The Cold Lands of the Unapproachable East

I know I shouldn’t…

So many campaign ideas, so little time. Actually, I have lots of time, I just like tinkering with new ideas so much I rarely really commit to seeing them through.

Back in November, I had taken the time to sit down and actually fully read through the original 1st edition Campaign Set for Forgotten Realms. And I found the world presented in it to really be much more inspiring and exciting in how it provides hooks for the GM to work with, in contrast to the bloated mess of pastoral quaintness and cartoony heroics it balooned into over the years and decades that followed. The first edition Campaign Set and sourcebook are really quite sparse on specific details, but that’s precisely what makes them useful tools for a GM to create a campaign, rather than big piles of homework you have to read and memorize to run your campaign correctly. Back then I was tinkering with some ideas to run another campaign in the Savage Frontier of the northern Sword Coast, but when it came to actually creating adventure content for players to play with, I found it somewhat lacking in actual stuff to do. All the stuff that I thought was really cool about the area seemed like it would be good for higher level parties, but I couldn’t really think about anything interesting to for a group of fresh explorers coming into the area for the first time, and so lost interest in the idea pretty quickly.

But reading the entire Campaign Set did also get me interested again in the Northeast region of Faerûn. And of all the campaign sourcebooks I ever had, the Unapproachable East for 3rd edition is a strong contender for my favorite sourcebook ever. I’ve loved it since I first got it when it came out, and it’s one of the few books I’ve kept around the entire time since getting rid of the big pile of D&D crap I had gathered over the years. But I never actually got around to use it and run any adventures in that part of the Forgotten Realms. Preparing myself for the worst, I checked the inside cover today. This book came out in 2003! I’ve never got around to use this setting in 19 years. I mean, I still got decades of campaigns ahead of me, but it’s really getting time to finally do this!

The area I am eying covers the regions called the Unapproachable East, the Cold Lands, and the Bloodstone Lands in various sources from different editions. There are Aglarond, Damara, the Great Vale, Impiltur, Narfell, Rashemen, Thay, and Thesk. There are good reasons why one could also include Vaasa and the Vast as being in this part of the world, but I think they are much more culturally oriented towards the Moonsea and Sembia and you have to make the cut somewhere.

Two thousand years ago, most of this area except for Aglarond and most of Thay made up the territory of the ancient Demonbinders of Narfell. To the East lay the lands of their great rivals of Raumathar, and after centuries of war the to civilizations completely destroyed each other with their dark sorcerous magic. Civilization never really returned to these lands in the centuries that followed and nearly all major settlements in this part of the world are found on the shores of the Sea of Fallen Stars and southern Thay.

Based on the map and the description of the peoples, I interpret this region as being stongly influenced by Southeast Europe around the Black Sea and Caspian Sea and the Carpathian and Caucasus Mountains. The Rashemi are a vague blend of Norse and Slavic influences, which actually does resemble the Rus who lived along the Dneipr in the Middle Ages. And the Nar tribes in the very north have some resemblance to Tartars. And the Endless Wastes to the east of the region are an explicit stand-in for the Eurasian Steppe, at one point having a big Mongol Horde adventure based around it. Staying with these cultural and geographic influences, I think it would be interesting to base the Great Dale on Lithuania, and the port cities of Impiltur or German merchant settlements on the Baltic Sea. The big elephant in the room is of course Thay. I think the best source for influences for Thay would actually be Persia, but I don’t really want to have a campaign in which the single Iranian nation is the evil empire threatening all their European neighbors. But instead I think it could be really cool to present Thay as an evil magocratic version of Byzantium. Not quite 100% sure how that would look like, but I think it sounds really quite fun.

The main media influence that pops to my mind when imagining this setting is The 13th Warrior. And you can never go wrong with this one! It is the most pure essence of oldschool D&D you’ll ever see on film. I also imagine it in ways very similar to my mental image of most of the Elric stories I’ve read, but I think they are pretty sparse on environment descriptions so other people might be imagining something very different. While I was looking at the cropped out map above for a long while, I was starting to see the vague outlines of Skyrim. Which I think actually fits perfectly as a reference point. I can absolutely see Whiterun as Thesk and Falkreath as the Great Vale. Solitude would work as a city in Impiltur and Riften as Telflamm. Wight infested Nord tombs would be perfect as the graves of Nar sorcerers, with Dragon Priests taking the role of undead Nar demonbinders. Oh, and the Companions are totally a Rashemi berserker lodge. And Red Wizards are like Thalmor, just saying.

To sum it up, my interpretation of this setting is The 13th Warrior in Skyrim on the Dneipr.

