I’ve juggled things around a bit since my initial #dungeon23 post. With less than 24 hours to go until my first room, it’s time to lay the last bits of ground work for the Black Furnace.
The thing I’ve changed up is mapping: I bought a graph paper notebook (4 squares/inch) and a Jujutsu Kaisen pencil mat, and I’m going to do some — or maybe all — of the mapping myself.
I still might use some of Dyson Logos’ gorgeous maps later on, but for the entrances I need to blaze my own trail. I have an idea of what the dungeon looks like on the surface, and how many entrances it has, and I want a significant vertical element available early on; all of that points to mapping out the first level myself.
Origins of the Black Furnace
When I open the book for a published dungeon, there are few things I like to see less than pages and pages of backstory. That’s usually enough for me to put it down and/or never run it.
But ya gotta have some backstory, or at least I do, to hang your hat on. I don’t need a meticulous ecology that makes logical sense, but I want to know why the dungeon exists, or why the first bit of it was created, if that’s more applicable; and I want to know its themes and key ingredients.
Here’s what I already know about the Black Furnace, which appears as an adventure site in The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link]:
Rises from the earth during times of great strife
Sprawling subterranean maze
Realm of a long-forgotten god
Maw which releases ancient monstrosities into the world
Reappearance bodes ill for Brundir
That’s the grist for my mill, and those are my touchstones to keep me reasonably focused. But I need to flesh that list out a bit before I write my first dungeon room/location or I’m going to wind up rambling in eight directions, none of them productive.
All it took to get my creative juices flowing was a few rolls on the Religions table in one of my favorite random-creation tools, the Tome of Adventure Design [affiliate link]. I rolled the name Her + ak + Mol and instantly knew I had the heart of the Black Furnace: the god who created it.
I put a bit of English on that name, started writing…and the rest of it flowed out of my half-formed notions, the notes I’ve taken over the past month, and the raw creative flow born from knowing this god’s name.
Why does it exist?
In Godsbarrow’s earliest days, the gods warred openly against one another. Their need for new and ever more powerful weapons was insatiable, so the deity Hürak Mol (they/them, pronounced “HOO-rak mawl”) built a great kiln, and a furnace beneath it, and began forging, shaping, and birthing artifacts, monsters, and engines of war. This fell place was known as the Black Furnace.
With every creation, Hürak Mol gained power through the other gods’ reliance on them. Where most gods grew strong because of the number of their mortal worshipers, Hürak Mol thrived on the needs of Dormiir’s many gods.
Which meant that as the world stabilized, and the gods withdrew from the mortal realm, preferring to bask in their power or fight each other through proxies, Hürak Mol was no longer needed.
Their power diminished until Hürak Mol became little more than a small god, half-remembered and largely ignored by the other gods. Before they could fade away entirely, Hürak Mol infused the Black Furnace with their deific power and caused their great kiln and subterranean complex of forges, fires, and chimneys, as well as their servitors, raw materials, and small cult of devout worshipers, to sink beneath the earth.
The Black Furnace was not seen in Godsbarrow for many centuries. Hürak Mol was entirely forgotten by the people of Dormiir.
Where has it been?
The Cult of Mol the Timeless has survived within the tunnels of the Black Furnace for untold centuries. Generation upon generation of worshipers have tended the Black Furnace, banked its fires, and — most importantly — remained fervent in their devotion to Hürak Mol, ensuring that they do not fade away entirely.
Hürak Mol, for their part, slumbers in god-sleep in the depths of the Black Furnace, their ancient, war-filled dreams forming part of the Wraithsea.
The Black Furnace is a god-realm, not subject to the laws of physics nor entirely bound by notions of time or reality. It somehow sustains the life within it, and time passes much more slowly inside its tunnels — until it returns to Dormiir. Infused with Hürak Mol’s power, the dungeon itself can sense when there might be enough strife in the world to return Hürak Mol to their former glory.
When this happens, the cult seeks to wake up Hürak Mol. Cultists work the forges and kilns, birthing monstrosities into the world and forging dark artifacts. They attempt to recruit new members. They spread a gospel of war and chaos — the fertile ground Hürak Mol needs to awaken from torpor.
It has appeared in different places throughout Godsbarrow’s history, and done so often enough to become the subject of legends throughout the world. Thus far, the Black Furnace has always remained in Godsbarrow for a time and then, responding to the ancient dictates of its creation, sunk back beneath the earth to await the next moment when Hürak Mol’s return might be realized.
That’s what I needed to feel confident heading into day one of #dungeon23!
I’ve got some evocative, partially-formed notions of what the Black Furnace looks like (or parts of it, at least). I’ve got reasons for just about anything to be part of it, as it has been accessible to the denizens of Dormiir many times over many centuries. Hell, there’s room for gonzo science-fantasy stuff, too.
I have at least one faction in mind, the cult, and it’s likely to be a fractious one. (Who could possibly agree on how to stay devoted to a sleeping god for untold centuries without becoming divided over the specifics?) It’s accessible via the Wraithsea, which is a whole other avenue of ingress and egress (sort of). That means the Arkestran Dominion likely has a presence here, or has at some point.
It also has agency, because the second it appears — which it already has — the weirdoes who live there starting making fucked-up monsters and shit, fanning out across the countryside, and spreading the gospel of Hürak Mol. Hell, they want people to find the dungeon; they’ll tempt anyone they think could be useful with promises of unimaginable power (and be telling the truth about it, although the trade-off isn’t going to appeal to everyone).
The dungeon and its core inhabitants have a direct connection to the PCs’ actions, too: Wiping out the cult would kill Hürak Mol. Aiding the cult would wake up Hürak Mol. If they survive long enough to reach the lowest levels, the PCs will encounter a god. The longer the dungeon stays in Godsbarrow, the more messed-up shit is going to leak into Brundir.
I love it when a dungeon has potentially world-shaking implications, yet can be accessible to 1st level D&D characters. That’s what I wanted out of the Black Furnace when I came up with it, and having jotted all this stuff down I like how it’s coming together.
I’m stoked to explore the Black Furnace this year and see what comes of it!
Out now: The Unlucky Isles
The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.
This region is a twofold experiment. One, it diverges from Worlds Without Number‘s (paid link) directive to “make about six nations/groups,” as I’m making two new ones and using two existing ones. And two, it’s the first region that features gods as physical presences, just out there in the world doing god stuff.
And those gods absolutely define their respective nations — as it should be. At first my concept for Kuruni seemed kind of simplistic, but then I thought about it a bit more. If your god rolls up, twenty feet tall, glowing like the noonday sun, casually hefting the Diamond Hammer of the Ages — a single blow from which can knock the peak off a mountain — and says, “I like fighting,” you’d say, “Me too! Who should we fight?” And when Kura says, “IDGAF, let’s fight each other,” that’s what you do.
Kuruni is that, multiplied by an entire nation. It’s not a monoculture, but it is a culture more tightly defined and less varied than most of the others I’ve sketched out to date. Kura isn’t someone your ancestors knew, or that the church talks about, or that no one’s seen in centuries; she’s that huge woman over there, drinking ale by the barrel, and boy does she love cracking skulls.
Aaust wasn’t that, to start with. It was a largely secular nation, a peaceful place isolated by its geography and dedicated to scholarship and building stilt houses taller than your neighbors. And then The God That Eats boiled up out of the earth and started. Eating. Everything.
Choose about six major geographical features.
The Godblight, the miles-wide — and growing — region of devastation left behind by The God That Eats
The Bacberand, the massive expanse of swampland at the center of Aaust (where many of the Thefaine are found)
The Salt Coast, the extended swath of salt marsh that forms much of Aaust’s coastline
Qaburzani Sound, the many-branched body of water that forms the eastern boundary of the Aaun Peninsula
The Great Library of the Cliffs (“Faial Thaneseie” in Aaunish), a network of canyons in Aaust carved from lip to floor with millions of linear feet of runes, accessible via scaffolds, cranes, and tunnels, and organized in a system known only to the army of sages who maintain it
Forge of Huradi, a holy mountain in Kuruni (and its tallest peak); Kura flattened its top, infused it with her power, and now uses it as a forge to craft weapons for her favored champions
The Thefaine, vast, strange obelisks that dot Aaust, attracting and warping wildlife into huge monsters
Create six nations or groups of importance.
Aaust (“OW-oost,” linguistic touchstone is Old French), which occupies the Aaun Peninsula (“OW-oon”), is a peaceful, insular place that was, until recently, best known for its vast marshes (with some settlements only reachable by flat-bottomed skiffs and barges), stilt-dwellings, scholars, the great Library of the Cliffs (millions of linear feet of Aaun runes engraved into cliffs to form a permanent library that collects works from all over Dormiir; nothing less permanent lasts long in the marshes), and the mysterious Thefaine pillars (“THEH-fayne”). Jutting high into the air, the Thefaine attract and warp wildlife, giving rise to massive — and weird — creatures. But the Aausti aren’t frail scholars who roll over and die when faced with danger; they possess centuries of knowledge and prize resourcefulness, craftiness, and survival.
