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10 years of Yore, and dusting off proto-Godsbarrow ideas from 2013

Today is Yore’s 10th anniversary! I wrote my first blog post here on August 28, 2012: Reading Appendix N: The project, the appendix, and the goal.

10! Years!

That’s longer than my time blogging on Gnome Stew (just shy of 8 years) or Treasure Tables before that (just over 2 years). Hell, it’s almost longer than both of them combined.

Part of why Yore continues to work for me is that it’s my place to write whatever I want to write, not worry too much about whether anyone is reading it, and post when the mood strikes me — without keeping any sort of schedule, resulting in fewer posts per year than either GS or TT (by a long shot).

I do hope folks enjoy it, though! I’ve been posting gaming stuff online since the late 1990s, and one consistent throughline over the past 20-plus years is that I generally post stuff I find interesting that I think other folks might find useful, or enjoy, or both.

Waymark

Godsbarrow isn’t the first fantasy setting I’ve taken a stab at: It was preceded by what are, in hindsight, several “proto-Godsbarrows,” and from time to time I like to go back and cherry-pick my best ideas from those early iterations. A post that just says “Yay, 10 years!” is kind of boring — so I figured I’d blow the dust off an old proto-Godsbarrow post and see what it has to offer.

I picked a Yore draft post entitled “file” from March 18, 2013. I probably haven’t looked at it since then, and I have no idea why it’s a draft post rather than a Notepad file on my PC like the rest of my worldbuilding notes.

“file” is sandwiched between Reading Appendix N posts I never finished writing, a card game called Spires of Prague that I really need to get back to someday, and what I think is an archived draft of my free RPG Signal Lost, which I designed for Game Check 2013

Guiding principles for worldbuilding

That post included some stuff that very much informs how I’m developing Godsbarrow nearly 10 years later. Like these guiding principles:

  1. Don’t be subtle and don’t hold back: If it’s worth noting, it’s worth taking too far. Don’t avoid clichés; they work well in games.
  2. Dot no Is and cross no Ts: It doesn’t have to be done to be playable. It will never be done. Being unfinished is a virtue.
  3. The Rule of Two Things: Each point of interest on the map should be most notable for two things. Remembering lots of things is hard, especially as a player; remembering two is easy.
  4. The world is the world: If there are giants in the hills, it’s because there are giants in the hills–not because the PCs are “ready” to face giants.

I’m probably tempering #1 a bit these days, and #2 is less relevant as parts of Godsbarrow get more fully fleshed-out — yet entirely relevant in some ways. For example, the Godsbarrow campaign I’m currently running is going just fine despite the setting being nowhere near finished.

I don’t hew religiously to #3, but it does tend to be how I think of points of interest. If one needs more than two things to make it sing, that’s cool — but less is often more. #4 is 100% still how I worldbuild and how I run D&D-alikes.

Godsbarrow: at least 10 years in the making

This 2013 draft isn’t the oldest proto-Godsbarrow material, although it’s close. The oldest stuff on my hard drive that’s recognizably the rough clay from which I’m molding Godsbarrow dates back to April 2012. Like all worldbuilding, naturally there are much older ideas that bubble up and work their way into current stuff, but back in 2012-2013 I was actively building a setting — variously called Bleakstone or Waymark — using elements that are part of Godsbarrow.

Skulvezar, Godsbarrow’s god of skeletons, makes an appearance in that 2013 draft post. Proto-Skulvezar was more closely connected with demons; I tightened him up for Godsbarrow. Ditto the town of Cape Reckless, in the Unlucky Isles. I would have sworn Cape Reckless dated back to maybe 2016, not 2013, but there it was.

Hexcrawl points of interest

There are some names in there I need to pull into Godsbarrow — and the village of Garbriar definitely needs to make an appearance: “Garbriar is famous for its spicy prickleberry stew and for having the ugliest villagers in all of Saxum. By local tradition, village roofs are thatched with prickleberry branches.” (There’s a Rule of Two Things write-up, complete with breaking the rule with a third thing.)

