What’s the function of a Stronghold?

Working on my Ruins of the Shattered Empire campaign, I was thinking again about Kenshi, a wonderfully weird sandbox indy game set in a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland full of bandits, robot skeletons, ancient vaults, ninja, cultists, crashed satellites, insect men, random orbital lasers from the sky, and flesh eating giraffes. The game has no story. You just start somewhere in the desert, with nothing but the shirt on your back – if your character is one of the lucky ones – and your only goal is to survive by getting something to eat and avoid getting eaten yourself. Unless your character is one of the mentioned robot skeletons. It’s a wonderfully odd game that feels like something that would have been made in the early 80s if the technology had existed back then. People who like things like Veins of the Earth or Ultraviolet Grasslands will probably appreciate the style. There are various bare bones NPCs around the game world that ask to join your team or can be permanently hired for a one time payment. The desert is full of hungry beasts and nasty bandits, and while it certainly is possible to play the game as a lone wanderer, a very attractive option that opens up very early on is to build a small base with a wall that protects your people while mining ore to sell in a town or working on a patch of dirt to grow your own food. You still keep getting attacked by raiders who’ll easily break down your gates after a minute or two and loot your little storage shed, and so you can easily find yourself in an endless cycle of expanding your base to provide more food and income to expand your group with additional warriors, so that you can expand even bigger to add your own workshops to make your own weapons and armor instead of having to buy them. It’s often compared to Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld, with it’s own special type of weirdness and hilarity.

In addition to building materials, you also need to first research construction plans for new buildings and equipment, and for that you need books of ancient knowledge. A few of which can occasionally be found in stores for a hefty price, but the more rare ones require you to go explore ancient ruins in increasingly more dangerous parts of the massive wastelands. And setting out on an expedition to find and explore these ruins always reminds me of good old D&D wilderness adventures. The ruins themselves are all pretty small, so I wouldn’t call looting them dungeon crawling, but getting your group of scavengers to those places and hauling back your loot to your far away base is just like wilderness adventures should be.

I’m also now remembering how I always found the use of NPCs as part of PC’s “gear” in Apocalypse World a really cool approach, and how they can be used as really nice adventure hooks, but I don’t want to go onto another tangent and actually get to the point.

Base building in Kenshi is in many ways an economy sim in which you figure out how to assign your characters to different jobs, optimize workflows, manage your resources, and invest your profits into new technologies and expanding your operations. It’s a lot of fun on a computer that takes care of all the math, and you spend hours upon hours on it by yourself. It’s not something that translates to playing a roleplaying game as a group. All the stronghold building rules for RPGs I’ve come across so far fail because of this. But the aspects of defending your stronghold against raiders and having to go out into the dangerous wilderness to gain resources you need to maintain and expand your base are also endlessly exciting, and those activities are the daily bread and butter of D&D adventurers.

I am really intrigued by the idea of giving the players the tools to take over any abandoned or cleared out ruin, fixing it up and fortifying it, and using it as their main base of operations while they are exploring the surrounding wilderness. And after some pondering on the subject, I believe the best way to approach this is not to start with any mechanics for upgrading a base or price lists for various expansions, but first figuring out what kinds of functions the stronghold should play in a game that is still fundamentally about going into dungeons to find treasure. This really is just throwing around some ideas and sorting out my own thoughts on this.

What a Stronghold should be for

Safe Resting Place: This really is the primary function of a stronghold in the wilderness for adventurers. A stronghold provides a place where the party can rest and recover from their ordeals without having to make wandering monster checks. I plan to run the campaign without clerics, so healing either takes a good amount of time to recover naturally, or use up healing potions that are valuable and can not be infinitely replaced. This should make a place where the PCs don’t have to worry about monster attacks.

Treasure Vault: If the players have their stronghold guarded by mercenaries while they are out of adventures, I would consider storing their new treasures in their vault as having “returned with treasure from the wilderness”. Since they are also no longer under constant threat of being attacked, that means they have completed their adventure and can get the XP that their loot is worth.

Supply Depot: In addition to storing treasure at the stronghold, the players can also store supplies of food, water, ammunition, lamp oil, and tools. The stronghold might even have its own well or cistern to provide an endless supply of water. Using their base as a supply depot means that the players don’t have to carry as much supplies to get to the dungeon and back, and if they should be running low while in the dungeon, a resupply trip to their stronghold would be considerably shorter than returning all the way to the nearest town. Of course, they first need to get the supplies from the town to the stronghold, which can be a small side adventure in itself.

Necessity of Hirelings: I love hirelings as a game element, and really want to see wilderness adventures turning into large expeditions of a dozen people or more. Having just four or five PCs as the whole party is nice for a lot of campaigns, but I think wilderness exploration campaigns should be at a much larger scale. Wilderness exploration is more than having one outdoor combat encounter between the town and the dungeon entrance. That’s the kind of game the Expert rules are for. Having a stronghold full of supplies and treasures means the players need someone to guard all of it while they are away. And they probably don’t want to leave some mercenaries they picked up in a tavern alone with all their money for days on end on a regular basis, so they should also have some trusted retainers to leave in charge while they are gone. With a more permanent base, you also probably will want to have additional servant staff to cook and make repairs, tend to the animals, and you can see how this can escalate very quickly.