Aausti culture places importance on the height of one’s dwelling. This began as a practical matter: Aaust is low-lying, barely above sea level in most places, so it’s particularly susceptible to Dormiir’s extreme tides. It’s generally regarded as worse to build high and suffer a collapse than to build slightly lower, but soundly. Drummers, signal torches, pigeons, and lanterns with signal mirrors are used to communicate between towers — and throughout Aaust, as these are all methods that work equally well in the bogs and marshes (and some are subtle enough to avoid monsters’ attention).
The Aausti ability to coexist with monsters is going to come in handy, because two years ago Aaust became best known for one thing: The God That Eats, a kaiju-sized giant slug which awoke from millennia of slumber. This monster exists solely to slither slowly across Aaust and eat anything in its way: people, towns, cities, mountains — and even several of Auust’s small gods. As it eats, it grows. It is a slow-moving apocalypse, ceaseless and inevitable.
In just two years, it has devastated a wide swath of Aaust, killing thousands as it devoured entire towns — and threatening the very existence of the nation. Nothing wounds it, nothing the wizard-sages of Faial Thaneseie (“FYE-ell thanh-ESS-ee-yay”) have tried has worked, and it’s beginning to look like only Kura — the god of neighboring Kuruni, who literally walks the earth — might have a chance of stopping it. The God That Eats can’t digest precious metals and gems, so those get forced out through its skin and left behind. This makes the devastated areas in its wake lucrative for those foolhardy enough to risk getting that close to the worm.
Kuruni (“koor-OO-nee,” linguistic touchstone is Urartian), often called the Land of Kura, is a warlike place defined by its warlike god, Kura — a glowing, muscular woman twenty feet tall, and a constant, physical presence who takes part in battles, performs great works, and walks among the Kurun. Kuruni is a place of gladiatorial combat (not in the Roman vein with slaves fighting lions, but as a highly-valued profession and the ultimate expression of Kurun values: strength, cunning, will, and fearlessness), ritual dueling, trials by combat, and other martial pursuits. The Kurun mostly fight each other, but once every generation or so they unify, turn their attention outwards, and engage in fearsome campaigns of pillage and expansion.
Ever since The God That Eats awoke in neighboring Aaust, Kuruni has been marshalling its strength — physical, magical, and spiritual — to seal the border between the two nations, establishing a bulwark against the worm should it turn to the northwest. Kuruni mercenary companies — part religious group, part family creche — have long been seeking glory in the marshes of Aaust, testing their mettle in ritual combat against the many monsters of the swamps. These days, the few that have returned have come back as wealthy people, but 99% of them don’t come back at all.
Ahlsheyan is part of this region, but I’ve already written it up. I’ve added relationships, wants, and one historical event specific to Kurthunar.
The Arkestran Dominion is also part of this region, but I’ve already written it up. I’ve added relationships, wants, and one historical event specific to Kurthunar.
Identify regionally-significant gods.
Kura (“KOO-ruh”), the cheerful but fearsome warrior-god who defines the nation of Kuruni. She stands twenty feet tall, glows like the noonday sun, wields the Diamond Hammer of the Ages — a single blow from which can knock the peak off a mountain — and loves to fight. Her existence places Kuruni on a constant war footing; war is a way of life. But it’s mostly internal war, and the conflict isn’t driven by hatred but rather by the cultural need to prove oneself in battle.
Here’s how I sum up Kura: If your god rolls up, twenty feet tall, glowing like the noonday sun, casually hefting the Diamond Hammer of the Ages — a single blow from which can knock the peak off a mountain — and says, “I like fighting,” you’d say, “Me too! Who should we fight?” And Kura says, “IDGAF, let’s fight each other.” And then you all fight each other, and drink, and boast about it, and then do it all again the next day.
The God That Eats, a kaiju-sized giant slug which recently awoke from millennia of slumber. This monster exists solely to slither slowly across Aaust and eat anything in its way: people, towns, cities, mountains — and even several of Auust’s small gods. As it eats, it grows. It is a slow-moving apocalypse, ceaseless and inevitable. Before its arrival, Aaust was largely a secular nation, devoted to study and survival, with a handful of small gods related to scholarship, the marshes, and resourcefulness.
I did this alongside the written worldbuilding, just as I did with the Gilded Lands. The Kurthunar map appears at the top of this post.
Here’s Kurthunar in context, alongside the two other regions I’ve developed so far:
Assign two important historical events to each group or nation.
Kurthunar is mainly about Aaust and Kuruni, so I’m only doing one event apiece for Ahlsheyan and the Dominion. (They both already have two apiece in my Unlucky Isles write-up.)
Economic Boom: Wouldn’t have picked this on my own; that’s awesome. Centuries ago, Kura took an interest in Kuruni’s iron mines — a rich resource that had provided the raw materials for weapons and tools that had helped Kuruni become a powerful nation. On a whim, Kura blessed the entire mountain range, infusing it with a portion of her power. Now those mines produce the purest, strongest, easiest to forge iron in the world. Kuruni ironwork is world-renowned and always in demand, and the weapons wielded by its massive (if fractious and disorganized) army and mercenary families are always of the highest quality. As a result of this boom, smiths and blacksmithing play an outsized role in Kuruni society, and Kuruni religion is largely based on blacksmithing and fighting.
Weak Throne: Although the Great Library in Aaust records legends of a time before Kura, in Kuruni itself there is no “before Kura” — but there was a time, centuries ago, before Kura was a constant, earthly presence. And with Kura’s constant presence came a steady erosion of Kuruni’s government. Who needs a mortal ruler when your god walks among you? Kuruni’s government collapsed, and for many years it essentially ceased to exist. But Kura herself revitalized it, creating a loose political structure based on trial by combat, feats of strength and bravery, gladiatorial prowess, and knowledge of the arts and sciences related to these things. This structure persists today, with most of Kuruni’s traditional “political class” inhabiting the least visible portion of it — “knowledge of arts and sciences.” The most visible portion is exemplified by gladiator-governors, dozens of tribal and clan-based factions fighting each other, and a culture of “if you’re fit to rule, fight me and prove it.”
Immigrants: A century ago, the largest group of refugees ever to leave the Arkestran Dominion pulled off their exodus almost undetected — and they fled to Aaust. This was a purely practical choice: Aaust is close, and wild enough that the refugees believed they could hide forever. They didn’t reckon on the sheer number of giant, dangerous creatures with which they’d have to contend — nor with the Aausti’s comprehensive oversight of their own realm, even in its wildest reaches. Fortunately, Aaust welcomed them with open arms. In addition to simply being people who needed help the Aausti were happy to provide, these refugees knew things about one of the most secretive and dangerous countries in Dormiir that no one else did. Their additions to the Great Library have been numerous — and the Aausti have hidden the refugees for a hundred years. Some elves have simply become Aausti, or disguise their true nature, while others hide in the wild places; many work in and around the library. All are still hunted by the Dominion.
Terrain Change: Aaust wasn’t always such a marshy place. But over time a combination of its low-lying land, Dormiir’s powerful tides, and seasonal flooding turned vast swaths of Aaust into bogs, salt marshes, and mires. These swallowed and rotted many of Aaust’s forests, making timber scarce. Marshes also consumed much of Aaust’s coastline, and a combination of timber scarcity and lack of coastal ports mean that Aaust has no navy (nor even any ships to speak of). Wood and iron still exist here, but those resources are concentrated in just a couple of places. Hides, leather, and textiles are more common in Aaust than one might expect in a medieval fantasy world.
Freakish Magic: While the Bloodsong Isles are nominally part of Aaust, the lone Aausti settlement, Silotre, is that nation’s only real claim to them (and Silotre is a weird, isolated place). With four Thefaine pillars concentrated in a small area (the only other place where four appear so close together is the spot that birthed The God That Eats…), the main island is essentially Monster Island from the Godzilla movies. Long ago, a Kasdinar from the Dominion tasked with exploring the Wraithsea around this peculiar island discovered that they could guide the spawning of monsters here and shunt creatures into the Wraithsea at birth. The Kasdinar went rogue and has lived here ever since, birthing monsters into the dreams of sleeping gods. What could go wrong?
Plague: Not long ago, one of the Thefaine on Aaust’s Salt Coast warped a school of venomous octopi — which then became mired in the marshland at low tide and died. The Thefaine’s magic continued to warp their corpses, and by the next high tide — the one that washed them into the Strait of Gēp Jār — they were bloated, toxic balloons. This mass of plague-filled weirdness drifted to Ahlsheyan and spread throughout its coastal communities, sickening hundreds of people. The plague eventually burned itself out when the Ahl quarantined those affected aboard a hastily assembled fleet of ships and burned all of the octopus corpses. Consequently, the Ahl living in this region tend to keep a wide berth of the Salt Coast in particular, and of Aaust in general.
Define the relationships between the groups.
I don’t need to know more about what the Dominion and Ahlsheyan’s relationships with, or wants from, each other; I’ve skipped those here.
