Looking proudly at the sandbox map I made over the last two weeks from first rough layout sketch to mostly finished version, I made the disappointed realization that I had once again prepared a D&D campaign. Despite my joy at having found a game in Dragonbane that is free of the underlying mechanical framework shared by all D&D versions and with a bit more substance than Barbarians of Lemuria, and writing a whole post about needing to approach sandbox preparation differently, I was still falling in the old established patterns that I’ve trained myself to adopt for the last ten years or so. Trying to fill the new sandbox with all my favorite D&D dungeons that I always wanted to use one day and taking a new shot at the old Forest of High Adventure concept surely didn’t help with that.
I feel a cleaner break is in order. To really approach a Dragonbane campaign with a fresh perspective on Kaendor.
Seven years ago, I wrote Project Forest Moon, a list of new design principles that I wanted to put at the center of the worldbuilding for a Sword & Sorcery wilderness setting. Which I still consider a huge success and my biggest breakthrough in really finding the right focus and tone for my following work. I think writing down a similar updated concept paper might be really quite useful for me now. When I think of new ideas how I can manifest the style I am aiming for in concrete setting elements, I often remember that I already did come up with something great a few years ago, but it somehow slipped from my mind at some point and I didn’t do anything with it. This post is a collection of many of these ideas for myself, to look up again when I’ll inevitably get lost in the weeds again.
Tone and Style: One thing that has always been core and center of all my worldbuildilg is that I wanted it to be a big forest setting from the very start. And it soon developed into a desire to give it somewhat of a pulpy lost world style. Influences have come and gone over the years, but I think a really good foundation for my own mental image as I further develop environments and cultural elements is “a Sword & Sorcery jungle world collaboration by Frank Frazetta and Moebius”. If they had painted and drawn such a world, how would I translate what I see into descriptions and scenes? Another huge influence I mention all the time is of course Morrowind, which really set the standard for me for fantasy settings that feel like different worlds than slightly rearranged versions of European folklore. And more recently, Kenshi has become a major influence on what I want to accomplish with the setting. While not actually a fantasy setting and very much a desert world, it’s such a fascinating example of small warlord societies on a desolate alien planet.
The Forest Moon: The term Forest Moon comes of course directly from Endor in Return of the Jedi. The visuals in that movie and The Empire Strikes Back have left a giant impact on my imagination since I saw them for the very first time. There are no sci-fi elements in Kaendor, but a lot of classic pulp art blended fantasy and space elements together with no clear separation, and the idea of Kaendor being an alien world around a huge gas planet really resonates with me to evoke that amazing pulp style. It means very little in practice since conditions on the moon are identical to Earth and nearly any fantasy world, but one way in which such a setup would logically manifest itself is in frequent and long-lasting eclipses. I did work out a complete 16-year cycle calendar with 24 months of 16 days and three leap years of 23 months, that also indicates likely eclipse days at some point. I think I need to make renewed efforts to incorporate this into the culture of the world. At least the eclipses that can happen multiple times per year should have some dramatic impact.
Permian Pangea: Dinosaurs are extremely cool. But they also kinda on the nose. Barbarians riding on dinosaurs can be great pulpy fun, but they don’t really evoke a sense of a plausible alien world. I found that a great solution to this is to instead populate the world with animals from the Permian and Paleocene periods directly preceding and following the dinosaurs. They are still very realistic animals, because they actually did exist, but are mostly unknown even to people who can name dozens of dinosaurs on pictures. They seem like they are made up to most people and a bit alien, but nothing exceptionally weird. I think I worked out the main predators and livestock animals for Kaendor years ago and still don’t feel like there’s any more work to be done. Just make frquent mention of drohas and krats as pack and farm animals in places that the players are coming through. I only need to stat them for Dragonbane, which is really quick and simple.