Here are a few other points of interest, which I was writing up hex by hex in 2013. There’s some stuff here that would be right at home in Godsbarrow, and may just wind up there.

  • The Godsroad (0705): Maintained by laborers from Temple Town (often those doing penance or donating their time to a Church), the Godsroad is neutral territory between Saxum and Harth, traveled by traders, pilgrims, and soldiers alike.
  • Great North Road (0607): Laid down by the Vazdurak Empire centuries ago, the Great North Road is wide, clear, and well-traveled. It serves as the main trade route connecting Harth and Saxum. Waymarks — statues of demonic figures that stand about waist high, many weathered almost beyond recognition — are placed every quarter mile along the north edge of the road.
  • Cursed Grove (0906): This twisted, overgrown forest’s name isn’t hyperbole: Anyone who spends the night here has a chance of becoming cursed. Curses tend to last a few days and include things like being struck mute, seeing everyone around you as a demon, crying blood non-stop, or shouting “Hail Murgoth!” every few minutes. Every variety of mundane spiders can be found in the Cursed Grove, and in great numbers.
  • Galconny (0607): Galconny was previously the northernmost city in the Vazdurak Empire, and the present-day city is built on the bones and ashes of that one. Where the old architecture survives, it’s all devils and demons: sinister carvings in every archway, markets held in ancient arenas formerly devoted to blood sports and sacrifices, brown-stained cobbles that never come clean.

Our Dragons Are Different

Back in 2013, I had a whole thing where I was reimagining all of the staples of D&D monster manual — a perfect example of the Our Elves Are Different trope. I have mixed feelings about that trope, but I guess on balance I like it. It hearkens back to the grand tradition of heartbreaker fantasy RPGs, which isn’t an unambiguously good thing, but it also has real practical weight for anyone designing a fantasy world for publication. Why? Because it gets straight at this key question: Why should anyone play a game in your world instead of the countless existing fantasy campaign settings?

When it’s done right (which is the hard part), “because our elves are different” is a pretty solid answer to that question. (Not the only answer, of course!) If you’re running D&D or any D&D-alike, and the world is broadly based on some of the common themes therein, you probably need elves. But do they need to be D&D or Tolkien elves? No…but they should have enough in common that you can identify them as elves — while being different in ways that evoke the setting you’re trying to create and add your enjoyment while exploring it.

As a concept, “elf” is delightfully mutable. (That same mutability is one reason superheroes are so neat.) I like elves, and dwarves, and halflings, and other staple fantasy species, and I’m enjoying riffing on the core concepts of these species in Godsbarrow. The only elves I’ve written up so far are from the Arkestran Dominion, and their species originates in the Wraithsea — their ancestors were literally born out of the dreams of sleeping gods. A lot of what makes an elf an elf clicks in a different way when that’s the starting point.

In that same vein, the dragons I wrote up for Waymark in 2013 are pretty appealing to me in 2022 — and thus far I haven’t written the word “dragon” in connection with Godsbarrow. Not every fantasy setting needs them, certainly, but I can see going this direction with dragons if they ever appear in Godsbarrow. (The petrified expanses led directly to the next iteration of this unfinished setting, Bleakstone.)

Dragons haven’t been seen in Waymark for over two centuries, and most people think they’re just a myth. The strange stony expanses found throughout Waymark are most often attributed to dragons, and are most often called Wyrmstone. They’re shunned and feared by just about everyone.

There are six dragons in the world, each a Prince of Hell. They’re arch-devils in service of Skulvezar, revered as the Apocalypse Dragons by the Vazdurak Empire and now simply known as dragons. Their touch petrifies everything around them — the ground, people, plants, animals, everything.

Waymark is dotted with expanses of Wyrmstone, places where a dragon set foot on the earth and permanently transformed the landscape–and anyone or anything unfortunate enough to be in the area–into bleak grey stone. Wyrmstone expanses have existed for as long as anyone can remember, but rumors persist that new areas of Wyrmstone have begun to appear, and that existing areas are expanding.

