Categories
Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Remapping the Unlucky Isles with Wonderdraft

Last Wednesday, my Seattle group started up a new D&D campaign set in a friend’s homebrew world. She unveiled the map for her setting, and it was amazing — pro-level cartography, tantalizing and inviting and clear, both functional and beautiful. She mentioned in passing that she’d created it in Wonderdraft, a mapping tool I’d never heard of before, so after the game I asked her how hard it was to create a map that awesome using Wonderdraft.

Not that hard, she said.

Now, to me that sounded like Michael Jordan casually sinking shots from mid-court, one after another, without even looking, while saying “It’s not that hard.” But she gave me some benchmarks for why it wasn’t that hard, how it involved a lot of painting (a plus for me), and how much simpler it was than learning Photoshop. That last one was key, because I’ve dabbled with Campaign Cartographer and it 1) felt a lot like trying to learn Photoshop, which I found to have a cliff-shaped learning “curve,” and 2) made me want to give up my worldly possessions and go live in the woods as a hermit.

So I took the plunge, watched a couple YouTube tutorials (D&D Breakfast Club’s tutorial 1 of 4 and Icarus Games’ video on transferring maps to Wonderdraft), and within 15 minutes I’d determined that 90% of what I wanted in a professional Unlucky Isles map was something I could do in Wonderdraft — and, like my friend said, it wouldn’t be that hard.

TL;DR: The new map of the Unlucky Isles

This map took me about 20 hours to make (including time spent finding assets and learning how to use Wonderdraft):

Still technically a draft, but this is the Unlucky Isles as of May 11, 2021 (created in Wonderdraft)

And here’s its predecessor:

My old map of the Isles, created in Worldographer

Some realizations

I was worried I’d have to create every map twice so that I could take advantage of Worldographer’s numbered hexes, a feature not found in Wonderdraft. But Wonderdraft has a robust user community, and that community has created a tool to give you numbered hexes. I also realized that while I always build my maps with old-school hexcrawling in mind, 99% of my fantasy RPG play has not been old-school hexcrawls.

In fact, 99% of that play has been in games that would benefit more from a Wonderdraft-style map than an old-school hex map. I’ve also found that I’m not taking advantage of one of Worldographer’s killer apps, which is the ability to map the same setting at the world, continent, and more local levels (with automagical terrain generation and child maps). And when I can drop a hex grid on my Wonderdraft map, run an addon to number those hexes, and have the best of both worlds (no pun intended), that really seals the deal.

Whoa, that’s too many cities! And too many people

Redoing this map — and expanding it — in Wonderdraft prompted me to name a lot more stuff. While browsing r/Wonderdraft I came across a comment on a user’s lovely map about there being too many settlements (not a universal truth, but a salient point for an RPG setting), and that plus my own mapmaking made me realize that I had too many cities in the Isles. I’ve wondered whether the Isles were too populous ever since I started ballparking the numbers, but this threw it into sharp relief.

So, a reckoning. I wiped out all the labels I’d created on my first big “map day” (after jotting down all the names for future use), rolled up my sleeves, and tucked into some revisions.

I’m leaning on two sources here, and moving WWN itself to the background (because those numbers skewed high): Medieval Demographics Made Easy (MDME), which the ever-brilliant S. John Ross has graciously made freely available with a very permissive license (and, as such, is now hosted here on Yore); and a Medium post by Lyman Stone looking at the same topic through the lens of Game of Thrones. They’re in broad agreement, which is good enough for me.

Let’s start with approximate hex counts, not worrying yet about what might count as wilderness (except in the lone very obvious case):

  • Arkestran Dominion: 215 hexes not counting the Wastes
  • Yealmark: 41 hexes
  • Brundir: 420 hexes
  • Rasu Miar: 165 hexes
    • Mainland Kadavis: 133 hexes of Kadavis proper on this map
  • Meskmur: 115 hexes
  • Ahlsheyan: 225 hexes on this map

I’m mapping in 6-mile hexes, which contain roughly 9 square miles. Ross and Lyman agree that a medieval (~1,000-1,500, more or less) population density of 100 people per square mile was an outlier reserved for only the most populous, arable nations. At 900/hex that’s 1,100 people/hex fewer than WWN posits — and most countries in the Isles will be well below 100/square mile.