Aaust: Previously, Aaust was seen as a playground for Kurun warriors out to prove their mettle against its giant beasts, and otherwise just thought of as a peaceful neighbor. (The Aausti don’t value martial prowess and don’t have much of a military, and there’s not much there to pillage.) But now, with The God That Eats roaming free? Aaust is a truly dangerous place where even greater glory can be won, but also one that needs to be barricaded off from Kuruni because fuck that noise.
Want: For Aaust to wall off the entire Aaun Peninsula at its natural choke point, preventing The God That Eats from entering Kuruni (and points beyond). This is not a popular wish within Aaust, as one might imagine.
Arkestran Dominion: Deceitful foes who would otherwise be the perfect opponents: ruthless, effective, and constantly on a war footing. The Kurun want to fight them toe to toe, but they only fight in the Wraithsea and through their catspaws.
Want: To goad the Dominion into a “good” fight, soldiers facing soldiers on the field of battle. To this end, a small cadre of Kuruni’s Egurhu Sūūt (“eh-GOOR-hoo suit”) — a spy organization dedicated to keeping Kuruni safe and strong, so secretive that it remains a secret even from Kura, whose towering rage at learning of this “cowardly” organization would end in its utter destruction — plans to infiltrate the Dominion’s navy and guide a fleet into Kuruni waters to be destroyed by Kurun ships, thereby by provoking a war.
Ahlsheyan: A strange, mercurial nation with vague, inconstant gods. Neutral.
Want: Kuruni has shipyards and sailors, but its culture does not emphasize either. Kura wants Ahlsheyan to build a shipyard in Kuruni — most likely on Langfeure Isle (formerly a part of Aaust, but taken by Kuruni long ago and turned into a military training area and embarkation point for ventures into Aaust). This would be part embassy, part Vatican, and in exchange for this territorial carve-out the Ahl would provide Kuruni with ships and naval expertise.
Kuruni: Neutral to friendly. Kuruni routinely violating Aaust’s borders to come in and hunt monsters isn’t great — but given that Kuruni could easily wipe Aaust out militarily, and given that their incursions reduce the population of giant beasts, there’s an upside to the whole situation. Kuruni also provides soldiers to defend the Great Library of the Cliffs, and has protected the library several times over the years.
Want: For Kura to come to Aaust and kill The God That Eats. Aaust has sent ambassadors to simply ask; they were rejected for “showing weakness.” They’ve tried subtle diplomacy, gifts, and talking up how much glory would be won by slaying the worm; nothing has worked. The Aausti are starting to wonder if Kura even can kill The God That Eats…
Arkestran Dominion: A dark and dangerous place, but one that has — thus far — been easy to keep at bay. Aaust is naturally inhospitable to most non-Aausti, and the swamps, giant monsters, and Aausti cunning have kept the Dominion from troubling them.
Want: If anyone other than Kura can kill The God That Eats, or at least force it back into hibernation, it’s the Dominion — and a rogue faction of the Aausti government is now desperate enough to pursue the very bad idea of asking the Dominion for help.
Ahlsheyan: A fascinating place full of knowledge that needs to be added to the Great Library, and the source of much of Aaust’s imports (by way of oceangoing trade).
Want: The water border between Aaust and Kuruni, Qaburzani Sound, is a constant source of trouble for the Aausti. With little wood in Aaust, the Aausti have few ships; their coastline is always vulnerable to Kuruni raiding parties, adventuring expeditions, etc. They want the Ahl to sell them a fleet to patrol their coastline.
Kuruni: A threat to be managed, and less pressing than its enemies to the north. As long as Kura stays there, and the Kurun are largely content to fight each other, Kuruni can be ignored.
Want: The Dominion wants Kuruni-forged weapons for its vast army, and they’ve heard rumors of a vast secret armory deep within the Tiru Mountains (“TEE-roo”). Those obviously won’t be for sale, and the Dominion would rather not piss off Kura while trying to take them — so a large, diverse Kasdinar has been formed to find the armory, steal the weapons, and get away without implicating the Dominion.
Aaust: A stinking, salty swamp full of annoyingly resilient people and dangerous monsters. Aaust is largely a “dead” zone in the Wraithsea, and has no significant gods the Dominion could put to sleep in order to expand its Wraithsea capabilities — so this has become a place to avoid, for the most part.
Want: The Dominion wants The God That Eats. If its path, appetites, or both can be controlled (a big if), whoever wields that power can alter the course of nations — or simply wipe them out. This is a full-court press, with Wraithsea-based spy operations, agents flooding into Aaust in secret, mercenaries brought in for brute-force efforts (and to distract from the subtler, more important efforts), etc. Six Kasdinar have formed to achieve this goal, or portions thereof.
Kuruni: The notion of letting one deity guide the entire nation is alien to the Ahl, as is the idea of basing an entire country on fighting itself. As Ahlsheyan has plenty to occupy it in the Unlucky Isles, and as Kuruni is not a naval power, the Ahl keep an eye on Kuruni but don’t generally pay it much regard.
Want: To know Kura is to know Kuruni, and with the arrival of The God That Eats next door Ahlsheyan needs to know Kura’s plans. To that end, they have dispatched a cadre of spies and other rogues to infiltrate Kuruni, get close to Kura, and report on all of her activities. If caught, they would have to fight a pissed-off god.
Aaust: A fascinating but dangerous place to visit. Aaust is full of opportunities, but since the rise of The God That Eats those opportunities have been more than balanced out by significant risks.
Want: To convince Aaust to allow Ahlsheyan to copy the entire Great Library of the Cliffs (by a combination of rubbings, wax casting, and extraction of slabs of cliff face) and recreate it in Ahlsheyan. Before the arrival of The God That Eats this would have been a non-starter for the Aausti, but now…
And that’s it — the whole region in one post! Next up is a double-width region that sits just south of the Unlucky Isles and the Gilded Lands: the Ice Courts.
I’m closing in on a fully developed region of Godsbarrow now — and honestly, this is the first time in 30+ years of gaming that I’ve had this much of a world developed to this extent. It’s an awesome feeling, and Worlds Without Number (paid link) continues to deliver. Not only that, but five weeks into daily worldbuilding I’m still having fun, I still love this setting and want to know more about it, and I’m still not getting bogged down in details that will never matter at the table.
This was the longest step so far. It doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to be a lengthy step, but at the same time I’ve got six nations so that means 30 relationships and 30 wants. That takes time! I also found myself falling into Star Wars prequel territory, as in “Who gives a fuck about a trade dispute?” — so I kept stepping back and trying to come up with new wants/relationships that avoided the trap of being boring and/or same-y.
One way I did that was by writing just one or two things a day, rather than banging out a bunch of them at once. Another was to jot down every nation’s wants after I was done, and check that quick list against the original summary of each nation to make sure I was using this step to bring out the flavor and character of each country.
I also found that every relationship and want was a potential wellspring of fun worldbuilding, which I enjoyed a great deal. Lots of new setting details sprang from this step. I also made sure that every want was either an adventure/campaign hook or a source of multiple hooks, because this process is all about creating useful, gameable content.
Define the relationships between the groups.
There are two components to this step: What each nation thinks, generally, about each other nation; and a specific thing each one wants from each of the others. My quick and dirty map with borders will help visualize what’s what in the Isles:
As with a couple of the other steps in WWN, this one doesn’t match the example region in the book. There are lovely write-ups for each Latter Earth nation in the region, but they don’t have national relationships or wants listed for them. Consequently, I might be doing this wrong! Or at least not approaching it from an optimal perspective, maybe?
For example, my default is “What does the government think of this nation?” rather than, say, “What does the average Brundiri think of Ahlsheyan?” I don’t know if this is the right approach, but it was a fun process and my output feels pretty gameable.
Yealmark: A dangerous wildcard. The Dominion hasn’t encountered a “mercenary nation” before, but has seen what the Free Spears can do when mobilized.
Want: To install an “advisor” in the court of Yealmark who, through bribery and other means, can entice the Free Spears north to work for the Dominion. If that fails, the wraith-priests will consider a Wraithsea assault to wipe out the Free Spears’ leadership.
Brundir: A foe that currently requires too much work to eliminate. Brundir is on the Dominion’s list to be crushed, but not at the top; their concerns are to the north (and not in the Isles).
Want: To use the Wraithsea to enter the god Nsslk’s dreams and assassinate him, thereby “poisoning” the waters around Brundir with his essence — and perhaps even compounding Slljrrn’s curse on the Isles. A devastated Brundir would be much easier to assimilate into the Dominion.
Kadavis: A juicy target. Kadavis has over 200 gods and a is a wealthy nation — a ripe prize for a country that owes much of its power to its sleeping pantheon and mastery of the Wraithsea, and which is always seeking to expand its domain.
Want: The Dominion’s wraith-priests want to locate one of Kadavis’ “small gods” and put them into god-sleep, giving the elves a local nexus for their machinations in the Wraithsea. If they succeed, they’ll do the same with every Kadavan god they can find.