From my 2013 notes on Waymark, one of the unfinished settings that laid the groundwork for Godsbarrow

It was neat to find this old post, poke through it, and see the lines connecting it to present-day Godsbarrow. Hopefully you enjoyed this bit of noodling.

Thank you!

If you’re here, reading this, thank you for checking out Yore — whether you’ve been stopping by for years or are visiting for the first time. Here’s to the next 10 years!

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Zooming in to the province level: Sanχu, a caθna in eastern Brundir

I’ve reached the kingdom creation step in Worlds Without Number (paid link), and decided to zoom in on one caθna (province) in Brundir, Sanχu. (WWN notes that “kingdom” can mean anything you want it to in this context, from a city to a stretch of wasteland to an actual nation.) If I were about to start up an Unlucky Isles campaign, this is where it would begin.

I suck at using Worldographer to map out borders, but this is Sanχu

As I worked through this step, I jotted down some notes to put Sanχu in context; I’ve left those in place in this post. As with my other Godsbarrow posts, this is pretty raw from the creative furnace — lightly copyedited and proofread, but that’s about it. All of that adds up to a pretty long post, and one that feels more like my now-deleted “Let’s create an X” series (fuck Judges Guild).

If I were putting this post into gazetteer format for use in play, it’d be a lot shorter! But this series, and process, is about enjoying making the sausage and sharing how the sausage is made — so hold onto your butts, I guess?

Sanχu

Located in eastern Brundir, Sanχu is anchored by Cape Reckless (hex 3020 on the Unlucky Isles map), the city situated at the river delta along the eastern coast of Brundir’s central bay.

Why start there? It’s in the middle of the Unlucky Isles map, but it’s not centered on Brundir’s capital city (and, presumably, its most populous region). It’s close to Yealmark, with the Dominion just to the north — and the divided isle even closer. A day or two’s ride to the east, you’ve got Rasu Miar and its raiders; Deathsmoke Isle and Meskmur are also accessible from that eastern river delta (by boat, of course). There’s a vast, haunted forest — the Ockwood — just to the south, and presumably plenty of sparsely-populated areas nearby. It also features a tempting blank space in its southeastern “quadrant.”

Pick a linguistic touchstone and give your kingdom or area a name.

Brundir’s linguistic touchstone is Etruscan, which applies to the entire nation. (I use Palaeolexicon for my dead languages.) I like the idea of this area having its own name or nickname, so it’s called Sanχu (“SANK-hu”). Sanχu is one of the eight caθna (“KAHTH-nuh”) into which Brundir is divided (provinces, basically). People from Sanχu are referred to as Sanχuns.

Flesh out its history.

This step calls for 3-4 local-level events, and for referring back to the region-level events for the area.

  • Total Collapse (rolled): A century ago, a ship set out from Cape Reckless on an expedition to recover relics — blood, bones, flesh — from the god Slljrrn’s corpse. When it sailed back into port, no one was aboard. Its sails were black, its weathered planks were tarred red, and the tolling of a great sonorous bell could be heard from within. A curse spread from this ship to the city, and from there to the rest of Sanχu.
    • It afflicted most of the population, and those cursed were fated to have the worst possible luck. If something they did could go wrong, it went as wrong as it possibly could. The entire caθna dissolved into chaos within weeks.
    • Many tried to destroy the ship, but no one could get near it. Eventually, cursed relics were brought in from Brundir’s capital and unsealed in Cape Reckless; the dark entities within swarmed the ship and dragged it beneath the waves.
  • Xenophilia (rolled): Past efforts to reduced the number of Miaran raids on Sanχu’s eastern coast gradually grew into a relationship between Sanχu and the blighted isle. Sanχu has absorbed many refugees, expats, and former raiders from Rasu Miar, and with them has come an appreciation for Kadavan culture among the native Brundiri. Sanχu has welcomed dozens of Kadavis’ small gods, picked up Kadavan customs, and bolstered its naval crews with Miaran ex-pirates.
  • Noble Strife (rolled): Some time ago, Sanχu spent 10 years being ruled by a dead person — and not undead, but actually dead-dead. The caθna is generally known for its loose relationship with the laws of the land, and a minor σuθi (“SOO-thee,” essentially a noble house) saw an opportunity to carve a blood-red path to power. They succeeded, but the σuθi’s inner circle feared her new clout and decided to assassinate her just as she assumed power.
    • They covered the whole thing up, and for the next decade no one saw the ruler of Sanχu. Eventually, that same inner circle collapsed into chaos and blood, and things returned to normal — save for some peculiar local customs now in place to ensure that Sanχu’s leader is verifiably alive.