Even though I don’t want to set up this campaign as an oldschool hexcrawl, I also really don’t want to go back to the dark days of writing the players a big epic fantasy novel to act out. It still has to be a sandbox. While I was somewhat lost regarding what a new party of low level PCs could be doing in The Savage Frontier, I think this part of the Realms actually has some really good potential as a setting for just roaming around and exploring while having run-ins with the locals along the way. I wasn’t really sure what to do with ruins of ancient Illefarn in the great river valleys of the North that have been farmland for thousands of years. But the East comes across to me as a region that is much more remote and drastically less populated. Once you leave the coastal port cities behind, you’re out in the wilderness. And once you step off the few big trade roads, there’s no telling what you might run into. Even though they are long gone, the remains of ancient Narfell looms over everything. The source material conveniently describes a typical Nar ruin as small squat fortifications on the surface with massive labyrinths of underground tunnels beneath them, many of which still hold captured demons. With a great land that was never really resettled, these are perfect for extensive dungeon exploration. And as I mentioned above, old tombs of Nar sorcerers also fit in very well. In addition to that, there’s lots of marshes and swamps (though not shown on the map) and dark forests for hags and mysterious druids.

One thing that I noticed in the 1st edtion Campaign Set is how greatly focused on just humans Forgotten Realms originally was. In the East this is even more the case. Except for Aglarond, there’s never been any elven civilzations in this part of the world. There are a few small dwarf kingdoms in the Earthspur Mountains on the very western edge of the area that I defined, but that’s basically it. There is a population of half-elves deep in the forests of Aglarond that is culturally separate from the human cities on the coast, and there is mention of a few halflings having migrated to the port cities of Impiltur, but that’s the extend of nonhuman peoples in the area. The only exception being several tribes of gnolls who have been serving as mercenaries in the armies of Thay for many generations. There’s not even really mentions of orcs, except for some settled down Zhentarim mercenaries that arrived later in the official timeline (that I am ignoring). While I generally like the idea, having at least some nonhuman people to clash with is always a nice change. Not much mentioned in the sources, but a perfect fit in my opinion are ogers, trolls, and giants. A land of cold plains seems like just the place where you would find fog giants, my favorite kind of giant that I actually never had an opportunity to use. The Sea of Fallen Stars is well known as being home to Sahuagin. I’ve never really seen anything noteworthy done with them, so I think they would be really cool to use as enemies in adventures on the coast. I guess you can never go wrong with goblins either. You can always believe that they are around somewhere without ever deserving explicit mention. Since any kind of reptile people would feel out of place, and chitines are culturally connected to drow, which I really don’t want to have in this campaign, I was thinking of what other kind of cool pulpy humanoids might work here. And I think bullywugs could actually make for really cool main monstrous humanoids in this setting. Not quite as popular and famous as snake-men, ape-man, and mushroom-men, but frog-men are still classic pulp monsters. You just have to present them right. I think in more recent material, bullywugs have often been interpreted as particularly goofy looking goblins. But in their earlier incarnations they had stats basically matching orcs. Frog-orcs who are hiding in the swampy waters and attack with big mouths full of spiky teetch feel like awesome humanoid enemies to me.

Midnight is coming back

I was thinking about some kind of pun for the title, but couldn’t come up with even a stupid one.

Back in the days of the avalance of d20 books based on the D&D 3rd edition, the Midnight campaign setting stood out well above everything else in quality. Though that didn’t seem to make it any more popular. It actually had a number of books with outstanding high production values. I think the only other thing in the same league was the second edition of the Conan d20 game, but that really was just the d20 system with a complete replacement of all content. Midnight on the other hand was still a D&D campaign setting.

And I remember anytime it was brought up in conversations, there was immediately a couple of people agreeing that it was a really cool that would be great to play in. I’m not quite sure when it became the common catchphrase for the game, but it could practically use “If Sauron had won” as its tag line. Everyone who reads about it seems to get this same impression of it.

It’s a pretty generic fantasy world, but somehow the god of evil was cast out of the realm of the gods, with the unforseen consequence that the worlds of the gods and mortals were forever separated. Leaving the god of evil with no real opposition in leading his armies of orcs to a conquest of the mortal lands. Most of the known world is now under the tyrannical occupation of the orc priests, with only the elven forest and a few other places still holding off the siege. There is no real hope that the dark gods forces could ever be driven back.

And apparently, the setting is now being relaunched. The announcement seems to have been a while back, but I only heard about it now. Talk is not about a 5th edition campaign setting but about a Midnight RPG based on 5th edition. I remember the original setting not having any clerics and paladins, since there are no gods, and a special cleric variant for priests of the dark god. Druids and rangers might also have been restricted, and I remember there being a special new spellcasting class that takes their role with a more limited access to magic. So my uninformed guess would be that the new setting is getting it’s own Rulebook that will likely still be pretty much 5th edition, but with all the setting-specifc changes to classes, magic, and races, and new feats already baked in. With it being sold as a game rather than a setting, I also expect it to stick with the original races and not include for example dragonborn and tieflings. Though warlocks would fit perfectly into it. While I doubt there will be a great market for people who want Midnight but don’t have the D&D rulebooks already, having everything in one tome with all the additions and the unavailable stuff removed seemd very useful. That would be at least what I am expecting.

