enemies that go to war with each other on a near regular basis. The Camonna Tong and Morag Tong are very interesting templates for criminal organizations, and I like the way the Ashlanders represent the idea of barbarians who have escaped to the edges of civilization because they oppose the changes in traditions enforced by the god-kings.

I also think that the Redguard and Orsimer are quite interesting as well, at least as they are represented in Skyrim. I think I can use them for another urbanized kingdom to the south near the lands of the naga, and for the highland barbarians.

I also really like the way the Daedra fulfill the role of demons in the setting, though I want to take that idea and make it much more actually alien and weird. More Hermaeous Mora than Sheogorath. And of course, Morrowind is where I got the idea of the wildlife consisting primarily of various dinosaur-like reptiles and insectoid monsters instead of the typical familiar dogs, horses, cows, and pigs. I’ll definitely be reviving the honey caves ideas that was based on the kwama egg mines. I used them once and it was really fun.

While I love the Dark Sun campaign setting for AD&D, the things that I see as worth stealing basically just mirror things that I’m already taking from Morrowind. The sorcerer kings are like the Tribunal, the Templars as their warrior-priest enforcerers are just like the Ordinators, and the approach to slavery is very much the same. I feel you can’t really evoke the style of a Bronze Age society that is different from a medieval one without large parts of the population and economy being slaves.

Various ideas with a similar style come from Kenshi. This weird little game is actually a lot like Dark Sun, except that before the world turned into a desert wasteland, it wasn’t a magical fantasy world but a technological sci-fi world. But in the state that it is now, life turns out to be very similar. My two favorite idea from this setting are the Shek and the Hivers. The Shek are a take on something not too different from orcs, and one of the main inspiration for the highland barbarians. The Hivers already served as the main inspiration for my take on slightly insectoid goblins. Which were one of the last things I created for Kaendor, but I think will be a much better fit here. One of the two main powers on Kenshi is the Holy Nation under their Phoenix King, who rules over a nation of slaves with the help of his elite Paladins. Yeah, basically the same points as covered by the Tribunal and Ordinators of Morrowind and the Sorcerer Kings and Templars of Dark Sun. The other one are the United Cities. Who are despotic slavers in their own right, but still come out looking much better from the Holy Nation. They gave me the idea to have a fourth nation of the dominant culture consisting of loosely allied city states in the coast that have banded together to stay out of the grasp of any of the god-kings.

In the post about my ideas on magic and demons, I already mentioned Demon’s Souls. While the design styles of the setting is completely different from what I am going for, I find the supernatural concepts of the game very inspiring. The ideas that humans can become demons if they consume their energy opens very interesting possibilities, and the idea that regions can become shrouded in permanent fog while demons rampage inside of it is also really cool. The lands of Boletaria have little in common with what I am working on now, but conceptual ideas like these are pretty big in my mind.

A very similar case is Thief. Another game I’ve been gushing about many times in the past. Again, the type of city that the series is set in looks nothing like the kind of cities that will be found in the new setting. But everything that has to do with the Pagans is just pure gold for what I have in mind. The Pagans are a reclusive cult that exists somewhere between druidism and rural demon worship. Exactly the kind of interactions I am going for with my spirit worshiping barbarians. I am actually pretty sure that this game is where I came across the idea originally. The Trickster demon-god and his leafy lieutenant are great spirits, and I totally love the witch that is the main antagonist in the third game as a villain that might work wonderfully in my campaign. I also think that the organization of the Keepers is a really cool archetype for a cabal of arcane scholars who have much more benevolent intentions than the demonic cults they oppose, but are far from being clear cut good guys either.

Something I remembered only a few days after I’ve already been tinkering with ideas for a coherent setting concept was my experiences with diving deep into the published setting material for the Unapproachable East region of the Forgotten Realms. When I decided that I want to make a new setting from scratch that better represents the ideas I am interested now than organically grown tangle that Kaendor had become after close to a decade of trial and error, I made a decision to stay away from any Dungeons & Dragons or Middle-Earth material. But as I did mention in my post about reading through the various sourcebooks, there actually is fairly little of the typical Fantasyland stereotypes in that section of the Forgotten Realms. There’s no orcs, dwarves, drow, mind flayers, or beholders to be found anywhere, or mentions of trivial teleportation or magic item shops. It is quite strongly inspired by medieval Eastern Europe, but scratch a bit away at the paint and there’s actually a lot of stuff that I think can go straight into my new setting. My final thoughts had been that the setting material that existed for the region was full of great ideas, but at such a surface level of detail that you would still basically have to create your own content that is inspired by those prompts to run a great campaign. And in that case I could just make a new world myself. And now seems like a perfect time to completely carve up that setting and scavenge it for its most interesting parts!