Decide how it is ruled and identify the ruler.

“Give names and a sentence or two of definition to the rulers in the area, with the tables starting on page 132 providing some help.”

Here’s what I already know: Brundir as a whole is ruled by the Red Admiralty, composed of nobles, schemers, folks elevated on merit, etc. There are nobles, and Sanχu has noble houses (the σuθi). It stands to reason that a mix of lineage, scheming, and merit goes into the government here, too. And given Brundir’s naval focus and the fact that the government is an admiralty, that’d be a fun throughline to echo here.

That means I don’t need some of the tables in WWN. There’s one ruler, with a patchwork of local-level nobles under them. The ruling class is mixed: hereditary, political, etc.; it also changes, via coup or whatever.

Sources of Legitimacy could be a fun one, though. I rolled an 8,
“They brought greater prosperity to the land.” That fits with Brundir’s role in the Isles, and tells me something interesting about Sanχu.

“How do they exert their will?” A 10, “Hireling enforcers employed at need.” Neat! That’s not where I’d have gone on my own. Following the sandbox principle of playing with the toys you already have, let’s make that mainly a mix of Nuav Free Spears and ex-raiders from Rasu Miar.

Forms of rulership I already know, and I guess it’s closest to “Seniormost representative of the ruling class.”

Diseases of Rule also sounds fun to roll. I got a 1, “The ruler’s trying to crush a too-powerful lord.” For the One-Roll Government Details charts, I rolled:

  • Ruler: outsider with few existing allies
  • Ministers’ problems: out of touch or lazy in their work
  • Strength of government: firm economic control over the land
  • Stability of government: relatively stable, with strong legitimacy
  • Officials recently causing problems: corrupt village headmen acting as tyrants
  • Recent government event: major faith was offended by the rulers

Okay, so let’s sum that up into a sketch of the current ruler of Sanχu and the nature of its government.

The governor of Sanχu is Prasanai the Ochre, of Σuθi Duru (“PRAH-suh-nye,” “DOO-roo”). (The Brundiri word for “noble house” is σuθi; its first letter, sigma, is Σ when capitalized and σ when it’s lowercase.) Prasanai is a Miaran who settled in Sanχu after many years raiding its coasts. She rose to head of σuθi Duru by assassinating her rivals and exerting control over Miaran raiders (“Do what I want, and you’ll be safe from the raiders”).

No one likes Prasanai, but no one disputes her right to rule — and economically, Sanχu is doing well under her governance. Her puppet officials through the region are causing problems, though, and Prasanai herself has run afoul of the Brundiri religion by over-harvesting the trees of the Ockwood (for masts, of course) and not paying proper obeisance to θana in the process.

Identify the enemies of the rulers.

Three σuθi were harmed or slighted most by Prasanai’s rise to power and the dominance of σuθi Duru: Karkana, Faladum, and Veśi (“kahr-KAH-nuh,” “fahl-ah-DOOM,” “VEH-shee”). The lord of σuθi Karkana, Velenθalas (“WEL-enn-thahl-ahs,” the “too-powerful lord” from an earlier roll, who is non-binary) has convinced the other two to ally with them in a bid to topple σuθi Duru. They’ve seized on Prasanai’s limited understanding of Brundiri religion as one path, mobilizing the faithful; their other path is paying Miaran raiders unaligned with σuθi Duru to stir up trouble.