Money Drain: One thing that lots of people have been thinking about a lot for a very long time is what players should be doing with all the money they make on their adventures. Especially in a campaign where XP are gained from finding treasure to mechanically support the PCs’ endless hunger for more gold, the whole thing becomes increasingly less believable if the characters are already drowning in more gold than they know what to do with. Conan is always up for an opportunity to steal some gold because he’s constantly broke. In such stories, the heroes spend their loot on wenches and ale, but enjoyment of luxuries is not something that you can really get across through the mechanics of a game. Players saying that their characters go on a massive tavern crawl after an adventure is maybe fun once or twice, but stops feeling rewarding after that. A stronghold is a great way to drain the coffers of the PCs. Every expansion or upgrade to their base costs money, and all the guards and staff need to be constantly paid for. The wages are pretty cheap, but if you include proper tracking of time (without a meaningful campaign is impossible, as you know) then all the time that the PCs are spending in the wilderness while searching for ruins, days spend healing from injuries, weeks spend learning new spells and creating potions, and whole months stuck inside waiting for the end of winter, this all adds up.

Merchant Access: This is related to the aspect of Supply Depots above. Once the players have established their stronghold and have to make regular runs to the next town for considerable amounts of supplies (all those hirelings need to eat), they can become important enough customers for traveling merchants to make detours to sell their goods to the PCs. Maybe not with whole wagons, but at least with a handful of mules. In addition to regular supplies, such merchants can have a number of special items for sale that the players might be interested in, like potions or maps, and also provide the players with new rumors when they are away from civilization for long.

Trouble with the Neighbors: Even with solid fortifications and mercenary guards, the treasures and supplies inside a strongholds will attract all kinds of people and creatures. Some might be out to raid the place, while others might simply not appreciate newcomers in their territory. The possibilities for adventures beyond the default treasure hunting are endless, without the typical situation of sending the players to chase after prepared adventures. Pacifying the surroundings is a good way to let the players be proactive and deal with situations in whatever ways they come up with, without giving them a villain with a plan they have to stop before it is too late.

What a Stronghold should not be for

Economy Sim: As I mentioned earlier, managing your resources and working out production systems can be a lot of fun if you’re playing by yourself on a computer, but just isn’t something that works as a roleplaying game. Adding a smithy to your stronghold or constructing a wind powered water pump for your well can be fun and exciting, but I think it really shouldn’t turn into a resource management game.

Generating Income: In Kenshi, I started my first base as a small mining camp to simply mine ore, smelt it into metal plates, and sell them in the next town to make money with which I would buy anything else I need, such as food and medicine. Getting your stronghold self-sufficient and even profitable is a fun idea, but that would go directly against the overall premise of the campaign and one of the main purposes for having a base. The upkeep costs for having the stronghold is meant to provide the financial pressure to keep the PCs going into dungeon to search for more treasure. The strongold being a source of money instead of a giant money sink would work completely opposite to that. While being landowners with servants working for them can be a fun idea for some roleplaying games, it just doesn’t fit here.

Seat of Government: Related to the point above, becoming the biggest dog on a stretch of the frontier and clearing the surrounding land for settlement can be a great motivation for characters. But once you get into that kind of stuff, there’s not going to be much room or time for continuing to go dungeon crawling. You could still go into underground places to fight the enemies of your domain, but then you end up with a completely different type of gameplay from sneaking around in the dark to steal treasure without alerting the inhabitants.

This as a broad overview of where my thought are on this subject at the moment. We’ll see if I’ll get around to put further work into this and develop it into some kind of system with established mechanics and procedures.

A Timeline of the Shattered Empire

I originally wrote this as a history of the Six Lands, but after a while thought that it was really terrible in that function and went back to rewrite it. History is one of those aspects of worldbuilding in general and for campaign settings specifically that I find highly overrated, or at least greatly overemphasized. What it is good for is to help establishing an internal logic for a world and serve as a useful reference frame when placing important locations and establishing a plausible pace for gradual changes that have happened in the world. It helps when you want to have a consistent order of the ruins of different civilizations that have been build on top of another, so that players can actually try to make sense of their discoveries.

The following is all stuff that players really don’t need to know, and probably even shouldn’t know. It’s stuff that I won’t be putting into any campaign guide or setting introduction. The purpose of this timeline is to provide me with some reference information on when a site would have been originally build, by who, and for what purpose, and what the overall situation was around it while it decayed up to the present day. This is meant as a gamemaster tool to assist with creating specific dungeons for actual adventures. I thought it might be interesting to some people to see how I am doing this, and maybe get ideas for how they could do a similar thing for their own campaigns.