The barbarians and witches of Rashemen look like a great starting point for my forest barbarians. I planned for them to have a Baltic style anyway, so the weird mix of Slavic and Germanic elements should be pretty easy to switch out. The Red Wizards of Thay in their original incarnation are just what I need for one of the three god-king nations. Blend them together with House Telvanni from Morrowind and you got a great magical oligarchy. The barbarians of Narfell are more steppe nomads as presented, but I think I can still take a good amount of stuff from them for my highland barbarians. I think I also want to have something like the ancient demon summoners of the Nar Empire whose ruins are still slumbering under the ground, many still haunted by summoned demons. I’ve long been fascinated by what snippets I had read about the independent city Telflamm and its Shadowmasters thieves guild. As it turned out those snippets were really all there is about them, and this is now a great opportunity to have some fun with expanding them. And finally there’s the kingdom of Impiltur, which is really more an alliance of city states than a centralized nation. And as such the second inspiration for the alliance of city states that oppose the god-kings, together with the United Cities of Kenshi.

While outside of this specific region, the biggest disappointment for me when reading the classic Forgotten Realms material was the city Westgate and its Night Masks thieves guild. I thought these were something big like Baldur’s Gate or Silverymoon, but the actual content is severely underwhelming. I want to make the port city of crime and vampire assassins that I envisioned a reality.

Finally, another important resource that I added to my pile is Red Tide. When this resource on running sandbox campaigns came out in 2011, it made quite a splash, and when you read it for the first time without much knowledge about running sandboxes, it’s really quite amazing. The setting that is presented is quite interesting, but there’s not a lot worldbuilding ideas that I find useful to copy. Much more important are its thoughts on how you set up and expand a sandbox campaign. The tools provided in the book where later overhauled in Spears of the Dawn and then more recently in World Without Number, but I actually really like the version in this one a lot more. The most interesting to me is the system for creating courts with just a very small number of NPCs and conflicts and complications between them. With the way that I envision the new campaign to play in practice, dealing with the important leaders of other strongholds, villages, clans, cults, and gangs will probably be a primary driver of the action. The tables for creating villages with interesting local problems might also come in very handy at a later point. And while I don’t expect there to be an awful lot of dungeons in the campaign, the ruins sites tables might also turn out a quite useful tool when the antics of the players require new content to be welded together on very short notice.

Setting Modules

In a discussion about The Maze of the Blue Medusa, one person mentioned that despite many highly positive reviews for OSR “settings”, there seem to be barely any people who say that they actually ran a game in Red Tide, the Red and Pleasant Land, Qelong, or Yoon-Suin. Despite the praise and the money people pay for it, they seem to be barely getting used by anyone.

Which wouldn’t really be that surprising as the people who enjoy this kind of content tend to be people who also create a lot of their own custom content for the campaigns they run. The main draw seems to me, and probably many others, to salvage these books for ideas. I regularly buy books for games I don’t have or know the rules for, or ever have any intention to play. It’s always all idea mining for me with everything I get for RPGs. I don’t think I ever used anything out of the box since my earliest hears with D&D 3rd edition.

And I believe many of the people who make OSR settings are very much aware of that. Vornheim and Yoon-Suin can’t really be considered settings in the traditional sense and are really all about being toolboxes for creating your own content. My impression of Red Tide is that the setting of the islands and the backstory of the setting is really mostly a practical example for how a world using the tools in the book could look like.

My previous Ancient Lands setting was very traditionally designed like the many settings of the late 80s and the 90s, but when I started all over with a blank canvas to do the Old World I abandoned that approach pretty much entirely. It’s not practical for running my own games and I doubt there would be more than two or three GMs in the world who would actually run a campaign if I would get it into a releasable form.

I recently looked into One Page Dungeon after talking somewhere about my frustration with typical D&D settings being so vague on adventure locations to be practically useless. As all dungeons are made independently by completely different people and the only format restriction is that it has to fit on a single page, people have been trying out a lot of different things with that idea. And I think this could be a really good approach for small scale campaign setting writers in the coming years. Completely abandoning the idea that a setting is a single world and instead providing collections of thematically matching but mostly stand alone pieces of content.

