The Game of my Imagination

As far as I am able to tell, I started working on a concept for a fantasy setting that eventually developed into Kaendor in its current state at least 15 years ago. For most of these years, it’s been my primary hobby and I surely must have spend well over 10,000 hours on it by now. I’ve run five different campaigns in various versions of the world so far, but I always felt like the things that make the world so special to me did not really come through in the adventures that the player’s got to experience. From what I remember, I always fell back on well established, conventional D&D adventure setups, and the players probably did not see much of a difference.

I have come to think that one probable cause of this might be the fact that the mental images that I am dreaming up about Kaendor are not exactly gameable content. What I am seeing when I am thinking about what my perfect fantasy world would be like are primarily stunning environments, but also fantastic creatures and interesting cultures. But what I am not really seeing in my imagination are stories, characters, or events. Amazing lairs for great monsters or villains perhaps, and even really cool setups for exciting fight scenes. But I never really had any success coming up with interesting people, hidden plots, grand designs, or escalating conflicts.

The world that is emerging from my imagination and creativity is one that would be stunning to behold, and perhaps fascinating to read travel guides about. But that’s not exactly gameable content. Not if the kind of gameplay I am interested in is about descending into dark and dangerous places and facing off against strange and terrifying beasts. Gazing out over a magnificent landscape from the porch of your comfortable little hut is not a game or an adventure.

I think if I would ever get bored with this RPG stuff, I would make a much better fantasy painter than a fantasy writer.

This has been my desktop background for most of the last 20 years, on at least six different computers.

However, I’ve been thinking last week that perhaps there could be forms of fun and exciting adventure play that still draw upon those aesthetics and sensibilities that are fueling my imagination. And I was quite surprised by the amount of engagement that my idle thoughts on the subject got on Mastodon. And so here we are, with a more in depth explanation of the general ideas I have been entertaining.

A Campaign Aesthetic

The core sensibility that is underlying the entire worldbuilding for Kaendor is the idea of being in this vast world of barely explored and largely uninhabited wilderness, which is full of amazing and alien creatures that are different from the generic European and North American wildlife of typical fantasy worlds. The forests and mountains are covered in grand ancient ruins that hold great magical wonders and mysteries. The world is wild and rugged and dominated by powerful natural forces, but also quiet, timeless, and pleasant. I guess you could say, romantic. A fantasy of a world that is simultaneously exciting and peaceful.

This is not an aesthetic that lends itself to complex intrigues or sprawling conflicts that cover the world in war and threaten it with destruction. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be exploring treacherous ruins and battling with leathal monsters. Taking stupid risks to discover something magical, and to take on great tasks to establish a place of quiet comfort in the middle of a rugged wilderness are spot on for the core ideals of Romanticism.

And I have in fact come across at least two cases where people have managed successfully to create engaging games that are catering to these very sentiments. The survival sandbox videogames Conan Exiles and Kenshi. Yes, the world of Conan is hyper violent and filled with manly men doing manly things. And manly women doing manly things. And the planet Kenshi is violent post-apocalyptic wasteland. But even with all the blood and grime, Sword & Sorcery and Wasteland Fiction are still fundamentally expressions of Romanticism.

Now both of these games gain a lot of their aesthetic payout from their visual presentation. Even though their graphics aren’t anything special, their visual design can often be gorgeous. This is something that obviously doesn’t translate to the medium of roleplaying games. No matter how much GMs might want to indulge in flowery environmental descriptions. But I think one of the key gameplay elements of both Conan Exiles and Kenshi that appeals to the romantic ideal is the construction of completely custom build home bases in nearly any spot you might want to pick. It’s the fantasy of carving out your own little corner of the world where you can shape everything exactly to your personal ideal. But for that you first have to acquire the resources that are needed to construct those buildings, and to neutralize the threat of dangerous creatures and hostile neighbors that also roam the area. And it’s in these encounters with the other actors that stand in your way of having the house of your dreams and enjoying it in peace that you can have the most amazing adventures. Adventures that are not scripted stories about uncovering the cool things some of the GM’s NPCs have already done, but instead constantly evolving sequences of making choices and dealing with the consequences of those choices. The kind of emerging stories that RPGs are uniquely capable of telling. The kind of adventures where RPGs as a medium can really shine.