A General Timeline of the Shattered Empire

  • 1: The city states of Aktaras are united under the rule of the Emperor.
  • 59: The Emperor’s White Host conquers the woodlands of Western Miskoiya, north of the Red Sea.
  • 112: The Golden Host conquers the plains of Vaikar and their vast grain fields on the river Hakemes, establishing the Aktarans as a true Empire.
  • 157: The Iron Host drives the asura from the eastern reaches of the Miskoiya woodlands, but never fully subjugates the small clans of Miskovai barbarians.
  • 204: The Green Host defeats the giants of the Korenya highlands and drives them higher into the mountains. The Empire enslaves large numbers of Kozai barbarians to mine silver and iron for the imperial hosts, both in Korenya and Aktaras.
  • 238: The White Host crosses the Mistwoods from western Miskoiya into Venlat to begin the conquest of the Kuri clans, but their progress always remains slow.
  • 281: The Black Host is established in the south of the Vaikar plains to prepare for an invasion and conquest of the forests of Mangal.
  • 321: The General of the Iron Host kills the Emperor in the imperial capital and declares himself to be the new emperor. The other five generals unite to turn against him, beginning the Wars of the Successors.
  • 320: After a long siege, the Golden Host of Vaikar, the Red Host of Aktaras, and the Green Host of Korenya completely destroy the imperial capital with terrible sorcery, turning it into the Gray City. The Iron General is killed and the Golden General declares himself the rightful successor of the Emperor. The Red General, Green General, and Black General refuse to accept him as their new ruler and recall their hosts to their provinces to create their own kingdoms.
  • 335: Even though the Golden Host is fighting a war against the other remnants of the Empire on three sides, it manages to destroy the small Black Host, that never managed to gain control over significant portions of Mangal.
  • 351: Without any support from the Empire, the White Host is driven out of the southern regions of Venlant that it had manged to conquer by an army of Kuri warriors led by the newly appeared immortal Witch Queen Meiv of Halva, and is driven back towards the Mistwood at the norther edge of Miskoiya. Some of the people people from the White Hosts main stronghold in Elwai flee east instead and become the Kaska of the Witchfens.
  • 362: After fighting both the Red Host of Aktaras and the Green Host of Korenya for over 40 years, the Gold Host is finally destroyed and the False Emperor killed. The two victorious armies continue to fight each other over the control of the Vaikar plains.
  • 429: In Miskoiya, the White Host is annihilated in the Mistwood by another Kuri army led by Meiv, and reminding imperial soldiers flee south to Aktaras to join the Red Host, completely abandoning western Miskoiya.
  • 430: Taygur nomads from the east begin migrating into the plains of Vaikar, and take control over most of the land south of the Hakemes, which have been almost entirely depopulated by the continuous fighting between the Red Host and the Green Host.
  • 472: The large port cities of Aktaras rise up in rebellion against the General of the Red Host and overthrow him, reverting back to independent city states and signifying the final end of the Shattered Empire. One of the generals most trusted lieutenants claims to be his rightful successor, but only claims the title of King of Ateia. Taygur clans increasingly cross the Hakemes with their herds and slowly start to establish settlements of their own in the empty ruins of imperial farming towns.
  • 521: What has remained of the Green Host in Korenya by this point is destroyed by hordes of Kozai barbarians who establish their own small tribal kingdoms in the highlands.
  • 683: The present year.

This is about as much detail as I think I want to put into this aspect of the setting. It provides some decent guidance for how old the ruins that scatter the various regions of the Shattered Empire are, who build them, what their original purpose might have been, and who might have used them later.

Beyond the Six Lands

There’s probably some great, witty title for this, but I can’t think of any right now.

One of the lesser known, but really common effects of ADD that isn’t much talked about, is a significantly delayed development in people becoming functioning, independent adults, even if they don’t show any other apparent mental development issues. From what I’ve heard from other people, it is widely seen as something that will eventually work itself out, it just takes noticeably longer than for other people. (I think I recently saw a study that some 60% of university students with ADD drop out at least once.) I finally started my first regular, full-time and full-pay job, that isn’t some kind of occupation training or work integration measure, at the start of this year, now being in charge of quality control and inventory maintenance at a major online retailer or pond and garden plants.

Last Thursday, at the end of my fourth week, I was quietly working away on some regular busywork, when I had the sensation of having arrived at my destination, after wandering aimless in the wilderness for some 15 years. And to me surprise, the place where I arrived looks just like where I originally started. Having recently combed through my whole music collection to fill my phone with as much stuff as I can fit on it for my car rides to work, I rediscovered a lot of old music that I’ve been playing up and down back when I had finished school but hadn’t listened to in years, and I’ve also been playing a lot of my old favorite videogames from back in the day. And just in the last two months, since I started working on my new Shattered Empire setting, I’ve been rereading various old D&D books that hugely inspired me back when I first started learning the game in the early 2000s. It really feels a lot like my life is just like it was back when I set out to see where life would take me, except that now I got a much better grasp of my life, I’m a trained professional in a field with severe labor shortage, and got a decent income.