Nonhuman characters in Sword & Sorcery

When talking about Sword & Sorcery and the essential traits and themes of the genre, there is almost always at least someone making the claim that the absence of nonhuman character is outright essential and that a work can not be Sword & Sorcery if it has any nonhumans that are not monsters. Yesterday someone made the commendable effort to provide a reason and supporting evidence why nonhumans are not a thing in the genre, by stating that there are pretty much no works of Sword & Sorcery which have nonhumans as counter evidence. Now obviously that gets us to a True Scottsmen argument. If your definition of Sword & Sorcery includes “no nonhumans”, then of course there are no works that have them. You could also say that Sword & Sorcery doesn’t have guns. But Salomon Kane has guns and I haven’t seen anyone claiming that he isn’t Sword & Sorcery. Guns are just uncommon, but not conflicting with essential traits of the genre.

However, I want to argue that there are in fact many works that have all the relevant traits of Sword & Sorcery and also nonhumans, and in which the inclusion of nonhumans doesn’t in any way conflict with with those essential elements and themes.

  • Atlantis: The Second Age (rpg)
  • Bound by Flame (videogame)
  • Dark Sun (rpg setting)
  • Dragon Age II
  • The first three Drizzt novels.
  • Elric
  • Primeval Thule (rpg setting)
  • Rune Soldier (anime)
  • The Witcher

I admit, most of these are fairly recent. But just because something is not found in the oldest works doesn’t automatically make it incompatible with a genre. It still walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks as a duck.

RPG Review: Black Streams

Black Streams is a series of free, short supplements for the Red Tide campaign sertting by Kevin Crawford. Though they are directly tied to the setting, they are self contained enough to be eassily adapted for any setting in any OSR game and should also be useful sources of ideas for other systems.

122752Cults of Ruin expands on the cults of various evil forces that are mentioned in Red Tide and has a length of 7 pages. The Black Emperor was a powerful and evil ruler back in the days before the Tide, who was eventually destroyed for his dark sorcery, but somehow managed to ascend to becoming a god. Though most records of his terrible reign and evil transgressions had been deliberately destroyed or lost during the coming of the Red Tide, the truth can still sometimes be discovered by sages searching for obscure lore. Only scholars, alchemists, and other learned people can become true followers of the Black Emperor, who offers them secrets to extend their life and evade Hell and other necromantic magic. The God-Beasts are savage animal spirits that protect remote villages and can grant fertility to their fields and herds, but often demand terrible forms of tribute from their worshippers. The only salvation offered by the Hell Kings is the promise that those people who truly devote themselves to evil can gain their respect and admiration, so that when they ultimately will go to Hell after their death, they will be elevated to rank among the Hell Kings instead of suffering in eternal agony. Worshippers of the Hell Kings are expected to lead as many souls as possible into hell, but even among the high priests of the cults only very few reach a degree of evil that gets them a place among the lowest ranks of devils. The Red Gods are strange entities of evil and hunger that only reveal themselves to people suffering from famine and facing starvation. They grant the gift of great strength and vigor, but in turn those who accept it slowly transform into ravenous beasts who gain sustenance from a range of unnatural and depraved sources. Finally there are the truly mad cults that worship the Red Tide itself. They are compelled to create portals that allow the Tide to spill into the Sunset Isles and are usually the first to be torn apart by the horde of the Tides spawn that emerges. The last page describes the new Azure Minister class, a cleric variant specialized in secretly exterminating evil cults that threaten the Sunset Isles while keeping the existance and true nature of their organization secret.

The Pacts of the Wise seems to be heavily inspired by pact magic from the Tome of Magic of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s 7 pages long and describes six elusive entities that can be contacted by a wizard to be granted special powers. The ritual to make a pact take a month of preparation and have to be repeated once every year. Unless a ritual to be released from the pact is performed, wizards who fail to meet their obligations are suffering severe consequences until their debts are paid. The powers granted by the entities are not particularly powerful and more than balanced by the price demanded from the wizard, but still interesting and useful enough that players might consider it to be worth it. It certainly adds an interesting new element to the character and each pact includes ideas on how to create adventures around NPCs who have access to these powers or are struggling with meeting their part of the bargain and are getting desperate to gain the required resources. Even though there are only six entities described, they provide a sufficient base to create your own ones. Since the mechanics involved are extremely simply they are easily adapted to any game.

