Good artists borrow, great artists steal

So let my show you my loot haul.

I am never able to restrain my gushing over the worldbuilding of Morrowind. While the gameplay of that game is of somewhat dubious quality and characters and quests leave a lot to be desired, the kind of very unique world it presents always had a huge influence on my perception of fantasy world, similar to Star Wars for space settings. There is a lot of the world of Morrowind, and to a small extend also Skyrim, that I am just blatantly ripping off for the new setting. The dominant civilization are strongly bases on the Dunmer and their three living gods, Almalexia, Sotha Sil, and Vivec. Except that in my setting, they are not a tribunal ruling over one kingdom, but three bitter enemies that go to war with each other on a near regular basis. The Camonna Tong and Morag Tong are very interesting templates for criminal organizations, and I like the way the Ashlanders represent the idea of barbarians who have escaped to the edges of civilization because they oppose the changes in traditions enforced by the god-kings.

I also think that the Redguard and Orsimer are quite interesting as well, at least as they are represented in Skyrim. I think I can use them for another urbanized kingdom to the south near the lands of the naga, and for the highland barbarians.

I also really like the way the Daedra fulfill the role of demons in the setting, though I want to take that idea and make it much more actually alien and weird. More Hermaeous Mora than Sheogorath. And of course, Morrowind is where I got the idea of the wildlife consisting primarily of various dinosaur-like reptiles and insectoid monsters instead of the typical familiar dogs, horses, cows, and pigs. I’ll definitely be reviving the honey caves ideas that was based on the kwama egg mines. I used them once and it was really fun.

While I love the Dark Sun campaign setting for AD&D, the things that I see as worth stealing basically just mirror things that I’m already taking from Morrowind. The sorcerer kings are like the Tribunal, the Templars as their warrior-priest enforcerers are just like the Ordinators, and the approach to slavery is very much the same. I feel you can’t really evoke the style of a Bronze Age society that is different from a medieval one without large parts of the population and economy being slaves.

Various ideas with a similar style come from Kenshi. This weird little game is actually a lot like Dark Sun, except that before the world turned into a desert wasteland, it wasn’t a magical fantasy world but a technological sci-fi world. But in the state that it is now, life turns out to be very similar. My two favorite idea from this setting are the Shek and the Hivers. The Shek are a take on something not too different from orcs, and one of the main inspiration for the highland barbarians. The Hivers already served as the main inspiration for my take on slightly insectoid goblins. Which were one of the last things I created for Kaendor, but I think will be a much better fit here. One of the two main powers on Kenshi is the Holy Nation under their Phoenix King, who rules over a nation of slaves with the help of his elite Paladins. Yeah, basically the same points as covered by the Tribunal and Ordinators of Morrowind and the Sorcerer Kings and Templars of Dark Sun. The other one are the United Cities. Who are despotic slavers in their own right, but still come out looking much better from the Holy Nation. They gave me the idea to have a fourth nation of the dominant culture consisting of loosely allied city states in the coast that have banded together to stay out of the grasp of any of the god-kings.

In the post about my ideas on magic and demons, I already mentioned Demon’s Souls. While the design styles of the setting is completely different from what I am going for, I find the supernatural concepts of the game very inspiring. The ideas that humans can become demons if they consume their energy opens very interesting possibilities, and the idea that regions can become shrouded in permanent fog while demons rampage inside of it is also really cool. The lands of Boletaria have little in common with what I am working on now, but conceptual ideas like these are pretty big in my mind.

A very similar case is Thief. Another game I’ve been gushing about many times in the past. Again, the type of city that the series is set in looks nothing like the kind of cities that will be found in the new setting. But everything that has to do with the Pagans is just pure gold for what I have in mind. The Pagans are a reclusive cult that exists somewhere between druidism and rural demon worship. Exactly the kind of interactions I am going for with my spirit worshiping barbarians. I am actually pretty sure that this game is where I came across the idea originally. The Trickster demon-god and his leafy lieutenant are great spirits, and I totally love the witch that is the main antagonist in the third game as a villain that might work wonderfully in my campaign. I also think that the organization of the Keepers is a really cool archetype for a cabal of arcane scholars who have much more benevolent intentions than the demonic cults they oppose, but are far from being clear cut good guys either.