This man knows where it’s at.

It currently feel a lot like picking up back where I left off all those years ago. Turns out you can go home again!

Which finally brings me to my actual point. This book.

Somehow this completely slipped my mind when I made the list of reference sources to use as inspirations for the Shattered Empire. The Manual of the Planes is the only 3rd edition book that isn’t a setting book that I still own in print. This book came out very early in 3rd edition’s run, only a year after the three rulebooks, and was hugely influential to me. I had played some Planescape: Torment before, which certainly was a very memorable experience for me, but also a game that’s really hard to get into. (I still have not completed it to this day.) The Manual of the Planes was my first comprehensive introduction to the planes of D&D. While it shows all the planes and describes many of the locations from the Planescape setting, its version of the planes is deliberately made much more generic, to easily plug into any campaign and appear more streamlined with the other 3rd edition supplements. For example, Sigil is only mentioned in a short paragraph, and the Factions aren’t covered at all. Which back then I found somewhat frustrating, but I now think really made this book, and the concept of planar adventures as a whole, much more accessible.

I think it’s quite fair to say that together with the Monsters of Faerûn, the Manual of the Planes is my favorite D&D book that I ever read. I was young and impressionable, and there is something about this book that really made it stick in my mind ever since. The whole art direction and presentation is an advanced glimpse at what would become the dungeon punk style that really takes off in the revised 3rd edition a few years later, and in my opinion had a huge impact on the perception of what D&D is ever since, but I think in this book it feels very appropriate and really works.

While the Great Wheel arrangement of the planes from Planescape is of course a classic, the Shattered Empire is very much meant to be just another generic D&D setting. Informed and inspired by D&D, but not a representation of D&D. And I’ve been on record that the alignment symmetry of the Great Wheel actually leads to it being crammed full with really boring stuff. (Whose ever been on adventures to Bytopia or Arcadia in a non-Planescape campaign?) I played around in the past with the idea to run a campaign that only uses some of the less popular planes that I find the most compelling, but nothing ever actually came of that. But now that I need to figure something out to do with the other realms of reality from which warlocks gain their powers, this feels like another great opportunity to take out that old idea again.

The Shadows

One thing that has always bugged me about the planes in 3rd and 5th edition is that the Ethereal Plane is just so damn boring. The concept is interesting, but by it’s very nature, the plane is completely empty. There’s been some attempts over the years to at least populate it with monsters, but those bizarre weirdos never got any traction, being just too weird while also being too bland. In contrast, the Plane of Shadows is a much more interesting place, that has actual terrain in it. For the Shattered Empire, I made the decision to combine the two planes into one, called for simplicity The Shadows.

The Shadows behave mostly just like the Plane of Shadows does. (Or the Shadowfell, exactly the same thing.) It’s a dark world without color whose terrain almost mirrors the world of the Material Plane, but not quite. It’s subtly distorted and not a completely perfect match in where everything is and how its shaped. It’s an imperfect reflection that can slowly and gradually morph into slightly different shapes and arrangements. One cool idea, that I’ve never actually seen much done with, is that there is only a single Plane of Shadows that connects to all Material Planes, not just the one the PCs are from, and that you can simply keep walking through the shadowy landscape and eventually come out in areas that correspond to completely different worlds.

To this baseline, I am adding the trait of the Ethereal Plane that you can actually see from the Shadows into the Material Plane and observe the living creatures moving around in the other world. Looking through the Player’s Handbook for 5th edition, it seems like any magical effects that target the Ethereal Plane can simply be redirected  to the Shadowfell without causing any meaningful changes or complications. The aspect of the Ethereal Plane that you lose with this setup is that the Shadows have a ground and gravity, so you can’t simply fly around by the force of your will. Having buildings exist in corresponding locations in the Shadows also means that you can’t use the Ethereal Plane as a means to move through walls or doors. However, if the Shadows are only an imperfect and warped reflection of the Material Plane, there can still be large enough gaps and holes in the Shadows that allow passage through barriers that are impenetrable in the Material Plane. And I believe this only really becomes a factor with etherealness spell, which is at a level way beyond the scope of the Shattered Empire setting.

The Void

The Ethereal Plane also happens to be divided into the Border Ethereal, from where you can see into the Material Plane, and the Deep Ethereal, which is just a vast void of nothingness. This actually corresponds very well with the concept that you can travel through the Plane of Shadow to reach other Material Planes. This Shadow version of the Deep Ethereal is called The Void in the Shattered Empire. Though without the ability to float through the emptiness, things get a bit more wonky. My idea is that there are patches of darkness found throughout the Shadows where the reflected environment of the Material Plane fades away rapidly, and as you keep moving forward into the blackness, the whole concept of a ground beneath your feet becomes increasingly abstract, until you eventually find your feet no longer making contact with anything solid and you no longer need to even move your leg to continue moving forward. With no more visible landmarks to follow, finding your way in the Void by ordinary means becomes effectively impossible. It’s easy to become lost in the Void forever, and even if you happen to eventually reach the Shadows again, it might very likely not be the Shadow of your own world. And even if it is, there is no way of telling which area of the Material Plane your new position corresponds to.