Meskmur: The key to keeping the peace in the Isles. If Meskmur were to fall, or disclaim its neutrality, it would destabilize the region — making it easier for the Dominion to swoop in while the island nations fight amongst themselves.
Want: To destroy Meskmur through a campaign of infiltration, Wraithsea manipulation and assassinations, and other nefarious means. A large, well-financed Kasdinar (“KASS-dinn-arr,” a formal — but usually temporary — cadre of wraith-priests and their agents dedicated to a specific purpose; think Oaths of Moment in pre-Heresy Warhammer 40k) was formed to accomplish this goal.
Ahlsheyan: Third in line to be conquered, after Brundir and Meskmur. For now, the Dominion has a neutral relationship with Ahlsheyan, with some trade flowing in both directions.
Want: With its unchanging pantheon of three active (not sleeping) gods, Ahlsheyan is difficult to access via the Wraithsea. The wraith-priests want to “exhume” one of the Dominion’s slumbering lesser gods and transport them — still asleep — to a secret site within Ahlsheyan. Step one is for Dominion agents to identify that site, and a Kasdinar is currently undertaking this mission.
Arkestran Dominion: A target for expanding Yealmark to the mainland. The Free Spears are nothing if not audacious, and with Brundir having their back and the Dominion largely ignoring its own hinterlands, the southern reaches look ripe for takeover.
Want: To annex the Arkestran city in the marshes just north of Yealmark, along with all of the surrounding land visible on the Unlucky Isles region map up to the border of the Wastes. Yealmark correctly views the Wastes as a barrier to the Dominion reacting quickly enough to stop them (holding this territory, however, is a different story).
Brundir: A staunch ally and former patron. The Nuav Free Spears have become a more potent force since they established a home base, including shipping, trade, training grounds, etc., in Yealmark, and that’s thanks to Brundir.
Want: To add another piece of Brundir to Yealmark. The Free Spears have their eye on the disputed island between Brundir and the Dominion. Having it deeded to them would take the problem of defending/contesting it off Brundir’s plate, while also giving Yealmark a larger foothold in the Isles — and more room to invite other Nuav mercenary companies to join them here.
Kadavis: Potential customers, especially Kidav Taur. The Free Spears have been exploring the possibility of helping Kidav Taur achieve its independence — but the catch is that the Miarans can’t afford them.
Want: Rumor has it that Bruzas, the Free Spears’ primary deity from back in Nuav, once traveled to Rasu Miar and drenched the entire island in sacred blood. Where the blood pooled, strange things grew. The Spears want to find these holy sites — and if they do, they may lay claim to Rasu Miar on that basis.
Meskmur: A mysterious place whose neutrality means it isn’t likely to buy the Free Spears’ service, and therefore not of particular interest.
Want: Yealmark wants to know more about Deathsmoke Isle and the Red Twins who are said to live in its volcanoes. Their religion teaches that fire and heat are the stuff of life, but Deathsmoke appears to bring only death to Rasu Miar. The first Free Spears scouts sent to the island disappeared without a trace.
Ahlsheyan: A wealthy potential customer. Right now, Brundir pays better — and being granted Yealmark has won the Free Spears’ long-term allegiance. But like any mercenary company, their allegiance can be bought…and Ahlsheyan has deep pockets.
Want: The Free Spears have established a handful of secret outposts in the foothills of the mountain range that crosses northern Ahlsheyan. They intend to gradually build up their strength there and then offer both Brundir and Ahlsheyan the opportunity to employ the Spears in a surprise attack; the low bidder gets attacked.
Arkestran Dominion: A sleeping giant, best ignored if at all possible — but if they turn their attention south again, they will need to be met with force. The Red Admiralty has spies (mainly elves) in the Dominion’s southern reaches, hard at work helping to foment the rebellion that simmers there so fighting it will keep the Dominion busy.
Want: To goad the southern reaches into open revolt against the rest of the Dominion.
Yealmark: A staunch and incredibly useful ally. The Red Admiralty sees only benefits in maintaining strong ties with Yealmark, and is careful to never imply that Yealmark is a “client state” — although elements of the Admiralty view it as one.
Want: To ensure control over the Free Spears, the Red Admiralty wants to bury a set of haunted relics throughout the capital city. Brundiri Afuna Kavθa (“uh-FOO-nuh KAW-thuh,” wizards who are part ghost-talker and part spirit-wrangler, and almost always haunted themselves) would be able to use those relics to bedevil, beguile, haunt, or assassinate Yeal officials as needed.
Kadavis: A potential catspaw, but also a valuable trading partner. Mainland Kadavis cares little for Rasu Miar, and the island itself is split between loyalists and secessionists. Manipulating Rasu Miar can help Brundir maintain its status as the principal power in the Isles.
Want: Brundir’s Red Admiralty wants to goad Rasu Miar (and especially Kidav Taur) into attacking Meskmur — a rival power broker and the controller of volcanic smoke that could easily be redirected to Brundir.
Meskmur: A twofold threat, but also useful one. One, Meskmur conserves its considerable power by remaining outwardly neutral in the Isles (never officially confirming that it is slowly destroying Rasu Miar via Deathsmoke Isle), and Brundir would like to cement its own role as a power broker. And two, if Meskmur decides the Deathsmoke plume should veer west instead, it would threaten the very existence of Brundir.
Want: The Admiralty wants to assassinate Meskmur’s deities, the Red Twins of Deathsmoke Isle, thereby permanently removing the threat posed by the twin volcanoes — and much of Meskmur’s hidden power in the Isles.
Ahlsheyan: With its expertise in shipbuilding, powerful navy, and foothold on Brundir’s doorstep, Ahlsheyan poses a threat to Brundir’s dominance of the Isles. But since Brundir took the significant half of Slljrrn Isle, the Admiralty has strived to keep the two kingdoms in a state of uneasy peace — one that still allows trade, and which avoids open war.
Want: To convince Ahlsheyan’s seaport on Slljrrn Isle to declare its independence and join Brundir, either outright or as a client state. The city is relatively distant from Ahlsheyan’s political center, and Brundir already controls half of the island where it is located. With the Red Admiralty in charge, this is a campaign of sabotage, diplomacy, assassination, infiltration, and skullduggery.
Arkestran Dominion: Rasu Miar doesn’t much care about the Dominion (and vice versa), but mainland Kadavis views it primarily as a trading partner with whom they’d like to do a lot more business.
Want: To figure out how Slljrrn’s essence created, and is expanding, the Atrachian Wastes — and then weaponize that same process against Meskmur, ravaging the entire island.
Yealmark: For mainland Kadavis, the future governors of Rasu Miar. Kadavis has seen the best way to buy the allegiance of the Free Spears, and they want in — but without actually giving up any territory (and the associated glory). For Rasu Miar, a juicy target for raiding and infiltration. Yealmark is such a chaotic “party island” that opportunities for both abound.
Want: To convince the Nuav Free Spears to take over governance of Rasu Miar, which would remain a territory of Kadavis. Kadavis views this as all upside for itself, and all work for Yealmark.
Brundir: An aggressive, militaristic nation with too few gods, but also pretty good at keeping peace in the Isles. The Miarans also view Brundir as the provider of the juiciest, but most dangerous, targets for piracy.
Want: An assassin bearing a Brundiri tattoo was recently caught in the Kadavan capital, but before she could be captured the woman dropped dead and a ghost flew out of her corpse and then vanished. For Kadavis, this was like capturing a stealth bomber: Brundir can do what?! Who was the target? Are there more of them? How can we spot them sooner? How do we capture one alive?
Meskmur: A hated foe for Rasu Miar; largely ignored by mainland Kadavis. For Miarans, Meskmur is what turned their inhospitable home into one that’s almost uninhabitable. No power in the Isles hates another as much as Rasu Miar hates Meskmur — and that goes double for Kidav Taur.
Want: Kadavis, both mainland and Rasu Miar, wants to stop Meskmur from directing the smoke plume from Deathsmoke Isle towards Rasu Miar. The mainland doesn’t care nearly as much (it’s only Rasu Miar…), but many Miarans would happily raze Meskmur to the ground if it was within their power.
Ahlsheyan: A trading partner, generally neutral. Kadavis buys ships and ship parts (Ahl masts are in especially high demand) from Ahlsheyan, and exports fine marble and one of its most notable delicacies, tightly sealed jars of a spicy jelly that smells like rotten fish. Rasu Miar raids Ahl ports specifically to steal those same ship parts.
Want: Kidav Taur wants Ahlsheyan to be the first nation to officially recognize it as a country in its own right. Representatives of the rebel government have been quietly meeting with higher-ups in Ahlsheyan, angling for an official diplomatic meeting on Meskmur.
Arkestran Dominion: A fascinating but dangerous nation. Meskmur actively seeks to stay off the Dominion’s radar…while trying to learn its secrets.
Want: To extract the secrets of the Dominion’s expertise in navigating and using the Wraithsea. Meskmur’s wizards are already powerful; this would make them much, much more dangerous.