Something I remembered only a few days after I’ve already been tinkering with ideas for a coherent setting concept was my experiences with diving deep into the published setting material for the Unapproachable East region of the Forgotten Realms. When I decided that I want to make a new setting from scratch that better represents the ideas I am interested now than organically grown tangle that Kaendor had become after close to a decade of trial and error, I made a decision to stay away from any Dungeons & Dragons or Middle-Earth material. But as I did mention in my post about reading through the various sourcebooks, there actually is fairly little of the typical Fantasyland stereotypes in that section of the Forgotten Realms. There’s no orcs, dwarves, drow, mind flayers, or beholders to be found anywhere, or mentions of trivial teleportation or magic item shops. It is quite strongly inspired by medieval Eastern Europe, but scratch a bit away at the paint and there’s actually a lot of stuff that I think can go straight into my new setting. My final thoughts had been that the setting material that existed for the region was full of great ideas, but at such a surface level of detail that you would still basically have to create your own content that is inspired by those prompts to run a great campaign. And in that case I could just make a new world myself. And now seems like a perfect time to completely carve up that setting and scavenge it for its most interesting parts!

The barbarians and witches of Rashemen look like a great starting point for my forest barbarians. I planned for them to have a Baltic style anyway, so the weird mix of Slavic and Germanic elements should be pretty easy to switch out. The Red Wizards of Thay in their original incarnation are just what I need for one of the three god-king nations. Blend them together with House Telvanni from Morrowind and you got a great magical oligarchy. The barbarians of Narfell are more steppe nomads as presented, but I think I can still take a good amount of stuff from them for my highland barbarians. I think I also want to have something like the ancient demon summoners of the Nar Empire whose ruins are still slumbering under the ground, many still haunted by summoned demons. I’ve long been fascinated by what snippets I had read about the independent city Telflamm and its Shadowmasters thieves guild. As it turned out those snippets were really all there is about them, and this is now a great opportunity to have some fun with expanding them. And finally there’s the kingdom of Impiltur, which is really more an alliance of city states than a centralized nation. And as such the second inspiration for the alliance of city states that oppose the god-kings, together with the United Cities of Kenshi.

While outside of this specific region, the biggest disappointment for me when reading the classic Forgotten Realms material was the city Westgate and its Night Masks thieves guild. I thought these were something big like Baldur’s Gate or Silverymoon, but the actual content is severely underwhelming. I want to make the port city of crime and vampire assassins that I envisioned a reality.

Finally, another important resource that I added to my pile is Red Tide. When this resource on running sandbox campaigns came out in 2011, it made quite a splash, and when you read it for the first time without much knowledge about running sandboxes, it’s really quite amazing. The setting that is presented is quite interesting, but there’s not a lot worldbuilding ideas that I find useful to copy. Much more important are its thoughts on how you set up and expand a sandbox campaign. The tools provided in the book where later overhauled in Spears of the Dawn and then more recently in World Without Number, but I actually really like the version in this one a lot more. The most interesting to me is the system for creating courts with just a very small number of NPCs and conflicts and complications between them. With the way that I envision the new campaign to play in practice, dealing with the important leaders of other strongholds, villages, clans, cults, and gangs will probably be a primary driver of the action. The tables for creating villages with interesting local problems might also come in very handy at a later point. And while I don’t expect there to be an awful lot of dungeons in the campaign, the ruins sites tables might also turn out a quite useful tool when the antics of the players require new content to be welded together on very short notice.

Baroque Fantasy?

My view of creativity is very much in agreement with the thought that great ideas come from filling a mind with lots of fascinating concepts and evocative images and letting them ferment until one day something new comes growing out of the compost heap. A considerable amount of my creative “work” consists of looking for more ideas to add to my heap by reading lots of stuff remotely related to what I am working on (professionals call it “researching”) and pondering of what use they could be to me. It’s totally not slacking!


One thought that has occupied my recently is that many of the fantasy worlds I find highly inspiring for the Ancient Lands seem to share some common features or at least aesthetic. The two biggest influences are Morrowind and Planescape, and I know that the former was directly inspired by Glorantha. And I was actually surprised that Glorantha came into existance completely independently from Tekumel. I had assumed that there’s a direct link between the two, but both appeared in the world of fantasy games in 1974/1975, the very dawning days of RPGs. I’ve been wondering if there’s a name for the style shared by these worlds but it doesn’t seem to be the case.