Human Civilization is new and small: I don’t really believe in the idea of lost golden ages and actually find the concept somewhat offensive. It’s the conservative moaning about a better past that never was, and a rejection of change as a matter of principle. But impressive ancient ruins are really cool, and post-apocalyptic anarchy can be a lot of fun. To eat my cake and still have it too, I very early came up with the idea that the past great empires that build monumental castles and made the magic treasures were otherwise actually really terrible and their disappearance a good thing for the world and its people. Kaendor is full of ruins and treasure hoards from the naga and shie who enslaved the early humans or drove them into the most remote regions of the wilderness. Now that they are mostly gone, humans can build civilizations of their own, but they are way too small to fill out the vast territories ruled by the elder peoples, and so numerous huge, empty ruins still cover what is now again wilderness. Still largely untouched and unexplored. Human civilization consists only of a handful of relatively minor city states, separated by vast stretches of wilderness full of terrible beasts.
Nature Always Wins: People always seem to think of themselves as the masters over nature who have taken control over the world they live in. But that perception is simply the result of a limited perception. They see the changes to the environment within sight of their homes and think of history on the scale of decades and centuries. But on the global scale, and the cosmic scale, none of the works and accomplishments of mortals mean anything. Eventually, everything will be reclaimed by the wilderness and forgotten, leaving behind only a few mysterious traces that hint of something that came before. And even those will completely fade away eventually, when the mountains still stand and forests still grow.
Bronze Age Technology: Bronze age weapons and armor, and architecture and administration. Because it’s a cool style.
A World of Demons: Unlike many other fantasy worlds, Kaendor has a clear separation of the natural and supernatural. Creatures are either ordinary animals, even if huge and deadly, or they are supernatural monsters. For many people, the common term for the later beings is demons. They don’t come from some other dimension or realm and are creatures of flesh and blood that are born, need to eat, and can be killed. But they do have magical powers and age very differently, if at all. Another class of creatures does exist that are pure spirits without physical form that come from another world, and they are typically referred to as demons as well, but they are actually a completely different type of beings.
A World of Heroes: Just as there is a clear difference between ordinary animals and monsters, there is a clear distinction between heroes and ordinary people. Like monsters, heroes are in some way connected to the supernatural. There are countless different beliefs of what makes a person a hero, from being blessed by the gods or chosen by fate, to circumstances of birth and the heroism of ancestors, or that it is something that can be attained through devotion to the divine or a form of enlightenment. None of these might be true, or all of them might. What is clear is that all heroes are destined for greatness, be it for good or for ill. And it usually does not take long for people to recognize heroes for what they are. All PCs and mages are always heroes, as are many kings, chiefs, and warlords. Rulership is often inherited in the lands of Kaendor, but close relatives who show the traits of a hero are almost always seen as more legitimate successors than those who do not. (In Dragonbane game terms, all PCs and all NPCs who have Willpower Points are heroes.)
Sorcery is corrupting: Magic is a power that does not come from the natural world but from outside of it. It is not inherently evil or destructive, but it is not bound to respect the natural laws that govern and sustain all living things. In the presence of poorly controlled magical energies, living things become corrupted and warped from the inside out until they become sickly and twisted and eventually die, or continue to exists in a state between life and death, sustained by the very magical forces that are destroying them. Even rocks and metals can become brittle and crumble after long exposure to extreme corruption. The spells most commonly known and taught by most mages are the result of many centuries of careful study and research and dangerous and costly experimentation to minimize any unintended corrupting effects on their surroundings and nearby creatures. But those with the ambition to explore and discover new and greater magical powers rarely take the caution to have the care and patience to keep their work from corrupting their surroundings and themselves. Making ambitious sorcerers seen as very dangerous and rightly feared.
Everything is a Cult: In the lands of Kaendor, every gathering of people with a common purpose prays to one or several gods to protect them and bless their efforts. In some places, all groups, factions, and organizations might pray to the same god worshiped in the local temple, while in others there might be dozens of different gods and spirits, which might be so obscure that barely anyone outside the group has ever heard of them. But every group has some kind of altar in their main gathering place, and members show their status as initiates with talismans displaying the symbols of their cult.
Gods are not People: I have still not yet fully decided on the actual nature of gods in Kaendor, but while they might be depicted as such in iconography, they are definitely not people or even individuals. They are more like divine forces or powers that are believed to have a real influence on the world and who can be influenced through worship and rituals, but they are not beings with a defined shape or who exists in precise locations, and won’t directly communicate to mortal creatures through words. Ultimately, priests with magical powers are mages who have studied and mastered spells just like sorcerers do, but who pursue the advancement of their magical skills within the teachings and philosophies of their faith.