Yealmark: An undisciplined but powerful upstart nation. They’ve never shown any enmity towards Meskmur, but presumably they would for the right price.
Want: To establish a combination temple to the Red Twins and embassy in Yealmark’s capital, letting them keep an eye on things while encouraging the Yeal to seek diplomatic solutions over mercenary ones.
Brundir: A nest of wealthy vipers. If provoked, Brundir could squash Meskmur like a bug, or simply blockade the island and starve the kingdom to death. But Brundir backs Meskmur’s role as a neutral power, both politically and financially, making it a valuable ally of sorts.
Want: To build a temple to the Red Twins in Brundir’s capital city, the first step in spreading the state religion of Meskmur to Brundir. The sorcerer-priests know that more worshippers will strengthen the Red Twins, and since Meskmur “controls” them that will in turn strengthen Meskmur.
Kadavis: A valuable ally. Kadavis makes frequent use of Meskmur’s services as a neutral meeting ground, both for Isles politics and for meetings with dignitaries and negotiators from places outside the region. Further, Kadavis is a valued trading partner.
Want: Meskmur wants to take over Rasu Miar. Old enmities may have been the reason why Meskmur began slowly killing the island with volcanic smoke and ash, but that evolved into a slow-motion power play. If they succeed, then the plume from Deathsmoke Isle will blow in a new direction…
Ahlsheyan: An ally and useful foil in keeping Brundir busy. Ahlsheyan’s triumvirate values Meskmur as a neutral meeting ground; Meskmur subtly encourages Ahlsheyan to heat up its conflict with Brundir.
Want: To use magic to plant false evidence of a Brundiri plot to assassinate the Ahl triumvirate, keeping their current cold war at just the right temperature.
Arkestran Dominion: A long-term threat. Not because it’s an elven nation (the trite cliché of elf-dwarf animosity doesn’t exist in Godsbarrow), but because the Dominion is manifestly expansionist and ruthless in pursuing its goals.
Want: To incite the Dominion to attack Brundir again, starting with the divided island occupied by both nations. That would give the Ahl a chance to attack from the south, facing less of Brundir’s military might.
Yealmark: As Ahlsheyan is currently “under the waves” (focused on opportunity), Yealmark is seen as a potential ally — and not blamed for turning the tide in the battle for Slljrrn Isle; that blame is laid squarely on Brundir. But what can Ahlsheyan offer Yealmark that could convince the Nuav Free Spears to turn on Brundir?
Want: To poison the alliance between Yealmark and Brundir, enabling Ahlsheyan to move against Brundir without having to worry about the Free Spears joining the conflict.
Brundir: A hated foe, but a complicated one. Ahlsheyan doesn’t want to dominate the Isles through conquest, but they do want ownership of all of the islands south of Brundir. Although Ahlsheyan has better ships, Brundir has a larger navy and the allegiance of the Nuav Free Spears. So the current state of relations is largely a cold war.
Want: Ahlsheyan disputes Brundir’s claim to every island located between the two nations, and they want them back. All of them were part of Ahlsheyan in the distant past and feature heavily in Ahl legends, and all are home to ruins significant to the Ahl faith.
Kadavis: An ally bound by blood and history. Long before their current borders were established, Ahl and Kadavans intermingled, settled, and established roots in each others’ territories. There are countless Kadavan dwarves with Ahl ancestors living in Kadavis, and significant settlements of people of Kadavan ancestry exist throughout Ahlsheyan.
Want: Pirates from Rasu Miar plague the strait the separates the island from mainland Kadavis, making it a much less attractive shipping lane than Ahlsheyan would like. Ahlsheyan has quietly undertaken a secret pirate-hunting campaign, but the government wants Kadavis to grant formal letters of marque so they can wipe the pirates out with impunity.
Meskmur: A valuable partner in maintaining peaceful trade in the Isles. Whenever a dispute with another nation arises, Ahlsheyan almost always defaults to proposing a meeting on Meskmur to resolve things peacefully. (It’s least likely to do so when Brundir is the nation in question, but even that depends on which member of Ahlsheyan’s ruling trio is dominant.)
Want: Legends tell of a site sacred to the three principal Ahl deities hidden in the woods at the center of Meskmur. Ahlsheyan wants permission to search for it, and if denied they may attempt the search in secret.
With this step heaved across the finish line, I’m faced with a choice:
Tackle the final step in WWN’s “The Region” section, which is adding faction stats to the nations/groups in the Isles. I like this step because it will produce interesting information, but it’s also most relevant only if I use WWN’s domain-level mechanics in play at some point — and I don’t know if I will.
Skip that step and move to developing a starting area within one nation in the Isles. This is awesome because it means the Unlucky Isles would be 100% ready for play (and then some!) at a moment’s notice. Plus I’d get to play with WWN’s excellent local-level tools.
Skip both of those steps, move one map “segment” to the north, east, or south, and start “The Region” over with a new area of Godsbarrow. From a worldbuilding standpoint, this probably makes the most sense — and I’m excited to know more about the larger nations circling the Isles, and to see how running through these steps again with a new place feels.
I guess I’ll make that call tomorrow, when I need to do a bit of worldbuilding (my daily streak is still unbroken!) and have to put fingers to keyboard.
Over the course of working through Worlds Without Number‘s steps for developing the Unlucky Isles as a region, I’ve thought a fair bit about national boundaries and how to make them interesting fuel for gaming. Worldographer’s snap-to-hex borders require a million little points and clicks, and I always fuck something up — so I went the quick and dirty route for now, good enough for all practical purposes.
I haven’t named most of the islands yet, but a few points of interest jump out from this map:
In the northeast, the Arkestran Dominion and Brundir each claim half of one island.
In the south, not only does Ahlsheyan rule two islands just off the coast of Brundir, the two nations also dispute Slljrrn Isle, the holiest site in the Unlucky Isles (with Brundir controlling the significant half).
In the east, while all of Rasu Miar is part of Kadavis (with its mainland in the far east), a north/south split demarcates the boundary of “Kidav Taur,” a region that lost its bid to secede from Kadavis but which still asserts its independence.
No one claims Deathsmoke Isle, because that place is fucking awful.
The rad thing about those points of interest is that two of them didn’t exist until I rolled them on the historical events table in WWN and gave them a bit of thought (Slljrrn Isle, the divided Rasu Miar), and a third was planned — the island disputed by Brundir and the Dominion — but evolved into something interesting because of a roll on that same table.
Just like heaving the Unlucky Isles into existence in part one, the raw creativity required while developing historical events is taxing (but fun!). That’s why it’s taken me several days to finish, as I’ve been chipping away at it little by little. Anyhoo, on to the next question in the section “The Region”:
Make a sketch map of the region.
Done! Like, a bunch of times in different ways. Here’s the current regional map without borders but with all of the cities, roads, and region-scale geographic features in place (from part three):
Assign two important historical events to each group or nation.
WWN includes a d100 table of historical events, and I love rolling for stuff this important and seeing where it takes me. I chose my first event — Diplomatic Coup, in Yealmark — but rolled the rest (often rolling a few times until I hit one that resonated). Several of the rolls matched up perfectly with something I already knew about the Isles, so I took them as opportunities to develop my half-formed ideas more thoroughly — which in turn led me in new directions, as any good roll-driven development process should!
Diplomatic Coup: Thirty years ago, in payment for a staggeringly large contract, Brundir granted the two islands that now form the kingdom of Yealmark to the Nuav Free Spears (buying Brundir an ally and a buffer against the Dominion — not a bad exchange, really).
Power Brokers: Thirty-five years ago, the Nuav Free Spears swung the tide of a conflict between Brundir and Ahlsheyan over ownership of Slljrrn Isle, the holiest site in the Unlucky Isles. Control of Slljrrn Isle cemented Brundir’s preeminence in the Isles.
Mortally wounded, Slljrrn crossed the middle of the island, his tears causing a forest to grow. On its northern shore, he pulled the horn of his slayer from his chest and thrust it into the earth, causing a mountain to spring up. As he died, he slipped beneath the waves; there he remains.
Even in a place called “the Unlucky Isles,” Slljrrn Isle stands out as an especially unlucky place.
Loss of Confidence: The last major push to expand the borders of the Dominion into the Unlucky Isles proper ran headfirst into the Brundiran navy. Ordained by the wraith-priests of the Dominion, the Falling Blade of New Flame (the name for this military campaign) involved many conscripts from the Dominion’s southern reaches. When Brundir utterly crushed their fleet, allowing the Dominion to gain only a small foothold (the disputed island between them), many southern Arkestrans began to question the sanctity of the wraith-priests and the divinity of the Dominion itself. This slow-burning rebellion is still afoot, and building up steam.
Terrain Change: When Slljrrn died, the coastline near what is now the southern extent of the Atrachian Wastes was a lush marshland. The waters of the now-unlucky sea leeched into the marshes, spreading Slljrrn’s curse to the land itself — and creating the Atrachian Wastes, which then spread in all directions.
