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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

The Unlucky Isles, “The Region,” part five: relationships and wants

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.

The six nations of the Unlucky Isles

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:

National borders in the Unlucky 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.

Arkestran Dominion

  • 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.

Yealmark

  • 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.

Brundir

  • 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.

Kadavis

  • 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.

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.

Ahlsheyan

  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number.)

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Building the Unlucky Isles: “The Region,” part four

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.

The Unlucky Isles with borders, as of March 24

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):

The current state of affairs on my regional map of the Unlucky Isles

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!

Yealmark

  • 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.

Arkestran Dominion

  • 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.

Kadavis

  • 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.

Brundir

  • 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.

Meskmur

  • 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.

Ahlsheyan

  • 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.

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number.)

Categories
Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Building the Unlucky Isles: “The Region,” part three

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.

Per yesterday’s post about population figures, I might reduce the number of cities a bit — but for now, here’s the current state of the Unlucky Isles.

I added a lake and two rivers to Kadavis, because it felt like it needed them

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 also added a few ports, so that well-connected places have connections that make sense

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.

What’s next?

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 post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number.)

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Building the Unlucky Isles: “The Region,” part two

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:

The state of play before dropping in my cities

Population figures

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!

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number.)

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Building the Unlucky Isles: “The Region,” part one

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 (as of March 17), with landforms, major geographical features, and nations in place

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.

The Unlucky Isles in “raw” form, created in Worldographer

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
All six major geographical features of the Unlucky Isles

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.

  • Brundirθana (“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 DominionTaur 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).
  • MeskmurJiur 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).
  • AhlsheyanKōm (“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.
  • KadavisIskuldra, 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.

That would make the Unlucky Isles the eighth-largest US state by area, and roughly the size of Colorado, Nevada, or Arizona.

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:

The current state of the map

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!

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number.)

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Dormiir, also called Godsbarrow: worldbuilding using Worlds Without Number

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), Kevin Crawford’s fantasy version of Stars Without Number (paid link; and again, there’s a free SWN), 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.)

Dormiir

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 includes this entire section, so I’m not giving away Kevin’s farm here.)

The World

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.

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number.)