I could talk for hours about my earliest adventures in Kenshi, which are some of the greatest experiences I ever had in any kinds of games. How two of my guys got separated from the rest in a bandit ambush and were spending the entire night hiding in a ditch with broken legs, only meters away from where the bandits had set up their campfires, blocking the narrow mountain pass to the stronghold where their friends had found safety. Or how the gang was desperately trying to finish the wall around their first compound before a group of approaching raiders reached them, only for the concrete mixer refusing to work because the previously constant winds had completely died down and the lone wind turbine refused to spin. Or how the compound later changed hands between my gang and bandits seven times, as each side was able to kick out the current occupants and chase them into the desert, but then was too beaten up to hold it when the next assault came.

And those are just the ones that happened from random encounters with the lowest level enemy type in the game, still within site of the starting town.

Dungeons & Dragons has toyed many times throughout its history with the idea of higher level PCs establishing their own stronghold in the wilderness. While a very cool sounding idea, from what I heard from people who played a lot when this mode of play was featured prominently in the rulebooks, this apprently saw only very little actual play. Many reasons have been hypothesized for this, but the most compelling sounding ones focus on the fact that the idea was to switch play from dungeon crawling to domain management, and that this was a switch that would be rather sudden, but also only very late in a campaign. And I think it wasn’t helped either by the rules for running a domain being a single player undertaking rather than a group activity as the dungeon crawling play.

A Campaign Structure

A good home base system should become part of the gameplay fairly early on in the campaign. It should supplement rather than replace the expeditions into the strange and dangerous wilderness, and it shouldn’t mean the end of the players playing together as a party. But I also think that the idea of becoming a ruler and dealing with government work and managing taxes doesn’t really appeal to the romantic fantasy of establishing your personal dream house overlooking the landscape.

So I am proposing a different kind of campaign structure that might work better to accomodate and evoke the themes I outlined above:

The PCs are individuals who for one reason or another chose to leave behind their old homes to seek their fortune in the borderlands, on the very edges of the lands that are explored and settled. These borderlands are a fairly conventional sandbox with a lot of old ruins and monster lairs scattered around. Theres both gold and silver to be found and ancient magic items and forgotten spells. New magic items can be made, but the process is complicated, slow, and expensive, which makes the dangerous activity of recovering lost items a worthwhile undertaking. Searching for magic items should be the main premise of the campaign, and the default activity for players to engage in if they don’t have anything else that is demanding their attention right now.

So far, so ordinary. But what I am thinking is to set things up in a way that establishing a permanent home base, and perhaps aditional base camps, somewhere in the sandbox would make the searches much more efficient. Places to store supplies. To safely lock away your money. Where you can produce the tools and other equipment that you’ll be using on your expedition. Where you can stable your pack animals and house your hirelings.

Exploring ruins in the wilderness is the main hook. But establishing a base should become a highly attractive measure to pursue that primary goal. Typically, that base is assumed to be a small castle staffed by the PCs’ hirelings. With settlers being recruited to set up farms nearby, whose tax payments will support the castle’s expenses. But you can really only have one lord who rules the domain, and theb you’re also required to deal with administration.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, the home base could also be a village. Potentially a quite dispersed one. Simply by making the surrounding area more secure, the players could make the village more attractive to new settlers. And as the settlement grows in size, new services become available that the players can use. Animal breeders to increase the amount of pack animals that can be bought in any given time period. Potion makers who sell potions. Sages who can help deciphering clues about undiscovered treasure hoards. And of course an increasing stream of hirelings that can be recruited. Players can then each pick individually if they want their PCs to build some grand villa, or instead live in a shack half an hour away from the village square.

And that’s about all that I got so far. Not terribly much yet, but I think it’s a direction that might be interesting to explore.

Shadows of Kaendor

I decided that for Lore 24, I will be going with my Kaendor setting again. While I’ve been working with it for years and even ran a few short campaigns in it, the vast majority of that campaign setting exist only as very short mental notes in my head. Barely anything is actually spelled out about its current incarnation, and the parts that do exist are mostly rather vague and remaining at the stage of an idea outline. Lore 24 seems to be the perfect opportunity to turn those ideas and impressions in my mind into actual, concrete setting material.