Two examples:

  • Ross notes that 14th century England had about 40 people/sq. mi.
  • Lyman notes that if you average the figure from 1,000 to 1,500 CE, Scotland had about 4-8 people/sq. mi. (and, disagreeing with MDME, England comes out to 11-30 people/sq. mi.)

Whichever stat you use, the country I tend to treat as my benchmark for medieval population figures — England — has a lot fewer people/sq. mi. than my original estimates for the Isles. There’s also the whole fuzzy consideration that while the average medieval European country was just rotten with hamlets and thorps and whatnot, so dense with settlements that you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting the next one over, worlds designed for D&D-style adventuring need blank spaces.

Just to get the ball rolling, let’s say Brundir has 40 people/sq. mi. (420 hexes, not counting any as wilderness). That’s 151,200 people. WWN and MDME would both put about 5,000 people in Brundir’s largest city; WWN postulates about 15,000 in cities nationwide. The next largest would be 2,500. Both of those are pretty small cities — in fact, MDME doesn’t even consider a settlement a city if it has fewer than 8,000 people in it.

So how about Brundir with a population density of 75 people/sq. mi.? That gives Brundir the following stats:

  • Population 283,500
  • 28,000 in cities
  • 9,300 in the largest city
  • 3,780 sq. mi. of territory (420 hexes)
  • 1,575 sq. mi. of which is farmland (175 hexes, using MDME’s formula of 1 square mile of farmland supporting 180 people)

That feels more right to me than my initial WWN-driven population estimates. I don’t need to delve any deeper for the time being, but when I do this is the route I’ll be following.

Wonderdraft settings

Two things that have really been making Wonderdraft sing for me are Mythkeeper, a free tool which automates adding new assets (symbols, etc.) to Wonderdraft, and the Cartography Assets site, which is chock full of free and paid Wonderdraft asset packs. I fell in love with symbols pulled from old maps, so all of the forests, mountains, etc. on my Unlucky Isles map are drawn from historical examples.

For the sake of my sanity — and so that, if you like, you can create maps in this style — I’m recording some of the Wonderdraft choices and options I’ve used to create this map. Some things, like the map textures, are visible on a finished map when you load it in Wonderdraft — but many are not. Which of the seven sets of mountain assets did I use? What brush opacity did I color them with? That’s what this list is for.

In general, I’m always using brush #3 (the blotchy spray), and varying scales but usually 50% or below. All the names (Vischer, etc.) refer to assets or asset packs on Cartography Assets.