Desolation: The pall of smoke from the twin volcanoes of Deathsmoke Isle most often drifts northeast, darkening the skies over Rasu Miar. Ash falls from the sky; crops wither on the vine, or simply never take root at all. There’s less smoke some years than others, but over time this phenomenon has made whole swaths of Rasu Miar all but unlivable. The Miarans rightly blame Meskmur for this, as the sorcerers’ prayers to their volcano gods ensure the smoke never drifts south.
Secession: Kadavis has been exiling its criminals, ne’er-do-wells, and undesirables to Rasu Miar for at least 200 years. Condemned to live in a desolate, inhospitable place of ashfall and smoke, the Miarans have never been fond of mainland Kadavis. But 50 years ago, the southern half of the island (anchored by the three cities around the Sculn Hills) seceded from Kadavis.
The Kadavan army crossed into Rasu Miar via the narrowest point in the channel, in the north, paying and conscripting Miarans to form militia units and accompany them as they marched south. They crushed the rebellion, but because Kadavan society revolves around displays of wealth and power, and losing the ports and access to the inner Isles would diminish Kadavis, the army was quick to retreat back to the mainland.
The rebellion was never wiped out root and branch, and many southern Miarans maintain that they live in the nation of “Kidav Taur” (“KIH-davv torr”). The divide between northern and southern Rasu Miar, loyalists and rebels, persists — and Kidav Taur’s government in exile still formally asserts the region’s independence from Kadavis.
Twist of Fate + New Rulers: Twist of Fate says to make a positive event negative and vice versa, but New Rulers is pretty neutral — so I just made up what interested me. Thirty-seven years ago, the majority of Brundir’s ruling class — the Silver Admiralty, whose members were determined by a mix of lineage, merit, politics, and skullduggery — died within the space of a few weeks. Many of the deaths were supernatural in nature, and speculation abounded as to why — was it the curse of the Unlucky Isles? Sorcery from Meskmur? An internal coup through magical assassinations?
The new government, the Red Admiralty, proclaimed that Slljrrn’s curse was to blame and declared war on Ahlsheyan to wrest control of Slljrrn Isle, ostensibly to pray away the curse but really to cement their dominance of the region. Thanks to the aid of the Nuav Free Spears, this two-year campaign was successful and the Red Admiralty still rules Brundir today.
Like the preceding Admiralties, membership is determined by various means — though in the Red, plotting is the surest route to power. Each Admiralty chooses a color by which to be known.
Noble Strife: Seemed a little on the nose at first, but it actually makes sense and gives some texture to the current political climate. The Red Admiralty is strong, but riven with internal conflict: assassinations (generally unproven as such), planting cursed objects in rivals’ homes or about their person, compelling ghosts on the haunted moors to assail political foes, bitter disputes over how stewardship of Slljrrn Isle should be handled, factions split over going to war with Ahlsheyan to wrest control of the boundary islands from them, etc.
Plague: After Slljrrn’s death, a plague swept through Meskmur which killed a third of the population within just a few weeks. Divinations by the ruling sorcerer-priests found that the Red Twins, the gods said to inhabit the volcanoes of Deathsmoke Isle, could cleanse the plague. Marathon services, sometimes stretching for days, a frenzy of temple-building, and pilgrimages to Deathsmoke Isle ensued…and it worked. Worship of the Red Twins became the state religion of Meskmur, transforming the island’s society in the process.
And, as the sorcerer-priests later learned, giving them a powerful weapon to wield against neighboring Kadavis — in the form of the pall of smoke constantly emitted from Deathsmoke Isle, over which they exert some control.
Good Wizard: Long ago, the great wizard Volkias oel-Mesk (“voll-KYE-uss OLL-messk,” who was non-binary, with they/them pronouns) brought sorcery to Meskmur. They taught magic to two generations of Meskmuri before their death (reputedly at the age of 207), and those sorcerers rose to power and became the current ruling class of sorcerer-priests. Volkias explicitly disclaimed their divinity and refused to be worshipped as a deity, a request that has been honored ever since. Meskmuri revere them as a legendary ancestor — the person who turned Meskmur from a scattering of towns into a nation, second only to the Red Twins in their importance to present-day society.
Great Builders: Every major shipyard in Ahlsheyan is a holy place, built in reverence to the gods of water, wind, and stone, and over the centuries they have become massive, sprawling places. Part port town, part shipyard, and part temple, the shipyards of Ahlsheyan feature tall spires made of wind-worn rocks, twisting in unusual (though structurally sound) shapes; vast aerial “sculptures” composed of sails, kites, and flags; specially shaped vertical and horizontal structures which whistle and keen in the wind; sculptures shaped to capture and play with inrushing water from Dormiir’s unusually powerful tides; and thousands of runes etched on every stone surface.
Inefficient Rule: Ahlsheyan’s ruling triumvirate is chosen anew every time one member dies or is otherwise incapacitated, which often leads to instability and infighting. Compounding this, each member represents one of the three pillars of Ahlsheyani faith, and one always rises to preeminence over the other two — which shifts the triumvirate’s rule to emphasis tradition, opportunity, or impermanence.
For the past several generations, the triumvirate has been stable and dominated by the speaker for Ebren. With the triumvirate therefore dedicated to opportunity, Ahlsheyani policy and culture has been shaped by being “under the waves.” (Were stone or air dominant, they would be “under the stone” or “under the sky,” respectively.) But all it takes is one timely assassination to change this at any time…
Like a lot of Crawford’s work, the tech on display in Worlds Without Number is deceptively simple. The language is plain and the advice is straightforward; you could easily read this section of the book and think that it doesn’t look like anything special. But the proof is in the pudding: Guided by the advice in WWN, I’m doing the best, most coherent, most gameable worldbuilding I’ve ever done, and I’m having a ball doing it.
Next up are the last two items in WWN’s “The Region” section: relationships between groups (including what every group wants from each of the others, so we’re talking 30 relationships and 30 wants!), followed by assigning faction scores. Whether I do that last bit will depend on whether I’m going to start a second region or dive deeper into the Unlucky Isles, and I haven’t made that decision just yet.
Like all of the advice in Worlds Without Number, the stuff about cities gets straight to the point: put the capital in the center of the best arable land, on water; put other cities on water, and near resources; if you stick one in the middle of nowhere, assume there’s a kingdom-level water source not visible on the region-level map. Given that this slice of Dormiir is all islands and water, I figured most cities would be coastal.
Because of the cool natural-looking coastlines I’ve generated in Worldographer, a lot of my cities look like they’re floating in the ocean. But on a zoomed-in, kingdom-level map, they’d be placed in a sub-hex that’s on land.
Next up is roads! Once I get my cities stitched together, I’ll have a better feel for how much wilderness is present in each kingdom (and where those wild places are).
I tried to tell some basic stories with my road placement. Brundir is prosperous, populous, and the regional powerhouse: lots of roads, and the capital city is a true hub. The western edge of the Arkestran Dominion, and Kadavis proper, are also pretty well linked-up. Meskmur has sorcery and political isolation in its favor, so they’ve got roads galore.
But Rasu Miar (the island just off the coast of Kadavis, in the east) is sparsely settled and a pretty crappy place to live, so they don’t have a robust road network. And Ahlsheyan is a bit of a mix, with some logical connections missing — because those dwarves love to sail, so some overland trade routes just never really developed.
And looking at the current state of the map, I have to say that I’m not especially worried about reducing the number of cities — because there are tons of areas that aren’t even within a hex of a city or road. Even Brundir, where fully a third of the islefolk live, has lots of areas within its borders that could be wild, lawless, and dangerous.
Looking ahead, I’m now in a good spot to finish answering the rest of the questions in WWN’s “The Region” section: historical events for all six nations, their relationships with one another, and — optionally, but I’ll probably do it — assigning every kingdom its faction statistics. For folks who might be reading this and thinking that the amount of work I’ve already done is at odds with the “get to play quickly, but with a meaningful foundation for your setting” approach WWN advocates…you’re right!
I could easily have skipped several enjoyable hours of figuring out population sizes, placing cities, adding roads, and twiddling the terrain to suit — and instead just finished the rest of the region questions, picked Brundir as my starting kingdom, and moved on to answering the kingdom questions. Hell, I could have skipped making an actual map and just sketched out some vaguely island- and kingdom-shaped outlines on a piece of paper (as WWN suggests in the early stages).
But my goal isn’t to get to play quickly, or even in the medium term — it’s to create My World, one that I’ll be excited to continue to develop for a long time to come.
I might use WWN to gin up Brundir in more detail and then start a fresh map one “block” to the north, covering the Arkestran Dominion — and leave the rest of the Unlucky Isles exactly as they are at the end of “The Region” process. Or I might fully develop each kingdom in the Isles, and the sub-hex around a likely campaign start point in Brundir, so this whole region is richly developed and ready for play. I’m going where the wind takes me, doing whatever moves me.
Worlds Without Number is providing structure, keeping me on track so that I don’t drift off into stuff that won’t ever matter in play. It’s the tool I’m using to ensure a solid foundation for the Isles, and for expanding my worldbuilding to encompass other regions of Dormiir. I want to create a useful, gameable setting full of useful, gameable information — and devoid of cruft, wordy prose, or other stuff that often clogs up published settings. So far, WWN is perfect for that.
