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.

Another Creation Myth

I had a pretty nice story for the origin of primordials, demons, and fey and the different realms of reality in Kaendor three months back, but since then I’ve once again changed my stance on the inclusion of demons. There are a few cool ideas I have for demons, but overall they just don’t have the kind of integration into the larger existing worldbuilding that primordials and fey have. I also feel that having three groups of supernatural beings is diluting the distinguishing boundaries between them and unloads too many overlapping concepts on players who are meant to figure things out largely for themselves. Demons are also heavily associated with Evil and Hell, which are both concepts that don’t really appear in the big picture of Kaendor.

So for the third time now, I believe, I decided that the setting should not have demons at all. Most of the ideas I have for them can quite well be given to either the primordials or the fey, and the remaining ones really don’t need to be jammed into a setting that does not actually need them. But that also means that the old creation story no longer makes any sense. Here’s a new one I also really like.

In the primordial age, the world was all water and darkness. It was the world of the Primordials, who ruled the lightless depths for uncountable aeons. This changed with the arrivial of fire. It is not known how fire came to be, but stars appeared in the eternal blackness of the Void and drove back the darkness around them. Their light and warmth drove the Primordials into the deepest seas and lowest reaches of the earth, or into the eternal emptiness of the void. Where the light of the stars reached the surface of the earth and the sea, its energy brought forth the first elemental spirits, as it did those of the air.

When the darkness was driven away by the radiance of the stars, shards of the sun fell down onto the earth and burried themselves many miles deep into the ground. From these shards emanate the streams of lava that sometimes rise back to the surface, and they gave life to all the fire elementals that roam the world, and many of the spirits of the deeper earth as well. The smallest of these sun shards have cooled down in the aeons that have passed since these earliest days, and have solidified into veins of copper.

The elementals were the first of a new form of life that came to spread throughout the lands touched by the lights of the stars. From them came many other spirits, as well as the ancestors of the earliest plants and animals.

Woodland Vales: Choosing the Hex Scale

I’ve long had an ambivalent relationship with hex maps. I think the conventional approach to hexcrawl campaigns in which the party enters a 6-mile hex and discovers whatever cave or ruin in located inside just goes beyond any believable plausibility. As an “outdoor dungeon room”, 6-mile hexes are just way too big and even 1-mile hexes would be stupidly huge. But I really do like hex maps as a tool  to quickly and easily estimate the length of a winding path through the wilderness and around natural obstacles like mountains or large lakes. I really can’t imagine the Woodland Vales system without using a hex map for the GM. I think the players should never actually see a hex map, as cartographers of a typical fantasy world would not be able to create any maps with that degree of accuracy regarding relative directions and distances. Navigation should be done by the players entirely by following roads, rivers, and visible landmarks. But for a GM, hexes are a great tool to track supply consumption and random encounter frequencies.

People have long discussed the merits of different hex scales for adventure and campaign maps, and I’m entirely in the 6-mile hex camp for long-distance overland travel. But for doing multiple criss-crossing trips through a much more bounded play area, this might not necessarily be the best scale as well. But to choose the right scale for a hex map, it’s first necessary to establish what kind of information is actually meant to go on that map.

The Default Domain Template

For my Kaendor setting, I recently made the decision to model borderland settlements on the image that is being created by the D&D Expert and Companion rules by Frank Mentzer from 1983. A region of wilderness that is dotted by small keeps of independent lords surrounded by a small area of farmland with numerous tiny villages paying taxes for the lord’s protection against the monsters of the wilds. Mostly as an aesthetic choice. I just find it very evocative. Having a bit of casual research into the medieval manor system for social and economic organization in western Europe, I came up with the following average template for what such a lord’s domain might plausible look like.

At the center of the domain is the lord’s keep. A fortified residence that serves as the domain’s military headquarter and treasury, that might also serve as a refuge for people living nearby in times of attack. Close by or surrounding the keep is a town where most of the domain’s businesses and services are located. The rest of the domain would consists of several manors. These are the lands that are under the economic control of other wealthy and powerful families of the domain. Either as personal property or on rent from the lord. These manor estates in turn would work a small part of that land but rent out most of it to common tenant farmers. The masters of these manors make up the retainers of the lord of the domain. Depending on the local culture, these might be called knights or something to a similar effect. Part of the agreement with the lord that grants them the right to own or rent property in the domain is to provide military service. In addition to themselves and perhaps some of their sons, these retainers would each also employ a few semi-professional soldiers as their men at arms, funded by the rent the retainers receive from their tenants.