The sad thing about Midnight was that it didn’t really take of back in the day like a good number of people thought it deserved. I thought it looked really cool, but never had a campaign planned myself either. But I feel like this might actually have a decent chance to get some moderate success. I think the kind of product that was being made back then would be pretty popular now. Something like the success of Adventures in Middle-Earth seems quite achievable to me. I might even want to take this one out for a small scale campaign if it turns out well. Unless the press comes out very poorly for it, I will most likely at least get and read it. While 5th edition turned out not to be a suitable game for my setting, I’m not inherently supposed to using it for a campaign it’s suited for. And Midnight should fit it just fine.

Where is the Love?

Flipping through the old 2nd edition Forgotten Realms book again, I was wondering who the artists were that made some of the illustrations in the books. While they are listed in the credits, there’s no attribution to specific images. I wasn’t able to find anything, and thinking about where you might possibly find someone who could know, I checked Discord, and to my surprise, discovered that there isn’t a single Forgotten Realms centered server. At least no public one. I would have thought that there’s at least one with a couple of thousand 5th edition players, but no such thing.

And now that I am thinking about it, I don’t recall ever seeing any forums or fan sites with a focus on the classic Forgotten Realms of AD&D. Which I find strange, because from what I remember, the setting was really huge in the 90s and the 2000s. The 5th edition “version” of the setting doesn’t even deserve the description of an empty shell. There’s only the Sword Coast and Chult, that’s it. And with the mind-boggling timeline advance of 4th edition, and then the quiet abandonment of the newly introduced replacement content, there really isn’t much left of a world in current products.

But that’s still more than the other AD&D campaign settings have been getting. Dark Sun had a short revival in 4th edition, but that’s it. What is surprising me is that there still seems to be a lot of fond love for Spelljammer, Dragonlance, and Dark Sun, and of course Greyhawk, but the original classic Forgotten Realms setting seems very much forgotten. Maybe it’s because the setting has never actually gone away, but still has its rotten corpse paraded around regularly? Perhaps it’s the fact that there hasn’t been any material for the other setting in some 25 years, that people who have some interest in them are thinking back to the stuff that was around in the 90s. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become The Simpsons.

Help me, WordPress users, how do I get an RSS link list?

I use WordPress because I hate google. That’s literally the only reason I didn’t went with blogspot like most people.

But one feature I really like on blogspot pages is the list of links, that displays the latest post on each site and sorts the pages according to which ones had a new post the most recently.

I want that too, but apparently, inexplicably, wordpress doesn’t have it by default. This is something that should be easy enough to do with a plugin, but all the plugins for RSS feed widgets are way too fancy, cluttering up the whole sidebar with completely unnecessary crap. Does anyone know of a plugin that lets you make a list of RSS feeds in the sidebar as on blogspot pages?

(To comment on this site, you can leave a comment without needing to leave any credentials or having to use a google account. I want to use this opportunity to one again voice my frustration that I would leave three or four times more comments on other peoples sites if I could do so without logging into a google account. Maybe I’m a luddite, marxist weirdo about this, but maybe consider that you could possibly get more comments if you let people comment without google accounts.)

But we have authentic contemporary depictions of it in art?

When it comes the the discussion of how medieval and ancient soldiers were actually equipped and fought in reality, something that comes up all the time is the mention of authentic artwork from the time that shows various weapons and how they are being used.

I admit those as evidence, but I dispute that they are proof.

Art is art. Not documentation. Sometimes art can be helpful in figuring out how certain things needed to be constructed to work, and held to be efficiently used. But in those cases you still have to try and replicate the depicted construction or handling and try them out to see if it actually solves problems people have encountered with modern recreations.

People have build plenty of ball and chain flails and studded leather armor over the recent years, but nobody has ever demonstrated that those can be of any use in a fight.

My favorite example of why authentic contemporary art can not be used as proof that people actually did things that way at the time is the 1987 movie Predator. In Predator, we see American soldiers fighting in a jungle, dual weilding MP5 sub-machine guns and carrying a hand-held minigun.

This artistic depiction of American soldiers was created by American artists in 1987, depicting scenes that take place in 1987. It can’t get more authentic and contemporary than that. There are countless historical records that show American soldiers actually saw action South America at that time, and in the archeological evidence we have thousands of surviving MP5s, and numerous still existing Miniguns that are extremely close to the one shown in the footage.

But should we take Predator as a reliable source for how American soldiers conducted jungle warfare in the 1980s? I’d be cautious about that.

And let’s also not forget that many pieces of medieval art were clearly drawn by people who clearly had never seen the things they were drawing.