The Yellow Legion is 8 pages long and describes a powerful artifact and the Walking Ghosts it can create, as well as their history in the Red Tide setting. The artifact is a black rod that can be planted into the ground to grow into a large tree that produces magic fruit when watered with the blood of living people. The juice of the fruit have the power to restore any corpse and return it to unlife, and the blood of a single person creates enough fruit to create ten walking ghosts. However, the fruit can only revive creatures of the same type of creature whose blood is used to create them, so to bring a fallen army of human soldiers back to life, many humans have to be sacrificed to the trees. While those who have been sacrificed can be raised like any other corpse, they are henceforth forced to exist as undead. The walking ghost are loyal to the person who create the tree and appear just as they were in life. They do not eat, drink, breath, or sleep and they heal and can be healed like living humans, but even the terrible and horrific wounds can not kill them. Only when hacked to pieces or burned do their minds fall into delirious slumber, but over the course of many years their bodies can restore themselves and make the walking ghosta rise from their graves. Without purpose after the eventual death of their creator they wander the land with the appearance of a living person, but all living things can sense their unnatural aura. If there is a way to permanently end them, it has not been discovered.

Though short as they are, I really like all these supplements and in fact their briefness probably makes them even more interesting and useful for GMs not using the Red Tide setting. Pacts of the Wise is probably the most versatile and not at all connected to any specific settin, and I recommend it to everyone to give it a look. The other two have a much more specific cultural flavor, but since they are both short and completely free, I do recommend them all. Really nice stuff and a format I would like to see used by more games in addition to full sized books.

RPG Review: Red Tide

Red Tide is described as a “Campaign Sourcebook and Sandbox Toolkit” and even though it tries to do two different things at once, it does a very good job at both. In fact, the two complement each other very well and make this book a lot more than just the sum of its part. Released in 2011 by Kevin Crawford, it is both a short and compact campaign setting as well as probably one of the best guidebooks to creating your own settings for a sandbox game. You could probaby use the Red Tide setting to play a different type of campaign and if you make your own setting you don’t have to use any of the Red Tide elements at all. Each element of the book takes up about half of its pages and are mostly separate from each other, but reading only half the book would do it a great disservice. The Red Tide setting is a great example how the theories and tool from the toolbox section can be effectively used, while at the same time the rules for creating sandbox content really help to bring the setting to life.


The Red Tide Campaign Setting

The first half of the book, which has a total of 159 pages, describes the world and background of Red Tide. 300 years ago a red mist appeared that killed the land and everything it, leaving behind a hellish wasteland haunted by terrible monsters. However, a single prophet saw the comming doom and organized a great evacuation with hundreds of ships to an unknown continent in the west. Something in the rock of the mountains that dominate the continent keep the Red Tide at bay, and this cluster of large and small islands may be the only place in the world still inhabited by the living. However, the refugees were not the first people to settle this land, as it was already the land of the Shou, a large collection of numerous tribes of goblins, orcs, and bugbears (though except for their stat blocks they are always simply called the Shou). The human refugees come from cultures that are mostly inspired by the Chinese and Japanese, but there is also another group in the smaller islands to the north that is inspired by Vikings and there are some dwarves as well, and also some elves and halflings. Through a fierce and brutal war, the refugees from the east managed to conquer half of the main island from the Shou and created several new kingdoms, but things are looking far from rosy. Hordes of countless Shou warriors are still in the wild, eager to take back their homeland, while the Red Tide is still waiting out there just beyond the horizon, raveshing the rest of the world. And to make things worse one of the kingdoms has turned to demon worship as a way to escape from their seemingly hopeless situation. While there is a good amount of very intersting history and background, it’s a very compact and almost minimalistic setting when it comes to locations and NPCs. The seven described countries have about two pages each, with another four pages dealing with various other important cultural elements. It’s done with good reason, as the methods of how to populate the world are what the second half is about. There are another 26 pages with information on standard and new character classes, spells, and equipment, and 10 more pages with new monsters and that already wraps the first half of the book up.

The Sandbox Toolkit

As interesting as the campaign setting is, the second half of the book is where the real gold is to be found. The central idea presented by the book is the use of a Campaign Folder. The campaign folder is an actual folder that is meant to be a setting sourcebook which the GM constantly expands by adding new pages with new information to it. Any time something happens or the players do something that changes the world, which in a sanbox campaign should be happening all the time, the GM updates the campaign folder by adding new notes to any locations or NPCs. Between game sessions, the GM also adds new pages for new locations and NPCs, which are already prepared but have not yet appeared in the campaign. The great benefit of this system is that the GM does not have to completely make up everything as the game goes along while not having to decide what to do with each element from the start. If the players have a random encounter with bandits and decide to track a fleeing survivor back to his camp, you can just flip to a bandit camp you already prepared and simply add a note where on the world map this camp is located. If you really want to do a hard sandbox campaign, I can’t really imagine how you could possibly manage it any other way.