Choose one or more problems or goals it’s facing.

Combining some earlier results and choices: Miaran raiders not loyal to Prasanai are being bribed by the mayors of many coastal towns to attack their neighbors and rivals, harass traders so that they choose their towns instead, etc.

Velenθalas, lord of σuθi Karkana, is encouraging, enabling, and leveraging this practice — and it’s on the verge of becoming a larger problem. Enough disruptions will prompt retaliations, weaken σuθi Duru’s rule, and could even lead to towns mustering their militias and attacking one another directly. Unchecked, that could in turn lead to wider chaos — and even start a civil war, as native Brundiri turn on Brundiri of Miaran descent.

Make a rough map of the area.

For my purposes, at the moment, I don’t need this. I already have the major features of Sanχu mapped out at the 6-mile-hex level, including its relationship with neighboring regions of Brundir.

The Unlucky Isles at the regional level (6-mile hexes)

If I were about to start up a campaign in Cape Reckless, I’d zoom in to the 1-mile hex level and map the area around the city.

Place ethnic groups and demihumans.

Sanχu’s population is a mix of native Brundiri (the majority), people of Miaran stock who immigrated generations ago, and Miarans (a distinct minority).

After humans, the most significant population of other species is dwarves, most of whom are of Kadavan (Miaran) descent. There is also a small population of elves, either those who fled the oppressive rule of the Dominion or the descendants of those who did so long ago.

Given Brundir’s focus on trade and seafaring, there’s a sizable population of Sou gnomes here at any given time — though Sou rarely settle on land, preferring to moor their boats for as long as they feel like sticking around (which can be for many years).

Language-wise, Brundiri is the main one, of course. Tamosi (the language of the Sou gnomes, also known as Tradespeak) is also widely spoken. Third is Kadavan.

Flesh out the society and style of the kingdom and its occupants.

I feel like I have some of this in place already, from the previous steps. But it’s also a stand-in for Brundir as a whole, and I haven’t developed Brundiri society yet — so let’s do that, and then see if Sanχu differs in any way. (I’ve crossed off the two results I wound up skipping later on.)

  • Physical appearance:
    • Typical skin colors: golden, sallow, or ivory
    • Hair color/texture: night-black/thick and flowing
    • Eye coloration: grays, whether flat or metallic
    • Typical build: much bigger and bulkier than neighbors
    • Optional common forms of adornment: piercings, whether minor or elaborate
  • Values they esteem: courage and valiance in danger
  • Major unit of social identity: far-flung clans of affiliated families
  • Example template society: fantasy Viking land

I have problems with some of the descriptive terms for skin tones. Writing With Color has a good explainer that covers this issue. But that’s an easy rewrite, and I do like that the full range of human skin tones are covered on that table. Writing With Color also offers an excellent primer on better ways to describe skin color, which is what I’m using for Godsbarrow.

The physical appearance I rolled is a perfect blend, though. It tracks with some of what I was unconsciously picturing, and the random elements map nicely to what I already know about Brundir and its people. Let’s update the skin tone to “golden brown to reddish brown” and leave the rest as-is.

So Brundiri are typically taller and bulkier than an average human, with skin ranging from golden brown to reddish brown, gray eyes, and flowing, night-black hair. They wear piercings for aesthetic and cultural reasons, and it’s rare to meet a Brundiri without at least one.

After some consideration, I love this one:

  • Values they esteem: courage and valiance in danger

But the next one needed rerolling, and now it’s perfect:

  • Major unit of social identity: patron-client relationships with major figures

I’m skipping the last table, which resulted in “fantasy Viking land” as a cultural template. For one thing, this approach — mapping real-world societies loosely to fantasy ones — is widespread and no longer really interests me. Maybe at the extreme end of “loosely” — like, as an island nation with a powerful navy, Brundir has always shared some traits with England in my mind — but that’s about it. Secondly, this can be a minefield for unintentionally creating problematic content; that alone is a good enough reason to avoid it.