A plausible scale for the numbers of the people making up such a generic domain I settled on the following, which I believe falls into roughly the same range that you find quoted for some actual medieval baronies and manors.

A domain has one keep that is home to the lord. The keep is next to the domain’s single main town of 1,000 to 2,000 people. The rest of the domain consists of 20 to 30 manors that provide the lord with 1 retainer and 5 or 6 men at arms each and have a further population of 200 to 300 farmers. This comes out as a total population of 20-30 retainers, 100 to 180 men at arms, 1,000 to 2,000 townspeople and 4,000-9,000 villagers. That’s a bit low for the ratio of villagers per townspeople, but ultimately this is about getting a sense of scale rather than doing precise head counts.

As a very broad generalization, it appears that it takes about 3 acres of fields and pastures to support one person. For our roughly 10,000 inhabitants of an average domain, this comes out as 120 km². Assuming that the domains are pretty wild borderlands and between 1/3 and 1/2 of the land is unworked by farmers, this would be 160 to 240 km² for the total domain size. This translates to about 4 to 6 6-mile hexes, 20 to 25 2-mile hexes, or 80 to 100 1-mile hexes.

The Why and Where of Towns

In a pre-modern farming society, farms are largely self-sufficient, producing all the food they consume and most of their clothing. However, once you get to have carts with wheels, horses with harness, and plows with metal blades, and you want to do some embroidery on your good clothes with fine threads in bright colors, you can’t do all these things by yourself on your farm and require the work of experiences specialists with specialized tools. And while there might be one guy who has a simple forge and can make crude nails in most farming villages, for many of these specialized trades you can have a single business supplying a very large number of customers over a fairly large area. And you need all these customers to make your business economically viable.

Leaving the farm to go on an errand to one of these specialists takes time and keeps you away from your own work. So farmers will always prefer to go to a place that has many businesses and services in one spot so they can do multiple errands on a single trip. When given the choice, they will do their errands in whichever place has the most businesses close together. Businesses located in these places will do better than those in the middle of nowhere, and so all businesses will naturally move to a single central place. That’s a town.

But while farmers will always prefer to do all their errands on one trip to the largest town, this does have a limit. Even more preferable than doing everything in a single trip is to make all your trips in a single day and be back home before nightfall. Staying the night in a foreign town is unappealing and expense, and getting stuck on some dark road until the next morning is even worse. Also, many farmers might not like to have their family be alone on the farm for the whole night, and somebody is having to feed the animals in the morning. So even when a larger town is available in the area, it’s typically beaten out by smaller towns that can be visited on a single day trip. And as it turns out, the maximum distance for a trip to town, doing your errands, and making it back home by nightfall is about 5 to 6 miles when traveling on foot or with a horse cart. This means that every town is surrounded by a bubble some 10 to 12 miles across from which it gets all its customers. If there’s another town inside that bubble, the one that has the better range of services will draw in all the customers and businesses in the smaller town will have to move to stay competitive. If there are rural villages that are located outside of any of these bubbles, then there’s a huge business opportunity for trades people to set up shop there and provide their goods without competition and a new town will grow. Once an area has been newly settled by farmers, businesses will move around and potential towns grow and decline until the entire area is covered in permanent towns whose bubbles of customers are just touching, but also leave very few gaps between them. And we can see that in many rural places. The distances between towns are rarely much shorter or much longer than that.

The Options for Hex Scales

As I mentioned earlier, I am quite the fan of 6-mile hexes. It’s the most commonly used scale for hex maps and its resolution is quite convenient for long distance overland travel. But when it comes to mapping a domain consisting of four to six hexes, maybe not so much.

At the scale of a domain, this hex size really doesn’t provide anything useful. All you could mark on this is that any sites in the domain are either right next to the town or six miles away. And if the domain takes up five or six of the seven hexes, every domain will have nearly identical outlines on the map. This really doesn’t look fun.

Now the 6-mile hexes could be split into 3-mile hexes, but that just looks really wonky when trying to overlay a 3-mile hex grid over a 6-mile grid. So let’s go right ahead to look at 2-mile hexes instead.