Other Worlds

The number of other worlds that can be found by traveling through the Void could potentially be limitless. But a few of them are known, which are the homes of aberrations and fiends. I don’t think I’ll be using the concept of layers for planes. Instead every such other plane is only a single layer, just like the Material Planes. I’m not even sure if the distinction between material plans ad outer planes has any meaning in this kind of planar setup. I’m also not sure what really becomes the difference between aberrations and fiends, and what’s the difference between supernatural creatures from the Material Plane, such as lamias or unicorns. Maybe there won’t be any. Before 3rd edition, there really weren’t any such distinctions and classifications to begin with, and that worked just fine for decades.

The worlds of fiends and aberrations are a great place to finally make use of some of my favorite places from the Great Wheel. Gehenna, Carceri, and Pandemonium all fit quite perfectly with the kinds of horrific hellscapes that I have in mind. But Ysgard and the Beastlands also make for good places that could be found by traveling through the Shadows and passing through the Void, which are not quite as hostile but still home to strange beings not normally found in the Material Plane.

What I think this setup really doesn’t need is either an Astral Plane, as this function is already well covered by the Void, and any elemental planes. I like the four elementals as monsters, but creating a whole new class of planes just to justify their existence really doesn’t seem necessary. I like this basic setup quite well as it already is.

Maybe there will be a more detailed update on this in the future. But I see it as very possible that the future parties exploring the Six Lands will never make it any further than short diversions into the Shadows of their own world, and as such these things might never actually need to be made more specific.

My favorite Monster Manual

I wrote about the Monsters of Faerûn book for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition from 2001 before in my Fantasy Safari series. At 96 pages, it is to my knowledge the shortest and also only softcover monster book that was released by WotC. It followed the original Monster Manual for 3rd edition and would be succeeded by five more full sized books for that edition. A while back I was asking around in some places about how often GMs have actually been using creatures from the additional monster books beyond the main Monster Manual, and everything I could gather from the replies strongly pointed towards “barely”. These books are fun to read, but at the end of the day, people clearly seem to continue to strongly stick towards the established critters that have been in regular rotation for over 40 years now. But even in that light, Monsters of Faerûn seems to stand out as even more obscure than the other monster books, quite possibly because it’s much smaller and because the title indicates that it’s a setting specific book for the Forgotten Realms. Which is not actually the case. There are a few creatures in it that are specific to factions in Faerûn, but these of course work just as well anywhere else, and the majority are simply somewhat popular D&D monsters that had not made it into the Monster Manual.

Since I started with D&D right when 3rd edition came out (I remember deciding to wait a few more weeks instead of getting the 2nd edition books), and as such this was my second monster book ever. That might have had some impact on how memorable it was too me. But I had also been introduced to D&D by playing Baldur’s Gate, and that game had a few creatures in it that were not in the MM, but in this book. Even though I don’t recall using much, if anything from this book back when I ran 3rd edition games, but it always excited me every time I was thinking about it again, or picked it up for another read. This has so many creatures that I always wanted to use some day.

When I started working on the Shattered Empire setting two months ago, I didn’t deliberately plan to do it, but I recently realized that a lot of these “I want to use them one day” monsters ended up on the monster list of the setting, even though I got their stats from 5th edition books. I admit to not actually having read those. I’m only using the stat blocks, going with my preconceptions of what these creatures are from the last 20 years.

Aaracockra are a quick and dirty reskin job to get harpies without the enchanting song ability, that really belongs to sirens.

Air Genasi more or less make an appearance as the Kuri people, though they are actually using the stats for high elves as PCs.

Chitines have always fascinated me, even though their image in this book isn’t very good. Small primitive humanoids with six long spidery arms that crawl along the walls and ceilings of caves. What’s not to love about these creepy crawlies, which I think make a good alternative to the regular goblin and kobold fare.

Choldriths are the elf-faced spiders that often rule over chitines as their priests. It’s a different take on the general idea of driders, but since my setting doesn’t have any drow either, I think these make for a better alternative.

Cursts are a bit like ghouls or revenants. They are under a curse that always regenerates them into their undead form over the course of days and have gone somewhat mad from the torment of their unliving existence. The only way to actually kill them is to break the curse that is on them. But mostly I just think the picture kicks ass.

The Dark Tree is just a classic of fantasy. Never an A-list monster, but always around. The image in this book is really goofy, but I’ve always been hugely inspired by this one of a different monster that’s still the same basic idea.

From Manual of the Planes

Dread Warriors are really just beefed up zombies kept in better shape and with some intelligence remaining to make them more useful soldiers for necromancers. Nothing that spectacular, but I like to use them as corpses animated by low-intelligence demonic spirits.

Earth Genasi, like the air genasi, appear in my my setting as one of the civilize people. Though again, I am using the goliath stats for PCs instead.