  • Mountains: Vischer or Widman mountains, #976035, brush opacity 1.0
    • Snowcapped peaks: Just paint the tips #FFFFFF, brush opacity 0.5
    • Volcanoes: Van Der Aa mountains, AoA Volcanoes Pencil smoke, #976035, brush opacity 1.0
    • Snowbound mountains (as in the Ice Courts): As snow-covered terrain, then add light squirts of #976035, brush opacity 0.25, just to break things up visually
  • Barren hills: Ogilby hills, #C8AD93, brush opacity 0.5
  • Verdant hills: Vischer regular hills (which are grassy/overgrown), so far only painted as forests
  • Forests: Vischer or Van Der Aa assets, with individual Vischer trees mixed in, #74A035, brush opacity 0.5; usually I add a few squirts of #2E6020, brush opacity 0.5, for variety
    • Deep Forests: #2E6020, brush opacity 0.5
  • Dead trees: Mix of default dead trees and Zalkenai’s dead trees, black, varying scales, #828864, brush opacity 0.5
  • Marshes: Vischer wetlands assets, with a few Widmer individual trees mixed in for variety, #37835E
  • Scrubland: Mix of Ogilby and Vischer scrub, #BAB26D, brush opacity 0.5
  • Farmland: Vischer furrowed fields, #BAB26D with a couple blasts of #74A035 for good measure
  • Broken lands: Popple hills, so far only used in the Atrachian Wastes so they were painted as dead trees
  • Vineyards: Vischer vineyards, a few squirts of #735B79, brush opacity 0.25
  • Snow-covered terrain: #FFFFFF, brush opacity 1.0, with brush opacity 0.5 around the edges and a few squirts of #847F6D (opacity 0.1) mixed in to break up the whiteness a bit
  • Ruins/mysterious towers: Vischer ruins and monuments mixed with Van Der Aa towers, with Popple scrubs thrown in until it looks right; #828864, brush opacity 0.25, with a few squirts of brush #1 around it for blending
  • Weird obelisks: Vischer ruins and monuments; colored #828864, brush opacity 0.5 (So far, only used for the Thefaine in Aaust.)
  • Settlements: Custom Colors assets (included by default), #00000
    • Cities: Circle with dot in the center, 50% scale
    • Capital cities: Circle with star in the center, 50% scale
    • Towns: Dot, 35% scale
    • Forts: Filled diamond, 35% scale
    • Castles: Box with X in it, 35% scale
  • Roads: Solid line, #411602, width 3, roughness 0.33
    • Crappy roads: Dashed line, #411602, width 3, roughness 0.33
  • Rivers: Width 4, roughness 2, meander distance 0.6, generally with “river source fade-in” turned off
  • Borders: Dotted line, #BB101C, width 3, roughness 0.33
  • Raise/Lower Landmass Tool for coastlines: Roughness 2
  • Labels: Gentium Book Basic Bold (included), outline #000000 thickness 1 (except for bodies of water)
    • Nations: #B93841, font size 48, curvature 0.15, always horizontal
    • Cities, capital cities, towns: #B9B4B4, font size 20, no curvature, always horizontal
    • Castles, forts: As cities, but font size 14
    • Ruins: As castles, but curvature -0.2 instead of horizontal
    • Large bodies of water: #7EABA1, font size 36, outline 770C232C, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
    • Small bodies of water: As large, but font size 14 or 24
    • Rivers: #B9B4B4, font size 10, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
    • Major geographic features: #B9B4B4, font size 24, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
    • Minor geographic features: #B9B4B4, font size 14, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies

I also like to mix in squirts of brush #1 (spray paint), 0.5 opacity, to blend the transitions between painted areas (primarily the default “not arable” beige and “arable” greenish-brown).

Non-English letters in labels

I’ve found that it can be handy (on PC) to have the Character Map app open for easy cutting and pasting into Wonderdraft labels. Every character won’t paste, presumably because my Wonderdraft font choice doesn’t include it — but enough do for me to get the job done.

And on the language front, Lexicity is another awesome resource for dead languages. It’s not as straightforward as Palaeolexicon, since it curates links rather than simply presenting dictionaries — but it has a lot of resources to offer.

Summing up

Wonderdraft isn’t as simple as Worldographer. For the purposes of creating a setting using Worlds Without Number (paid link), it is 100% Too Much Gun. When I’m working on a setting, creating a polished, beautiful map is a step that becomes a vast gulf between me and producing actual gameable content, and it leads to abandoned projects. It’s the antithesis of WWN’s highly successful “never give up your momentum, never stall out trying for perfection” philosophy.

But at this stage, with a full cycle of WWN’s region creation and kingdom creation under my belt (as in, I could run a game set in the Isles tonight), and as I’ve already moved on to a second region of Godsbarrow, making a pretty map of the Isles isn’t a roadblock of any kind. I don’t need it, and it’s not holding anything up; my Worldographer map is perfectly functional for play.

There is, however, no substitute for sitting down to play and having a gorgeous map in front of you — one that raises questions, makes you want to explore, and makes the setting feel real. If you’ve ever opened up an AD&D Forgotten Realms product and unfolded one of those glorious maps, you know that feeling. I want that for Godsbarrow, and I hope my map succeeds at that goal.

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

Categories
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-thu”). Sanχu is one of the eight caθna (“KATH-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”). 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 (“KARR-kah-nah,” “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.)