I say that’s more like it. We have 37 hexes within a 6-mile radius around the central town, and would require some 20 to 25 of those to make up the territory inhabited by the domain’s farming population. That’s vastly more options for domains of different shapes. It’s also a resolution in which the relative positions of various villages or landmarks in the domain could be indicated by a single hex coordinate.

Just for the sake of completeness, let’s take a look at 1-mile hexes, which has been advocated for small scale wilderness exploration by early D&D.

If your entire campaign takes place only in a single 6-mile hex and the directly neighboring wilderness hexes, then I can see using a 1-mile hex overlay being a decent choice. But for Woodland Vales, I also want to include interactions between different lords and the overland journeys between domains. If you were to make a map with 8 domains and some wilderness between them and surrounding them, I think going down to a 1-mile hex resolution seems like overkill.

The 2-mile hex seems like the ideal hex size for my intentions with the Woodland Vales borderland exploration system.

Farming in the Savage Frontier

As people who have been to this site more than once or twice surely would have noticed, I have a huge fascination with the Forgotten Realms sourcebook The Savage Frontier from 1988. I still believe to this day that this is possibly the best single fantasy campaign setting book that has ever been made. It does not look like much at only 64 pages with very little illustrations, but this thing is densely packed like nobody’s business. It’s not a huge amount of content, but it is content that is almost all immediately useful for GMs for creating adventures and bringing the world to life. And every year that I pick it up again, it only keeps impressing me more.

My approach to The Savage Frontier is to always take it at its word. Any detailed that is mentioned in the book is assumed to be true. If there is anything about the setting as it is presented in a way that seems contradictory or implausible, I assume that the information is merely incomplete rather than wrong. Unless it seems absolutely necessary to make the setting feel believable, I always only add new details to resolve such conflicts instead of removing or changing anything that is in the text.

What do they eat?

When examining a fictional world for how believable and consistent it is, it’s always a good first step to ask “What do they eat?”

All large scale conflicts are deep down caused by economical issues. Someone wants or needs something that is not accessible and is willing to start a fight for it. And warfare is all about managing the resources that you have access to and disrupting the access of your enemy. Strategy is always about managing resources much more than fighting battles. Believable large scale conflicts always have underlying economic circumstances. If these circumstances are plausible, then you can have your actors make decisions that are consistent and believable. Those decisions might be bad or stupid, but they have to make sense in the minds of the people who make them. If the economic circumstances of the setting make no sense, then many of the decisions will be nonsensical as well. And the most fundamental level of all economy is food production. Most other aspects of the economy ultimately serve to improve and secure the supply of food for the population, and in a society with medieval levels of technology, food production takes up the vast majority of all labor output. If the food economy of your setting makes no sense, then the rest of the economy will make no sense either, and therefore all the major political and social conflicts as well. Food production is something that every setting has to get right to create a world and stories that are halfway believable.

So how does The Savage Frontier look in that regard? It’s a pretty large region the size of central Europe, full of great mountain ranges and vast forests, and with very long distances between most major settlements. And it’s a very cold place. This is a region in which growing crops will have a fairly low productivity, but the large scale import of food deep into the wilderness is also quite impractical. Being located in the most remote corner of the continent, there really isn’t any outside trade coming through the region. Adbar, Sundabar, Mirabar, and Ironmaster are major suppliers of metals for the southern lands, but only Ironmaster can be supplied by the sea. Hauling all the food to feed the 100,000 city dwellers in the Interior for a thousand miles up the river through the wilderness just doesn’t seem very plausible and what would Silverymoon and Everlund even have to trade for all of that? As I see it, almost all of the food in the Savage Frontier has to be produced locally.

So “What do they eat?” becomes “What do they produce?” I think the best comparison we have for the agriculture that would be possible in the Savage Frontier is the medieval Baltic region. Southern Sweden, the Baltic States, and the westernmost regions of Russia. In the 13th and 14th century, which is the time period that the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set gives as a reference, the region was actually home to numerous largely independent oligarchic merchant cities, which is very much like the social structure that dominates the northern Forgotten Realms. Novgorod and Moscow had populations of about 30,000 people, which is roughly the scale of Silverymoon, Sundabar, and Mirabar. (And dwarfs Neverwinter and Luskan.) So it is looking pretty promising that this can be made to work as a very plausible and consistent setting.

