Yora's site for Sword & Sorcery RPGs
One peculiar thing about Dungeons & Dragons, and especially in the older editions, is that characters at first and second level are extremely fragile because they have very little hit points and even a single hit by a pretty minor foe can easily lead to instant death, even if the character had been uninjured. A common reason I’ve seen people give for this is the idea of “Zero to Hero”, where you start as an absolute nobody with no skill at all and have to work your way up to become someone. But at some closer examination, that is not really the case. First level fighters are already elite warriors who are standing well above all regular soldiers, mercenaries, bandits, and other professional full-time warriors, many of which have been at that job for years or decades. Except for commanders, all soldiers in B/X or AD&D are simply “Normal Men” or “0 level men-at-atms”. A first level fighter has a better chance to hit, better saving throws, and also has a Constitution score that can get him additional hit points. You’re not a nobody, you’re already starting as someone who has come farther than all regular people will ever get.
As characters go from 1st to 2nd level, their average hit points double, and depending on how your dice fell, they might even tripple. Yet enemies are still dealing pretty much the same damage, so that is a huge jump in your odds to survive. In some recent games, like Barbarians of Lemuria, Dragon Age, and Atlantis, hit points for starting characters are handled quite differently. You start at a pretty decent number but then increase your maximum number of hit points only at a relatively modest pace. I wonder how that would change D&D?
One simple idea would be to reduce the type of hit die by one step for each class and then give all characters a number of bonus hit points equal to twice the maximum hit die result. An AD&D thief would start with 8+1d4 hp (9-12) instead of 1d6 hp (1-6) and a figher with 16+1d8 hp (17-24) instead of 1d10 hp (1-10). If you leave the amount of damage dealt by enemies unchanged this should change gameplay at lower levels quite significantly. Ignoring healing spells and potions (which 1st level parties would have almost no access to), staying power would increase about an average of four times. As you go to higher levels, that initial boost becomes increasingly less significant and you probably wouldn’t notice the difference between 9d10 hp (average 50) and 9d8+16 hp (average 56). If survival at low levels becomes significantly easier and groups can take on much larger numbers of enemies, but you got almost no difference at higher levels, it also quite likely would change the perception of how high-level play becomes either easier or harder.
However, that would mean that 1st level characters are able to deal with much larger numbers of low-level monsters at once, and I am not sure if I’d want them to be that heroic. One solution would be to also give all the monsters bonus hit points. Perhaps equal to the maximum result of one hit die (8). That would mean one on one fights are unlikely to end at the first hit and usually take two or three to win. This would be closer to what the games I mentioned above are doing.
I’d really like to try that out and see what happens.
Naming things in a fictional world is a terrible and most unenjoyable task. It’s bad enough when you do personal names and place names, but when it comes to more abstract things like organizations or types of creatures, finding a name that is reasonably acceptible (it’s never good) can take a very long time. I think I wanted to have a kind of creature similar to the abominations from Dragon Age from a very early point in working on the Ancient Lands, over 4 years ago. In the meanwhile, I added more ideas from other creatures, like folding the roles of both lichs and vampires into this new creation, and taking some elements from the Inspired from Eberron and the Eternal from Spears of the Dawn. But when it came to naming these things, nothing ever came close to fitting. But now I sat down and clicked my way through a thesaurus (they are actually good for something) and came on this wonderful word:
A word that probably most people interested in fantasy have come across once or twice. Probably always refering to something blasphemous and unholy, and just the sound of it sounds ominous, even if you don’t know what it means. I had to look it up myself and it turns out to be ancient Greek meaning “offering”. (In this case, the a- at the beginning is not a prefix meaning anti.) However, in early Christianity it was used in the sense of “offered to the devil” or “devoted to evil” and referred to an early form of excommunication. Even though I made some efforts to weed out technical and religious terms that don’t really make sense in the world of the Ancient Lands, which is very different from a standard western-christian universe, anathema seems to be a word that still works.
So what is an anathema exactly? You might recognize some of these guys. That’s what you have to expect.
Anathema are mortals who have become possessed by a demon from the Underworld, their own spirit consumed in the process and all their memories, knowledge, and much of their personalty absorbed into the demons mind. While the mortals mind still exist in some way, all the ideals, values, and desires it once had become irrelevant as the demons original personalty dominates the mind of the anathema. It usually has very little interest in the good of the mortals clan or family, but may often retain some affection to people who were close to it in its previous life. Most anathema are greed, desire, or sloth demons and almost immediately set out to some ambitious plan to sate their craving. Usually with very little reagrd to those around it, but often enough cunning to keep their new nature a secret. At least for the time being. Demons can possess any mortal whose body and spirit have been corrupted by demonic magic and all anathema are very dangerous creatures. But the most terrible ones are those created from sorcerers who willingly summoned a demon to join with it and gain immortality and great magical powers. Many anathema note that their new nature is very different from what the sorcerer expected it to be, but at that point whatever the mortal once wanted is longer of any real relevance. The demons desire to visit and explore the physical world overrides any plans the sorcerer might have had and they never feel any remorse or despair about their new nature.
