Kaendor ’24

I got big plans for another Kaendor campaign next year. I’ve been sharing bits and pieces on Mastodon, but now I want to put it all together in one place as an overview of what I’m working on.

As far as I’ve been able to trace back, I started developing my own fantasy setting style all the way back in 2009. I’ve been reworking and revising it many times for several different campaigns and planned campaigns, but like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Elden Ring, I’ve been reusing places, monsters, gods, and names, and the overall cultural and supernatural structure for the world. Originally, everything started with the observation that the ancient history backstory for the northern Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms setting sounds like a much more exciting place to play in than the world that is actually being described in its current state. This gave me the idea to use what information was available to “recreate” the High Forest from 4,000 years ago as a stand alone setting for my own campaign. This very quickly led to the realization that it would all just be a lot easier to drop the explicit references to the Forgotten Realms and create a new setting from scratch with the same ideas: A northern European environment that is home to great kingdoms of elves and dwarves, where dragons and giants still exist in large numbers and have an active presence in the world, where humans are a minor people of barbarians, and the ancient primeval forest still cover nearly all land between the seas and mountains. At the same time, I had also deeply fallen in love with Morrowind, and how it presents a fantasy world that doesn’t feel at all like medieval Europe, and not even any place on Earth. While most of the Elder Scrolls setting is much more conventional, Morrowind feels like it’s a medieval society that evolved independently on an alien planet. Having a world with giant reptiles and insects, and without horses, dogs, cows, and bears is an idea I find hugely fascinating and compelling.

After several iteration I eventually settled on the name Kaendor, and used that world in a campaign in 2020, which without doubt was the best campaign I ever ran, and one of the longest. But I had been unhappy with the D&D 5th edition rules we’ve been playing, and since that campaign ended three years ago, I’ve been exploring and experimenting with various new ideas to rebuild the world for the next campaign. Various ADHD related factors led to that next campaign being delayed much longer than I had ever expected, but things have finally settled in place enough so that I can commit to plans more than two or three months into the future. And I think spring 2024 is finally going to be the time where I’ll return to that world. Which will hopefully turn out even better than the last time.

The Kaendor 24 campaign will almost certainly be my first run with the new Dragonbane system that came out earlier this year. I’ve been going through plenty of systems in the last 10 years that each have their strengths and shortcoming regarding what I want them to do for my campaigns, but Dragonbane very much seems like the game I wanted to have from the beginning. The idea is to combine this system of character and combat rules with the travel, exploration, and domain rules from the D&D BECMI Expert and Companion sets. I want it to be a West Marches style sandbox game in which the players have a rough map of a region that is filled with ancient ruins, the strongholds of many minor lords, and several factions with hidden plans that they are working on. It is up to the players which of these elements they want to focus on and pursue, and the story of the campaign will consist of whatever consequences that will come from the players’ actions. There will be no script. Only faction leaders with their clearly specified goals, strongholds, and minions at their disposal. To that end, I believe the random tables to generate Court Sites and small ruins and dungeons fom Red Tide will be a fantastic resource.

After a many year infatuation with Frank Frazetta style barbarians and dinosaurs, I am planning a return to that very original idea of imagining a world in the style of 2nd edition Forgotten Realms but at a much earlier points in history. This means a world more in the style of Lerry Elmore and Tim Hildebrandt, full of rich green primeval forests and golden sunlight. But below (and beyond) that vibrant natural world lie the lands and places that predate the light of the sun and stars. These realms of the primordials are much more inspired by the dark blue of Bloodborne, Darkest Dungeon, Hollow Knight, and Thief, and their take on supernatural forces and beings. Which is a pretty strong contrast, but the more I’ve been playing with those ideas the more I think they actually make a very evocative combination. This incarnation of Kaendor has no demons, divine servants, or hells or godly realms. The supernatural world consists of just the primordials that predate the natural environment and the spirits that are part of it. These spirit can be quite demonic in their apearance and often weild powers over fire, but they are still very much beings of the forests and mountains that are their homes.