Categories
Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Godsbarrow: Sou gnomes and Tamosi, the lingua franca in Dormiir

After finishing my region-level work on the Unlucky Isles, I zoomed in on one area of Brundir — Sanχu, one of its eight caθna (provinces). While working on the “place ethnic groups and demihumans” step in Worlds Without Number (paid link), I realized that this was the first time I’ve had to think about language in a context that might impact play.

“Common” is a bit boring, but boy is it useful in actual play. I’ve already established that each of the nations in the Isles has its own language, but I’d like a common language as well. I also haven’t mentioned halflings or gnomes at all in the Unlucky Isles — so what if Dormiir’s “common tongue” is gnomish or halfling Tradespeak?

Shit, gnomish sailors sound awesome, and with water playing such a big role in the Isles, and waterways extending away from it in every direction, a lingua franca based on trade and shipping makes a lot of sense.

So, gnomes! I love gnomes. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise to longtime Yore readers.) And the detour I took while creating Sanχu — which might well have not come up at all without WWN’s steps, or without having just finished the excellent Netflix series Shadow & Bone — is one of my favorite things I’ve created in Godsbarrow to date.

Linguistic touchstone

Tamosi, and Sou and Sirali words in general, are based on Carian. Carian is a dead language which originated in Caria, in Asia Minor. As with the other linguistic touchstones I’m using for Dormiir, I learned about it on, and am harvesting words in Carian from, the excellent Palaeolexicon.

Siral

The gnomes of Siral (“SIHR-ahl”) lived in constant fear of their spiteful, vengeful principle deity, Omob (“Oh-mob”), for whom no amount of obeisance and tribute was ever enough. Some fled, settling in other places throughout Dormiir, but most Sirali believed that if they abandoned — or worse, attempted to kill — Omob, it would destroy the entire world. So they stayed, and they suffered.

Long ago, in a fit of rage at the Sirali, Omob tore an 8,000-meter (Everest-height) mountain from the earth, flipped it over, and smashed it into the center of Siral. The mountain struck like a meteorite and cracked, shedding million-ton rock faces and devastating the region. Uncannily, much of the mountain remained bound together by Omob’s seething magic — so there’s literally a jagged, upside-down mountain dominating the landscape of Siral. It’s a few hundred meters across at its current base (the ground) and half a mile wide towards the top, which is two miles high, and is now called Ntokris (“un-TOKK-riss”, which means “the shattering of our home and our people” in Tamosi).

As a people, most gnomes reached the same conclusion on that dark day: Fuck Omob, fuck having a home that evil prick can destroy, and fuck gods in general. Not all gnomes, of course (species does not equate to monoculture in Dormiir); many stayed in their devastated homeland, fearing a greater cataclysm if they abandoned Omob.

But most of them left, scattering to the four winds in boats and ships, and over generations they established the borderless, landless, boundless “nation” of Souan (“SOO-ahn,” which means “our home is on the water and under the sky” in Tamosi).

The borderless nation and Dormiir’s common tongue

Sou gnomes have plied the seas and rivers of Godsbarrow for ages, connecting faraway countries through trade for many generations — and so their language, Tamosi (“tamm-OH-see”), has become the common tongue of Dormiir, often informally called Tradespeak. While most nations have their own languages, Tamosi is widely spoken throughout the world (and especially in ports and major cities).

As a trade tongue, one reason Tamosi works so well is that it excels at expressing complex concepts with a single, short word — like “Ntokris,” which says “the shattering of our home and our people” in a single seven-letter word of just three syllables.

Sometimes the Sou come together in great moots, anchoring or lashing together their boats and ships and forming temporary floating towns and cities to trade, swap stories, marry, celebrate their freedom from Omob, and mourn their kindred who stayed in benighted Siral.

Sou gnomes are a common sight throughout Dormiir, and they’re welcome almost everywhere. Collectively, they’ve traveled the world more extensively than just about any other group; from shallow water to the high seas, the Sou are everywhere.

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

Categories
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.)