So even though there are no Gods and no church in the Ancient Lands and not even true afterlives, anathema are still creatures that have turned away from mortal life and society and now exist entirely to pursue their demonic craving. They are “devoted to evil” and in the case of sorcerers “offered themselves to demons”. And they also “excommunicated” themselves from all mortal communites and their spirit will not join the clan shrine to give strength and courage to future generations. So the name fits in both its literal and proverbial meaning and it also sounds cool and ominous. What more can you want for a big bad monster?
While I am revising my Ancient Lands setting, I’ve set down to once more give some deep thoughts to the underlying conflicts of the world. I make no secret about my oppinion that the Mass Effect series has the best worldbuilding I’ve ever seen anywhere. Not because there is a lot of lore on the locations and a long detailed history. In fact, there is barely anything in that regard, at least if you don’t read up on it in the ingame codex. Perhaps there is some, but I didn’t read any of it and I still think the worldbuilding is superb. The Mass Effect galaxy is incredible because it has lots of factions that are tightly interconnected with each other, forming a complex web of conflicts and alliances in which absolutely everyone is included in some way. And these groups are friends or enemies with each other not simply because the writers say so, but because they share a common past which can be sufficiently explained in three or four sentences but gives them good reason to feel what they feel, and in a way that perhaps doesn’t make you approve of, but at least understand their views. The same company that made the Mass Effect games also made the Dragon Age series at the same time, and while I am not as much a fan of that setting, it also excels at having lots of conflicts that affect everyone in some way and in which each side has some good points.
This made me realize that conflicts are really what makes a fictional setting tick. Cultures, landscapes, religion, and magic are all nice, but to get your audience invested in what is going on in the world and its people, underlying conflicts probably define the world more than anything else. This applies both to settings for roleplaying games, in which you usually want to give the players the option to chose the side their characters are taking, and to episodic fiction in which different parts and aspects of the world are explored in each story arc. So I’ve been looking at all the other fantasy and sci-fi worlds I think have great worldbuilding with interesting conflicts and dynamics between factions. From Star Wars to the Witcher, and from Halo to Forgotten Realms. And I made an important discovery when it comes to creating conflicts: Even if you have a conflict in which both sides have a point and you could easily get into the mind of a character of either group, the conflicts still always started because someone was a giant dick!
Back to Mass Effect, lots of nice sidestories with difficult moral descisions involve the alien Krogans and the human Cerberus group. In many cases you can sympathize with them, perhaps even support them, and actually very much like individual characters of these groups, even though many people consider them evil and villains. But the thing is that in the past their leaders made some descisions and ordered some actions that were really total dick moves. No questions about that; those things were wrong and they got what they deserved. But those past wrongs were not commited by the specific people you’re dealing with right now. These people can be really nice guys and they might not have done anything wrong. But for some reason or another, they are now part of this group that has a long and violent conflict with some other groups. The source of the conflict lies in the past, but it established some facts that still matter a lot right now. And I think that’s really the key when setting up some underlying conflicts for a setting rich with ambigous characters and descisions. Creating a conflict in which neither side is truly bad is really difficult, if not outright impossible. But that does not have to prevent the existence of conflicts in which neither side is truly bad now. If you want to set up a conflict that lasts for generations and affects whole peoples, make the conflict start with one terrible person making a really unfair descision. Doesn’t really matter if it’s too much black and white, because that person likely is long dead or may not appear in the story at all. What does matter is the people who are on opposing sides right now, and being sufficiently removed from the original source of the conflict, they can easily be as ambigous as you want. In Halo 2, some of the alien enemies quit the Covenant and start a civil war against their former masters, which put them on the same side as the humans. But that doesn’t change the fact that they had been the officers in charge of the Covenant army that had been leading a war of annihilation against humanity for the last 30 years. They hardly could be called friends by any stretch, but from that part in the story they have to work together and fight their common enemy, whether they like it or not. There still is great hostility between them and from a worldbuilding perspective you can still regard them as two opposing sides in conflict with each other. You can sympathize with characters on both sides, but also have no trouble at all understanding accepting that they won’t be nice to each other and getting into fights.
So this is my appeal and my advice: Conflicts neither have to be black and white, nor fairly balanced. You can have very good underlying conflicts built into a setting, which started out with one side being the villain, but by now has developed into a state of regular agression from both sides.