This morning in the shower it hit me that in a region called “the Unlucky Isles,” with six kingdoms, only three of those kingdoms were fully contained within the Isles (the other three stretch off the map) — and one of those is “fantasy Switzerland.” Would that generate enough local conflict to fuel adventures?
But sitting down and looking at my map again, I saw that I could expand my plan to have disputed islands — originally, just one or two between Ahlsheyan and Brundir — to include a Brundir/Dominion disputed island in the north. And I figured that Rasu Miar, while it’s part of a nation that stretches off the map (Kadavis, to the east), is basically an island kingdom — so that’s four, not three. I’m feeling good about all of that.
So this evening I tucked into finishing the regional map, which needs cities in order to match the example in Worlds Without Number, plus a few more non-major-but-still-sizeable geographical features, like scattered woods and whatnot, for visual interest. After adding some terrain where I planned to put disputed claims, and some more because I liked how it looked, I turned on grid numbers:
WWN presents some great back-of-the-napkin math for determining population figures, and then using those to back into number/size of cities, so I started there. I counted hexes by hand, ignoring the partial/ragged coastline hexes, and jotted down the ballpark population for each kingdom (or portion thereof which appears on the map, for the three that aren’t fully contained within the Isles).
Arkestran Dominion, 287,000: 215 hexes not counting the Wastes = 430,000 = 43,000 in cities, but the portion on the map is lightly populated hinterlands, so that’s too high. Let’s say 287,000 = 29,000 in cities = no capital city here, so one major city of 10,000, plus 19,000 in other cities.
Yealmark, 84,000: 41 hexes x 2,000 = 84,000 = 8,400 in cities = 2,800 in capital city, and 5,600 split between two other cities.
Brundir, 840,000: about 420 hexes x 2,000 = 840,000 = 84,000 in cities = 28,000 in capital city, 14,000 in second-largest city, 42,000 in other cities.
Kadavis, 248,000 on Rasu Miar, 266,000 in Kadavis proper: 165 hexes in Rasu Miar = 330,000 = 33,000 in cities, but the population is a little lower in this inhospitable place, so let’s say 248,000 = 25,000 in cities = no capital here, so 8,300 in major city, 4,200 in next-largest city, and 12,500 in other cities.
…and 133 hexes of Kadavis proper on this map = 266,000 = 26,600 in cities = no capital city on this map, so 9,000 in major city, 4,400 in second-largest city, 13,200 in other cities.
Meskmur, 230,000: 115 hexes x 2,000 = 230,000 = 23,000 in cities = 7,600 in capital city, 3,900 in second-largest city, 11,500 in other cities.
Ahlsheyan, 550,000: 225 hexes on this map = 550,000 = 55,000 in cities = capital city isn’t on this map, so 18,000 in major city, 9,000 in second-largest city, 28,000 in other cities.
That would make the population of the Unlucky Isles 2.5 million people. That’s roughly equal to the population of medieval England in the early 12th century, which seems like the right ballpark. I’m starting to get a sense for the scope of this region, which is exciting.
I view 2.5 million as the upper bound. WWN notes that wilderness hexes don’t count, and until I have some cities in place and have drawn in some major roads, I won’t know even roughly how many wilderness hexes are in the Unlucky Isles. So I expect those stats (and maybe the number of cities) to go down a bit, at least in some of the kingdoms. (And I should note that WWN doesn’t have all this population stuff happening for the whole region at this stage — I’m electing to do it now because it’s fun, and because it keeps my map grounded so it can serve as a firm foundation for ongoing development.)
But for tonight I’m calling it here — after a surprisingly time-consuming amount of math and fiddling with cities — because it’s time to play Fortnite with the kiddo!
In yesterday’s post I sketched out some high-concept stuff about Godsbarrow, and having finished Worlds Without Number‘s “The World” steps I’m moving on to “The Region” — the slice of Dormiir called the Unlucky Isles.
As with the first Dormiir post, large portions of this one are pretty raw — more or less straight from the Notepad file I’ve been massaging and into WordPress. (I’ve learned that if I obsess over polish at this stage of worldbuilding, I get bogged down and never get much further. The raw fire of creativity is where it’s at!)
The Unlucky Isles
Name the region.
The Unlucky Isles, so named because the god Slljrrn (“SULL-jern”) died here, sinking into the sea and cursing this scattering of islands — and because the isles draw the ill-fated like moths to a flame.
An aside: names
Before I tuck into the next step, there’s some advice about names in WWN that I love and want to share here:
Conventional fantasy names tend to be random nonsense-syllables picked from the creator’s cultural phoneme stock, and places often end up as the city of AdjectiveNoun or the NounNoun river. While some of this can work perfectly well, it’s easier for the GM to pick some obscure or extinct real-world language known to nobody at the table and use it for names. Even if the words they use from it have no relation to what they’re naming, the consistent set of sounds and syllable patterns will help give a coherent feel to the work.
Worlds Without Number, p.119
That tracks with languages in Star Wars, which are (or were, anyway) often real-world languages not likely to be familiar to a primarily English-speaking audience; I’ve always thought that was a fun approach.
I decided to stick to dead languages. Palaeolexicon offers dictionaries of long-dead languages, and browsing through them was a lot of fun. In coming up with names, I used dead languages where it felt right, and made up my own bullshit everywhere else (because I do enjoy making up my own bullshit).
That shook out to dead languages for some names associated with three nations — Etruscan for Brundir, Proto-Turkic for Ahlsheyan, and Thracian for Yealmark — and made-up stuff for the other three.
Choose about six major geographical features.
Before this step, I started working on my map. I used Worldspinner to cycle through arrangements of continents until I found one that pleased me, and then switched to Worldographer Pro to build my hex map. (I’ve been using Hexographer, its predecessor, for almost a decade; both are excellent, and both offer robust free versions.) I can’t think too much about a fictional place without a map of it, so I’m jumping ahead a bit, WWN-wise.
Armed with my landform map, I jotted down my major geographical features, adding them to the map as I went:
Ulscarp Mountains, a range of jagged, snowcapped peaks in Ahlsheyan
Vykus and Vnissk, the twin volcanoes of Deathsmoke Isle
The Ockwood, a vast, dense forest in Brundir
Sculn Hills, a rocky region on the island of Rasu Miar, in Kadavis
Atrachian Wastes, a region of badlands and dead forest in the Arkestran Dominion
The Vorga Forest, light evergreen woods that dot Meskmur
This step necessarily bled into the next couple, as kingdoms, gods, and other elements of the setting popped into my head, were iterated upon, and got plugged into the other region-creation steps.
Create six nations or groups of importance.
Brundir (“BRUNN-dihr”), the largest and most central of the Unlucky Isles. Brundir is rich in natural resources, including timber and arable land, and boasts a coastline full of protected bays. Brundir is a mercantile power with a large and powerful navy. It’s also a haunted place and a breeding ground for strange creatures, thanks to Slljrrn’s lingering essence, and Brundirans tend to have a pessimistic streak.
Arkestran Dominion (“arr-KESS-trun”), stretching off the map to the north. A militaristic, expansionist elven nation, the Dominion sits atop an entire pantheon of dreaming gods and makes extensive use of the Wraithsea to exert their influence across Dormiir. The southern reaches, however, are lightly populated hinterlands dominated by the inhospitable Atrachian Wastes; the Dominion’s main focus is to the north…for now.
Meskmur (“MEHSK-murr”), a small kingdom of sorcerers on the southernmost edge of the Unlucky Isles, is a secretive, isolated place. By and large, the Meskmuri stay out of the politics of the Isles, and so Meskmur serves as the de facto “neutral ground” for moots, summits, and other gatherings (collecting payment and tribute in exchange). Temples and shrines to Jiur and Sarrow, the Red Twins central to Meskmuri faith, dot the island.
Ahlsheyan (“ahl-SHAY-ahn”), a chilly, windswept dwarven kingdom which abuts the Unlucky Isles to the south. Ahl dwarves are equally at home deep underground and plying the waves. The three pillars of Ahl society are wind, waves, and stone (representing impermanence, opportunity, and the past, respectively), and Ahl relationships are often tripartite (polycules, business ventures, etc.). Ahl “wind sculptures” — made of stone shaped so as to change in interesting ways as they are worn away by wind and weather, and not sold or exhibited until decades after they were first made — are famous throughout Godsbarrow.
Kadavis (“kuh-DAVV-iss”), in the east, is notorious for the raiders who populate Rasu Miar (“ill-fated land” in Kadavan), the island that marks its westernmost territory. Between the rocky Sculn Hills and the pall of smoke emanating from Deathsmoke Isle, Rasu Miar is a harsh place; outcasts, exiles, and wanderers who don’t fit into Kadavan society often find their way here. Kadavis itself is a prosperous, decadent kingdom composed of dozens of squabbling fiefdoms. Kadavan culture places great value on ostentatious displays of wealth and glory.