The main crop in Northern Europe has always been wheat, which should grow fairly well in the Savage Frontier as well. Barley as well, with Russia and Canada being among the top producers worldwide. The coast of the Sea of Swords at Neverwinter and Waterdeep and the lower Delymbiyr valley would all be great areas for growing grains.

An alternative food source that has been used widely in more harsher regions like Scotland, Iceland, and Norway is raising cattle and sheep. The Dessarin valley between Waterdeep and the Evermoors consists of a vast prairie, which is ideal for grazing.

A third source for food would be fishing. Ironmaster, Luskan, Neverwinter, and Waterdeep are all directly on the coast of a cold sub-arctic sea, which are typically very abundant fishing grounds.

These three sources of food cover the food supply situation in the western parts of the Savage Frontier very well. While Mirabar is located in a more inhospitable location, it is still fairly close to the sea and one of the most important mining cities in the world, so a heavy reliance on food imports would not be much of a stretch there.

Feeding the Interior

But this still leaves out the Interior region in the Northeast. This would be the area with the harshest winter and the shortest summers, with the least areas of open grasslands. While the Rauvin is a fairly major river that might provide decent amounts of fish, the catches would have to be split among Silverymoon, Everlund, and Sundabar, which I just don’t see as a reliable main food source. So having my big fancy map of the Savage Frontier and with a little bit of research and calculations, I crunched some numbers to see how much agricultural land would actually be needed to feed these three cities and Citadel Adbar as well.

Together the four cities have a population of 90,000 people. As a rule of thumb, it takes roughly 9-10 people working in the fields to produce enough surplus to feed each additional person living in a city. So we can estimate a total population of humans and dwarves in the region of 1 million. Available numbers on how much land was required to feed one person in the middle age cover a fairly wide range, but they all seem to cluster around 3 acres per person. Which in turn comes out to somewhere in the range of 125 people per square mile, or roughly 4000 people per 6-mile hex of worked fields. Of course, even in densely populated and worked areas, not all of the land is actually fields for growing crops. So in practice I think we have to look at more like 2000 to 3000 people that can be supported by each 6-mile hex of grassland.

Based on those assumptions, I made this following map.

Click to embiggen.

This map shows the amount of grassland that all the major settlements in the Savage Frontier would need to completely sustain themselves by growing crops. It assumes that the hexes in the south and west can feed about 3000 people, while those towards the north and west feed more like 2000 people each. As we can see, it would be possible to feed the entire human and dwarven population by only growing crops, though in the Northeast things are getting pretty cramped.

The coastal cities could decrease their need for farmland by fishing, though I really don’t have any information on how much fish could replace grain.

The great prairie of the Dessarin valley is described in the text as having a lot of cattle and sheep herding going on. A great thing about grazers is that they have feet, and as such can transport themselves from the pastures all the way to their customers where they will be slaughtered. So even though Yartar and Triboar are fairly small and remote towns, each year could see massive cattle drives to Mirabar, Neverwinter, Nesme, Everlund, and Waterdeep, where the meat can further decrease the need for grain. Some of the herds could even be driven up to Silverymoon.

Further into the Interior, Sundabar sits right in the middle of a huge valley between the Rauvin and Nether Mountains. Since the Rauvin river is flowing down through the Nether Mountains, the valley would have to be more of a highland plateau. Which I just don’t see as being able to support the kind of crops production we see in Western Europe. They really would have to support themselves with additional cattle herding in the valley and perhaps sheep herding in the lower hills of the Nether Mountains to the south of the city. Things look very similar with the valley outside the gates of Citadel Adbar in the uppermost right corner of the map.

Feeding the Orcs

While the space necessary to feed these cities is there, Adbar, Sundabar, and to some degree Everlund are finding themselves in quite precarious locations, though. The valley outside Adbar is wedged between the Ice Mountains and the Rauvin Mountains, which are both orc territory. I’ve come up with the theory that the orcs mostly support themselves through hunting and organize long hunting expeditions to restock their stores after the winter and prepare for the next one. Both the dwarven valley and the Sundabar valley would be the primary hunting grounds for the orcs in the Northeast. The plain between the Cold Wood and the Moonwood as well, though that area is being claimed by the Uthgardt of the Black Lion and Red Tiger tribes for the very same purpose. This makes the Interior the main area of the Orc conflicts. The orcs need these three valleys to feed their own population and are on all sides fenced in by the dwarves, the Uthgardt, and Sundabar. With only so much prey available, it makes sense for the orcs to try driving out the other groups from the area. And if in the process they can rustle some cattle and help themselves to sacks of grain, they are absolutely going to do that. With the food situation this precarious, the other groups aren’t just going to leave the land for the orcs, and so it’s understandable that this is regularly turning into a genocidal war.