Fey’ri are a specific bloodline of high elf tieflings from the Forgotten Realms, with some cool backstory of being the last remnants of an old noble house that made pacts with demons. Again, it was really an image from another book that sold me on these guys, but they appeared in this one first. They appear in the Six Lands as the asura, with somewhat different stats, but it’s really pretty much the same guys.

From Races of Faerûn

Gibberlings are basically the first monster you encounter in Baldur’s Gate, and there’s a lot of them in that game! Which had me a bit surprised to later learn that they pretty much don’t seem to appear anywhere else. But they are in this book, and I still love these little screetching guys as low level enemies.

Green Warders are a bit lame, actually. They are elf shaped shrubs who were used as guardians by the elves of Myth Drannor. But they have magic powers to cast alarm, confusion, and sleep in addition to attacking with their claws, and I think make a decent base to make custom spriggans. The leafy boy type, not the size changing goblins.

The Helmed Horror is another memorable monster from Baldur’s Gate. Basically it’s animated armor that’s been beefed up to a serious juggernaut with a big magic sword. These are clearly my favorites among the menagerie of golems. Badass image doesn’t hurt either.

Quaggoths are albino humanoid bear-apes that live underground. There really isn’t much more to them. But I think they’ve still been really underused as one of the underdark races as they add some nice variety. Why are there bear-men living deep underground among the fish-men, spider-things, and squid-thingies? No idea, but I just think they’re neat.

There’s a good more cool monsters in Monsters of Faerûn, these are just the ones that are featuring prominently in the worldbuilding for the Shattered Empire. But there’s also aballins, baneguards, beasts of Malar, darkenbeasts, deep dragons, firenewts, ghaunadans, phaerlin giants, and draegloths, which are all really cool as well, though not really fitting into the world I am creating. And I really love most of the art in this book, though that might to a good degree me being biased from my strong first impression. Though I still think it’s overall a much more memorable monster book than the actual Monster Manual that preceded it.

References for the Shattered Empire

This version of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting was the first one I got when I started learning Dungeons & Dragons when the 3rd edition came out in 2000. While I still think the 1st edition version is the better campaign setting, this one of course had a huge impact on me. It has an interesting art style that I don’t recall seeing anywhere else and that colored my first perception of what the Forgotten Realms look like outside of the videogames that were around at the time. It’s a bit quaint, but it doesn’t have quite the renfairification that is bugging me about later 2nd edition material. The books released for 3rd edition of course had a completely different style, making me soon forget about the aesthetic that is presented here. But now I am feeling like trying to recapture some of the overall feel for a fantasy world that I got from this box.

Unapproachable East might perhaps be the best of all the sourcebooks for 3rd edition that was released, and I think it comes as a pretty solid second in my own personal favorite setting sourcebooks, right after The Savage Frontier for 1st edition. In addition to a really good combination of character options, regional information, factions, and adventure hooks, this book does an excellent job with the art direction. It gives the area it covers a very distinctive feel, and I am more than happy to mercilessly butcher the sections about Rashemen, Narfell, the Great Vale, and Thesk for parts. I think this book easily ranks as the number one source for reference material for the Shattered Empire.

As a kid, I’ve been growing up on fairy tales and seen lots of kids’ shows that you’d clearly classify as fantasy, but I never really had high fantasy on the radar as a wider genre. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings once, thought it was nice, and never thought about looking for more of that kind. When I got into playing videogames, the games magazines I read had plenty of both fantasy games and roleplaying games, but I think I never actually read any articles covering them. I was only into sci-fi stuff and some historical RTSs and economy sims. I got Baldur’s Gate for the sole reason that I was terribly bored in the summer of 1999 and looked up the highest rated games in my old magazines to find something that might be worth getting to entertain me for a few weeks. And the ratings for Baldur’s Gate were through the roof, which made me actually read a CRPG review for the first time. It sounded interesting, mentioned how much easier it was to get into than other RPGs at the time, and so I got on my bike and here I am 23 years later.

Overall, the setting that is presented in Baldur’s Gate is quite pastoral and sub-urban in many places, with the dreaded renfairification of the Forgotten Realms in full swing by that point. But I still really love the look and feel of some of the more remote areas, particularly the Nashkel Mine and Cloakwood Mine, Firewine Bridge, and Balduran’s Isle. I’m totally gonna rip off those places without any mercy or shame.

Icewind Dale is a rather different beast from Baldur’s Gate, and while the graphics and interface is essentially the same, it has a very distinctive look and completely different atmosphere. This one is probably going to have a much greater impact on the Shattered Empire as a whole. Kuldahar, Kresselack’s Tomb, the Dragon’s Eye, and the Broken Hand still remain some of my favorite sites in fantasy as a whole.