Looking further into it I also remembered additional settings that seem to share at least some similarity. There’s the Young Kingdoms from Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, Dark Sun, and what I’ve seen also the RPGs Talislanta and Exalted. But it might all have started with Clark Ashton Smith’s proto-Sword & Sorcery tales set in Hyperborea and Zothique (though I admit only having read the former).


One term I’ve often seen to describe both Smith’s stories and Barker’s Tekumel is baroque. Which is described as an “artistic style which used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, theater, and music” or “characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance”. Yeah, that seems to about fit.


What all these settings have in common is that they are clearly not an imagined ancient history of Earth, but set in worlds that are only distantly “earthlike” in having mountains, forests, and seas and populated by cultures and creatures that have no obvious earthly counterparts. (Glorantha and the non-Morrowind parts of The Elder Scrolls aren’t sticking too close to that.) It’s something you can also find in Star Wars that adds spaceships and lasers to the mix but otherwise plays it perfectly straight. This is what sets them apart from the Tolkienian mainstream but also Howard’s Hyborian Age, which tend to be close to alternate histories with magic set on Earths with the coasts and rivers redrawn.

Dark Sun

So: Baroque Fantasy?

It’s not a term that has really been used so far, but I think it is definitly a thing that exist and has regularly shown its face through the last 40 years, often to very high praise. (I’ve found it used once, for exactly the same idea.) When you say baroque it comes with the connotation of “elaborate” and “complex”, and often also “confusing”. But I don’t think that it’s really necessary to have worlds with giant piles of information to evoke this aesthetic. Glorantha and The Elder Scrolls are massive beasts of settings, I’ve heard Tekumel is not very accessible either, and fully grasping Planescape means a lot of reading. (Though if you can get your hands on the box sets, the later is not too difficult to understand.) Hyperborea, Elric, and Dark Sun are all kind of borderline or fringe examples, but they all make do with very little exposition. And as a player, both Morrowind and Planescape can be a total blast even when you explore them without having any clue what you’re getting into.


The key elements of the baroque that makes this term applicable to this style of fantasy are extravagant, flamboyant, and grotesque. And I think that few people would content these qualities in the worlds I named. There is a certain downside in that baroque also is the name for a time period in European history with a distinctive architecture, music, and fashion, which don’t have anything to do with these works of 20th century fantasy. But it’s certainly a term that would be quite fitting.

Thinking about NPC levels in an Old World campaign

So here I am again, writing about RPGs. Even though I am creating the Old World as a fiction setting, I can’t shake the constant thought that it also would make for a really great campaign setting. And once more I am finding myself getting back to B/X, specifically LotFP. Yes, I know: Oh, the irony! Aside from the magic system (for which I have a complete replacement almost ready) I just really love the game in all its simplicity. Combat, character advancement, and monsters are just exactly the way I really want it.

With my experiences in fiction worldbuilding, my look on preparing a campaign setting for an RPG also changed a lot. In the past I used to attempt to emulate the structure of settings like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and Golarion, and for a long while really didn’t know what to make of things like Red Tide, Yoon-Suin, or the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. But having learned a lot about Sword & Sorcery worldbuilding in fiction, this very much changed and I am seeing what’s the deal with the later and how it fits my own purposes. Often less is more, and in this case it is much more less that is so much more. I am no longer interested in precise maps, borders, or population numbers for cities and countries. Making up new villages and dungeons as I go will be good enough.

But even when you have a setting that is defined by culture and environments and not by specific places and organizations, to have a campaign in which the players have real agency is that you know who the movers and shakers in the campaign area will be. And one topic that none of the many guides and introductions for running unscripted campaigns ever touch upon is the creation of NPCs. What class level should the major NPCs in the campaign have?