What this map does not show is that further north beyond the Ice Mountains and the Spine of the World lies an arctic ocean. Just as many orcs as are coming south from the mountains to hunt deer, bison, and boar and steal cattle and sheep, would also be going north to hunt seals and whales. With this additional food source, we have at least some kind of plausible explanation for how the orcs in the area can survive without being able to destroy Adbar and Sundabar.

The other major orc populations have things a lot easier. The orcs of the Spine of the World have the mountains and surrounding lowlands pretty much for themselves, except for Mirabar and the Black Raven tribe in the westernmost ranges. A similar situation is found in the Grey Peaks in the southeast and inside the High Forest. In these areas the orcs are the only ones to do any large scale hunting and are not in direct conflict with any settlements, though they still might go raiding if an opportunity presents itself or they are feeling bold. But it would not have the genocidal character as in the Interior.

The last major orc population is found in the Evermoors, where they are in a permanent three way battle with the Elk tribe and the trolls. When prey becomes sparse, orc clans might try to raid villages outside of Nesme, Yartar, Everlund, and Silverymoon, but that would probably be the exception rather than the rule, and consists mostly of individual attacks with no greater organization rather than major campaigns by a great orc horde.

What have we learned from it?

I really am always having a lot of fun going over this map and poking it with a stick to find things that could be puzzling and implausible and trying to work out how what I’m seeing and reading could realistically be true. There is always so much more to discover here, and often it’s things that I think would make for very interesting and compelling adventure hooks.

The first thing I am taking from this analysis is that the largest cities all need to be surrounded by fairly densely populated farmland for a few dozen miles. Adventuring companies traveling on the roads would reach the outskirts of each city states two or three days before they get an actual sight of their walls, and also coming across sizable towns where they can find accommodations for the night instead of sleeping outside around a campfire.

In many places, these outskirts would also be under regular threat of cattle raids by orc or Uthgardt, or even other neighboring villages. I see this being a huge issue everywhere within 50 miles around the Evermoors and in the Sundabar valley.

Also, not engaging in the growing of crops, conflict involving the Uthgardt and the orcs would primarily be about hunting grounds. Hunting societies need huge amounts of territory to have a population of prey that can sustain them reliably every year. While there is plenty of open range with bisons in the Surbrin valley, things are much more cramped in the Interior where they are in direct competition with the need for farmland by the large cities.

The Dessarin valley is a giant cattle and sheep pasture. All the towns in the valley would have an economy based pretty much entirely on herding. And once per year, all the roads going out of Triboar would be completely swarmed with giant herds of cattle and sheep. This could be a really funny detail to work into the game if the party is traveling through the valley at a certain time of the year.

The Delymbiyr valley is a total backwater even by the standards of the Savage Frontier. Assuming that Loudwater, Llork, and Secomber are the largest settlements in the area, this is probably the least populated stretch anywhere in the North. While farming there would be possible, I would assume more remote homesteads than more densely concentrated medieval farming villages. There’s probably some herding going on there as well to sell beef to Waterdeep.

And there should be orc whalers. Which I think is cool.

Demographics of the Unapproachable East

As I mentioned occasionally in the past, I have a certain fascination with the Northeastern region of the Forgotten Realms. The third edition book The Unapproachable East is my second favorite setting book after The Savage Frontier, as I always found it very evocative and very well made.

“Traditionally”, Northeast Faerûn is treated as two broader regions. The Unapproachable East consisting of Rashemen, the Great Dale, Thesk, Aglarond, and Thay, and the Cold Lands consisting of Vaasa, Damara, and Narfell. However, I find these categorizations somewhat arbitrary and not really reflective of the political, economic, cultural, and geographic relationships that are implied by the maps and the descriptions of these lands.

While I keep using the name The Unapproachable East for the Northeastern region of Faerûn, the “natural borders” of the region that I see look more like this.