The next 50 pages are basically tables to randomly generate ideas for interesting locations or encounters. Usually I hate these, but in this case the ideas are actually really excellent. The reason they take up so many pages is because each item on the lists comes with plenty of useful explanation and elaboration. There are four types of sites: Court Sites, Borderland Sites, City Cites, and Ruin Sites. However, they are not so much about describing places (and maps don’t enter the picture at all at this point), but all about describing the kind of people and situations you’re going to encounter there. Court Sites are any places where a group of powerful people comes together. Which can be the court of a noble ruler, but also the estate of a wealthy family, a wizard school, a great temple, or the backroom of a cheap tavern where the local gang bosses tend to hang out. Each type of court has a table with 10 types of important people, 10 reasons why these people do have power in this court, and 10 additional minor NPCs who have a strong personal bond to the important people. For example, in a Temple you might have a “slightly heretical scholar” who “comes from a powerful family” and has some kind of connection to the “cook”. Within a few minutes you can randomly create one to three such NPCs as well as selecting one of ten conflict types they are currently involved in. It’s very bare bones, but the combinations are often interesting enough to create a solid inspiration for a whole conspiracy or murder mystery with just a few die rolls.

Borderland Sites are small villages, manors, or strongholds in the wilderness. Their exact nature can easily be decided by the GM, but the book offers 40 ideas for a current problem that plagues the site. Each pf these offers a number of suggestions of additional elements, like possible allies or enemies for the players, or special circumstances that complicate the situation or may be useful to solving the problem. For example, you could have a fortified outpost that is suffering from a hidden demon cult that meets in an abandoned temple to a forgotten god and the players get help from a traitorous cultist, but it turns out that the cults magic is actually the only thing that keeps the outpost from being overrun. Instant adventure plot, takes only two minutes. Not a complete adventure, but a solid hook that can be quickly made into one. And since in a sandbox game any possible outcome can be worked with, experienced GMs might even be able to do it on the fly. City Sites work basically the same way, but have their own list of 40 possible plot hook generators.

Finally there are the Ruin Sites, which are usually dungeons, but also inhabited by one of 20 possible groups of people, which each come with six or eight ideas for a twist that makes them more than just a random group to fight. It could be a group of necromancers who believe the tomb of an old great necromancer to be somewhere in the ruin and are trying to find his tomes that might be burried with him. It would be up to the players to decide if they want to stop them, help them, or perhaps even steal the tomes for themselves (if they are actually there at all). And there would likely be some random monsters in the ruin too, which the necromancers might be able to help the players with, or the players could use to kill the necromancers. Since there isn’t any real plot, the possibilities are endless and it’s entirely up to the players what they want to do, which is the great charm of a well done sandbox.

And that’s really what separates a great sandbox campaign from a pure dungeon crawl campaign where the players can pick which dungeon they want to crawl. There are a few paragraphs on quick and dirty map making, but it’s generally a topic Red Tide doesn’t concern itself with at all. This sandbox toolkit is to create roleplaying situations based on social interactions, not on generating random dungeons to plunder. And that’s what really makes it such an outstanding book. You can get advice on map making everywhere, but actually running a game is something very few people ever bother adressing (probably because they don’t really know either). And that is also why it’s not only a useful book for people who want to run pure sandbox games, but any GMs who want to run campaigns that are not strictly plotted out in advance and allow the players a great amount of freedom which paths to take to the great goal of the campaign and how to interact with the people they meet along the way.

At 6.50€ for the pdf this book is a steal and there isn’t really any question whether my call is yay or nay. Clear yay! from me. Get this one, it’s really as great as its reputation. If not even better.

Things I still plan to review

This list is actually getting longer instead of shorter because I constantly forget that I wanted to write reviews for these. Hopefully I get around to do them someday not too far in the future. And if you want to, you can bug me about them still being late. That usually motivates me quite a lot. ;)

  • A Princess of Mars
  • Atlantis: The Second Age
  • Barbarians of Lemuria
  • Conan (Comic)
  • Dark Sun Campaign Setting
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Demon’s Souls
  • Gargoyles
  • Heavenly Sword
  • Hellboy
  • Knights of the Old Republic (Comic)
  • Metal Gear Solid
  • Mirror’s Edge
  • No Salvation for Witches
  • Pitch Black
  • Primeval Thule
  • Red Tide
  • Riddick
  • Seirei no Moribito
  • The Savage Frontier
  • The Witcher 2
  • Thief: The Dark Project
  • Trawn Trilogy

This looks even worse that I thought. oO