Instead, let’s sum up what I know about Brundir so far and see if that turns into a coherent, gameable cultural sketch:

  • Strong martial component to its society, ruled by an admiralty, large navy
  • Principal religion involves trees, forests, good fortune, and building a foundation that lets you take advantage of opportunities
  • Rich in natural resources
  • Haunted, cursed, and full of strange creatures
  • Brundiri tend to have a pessimistic streak
  • Piercings are commonplace, for aesthetic and cultural reasons
  • Populous, with almost 1/3 the population of the Isles living there
  • Mix of nobility, merit, and scheming determines who is among the elite
  • Not shy about fighting over territory, and stubborn about giving it up
  • Willing to make bold plays, like giving all of what is now Yealmark to the Free Spears
  • The major power in the Isles

Yep, I think I’m good!

Lastly, I’m not just describing Sanχu here — this applies to all of Brundir. Maybe there are some local quirks to Sanχu, but Brundir is pretty small and I don’t want to get too bogged down at this stage. So this step is a hybrid of province-level and kingdom-level creation, which I like.

Assign local gods and religious traditions.

This is an interesting one. I’ve got the block-and-tackle work already done (way back in part one!), but this step is a chance to add a more local flavor to Sanχu.

Big picture

θana (the forest; the versatility of trees) and σethra (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).

Local picture

With strong ties to Rasu Miar, and many Miaran-descended Brundiri and recent immigrants, worshippers of Kadavan deities are commonplace. That includes Iskuldra, head of the pantheon of small gods, as well as the small gods who best match the needs of the Miaran people here (and dozens of others not worth listing; Kadavans have a lot of small gods):

  • Nusket (“NOOS-kett”), the Thousand Minnows, a deity composed of a school of small golden fish; commonly held to bring good fortune to fisherfolk. If you see a gold-tinged fish, it might be part of Nusket — and you’ve been blessed that day.
  • Sinthana (“sinn-THAH-nah”), steward of well-tied knots.
  • Kulketh, Imp of the Threshold, who punishes those who don’t sweep the area in front of their door clean each day by inviting thieves into their home.

(As an aside, I have to say that after using linguistic touchstones for this long, it feels harder to come up with names that don’t suck without one!)

This step also talks about planting at least one malevolent deity and/or sinister cult for adventure fodder. That sounds like fun, so I’m going to remix an idea I had years ago (back when I was working on Bleakstone) and turn it into a Dormiir-wide problem that poses a significant threat to Sanχu.

The Many Tongues of Skulvezar

Skulvezar (“SKULL-vezz-ahr”) is the god of skeletons. His symbol is a grinning skull wearing a “crown” made of freshly-severed tongues nailed into place. Every skeleton returned to unlife in his name becomes part of Skulvezar, magically connected across any distance. To challenge his dominion, you have to scatter the bones of your dead; in places where the Tongues (cultists of Skulvezar) are especially active, burial practices tend to change so that they include dispersing the bones.

If a worshipper nails a severed tongue — from a sentient species — to the skull of a mostly-intact skeleton, it will animate and do their bidding. So if you’re gonna go down that road, you need creepy ambition, skeletons, and people’s tongues…and no one will like you, so you’re probably skulking about in secret.

Sanχu is home to a thriving cult of Skulvezar.

And for now, that’s it! There are other sections in this chapter of WWN — Religion Construction, Government Construction, etc. — but they all feel like “do ’em when you need ’em” projects to me. (And more to the point, WWN presents them that way, too.)

Which brings me to another turning point: Do I develop one sub-hex around Cape Reckless, in Sanχu, as a starting point for a future campaign, or do I pick a region adjacent to the Unlucky Isles and return to step one for that new area of Dormiir?

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