Impiltur is nor usually considered part of the Unapproachable East, but most of its population and centers of power are in the port cities of the Easting Reach, which are close neighbors of the Great Dale and Thesk just across the water to the East. In contrast, the Vast and the Moonsea in the West are physically separated from Impiltur by the great Earthspur Mountains. While I can see how at a first look, the Easting Reach of the Sea of Fallen Star might seem like a natural border, what I am seeing is instead a natural highway that reminds me very much of the Baltic Sea, considering the cultural influences seen in the surrounding countries. In the medieval Baltic, the port cities had a much closer cultural and political relationship with each other than with their respective neighboring territories further inland. With that in mind, I see Impiltur very much as an intrinsic part of the Unapproachable East.

To the North, the lands of Damara have a story that is inseparably linked with the savage tribes of Vaasa to the West. Both lands originally appeared in the Bloodstone Lands adventure and were only later added to Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms relatively shortly before the setting’s official publication as a D&D setting. (Similar to the Moonshae Islands.) However, as with Impiltur, the Earthspur Mountains form a formidable physical barrier between the two lands. In contrast, the rivers of Damara form a natural transportation network for trade with Impiltur (again reminding me of Eastern Europe), and there’s an easy land route to the Great Dale as well. Aside from the stories of the Bloodstone Wars, I can really only see Impiltur as the connection to the rest of the world for Damara, and the Earthspur Mountains and monster infested wilds of Vaasa as impassable obstacles for reaching the Moon Sea. As such, I think Damara should also be considered part of the Northeast, while Vaasa is more connected to the Moonsea.

And with Damara and Impiltur being treated as part of the Northeast, but Narfell obviously has to be included as well. It is possible to ride through the cold steppes past the northern edges of Rashemen into the Endless Wastes of Kara-Tur in the east, but Damara and the Great Vale are significantly closer and much more likely to have semi-regular interactions with the Nars.

Now the final land I want to mention here, and certainly the most controversial and debatable thought I have on this, is Thay. Just like Damara and Vaasa, the story of Thay is inseparably linked with Rashemen and Aglarond. Invading Rashemen and Aglarond is the Red Wizard’s thing! That’s what pretty much defines the country. There is only a single, easily defensible path between Thay and Mulhorand. And while Thay is a wayward province of the ancient Mulhorandi empire, the Red Wizards have fully secured their full sovereignty for more than 300 years. For most intents and purposes, Thay should clearly be counted as part of the Unapproachable East and Northeastern Faerûn. But when it comes to looking into the demographics of the region, I think this is one of those few cases were it should be excluded from the rest of the data.

First thing, the population of Thay is massive compared to the rest of the Northeast. Thay alone has almost as many people as all the other lands combined, including Impiltur and Damara, which both are only rivaled by Aglarond and completely dwarf anyone else. And the demographic makeup of Thay is a very strange one compared to all other places in Faerûn. It has massive populations of slaves captured from other lands, including 400,000 dwarves, 200,000 halflings, and half a million of both orcs and gnolls each. These slaves have no interactions with the world outside of Thay except as expandable soldiers in armies trying to invade Rashemen, Thesk, and Aglarond. Any demographic observations about Thay have no representativeness for the rest of the Northeast, and putting these two very distinctive but equally sized populations into the same data set would result in something that is representative of neither. So for all my further observation, we’ll be looking only at the populations between the Earthspur Mountains, the Sea of Fallen Stars, and the Sunset Mountains, excluding Thay.

Population Numbers

Going with the numbers from the 3rd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, the area in question has a total population of 5.5 million people. The largest country by population is Damara with 1.32 million people, followed closely by Aglarond with 1.27 million and Impiltur with 1.2 million. Damara taking the number one spot seems somewhat strange, as it doesn’t really have major cities and no ports at all, nor does its geography provide it with rich farmland. I think this is something where the writers might have been making a mistake. But then, Impiltur and Aglarond are really mostly a few port cities with barely much else.

A good way further down in population on fourth place is Thesk with 850,000 people, followed by Rashemen with 650,000 people. The Great Dale makes it to barely 200,000 people and Narfell only 37,000.

Taken as relative percentages, the population sizes of each country rank like this: Damara 24%, Aglarond 23%, Impiltur 22%, Thesk 15%, Rashemen 12%, Great Dale 4%, Narfell 0.7%.

This makes the four kingdoms pretty even players as population sizes go, with Rashemen only slightly lagging behind. Though assuming that trade and the wealth that comes with it gives a country considerable influence, Rashemen is clearly the trailing underdog here. The Great Dale and Narfell can’t really be regarded as states of any kind. They are scattered villages and roaming clans that have no political or economic weight to throw around.