For a long time I really wanted to run campaigns in a Bronze Age setting, but I feel that concept never actually came across in the campaigns that I have run. With the earlier versions of the Forgotten Realms now being a stronger inspiration again, I am returning to a more medieval style again. But since I played a lot of Age of Empires II last winter, I’ve developed a new obsessive fascination with the 5th century era of Europe, where the last years of Antiquity transition into the start of the early Middle Ages. It’s the time of the Lombards, Goths, and Huns, who are basically Iron Age barbarian peoples who take over control of much of the failing Roman Empire, and create the first medieval societies in the process. It’s not classically ancient and not classically medieval. A bit of both, but also a bit something completely different from either. Which I think makes it a great reference pool for a setting that should feel like a completely separate world instead of generic medieval Europe with magic.

One thing that always strongly evoked the sense of a world being very far back in ancient times is to not have much in the way of classic kingdoms or empires. Instead, the main centers of civilization are a small number of city states whose direct area of control reaches only two or three days’ travel beyond their city walls at the most. Beyond that lies a vast, sparsely settled expanse in which small farming villages cluster around a hill fort town or the stronghold of a local warlord whose men can protect their turf from raids by neighboring domains or brigands. This is very much in the spirit of BECMI and the early Forgotten Realms, but I think that D&D had largely forgotten about that aspect as the fashion of RPGs changed throughout the 90s.

In a world with very few actual armies and fighting mostly taking place between minor lords or chiefs gathering a few dozen of their retainers with their men at arms (who are primarily wealthy farmers for most of the year), mercenaries have a lot of opportunities to make a living. And player characters are very much intended to be actual mercenary bands rather than adventuring parties. Traveling long distances through the wilderness while carrying both all their heavy gear needed to do their jobs and all the supplies for the journey means that it really isn’t an option to travel without several pack animals and camp followers that will wait in the relative safety outside while the PCs descend into dangerous ancient ruins. This is a play format that also works very well with having larger numbers of players who won’t be present to play in every game that is being run. PCs of absent players can always be assumed to be guarding the camp or the group’s temporary base or permanent stronghold, and are ready to drop back into the action at any moment.

One thing that has always been very central to my campaigns is that the world is dominated by wilderness that is not only vast, but also full of ancient ruined towers and strongholds. Since civilization is always very small and the influence of the spirits and the elements is always present and often chaotic, settlements and areas of habitation keep moving around a lot, and have always been. Few settlements are more than a few centuries old, and traces of much older settlements abandoned long ago can be found anywhere. Most towns are build in places that had once been home to a different people that left the area long ago for one reason and another. And sometimes these old remnants are much more ancient than any people alive could even imagine. There are several main layers of habitation that cover the wilderness of Kaendor whose creators are now largely unknown. But the further down one digs, the more inhuman their builders appear to get. Noticing the differences between ruins, and different depths of the same ruins, is something that I want to make a prominent feature in the exploration of ancient places that helps piecing together the places’ histories and getting hints of what strange powers might still be lingering in them.

It’s all a concept I am super excited about and I can’t wait to see this world getting back into action again.

Making custom hex grid sheets for drawing hexmaps

I always had a lot of fun converting existing gridless maps into hex maps in GIMP, and I really like the way they look at the end. But trying to design a map that looks interesting and pretty in GIMP or Photoshop is just a joyless chore in general and only gets worse if you try working on a hex grid. While it’s nice that you can erase anything you draw without smudging, the process of using an eraser in software always takes way too long and too many steps. It’s just not been working for me.

So I decided to make an investment in time and money to get myself some nice big sheets of hex grid paper that I can free hand draw on with pencil. It’s always been much easier and faster to just sketch and erase outline until I get the shapes into an arrangement that I like. I can then scan the final map that I like and put it through my hex map conversion process like I did with my other hexmaps.

After some searching and asking around for the best way to do this, I got a recommendation for Free Online Graph Paper / Hexagonal. This is a really neat tool. It allows you to set custom dimensions for whatever paper you want to print on, size of the hexes, size of a blank border, and strength of the lines. It then exports the file as a pdf, which I believe stores the grid in vectors instead of pixels, so it will remain sharp regardless of how much you zoom it.