Yealmark (“YALL-mahrk”) consists of two small islands wedged between the Dominion to the north, Kadavis to the east, and Brundir to the south, and is the youngest kingdom in the Unlucky Isles. Formerly part of Brundir, Yealmark was granted to the Nuav Free Spears, a large mercenary company, some thirty years ago as payment for a contract. The Free Spears are disciplined in battle but run wild between contracts, so Yealmark is a strange mix of organized martial society and raucous revelry, and attracts more than its share of pirates, ne’er-do-wells, and adventurers as a result.
Identify regionally-significant gods.
Brundir — θana (“THAH-nah,” the forest; the versatility of trees) and σethra (“SHETH-ruh,” good fortune), commonly referred to as the Mast and the Sail (the strong, well-made foundation that enables you to catch the winds of good fortune, taking you away from the ill luck of the Isles).
Etruscan is my source for some Brundiran names, including special characters like Sigma and Theta (used above).
Arkestran Dominion — Taur Kon Drukh, the Ceaseless Flame, who burns away the threads of fate woven by other gods, and soothes the slumber of the old pantheon (ensuring the Arkestrans don’t lose access to the Wraithsea).
Meskmur — Jiur and Sarrow (“JEE-oor” and “SAH-row”, the Red Twins, believed to live inside the volcanoes Vykus (Jiur) and Vnissk (Sarrow) on Deathsmoke Isle, and venerated in large part to keep them there — and away from Meskmur itself (ditto the smoke, which most often drifts north instead of south, fouling the air over Rasu Miar).
Ahlsheyan — Kōm (“COMB,” wind, impermanence), Ebren (“EHB-run,” waves, opportunity), and Iāka (“ee-YAY-kuh,” stone, the past) are the cornerstones of Ahl faith and society.
Proto-Turkic is my source for some Ahl names.
Kadavis — Iskuldra, the Golden Mask (“iss-KUHL-druh,” wealth, glory, recognition), principal deity in a pantheon that includes over 200 “small gods” (other aspects of prosperity, commerce, fashion, etc.) who are venerated in its many fiefdoms.
Yealmark — Pays obeisance to Brundir’s principal gods, θana and σethra, but also to Bruzas (“BROO-zoss”), the god of blood and revelry from their original homeland, Nuav (whose symbol is a blood-filled golden bowl).
Thracian is my source for some Yealmark names.
Many islefolk also pray to Nsslk (“NUH-sulk”), son of long-dead Slljrrn, who sleeps beneath the waves in the Unlucky Isles, in the hope that their prayers will keep him from dying — and thereby further cursing the Isles.
Make a sketch map of the region.
Mapping advice is scattered around the worldbuilding chapter, and doesn’t perfectly match the book’s setting, so I did some head-scratching and came to my own conclusions. WWN recommends a square 200 miles on a side, with 6-mile hexes, for the region map — but the example in the book is more like 300 miles x 360 miles, and I liked its size. So I went with 60 hexes by 50 hexes (widescreen monitor-shaped, not book page-shaped), for a regional area of 108,000 square miles.
WWN notes that rivers and (optionally) large lakes/inland seas come next, and to make logical rivers I needed to add some mountains and hills to my extant map (and fiddle with some of the existing features, too). That plus country labels gave me the map I used to open this post:
Worldographer has a really cool feature called Child Maps that auto-generates a version of your current map on a different scale, with a number of hexes per parent-map hex that you determine. For example, I can take the Unlucky Isles at World level and step down to Continent level with 6 hexes per hex, and Worldographer will spit out that massive map.
WWN’s process doesn’t have you adding cities and other features to your kingdom-level map, but major features do appear on its example map. I want to see more detail than I currently have on my region map (at 6 miles/hex), so my next step will be to add cities and features to this map. (If I were about to start a campaign, I’d probably set it in a central region of Brundir, generate a 6-hexes-per-hex child map, and add villages, caves, dungeons, ruins, and so forth to those 1-mile hexes.)
I’ll do that as part of answering the three remaining WWN questions about the region — and in another post, as this one’s already massive!
Earlier today, a chance comment on RPGnet alerted me to the release of Worlds Without Number ([paid link]; there’s also a free version of the game [paid link]), Kevin Crawford’s fantasy version of Stars Without Number ([paid link]; and again, there’s a free SWN [paid link]), which I immediately bought. That in turn led me to think about how I feel like a bad gamer for never having had my own fantasy setting that I’ve tinkered with for years, and run games in, and the ways in which I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to setting creation.
For example, writing two paragraphs before getting lost in daydreaming about what accent colors I’m going to use the in the setting book I eventually publish…and then thinking about how difficult it would be to build up a brand, a company, and a potential audience again; or how I’m going to screw up and accidentally use a bunch of problematic tropes I don’t recognize as being problematic; at which point I abandon the project and go watch cartoons.
But I also realized that getting properly into miniature painting has given me a blueprint that works for my weird brain — one that I might be able to apply to worldbuilding: Pick a big goal, pick a small goal, pick a goal somewhere in between; work on it for at least a few minutes a day; blog about it, as the mood strikes, to help make it real (and because it’s fun if other people use it). I think I can use that model here.
So I sat down with Worlds Without Number, skipped to the worldbuilding section, and started reading. I’ve loved Crawford’s work for years, and we share a strong commitment to not making stuff that won’t have a direct impact on play at the gaming table (unless making it is fun in its own right). Brass tacks, realistic expectations, time spent well — I’m right there with him.
But first, the Larch
I didn’t want to abandon Bleakstone, or its successor setting, the Crystal Marches — but I also didn’t want to feel like I was retreading old ground. I didn’t build momentum last time, so why would it work differently this time?
I love settings with colloquial names formed from ordinary words, and I was thinking about my longtime interest in an island setting — when poof, the name “the Unlucky Isles” popped into my head. I wondered why they’d be unlucky — and hey, wouldn’t it be cool if they were cursed by the gods?
Or what if a god had died there, and bad luck was a lingering aftereffect?
“A world where gods can die” was the boom moment I needed to get my creative juices flowing.
(From here on in, this post is pretty raw — basically just straight from my notes, archiving my thoughts as they first came to me.)
I popped up Worlds Without Number and started answering questions, sketching in high-level setting concepts while I thought things through.
Gods can die, and in its early days the world was a tomb to many of them.
Magic and other strange phenomena are attributed to long-buried gods, their essences leaking into the soil, water, and air.
The current gods will die someday, too — and every time a god dies, their death shakes the world.
When young gods die, their essence may only influence a small region — but entire kingdoms and continents are shaped by the essences of dead older gods.
Some gods don’t die, but go into a state of torpor much like death; their dreams can become real, and people can enter those dreams
Bleakstone, the Crystal Marches, and other setting concepts I have can become part of Dormiir.
After spending the evening answering the questions in the first section, “The World,” I wrote this post. (The free version of Worlds Without Number [paid link] includes this entire section, so I’m not giving away Kevin’s farm here.)
What’s the name of this world for people in your campaign’s scope?
Dormiir (“to sleep” in French, with an extra “i”), but most people in the Unlucky Isles call it Godsbarrow (with barrow being a tomb-mound; Goadsbarrow is a real place in England, which I also like).
Are natural physical laws mostly the same as in our world?
Yes, except that Godsbarrow has two moons. One in a stable orbit (providing Earth-like tides) and the other in a highly eccentric orbit, which causes wildly powerful tides at the two points where it passes closest to the planet. (Coastal communities must be built accordingly.)
The weird moon is believed to be the corpse of a titanic deity, curled up into a ball. Some religions hold it to be the source of all magic.
Are there any spirit-worlds, alternate dimensions, novel planes of existence, or other cosmological locales generally associated with the world?
The Wraithsea is the common name for the un-place composed of the dreams of sleeping gods. People can go there in their dreams — or be drawn there — and if they linger, they disappear from the physical world.
Are there any grand global-scale empires or groups that impinge on the campaign’s scope?
The Arkestran Dominion (“Arkestran” is an elven word for “eternal”) sits atop the tomb of an entire pantheon of dreaming gods, and uses the Wraithsea to extend its influence across the world while its military might expands the borders of their empire.
How interconnected are the parts of your world?
About like medieval Earth, where people have heard things about faraway places — but more often myths and legends than actual facts. Regional weirdness caused by long-buried gods tends to keep people close to home, but nothing stops folks from travelling.
Are there any vast global events that have happened recently?
Bakhmyut, He Who Holds Back Hell — the principal deity of the country of Duspira — died five years ago, plunging the entire world into darkness for three days (one for each thousand steps in the passage to hell guarded by Bakhmyut, the Three Thousand Stairs).
That darkness lifted everywhere but Duspira, which has remained under the night sky ever since. Bakhmyut’s death also unleashed strange magic and stranger creatures, which have been spreading outwards from Duspira — along with ordinary Duspirans, fleeing a land in which no crops will grow.
Up next is “The Region,” which I already have going in my little Notepad file on Godsbarrow.