While my current vision of Kaendor has a surface appearance that is deliberately a fairly generic elfgame Fantasyland, it also has some pretty major divergences. Whose gradual discovery by the PCs as they leave the familiar grounds of civilization is meant to be the central theme and core concept of the campaign setting. I feel that many of the things I want to write down for Lore 24 won’t be able to be really appreciated without any context for the world that they are meant to exist in. And so I want to use this post to provide a general, top level overview of the world, covering the main parameter that are already fairly set in stone.

Since I got a lot of ideas for a new campaign set in Kandor from several D&D 3rd edition books, it seems the most sensible approach to me to simply plan this out as a 3rd edition campaign. A large number of things I want to have in this world already exist in game terms for this system, and it is a game that I am very familiar with and feel very confident with for creating new creature abilities, spells, and unique mechanics.

Shadows of Kaendor is written as a setting for a D&D 3rd edition campaign covering 1st to 10th level, that also is home to a few NPCs up to 12th level. It uses the following books for character creation and advancement options, and for optional rules and mechanics:

  • Player’s Handbook
  • Expanded Psionics Handbook
  • Manual of the Planes
  • Monster Manual
  • Monsters of Faerun
  • Lords of Madness

Other influences and inspirations are taken from the AD&D adventure The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, and from Bloodborne, Thief, and Hollow Knight, which should become apparent further below.

The continent of Kaendor is populated by the following peoples, using the creature stats in the brackets (PC options in bold):

  • Snow People (high elf)
  • Fog People (wood elf)
  • Forest People (high elf)
  • Mountain People (goliath)
  • Coast People (gray elf)
  • Sea People (aquatic elf)
  • Plains People (half-elf)
  • Chitines
  • Gnolls
  • Goblins
  • Grimlocks
  • Locathah (amphibious)
  • Ogers
  • Quaggoths
  • Wind People (avariel)

Player characters and NPCs can be of the following classes:

  • Barbarian
  • Cleric
  • Cloistered Cleric
  • Druid
  • Fighter
  • Psion (psionic)
  • Ranger
  • Rogue
  • Wilder (psionic)
  • Wizard

There will be no prestige classes in the campaign.

Unlike most D&D settings, the world consists of only a small number of planes:

  • Material Plane.
  • Plane of Faerie, the realm of fey and elementals.
  • Plane of Shadow. (Also covers all the functions of the Ethereal Plane.)
  • Unknown Planes beyond the Shadow, the realms of aberrations.

Kaendor is a large coastal region that ranges from Mediterranean climate in the south to sub-arctic in the north. Its civilization is fairly young and accordingly only very sparsely populated. The society and technology is roughly oriented towards the very early Middle Ages. at the end of the Migrtation Period in the 6th and 7th century. Weapons and armor are dominated by one handed swords and axes, spears, bows, chainmail shirts, simple helmets, and round wooden shields. Architecture is very Romanesque in style. In many ways, society has much more resemblance with the images of Celtic and Viking culture than the large kingdoms of the High Middle Ages, though there are a number of fairly powerful and sophisticated coastal city states.

Most larger towns have a low level adept as their priest or shaman, with clerics mostly found in the great temples of the major cities. Wizards are not exactly common, but in most places the locals will be able to give directions to at least one wizard within two or three days’ walk that they have heard of. The vast majority of NPCs are 1st to 6th level, with those of higher level invariably being people of some fame beyond their immediate community.

Shadows of Kaendor does not use sorcerers (or bards). Instead the role of these spellcasters is being filled by Wilders. These are rare people with a special gift that allows them to peer through the surface of the world and gaze at the true nature of reality, enabling them to master doing, seeing, and knowing certain things that should be impossible. To most people these powers seem like magic, but the truth is far more complex and far reaching than that. Psions are scholars who have learned of these occult truth, and through study and meditation have gained access and far greater understanding of these powers that come to wilders naturally. While wilders, and also psions, have been around for a very long time, most people who encounter their powers are mistaken them for magic spells, including even many wizards.