Population Makeups

Throughout the whole region, humans make up 84% of the whole population, numbering at 4.7 million in total. Nonhuman minorities are 380,000 half elves (7%), 140,000 dwarves (3%), and 100,000 halflings (2%), followed by 70,000 gnomes, 60,000 elves, 50,000 orcs, and 25% half-orcs.

Taken by themselves, these numbers appear like showing populations that are clearly dominated by humans, but also feature a considerable diversity of nonhuman minorities. However, when looking deeper into the available information on the different countries, it actually becomes clear that these nonhumans make up very distinctive and relatively isolated population, and the mixing of different peoples is much less common than it first might appear.

The 50,000 halflings are found in comparable numbers in Damara and Impiltur, where they make up roughly 4% of the total population each. Halflings in Faerûn are regularly described as integrating commonly and easily into human societies, and I am assuming that this is what also is taking place here. There are no major halfling towns and probably few halfling villages in Damara and Impiltur, but they would probably be common sights in the larger cities, and found at all levels of the social hierarchy.

Dwarves are also found exclusively in these two countries, but unlike the halflings, I see the dwarves as living very much segregated from the human kingdoms, having their own completely separate kingdoms high up in the Earthspur Mountains. Dwarven traders and perhaps also mercenaries would be common sights in Damara and Impiltur, but I don’t see them constituting significant minorities in the human cities.

Aglarond is famous for being the only place where there is something that could be considered a half-elven nation. While they are commonly considered to be one country, the coastal cities of Aglarond and the villages of the Yuirwood are two very distinctively different societies. Taken together, Aglarond has a population that is roughly two thirds humans and a full one third half-elves. However, with the humans living in the coastal cities and the half-elves in the Yuirwood, the demographic makeup of individual towns would look very different. Based on descriptions from AD&D, when Faerûn was still largely being described as a near human-exclusive world, I would treat Aglarond as having nearly fully human coastal cities and pretty much exclusively half-elven Yuirwood towns. As the two populations are on fairly good terms, there would of course by a lot of interactions and exchange between them, but I would regard them as two very distinctive ethnicities. The Unapproachable East sourcebook also introduces a new elven sub-species that has been completely hidden in their extradimensional realm that can only be reached through portals in the Yuirwood for many centuries. I assume these star elves are the 64,000 elves listed as living in Aglarond, where they make up 0.5% of the population.

There are 70.000 gnomes living in Thesk. Which are in fact the only gnomes that are mentioned anywhere in the region. These gnomes come from a small gnome realm in the Dragonmaw Mountains. Some of these gnomes travel and have even made home in the major trade towns of Thesk, but otherwise I would consider them an isolated realm of their own which is simply much too small to be listed as a region in its own right.

Damara has a small population of half-orcs. I believe this is simply because of its proximity with Vaasa and the lands beyond, which are one of the main regions for orc in the Forgotten Realms. At only 26,000 in a total population of 1.3 million, I’m assuming that these are mostly individual families living among the clans at the edges of civilization. I don’t see them as being a typical part of the social makeup in the larger population centers.

And finally there are the orcs of Thesk. 12 years before the present day of the 3rd edition sourcebooks, a huge horde of horse raiders from the steppes of Kara-Tur invaded the Unapproachable East. Fearing their rapid successes, the rulers of the Heartlands set their various differences aside and send their armies to fight together against the Tuigan Horde in the plains of Thesk. Among these armies were many companies of orcs from Zhentil Keep. And once the war was won and the invaders repelled, somehow many of the Zhentarim soldiers were forgotten and left abandoned. Some have taken to banditry while others tried to find some kind of honest living as mercenaries now that they were free from the iron grasp of their dark masters. There are still some 50,000 orcs in Thesk, where they now make up some 6% of the badly ravaged population. Being Zhentarim soldiers, these orcs would be mostly men. While there are large numbers of native orcs in Thay, it seems unlikely that Thayan orc women could freely move into Thesk in large numbers to create long-term, stable orc settlements in the country. The situation of the orc population in Thesk is something that will probably take a bit of work to turn into something that feels actually believable and satisfying as a setting element. But I think that we can at least assume orc mercenaries being a pretty frequent sight in the employment of a wide range of different masters in Thesk.