The default setting for line width is 0.7 mm, which I thought sounded a bit chunky. So I made a file with line with 0.7, 0.5, and 0.3 mm each, with the dimensions of A2 sheets which we use in Germany, and took them to a printer. I had one sheet printed of each of them, and liking the 0.5 mm best had a bunch more of those printed as well.

I really like the way they came out. (Which doesn’t come out so well in my photo.) I think 0.5 mm lines will work best for the way I want to use these. But when making maps to use at the table, either for GM notes or as a player handout, and you want to use it to track the exact position of the party as it travels, I think 0.7 mm might be better visible. Especially when you color in different areas.

The only downside with the whole approach is that the price the printer was asking for a simple printer paper print in A2 size was ridiculous. Yes, they want to make their money back on that printer that can handle oversized paper and probably do much fancier things than just grayscale on printer paper. But 4€ per sheet is ridiculous. But if you’re going to make these on regular A4 sheets on your home printer, this method is probably as cheap a way to get nice custom hex grid paper as it gets.

An Interpretation of Dragonbane’s Resting rules

Going through the mechanics for Journeys in Dragonbane, I came upon this rule in the section on resting:

“A shift rest lasts one full shift of time and can only take place in a safe location where there are no enemies nearby.”

Other rules in the Journeys section indicate pretty strongly that the writer assumes anywhere that isn’t inside a dungeon to be a safe location. But personally, I wouldn’t consider pitching a tent in the goblin hills or spider woods to be “in a safe location”. Ultimately, what is safe enough to allow the PCs to rest is at the discretion of the GM.

For the Woodland Vales system, I really want to players to set up proper base camps while exploring a stretch of wilderness, where they can store their food and other supplies, as well as the heavy treasures they find under the guard of their hirelings who also take care of the pack animals. Using a more severe interpretation of what constitutes a safe place for the purposes of resting immediately makes this a much greater necessity without really touching the rest of the Dragonbane rules at all.

Similar to the havens (I think that’s the term) in The One Ring, finding the home of a friendly NPC, the shrine of a benevolent spirit, or an abandoned tower with intact walls can be a hugely beneficial discovery. A location secure enough to regain all HP and WP and remove all your conditions becomes a key resource for the ability to delve further into the unknown wilds. Without it, you can only get four Round Rests to recover 1d6 WP and four Stretch Rests to recover 1d6 WP and HP per day.

A less severe approach to this is to assign all outdoor areas a security rating of safe, wild, and dangerous. In a wild area, the Bushcraft roll to find a suitable camp site for making a Shift Rest is made normally. But in a safe area it is rolled with a boon and in a dangerous area with a bane. In a dangerous area you might still be able to find the occasional safe campsite to make a Shift Rest, but with a bane (roll twice, take the worse result) it would be quite unpredictable which nights you will be able to. Even with this house rule, any place that is reliable secure and does not require Bushcraft checks at all would still be a very valuable resource.

Why play D&D 3rd Edition instead of 5th?

I’ve recently been again captured by the charm of the 2003 Forgotten Realms book Unapproachable East. It came out right after the released of the revised 3.5e edition, but still feels in many way like the tone and style of of the earlier books. Back in the day when the revised rules came out, I was very much in love with the changes, and so was pretty much everyone else I knew about. Even though the changes to the rules were not that severe, the people at WotC used the opportunity to make new versions of many of the splatbooks to begin a stylistic remodeling of D&D, which in hindsight was one of the biggest shifts in feel and tone that D&D ever did. Instead of simply dividing D&D’s different phases of identity into TSR old school (1974-1999) and WotC new school (2000-present), I think we could just as well split it into Oldschool D&D (1974-1983), Middle Period (1984-2002), and Dungonpunk (2003-present).

I find myself having a lot of nostalgia for 3rd edition books from the first three years, but feel absolutely nothing for Eberron-Pathfinder period. I actually really like Wayne Reynolds’ art style, but it doesn’t mesh with the kind of fantasy campaign I want to actually play.

So these last days I’ve been pondering the admittedly very silly idea of perhaps maybe running another game with the original version of the 3rd Edition rules 20 years later. No rational reasons for that choice, just plain, straightforward nostalgia. Over the years, people have been looking back at the changes made by the rules revision, and a good number of people have shared the opinion that many of the apparent improvements actually made the game worse. There’s even some really fringe weirdos who think the original version is actually better suited to running and playing a modern D&D game with a more oldschool approach.