The Fellowship of the Ring came out right at the time when I had just been playing Icewind Dale and started getting into Dungeons & Dragons and the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, and as such had a big impact on my lasting perception of fantasy. What a glorious time to be alive. (And also 16, I’m sure that’s entirely coincidental.) In hindsight, I think the second movie is only okay, and the third one is actually kinda bad. But this one I still really like. Particularly the parts in Bree and the journey that follows, and then again the travel to and eventually through Moria, which all stand very prominent in my imagiation for what the Shattered Empire looks and feels like. The parts with the elves are a bit too fancy and dreamy for the style I want to aim at, but overall this really is one of my secondary reference sources.

Some years ago, oldschool D&D fans seem to have come to the collective conclusion that The 13th Warrior is the most D&D movie ever made. And I am in full agreement. The investigation of the raided farms, the night attack on the king’s hall, and then of course the great assault on the cave lair of the savages is all prime high adventure material. If there is any good point to strive to make something more “cinematic” in an RPG, this movie should be the gold standard. I really don’t want to return again to “that Northern Thing” with the Shattered Empire, and I really had enough viking stuff to last me for a lifetime, but I think the great inspirations in this movie work just as fine outside of a Germanic reference frame.

Thief Dark ProjectThief came out two weeks before Baldur’s Gate (around the same time as Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid), but while it was a game that I knew was hugely popular, I only got around to play it a few years later, I believe. Which puts it in that same timeframe when I dived into several of the other works mentioned above. This game is just amazing. The only things I can really think of that I’m just straight up ripping of are the Pagans, Victoria, and the Trickster, but the whole game is constantly popping into my mind when thinking about evoking a certain style with the Shattered Empire. It’s probably going to become more important once I start working on the coastal cities inspired by Westgate and Telflamm from the Forgotten Realms, and their supernatural thieves’ guilds.

I was a bit undecided if I should include Skyrim in this list, but I think it’s probably the best representation for the influence of The Elder Scrolls as a whole on the setting. While I’ll always maintain that Morrowind is the better game as a whole, I think I actually played Skyrim a great deal more, and it influenced my mental image of various of the aspects of the world to a much greater extend. There’s plenty about Skyrim that can easily be ripped off for the Shattered Empire. The overall architecture of Nord houses and tombs fits very well with my image for the Kuri inhabiting the northern lands of Venlat (which I lifted straight out of my Kaendor setting as they are, since I never got to use them in any campaigns). The Kuri themselves have several influences from the ancient Falmer, and I’ve pretty much copy pasted both Orsimer and Khajiit to inhabit my setting. One very important thing where I’m stealing shamelessly are various of the Daedra. Azura, Hircine, Nocturnal, and Harmaeus Mora are gods in the Six Lands with only superficial changes, as is Kynareth, who is one of the references for the major deity Idain.

Since I first played the second game, the first Witcher game has always been for me “that weird, janky one”. The effort is appreciated and the talent clearly visible, but in dire need for a lot more experience and polish. But now that I am thinking about the style I want to evoke with the Shattered Empire, this one game in particular from all the Witcher works is the one that I think I want to draw from. This game looks very grey, with flat lighting and few environmental effects, which makes most of the world it is set in feel rather dull, and the stiff character animations don’t help. But now in the context of the setting I am envisioning, that actually feels a lot more appropriate than the more vibrant colors, stunning environments, and more cinematic presentation of later games. Kaer Moren, the Swamp, and Lake Vizima in particular stand out to me as places that are quite evocative for what I have in mind. The society and culture of the Witcher has always been deliberately anachronistic, with pretty much every character being written with a late 20th century mindest, even though the world is supposedly very medieval. That’s completely different from the kind of society and people I am aiming for, but I still think that the dispassionate calculation and resigned acceptance of bad circumstances that many characters in the series display could also be a useful aspect to draw from.

Bloodborne influences the setting only indirectly, but in very important ways. Playing this game again recently and reflecting on the similarities between its magic system and warlocks in the 5th edition of D&D was what originally gave me the idea to start working on a new setting from scratch. The strange eldritch beings and their relationships with various human characters in the backstory of the game are a major source of inspiration for the nature of the supernatural in the Six Lands. The Kin of Bloodborne and the Daedra of Skyrim are the main reference points for demons.

Fool me once…

As it turns out, I’ll be returning to work from hibernation this year in February and not in March, as I had expected. And I’ll not be moving into a new place until early March at the earliest, quite possibly in April. So the next two months aren’t going to be quite as chill as expected and I’ll won’t be settled in until we’ll be full deep into the planting season. This means my original plan to get a new campaign started and established after Christmas will have to be pushed back to probably somewhere in May, as I don’t want to start a  campaign for four weeks and then potentially disappear from the face of the Earth for a couple of months. (Once the plants arrive in the stores, our work for the year is mostly done, so off-season starts for us in May.)

This also means that I can spend the whole of this month on further elaborate campaign prep, and expand on it in whatever idle time I’ll be finding in spring. And one thing that has been on my mind recently is that despite my previous experiences in the campaign from one year ago, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition might not be all that bad.