Now one very easy solution would be to not set a level for NPCs until the players run into them for a fight. But that causes a pretty major problem. The decision of the players to fight an NPC or not is based on whether they think they can win such a fight or not. Chosing to start a private war with a powerful local leader is as big a choice as players are going to make, and it can only be an informed and meaningful decision if the strength of the NPC is fixed before the decision is made. If you create stats for an NPC only once you know that the players are looking for a fight, their choice will have been meaningless. When you decide to make the NPC beatable or unbeatable for the party at its current strength, the players are completely without power to influence the survival and victory of their characters. Over the years there has been a lot of talking over what makes the differences between the videogames Morrowind and Oblivion (and now Skyrim as well), and one thing that really changed how the games play is the adjustment of enemies to the level of the player, or the lack of it. In Oblivion and Skyrim it has become irrelevant what places you chose to visit and what quests to try, because the difficulty will always be the same. When you discover an area that seems too dangerous for your character, you might choose to leave and go somewhere safer for now. When you then return a long time later, after lots of great adventures and getting many powerful new weapons, and it’s still just as hard as it was the last time, then it really feels like you didn’t make any progress at all and didn’t become more powerful in any way either. What’s the point of reaching higher levels and gaining better weapons and armor if it doesn’t make any difference? In Morrowind monsters and NPCs are always the same strength, regardless of how powerful your character is. While this does mean that you will occasionally have to admit defeat and retreat, it really makes a huge difference to the sense of accomplishment and progress, that is an important part of unscripted videogames and RPG campaigns alike. Losing is good, because it tells you that any victory you gain has been earned.

Continue reading “Thinking about NPC levels in an Old World campaign”

Stumbling around in Morrowind

I first played Morrowind right back when it was first released in 2002. But I didn’t get very far as I was just too confused about what I was expected to do and how to figure out how the many aspects of the game work. A few years later I gave it another try but after 20 hours or so I gave up on it once more. Many, many years later I played Skyrim (though that was more than a year after it’s release), and being a much more polished game I had a much easier time getting into it. But again, I soon got bored with it after 30 to 40 hours once I realized that doing all those sidequests is ultimately pointless. All the enemies are scaled to your level and the game is pretty easy to begin with, and nothing stops you from just doing the mainquests all in a row. And possibly be done with them in 20 hours. All the other stuff you do has some interesting sounding dialoges at the start, but then you always go into either a cave or a tomb and kill everyone you find there to get the item at the end and return it to the person who send you to get it. But for what? That person never again has any interactions with you after that and it’s not like you established any relationships or made any progress towards something. You improve your skills and gain treasures, which you can use to make better equipment and learn more spells. But for what? You are already strong enough to deal with everything. You don’t get any stronger because the enemies will always be adjusted to remain just as difficult. And unfortunately, the two main storylines both suck.

But from what I’ve heard, Morrowind is quite different from Skyrim in these respects. The main storyline is much more interesting and the culture of the land original and not just standard generic vikings. And there’s a point to going on other adventures because you have to become powerful enough to be able to survive in the areas where the main storyline takes you to. So with new hope I installed Morrowind again yesterday and jumped straight into it after roughly 10 years.

And at first I enjoyed it very much. But after 5 hours or so, the initial excitement about the weird landscape and intriguing culture started to fade. And I think it was about 10 hours into the game when I made it to the big capital city of Vivec when all motivation to continue left me. And shortly after I’ve quite playing, I realized that this was pretty much the same part of the game where I stopped the last time, 10 years ago. Because in Vivec, the huge flaw of the game becomes terribly obvious. The game is totally dead. It’s lifeless and lacks any soul.

If you’re familiar, that might sound very surprising and completely unjustified. The world of Morrowind is one of the most amazing and creative fantasy settings ever made. Which is true. But the way this amazing world is presented in the game is just mind crushingly dull. It’s so boring. Almost the entire game conists of nothing but deserted paths through the landscape and empty hallways that always look exactly the same. And unless you’re in a tavern or guild house, there just isn’t anyone around. Technical limitations are something that usually is not to be blamed on the designers. Back in the day, Morrowind actually looked very impressive to me. But aside from the giant mushroom trees, the world is really extremely monotonous. The only kind of decorations you find in the towns are wooden boxes. No plants, no animals, nothing. I had to think back to Baldur’s Gate, which was released four years earlier, and while the towns in that game where technically extremely simple, they just felt so much more alive. The colors not as washed out and much more detail on the 2D buildings and flat landscape. And most importantly, it had ambient sound. You hear people yelling in the distance, noises from people working, and lots of animals. Morrowind doesn’t have any ambient noise at all, and that’s perhaps one of the things that really kills the game. Skyrim does and it makes a huge world of difference.

I’ve always loved the world of Morrowind and from what I’ve read it has a very good story. But possibly the worst thing you could ever say about a game is that it is vastly more entertaining to read about it than to actually play the thing yourself. But with Morrowind, this is exactly what is the case. I love the world, but the game is just bad.