But this morning, I had for a moment a thought that maybe, I could even run the campaign idea I am pondering simply with 5th edition and call it a day. But I soon remembered several reasons why 3rd Edition is still beating out both 3.5e and 5th edition as the rules that feel the most right:

  • Damage reduction in 3rd Ed. only cares about the modifier of the main enchantment of a weapon to overcome. A +3 weapon will go through the DR of any enemy who has DR against +3, +2, +1, and silver weapons. No need for a golf bag of different blades for different types of enemies. Also, having a plain +2 sword can be a visible game changer instead of just a +1 increase to attack and damage from your previous weapon.
  • Damage reduction and energy resistance in 3rd Ed. tends to block very large amounts of damage to the point of easily outright cancelling an attack instead of just making it less efficient. This means more situations where an enemy is close to invulnerable to what the players can throw at it, and that require them to come up with unusual out of the box solution instead of just brute force attacking.
  • In 5th edition, demons, aboleths, and other big critters lost almost all of their spells that make fighting them different from oversized ogres.
  • The low-levels in 5th edition are stupid. That’s the fun part of the game, not something that should be rushed through as fast as possible.
  • Even with just the PHB, 3.5e and 5th edition try to put cool new special abilities into every level of every class, creating a much stronger incentive to get deeply invested in character builds. Class level tables looking boring and empty in 3rd Ed. is something I regard as an advantage.
  • Concentration in 5th edition really changes the fiction of how Forgotten Realms used to work in its original presentation.
  • When you invite players to join a 5th edition game, they want to play tiefling bards, dragonborn paladins, and githyanki warlocks. Even when you specifically tell them in advance that this version of the Forgotten Realms is not that kind of setting.

Non-rule Rules in my Campaigns

Someone asked on Enworld about informal conventions and customs in people’s games that go beyond the mechanical rules of the game system, and it occurred to me that I actually have quite a lot of those. Might as well share the list here:

  • My campaigns are set up to be about exploring the world, not the characters. Adventures are expeditions by the party, not personal stories. Players are free to drop in and out of the campaign without disrupting the campaign too much. As long as three players make it to the game, we play.
  • When making characters for the campaign, there’s only two hard rules they have to follow: Every PC must want to go exploring dangerous places, and has to want to cooperate with the party for this. Antisocial loners who are reluctant to go on adventures are simply not viable for the campaign.
  • Create characters with the assumption that they will probably die in some dark hole from an accident or getting stabbed by a nameless critter and that you might go through two, three, or even more characters before the campaign wraps up.
  • Since PCs are replaceable and to some degree interchangeable, backstory is something that the players can create to help deciding on their characters’ personality and stats. It won’t normally be relevant in play.
  • When players want to take an action against other PCs, (attacking PCs or messing with their possessions) the offending players have to openly state the actions their characters are contemplating. It is then up to the defending players alone to decide if the offending PC goes through with the action or not. If the defending players decide on on, then the offending players have to accept that their PCs decide not to do it.
  • My role as GM of the campaign is to facilitate the game for the players. I try my best to provide a world that has places to explore and treasures and wonders to find, and villainous NPCs who are doing their villainous things which the players can choose to try to topple and drive out if they want to. I’ll describe what the PCs see, answer questions about the world, and try to make NPCs react plausibly to what the players are doing, given the resources and powers I’ve written up for them.
  • As GM, I don’t have a stake what’s going to happen in the campaign. I describe the situation to the players, the players state what they want to do, we run that input through the mechanics of the game, and I interpret the output of the dice to describe the new situation. I just run the game computer, I don’t plot or conduct the adventures.
  • Everyone can die. All NPCs and monsters have their stats fixed, and the game mechanics and dice decide which attacks and spells succeed and what effect they have. If the big bad dies in the first round or the party gets wiped, that’s the story that is playing out.
  • I will always try my best to make anything that could potentially kill a PC visibly look like a real threat. I want players to always make a conscious choice to put their characters into mortal danger. It will never appear suddenly without warning.
  • Retreat or surrender are almost always an option. (Though the players still need to work to pull it off.) Encounters are not dialed in to ensure the players can win.
  • The requirements for progress on character advancement are objectively stated as standard mechanics of the game, or defined at the start of a quest. Progress points are gained when those requirements are met, in the specified amounts.
  • Any die that falls off the table automatically counts as failure against the player’s favor.
  • Only the GM can call for a roll. Players can not announce a roll.
  • Every roll that will lead to an immediately visible result for the PCs is rolled in the open.
  • For random events like Wandering Monster encounters or a rotten bridge collapsing, the roll is a single die with the probability of “1 in N”. The standing rule is “Something always happens on a 1”. What is going to happen on a 1 is specified before the roll is made. The die is rolled by a player. (Which makes it clear that what happens is not the GM’s personal preferred outcome.)