At the end of the Inixon campaign, I talked with the players, who mostly were GMs themselves with much more experience with the system than me, and while they mostly agreed with the issues I had spotted in the rules, their opinion was that these things are fixable without too much trouble by picking a few of the variant rules and changing the approach to handling certain things. I had similar conversations again twice last months about where I had been dissatisfied with how the game handled, and again the responses I got was generally that my observations are correct, but that the game doesn’t have to be run that way and play quite differently if you don’t.

The main issue I had with the system was that PCs have a lot of fancy toys to play with quite early on. Many of these cool powers are related to combat, and seeing how excited the players were about getting them, I wanted to give them opportunities to actually get some use out of them. Unfortunately, these fights made them advance to new levels and get new shinier toys before they really got much chance to play with their old ones in interesting and creative ways. I really didn’t want the players to sit on the cool new powers they were clearly excited about and not being able to use them, and as a result things somewhat escalated into a series of battles with little inbetween. Eventually I decided that there was a good point in the story to wrap up the campaign around the time the PCs would have reached 6th level, instead of continuing into a fully open-world exploration of the Isle of Dread.

The obvious answer to this issue is of course to just give the players fewer XP. But I think in hindsight the issue wasn’t so much the specific XP awards, but that throughout my now 20 years of running D&D, a pace of having characters gain a new level about every 4 game sessions or so had always worked very well in 3rd edition, Pathfinder, and oldschool games. And that’s just the pace that I had kept with the Inixon campaign. Not sure if that’s really the case or a change in my perception as I change my style as GM, but to me it really feels like characters in 5th edition get a lot more new powers with each new level than I was used to. And certainly as compared to B/X, of course. It also was the first time I really wanted to use the approach to not have the players wait until higher levels to get cool magic items with interesting powers, and be more generous with magic treasure that has minor and situational powers. It doesn’t increase the power level of the party that much, but it absolutely adds to the amount of cool toys that the players have at their disposal and are eager to try out. With all that in mind, aiming to let PCs level up about every 4 game sessions really seems to fast. Better seems to aim for 6, or maybe even 8 game sessions on average. I think that should be a good start to address my main dissatisfaction I had with the game.

Somewhat related to that was another issue I had with dungeons. The campaign had started with Against the Cult of the Reptile God, which really does provide a solid reference for why this dungeon exists and what the inhabitants want with it. That went really well. This was followed by a fantastic unstructured stay in a pirate town, in which the one part I wasn’t happy with was the dungeon from Escape from Meenlock Prison. It was okay, but I felt it turned into kind of a slog. Eventually we got to Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and I really had no clue what to do with it but to put some ruined mansions down and fill them with hostile monsters. The game kind of implies it wants me to do dungeons with cool encounters, but it also isn’t letting me know how to actually do that, and I just got frustrated with it and decided not to go into The Isle of Dread after that. I felt that I just don’t get the whole point about dungeons other than being series of monster fights. However, in the past year after that, I learned a huge deal about classic dungeon crawling and what that is all about. The Basic/Expert exploration system is a fantastic campaign structure with an actual solid 30-minute-gameplay-loop, that 5th edition (and really all D&D starting with 2nd edition) seriously lacks.

And there’s a couple of things about 5th edition that I really like. I’m a big warlock fanboy, especially after having two of them in the Inixon campaign, and I am seeing so much worldbuilding potential with this class as the supernatural and weird is concerned, and for all the adventures that can come out of it. I also think that the druid circles of the land are quite a nice element that I’d love to play with. I had pondered the idea of a setting in which warlock magic is the only way mortals can access supernatural powers, which seems really fun, though probably doesn’t get too much cheer from players. But considering my previous ideas for the Shattered Empire, a campaign with only warlocks, druids, and bards as spellcasters sounds like something that could be really cool for a very-early Medieval campaign drawing on central-eastern Europe as reference.

So I am willing to give the system another try, with the following adjustments:

  • Characters gain XP by milestones, with the default type of milestone being the return of a treasure back to civilization. The amount of XP depending on the value of the treasure, and the obstacles standing in the way being appropriately difficult. My aim is to provide treasures that let characters gain a level every 6 to 8 game sessions or so.
  • A short rest takes a full night of rest, and a long rest requires taking a week off in a town, castle, or similarly secured and hospitable place. In practice this means going without a long rest for each whole adventure. This means druid spells that provide food, water, and similar ways to make wilderness travel easier for each day won’t be able to cover the whole trip. Similarly healing spells have to be rationed for the whole adventure. Having friendly sanctuaries in the wilderness will be a huge benefit, which is one of the really cool concepts I’ve encountered in The One Ring.
  • Encumbrance is done by inventory slots and not by weight, which makes it trivial to track instead of a big nuisance.
  • The Encounter syste, from B/X gets imported just as it is, with wandering monster checks, reaction rolls, morale, and all of that.
  • Initiative is done by sides instead of initiative counts, which is always a huge reduction in my personal mental workload and speeds up play considerably as it cuts down greatly on players taking time to consider their next move at the start of their turn.

I am still somewhat cautious about the idea, but I think it can only turn out better then the Inixon campaign. And that one was by far the best one I’ve ever run.