Instead of the much more common sorcerers and demons from a hellish realm of fire that take the role of the supernatural forces of evil, this aspect of Kaendor is occupied by eldritch aberrations that have long been forgotten in the eternal darkness beyond the borders of this world. Exploring these aspects of the setting will obviously lead into the dark and creepy, but Shadows of Kaendor is not meant to turn into a gory horror campaign of bleak despair. It’s still meant to be a world where adventuring heroes can drive back the strange terrors they face off against and emerge from the darkness victories.

Though safety is not guaranteed.

Fun with Mapbashing, and perhaps a map for the new Kaendor

Maybe I should just make peace with being that map guy who keeps excitedly posting about new map doodles that I’ll mostly never be using for any campaigns?

I was, once again, feeling unhappy with the latest maps for Kaendor that I made over the last week since the coast lines look too square and there’s too many big blank areas that are just forest with no further detail. So I went looking again for very large maps of the natural geography of the Earth to see if I find any regions with an interesting topography that I could use as references. And I realized that a map of the world looks really weird and barely recognizable when you simply mirror it.

I really like that look (even with the heavy stretching at the poles) and think that this would make a great global map for Kaendor. Zooming in on East (now West) Asia, I noticed that the overall layout of the coastlines already has a very similar general arrangement and my various sketches for Kaendor maps have had for the last two years or so now.

Southeast Asia happens to be where I always placed the huge jungles of Kemesh where the remnants of the ancient naga empires are barely holding on. But making all the small seas between the Indonesian island into dry land (which was once the case), there’s now just precisely the vast jungles that I wanted in that place. The cool thing about this is that I can still use all the mountain ranges in that region as a fast method to have a perfectly plausible topography.

I also decided to greatly simplify the islands of the First Island Chain because I think those would stand out too obviously as being just a mirrored map of Asia. And it also will save me a lot of work with very fiddly details.

A map at the scale above is way too big for any practical uses in any single campaign, and even covering that area on a 30-mile hex map would be ridiculously huge. As a map for Kaendor, I already changed the scale to 75% the lengths of distances (which means 56% the total area), just so that I can fit more interesting squiggly coastlines on the cool A2, 30-mile hex sheets I made. For the Kaendor ’24 campaign, I instead want to focus just on the central area shown below. But having that large, zoomed out map with little detail at hand as a reference will surely come super handy when it comes to adding mentions about distant lands and peoples beyond the known world to the setting. And if at some point in the future I might want to fully map out some of those areas in the same higher detail, it will all already be geographically consistent with whatever mentions and references I had used before.

And this is the area that I plan to turn into a fully worked out 30-mile hex map. Having all the mountain ranges and rivers already in place, and being able to look up images of the real landscapes, really helps a lot with inspiring ideas to what details I could fill this map with. I even can look up climate data if I want to, though with the map now flipped, wind directions and the corresponding rain patterns would not match up perfectly. But I think the climate of Europa and East Asia happens to be similar enough that it doesn’t even bother this one geography mega-nerd who surely is the only person to pay a single thought to this.

I’m having a lot of fun with this, and I am feeling really good (though I always do that) about this maybe being the final geography layout for Kaendor. With the arrangement being so similar to what I already established about the geography in the past, it should be really easy to copy all the locations over on this map without much breaking.

Foundations of a new Kaendor

Having a blast with working on Kaendor and things really falling into place now, and feeling like doing one of my reference pile showoffs again.

Mentally I’m having the image “George Lucas and Jim Henson produced an AD&D movie in 1989, shot in the Sierra Nevada”.

Thief Dark Project

This is quite a departure from the world of my previous campaigns and I feel it’s basically a new setting at this point. But it also is such a strong return to the original ideas that I had in mind when I created the name Kaendor that I want to keep using it anyway. This is now much closer to what I wanted to do all the way back before it ran away from me to turn into a more Conanesque Sword & Sorcery setting.

And looking back up to the cover of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting box again, I see why Forgotten Realms/Bloodborne feels like such a nice combination. Galadriel vs. Cthulhu will be the greatest shit ever!

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.