Dungeons & Dragonbane

While I love Dragonbane precisely because it’s not Dungeons & Dragons, while still providing mechanics and content to represent similar kinds of fantasy worlds, there are a few things from D&D that I really love and want to carry over into Dragonbane anyway.

Reaction Rolls

I really love the B/X reaction rolls. It’s one of my favorite game mechanics. Any time the PCs encounter creatures or armed people in the wilderness or a ruin, and their disposition hasn’t already been determined by previous events, roll 2d6 to see how they react to seeing the party:

  • 2: They see the PCs as enemies and attack.
  • 3-5: They are hostile and threaten attack if the PCs don’t leave or surrender.
  • 6-8: They are uncertain and observe what the PCs do.
  • 9-11: They don’t want trouble and will avoid confrontation.
  • 12: They are friendly and might offer information or assistance.

PCs approaching a brigand camp might be mistaken for bandits who want to join or expected reinforcements and told to come inside. A troll might be friendly and offer to share his roasted dwarf. Lots of interesting situations that can happen if you don’t start encounters without the expectation that it obviously has to be a fight. And once the players get used to it, it changes how they approach creatures and people who haven’t spotted them yet.

Morale Checks

Plenty of armed and dangerous people might be willing to risk the chance of getting killed and to accept that some of their allies will get killed. But it is extremely rare for people to stay in a fight where their own death is certain and there’s nothing to be gained from it. Most fights should end with the losing side making an effort to escape with their lives.

But when you decide as GM that the enemies will break off the fight at a specific moment in the action, the players might always suspect that you were going easy on them because some PCs would have gotten killed if the enemy had fought on a bit longer. And that creates the expectation that you’ll probably do it again if their PCs are getting in real danger, and causes frustration when their character’s don’t get saved by a fortuitous enemy retreat.

Making a dice roll in the open solves all of that. Make the dice decide when the enemy loses morale and then stick to what the dice said. I like to roll when the first enemy is killed (or looks to have been killed), when the enemy leader is killed, and every time the enemy group is reduced by half.

Roll 2d6 against a morale value between 3 and 11 works for B/X, and I think it should work just as well for Dragonbane.

Random Encounters

Dragonbane already proposes to make a roll for a random encounter once per shift when in the Wilderness. I would also make a roll once per stretch while inside dungeons.


I really like the concept of having the PCs travel to ancient ruins deep in the wilderness with a group of camp followers. Not exactly sure how to implement that yet, but that’s something I want to have in my campaign.

Divine Sites

The BECMI Companion rules introduced the concept of Clan Relics. Powerful mystical objects that allow their keepers to activate a number of divine spells and create a magical ward that keeps away undead and demons. The idea was to let nonhuman settlements have access to the powers of a cleric in a game system where only humans could be of the cleric class. While there is no such thing as a cleric class in Dragonbane, I still really love the idea that there are powerful magical sites associated with particular deities or divine spirits that provide mystical protection for settlements that grow around them, and draw pilgrims who seek the special blessings of the shrine or temple. The priests tending to such a site don’t even have to have spells of their own.

Domain Lords

The Expert Rules imply through their mechanics and recommendations for designing a setting a world in which there is little centralized authority, and the typical social structure that is encountered consists of a lord and his soldiers in a keep providing security for a few small villages in the surrounding area. I always thought that was really cool and evocative, and something that should mesh very well with the tone and presentation of Dragonbane.