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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

The Ice Courts, part 2: nations and gods

This post catches Yore up to all of the Ice Courts material I’ve finished to date. I’m still working on historical events (a couple to go) and relationships/wants (lots to go). As always, the headers are steps from Worlds Without Number [paid link].

The Ice Courts region of Godsbarrow

Create six nations or groups of importance.

Ahlsheyan (“all-SHAY-ahn,” linguistic touchstone: Proto-Turkic), 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). 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.

Valkenschirm (“VAL-kenn-shurm,” linguistic touchstone: Old High German): The heart of the Ice Courts, and the center of all court politics in the region. What Valkenschirm lacks in size and martial power it more than makes up for in magical power: All native Valken are werewolves, and Abäschern’s still-magically potent corpse is entombed here. Years of intermarriage and close ties between the nations of the Ice Courts mean that many outside Valkenschirm are also at least part werewolf (considered a noble blessing), perhaps manifesting only minor signs of their nature.

While every Ice Court nation competes to be the preeminent regional power, Valkenschirm has held onto that honor for generations. The best balls, the best hunts, the best spellcraft, the best masquerades that lead to the best diplomacy — all of that happens here. Much maneuvering goes into ensuring that others must travel here — suffering the privations and facing the dangers of the trek — in order to really be playing the game of intrigue.

Since Abäschern’s assassination, Valkenschirm’s most potent tool in this regard has been his tomb. There are celebrations, rituals, and other events related to his tomb and death every year, and Valkenschirm has ensured that high society folks feel compelled to attend them — and to make the long, dangerous journey that entails. The other nations hate this.

One of the most coveted solutions to the problem of staying warm in a land with few trees is heatstones. Mined from deep beneath the Vulkanöl Mountains, these stones are always warm to the touch. One can keep a traveler alive in a storm. Three can heat a tent. Fifteen (or a larger, more valuable stone) can warm a hall — forever. More blood has been shed over the extraction, disposition, and possession of heatstones than would have been lost if these rocks never existed in the first place.

Celestial Duchy of Skølprene (“SKOOL-preen,” linguistic touchstone: Old High German, and as a reminder to myself, duchy is pronounced “DOO-chee” not “DOO-kee”): Skølprene purports to hold itself above the diplomatic fray that is the Ice Courts. The dominant religion, the Celestial Harmony of the Living Abäschern (commonly shortened to “the Harmony”), is based on doing good works, performing charitable acts, and philanthropy. Their “deity” is the “living ghost” of Abäschern, who doesn’t have a ghost; he’s dead. The entire faith is a sham.

This suffuses the culture of Skølprene, even among the half-wolves (with close ties to Valkenschirm), those outside the Harmony, and transplants from other lands. Underneath all the outward lovey-dovey positivity of the Harmony, human nature being what it is, sits a rotting foundation of lies, scheming, religious blackmail, dark rituals, and all manner of nastiness that takes place behind closed doors. In a region best known for mushroom pirates, eternal winter, and a country of werewolves, Skølprene is the most dangerous place in the Ice Courts…it just doesn’t look like it.

Myedgrith, Shining Lamp of Eternity (“MEEYED-grith,” linguistically it’s a mix of Old High German and made-up stuff, reflecting its history): How pretentious is Myedgrith? One, there’s a comma in the name of the country, and two, they’re particular about you referring to the country by its full name, comma and all: Myedgrith, Shining Lamp of Eternity. Pretentiousness is an art form in this dwarven nation (over 90% of Myedine are dwarves).

Always the most decadent area in the single nation that preceded the Ice Courts (which broke apart when Abäschern died), Myedgrith has leaned into that. Pleasure, putting on airs, and one-upping everyone around you are the heart of Myedine culture, leading in turn to an emphasis on overwrought artwork (e.g., an ice sculpture that takes 10 artisans a year to make, which is then melted for fun during a single lavish party), rich food, and petty disputes between housebound families (trapped by the climate and weather) that blossom, over the years, into bitter, elaborate blood feuds.

While there’s ostensibly a central government, Myedgrith is really a loose conglomerate of interrelated, feuding families who constantly jockey for position — only coming together when there’s a chance to expand the influence of Myedgrith, Shining Lamp of Eternity within the Ice Courts.

Zull Pyrendi (“zool pye-RENN-dee,” no linguistic touchstone): Mushroom pirates! Each island in this archipelago is home to its own massive fungal entity, with a roughly equal amount of fungal biomass above and below ground. The strange properties of these fungi have kept Zull Pyrendi from suffering the full effects of the Abvärwinter, and consequently the archipelago is the warmest place in the central Ice Courts.

Each fungal entity (a sort of massive hive mind, just like some fungi in the real world) spawns its own “children,” and for reasons of their own many of these fungus people become pirates. (The actual reason is because mushroom pirates are cool.) Most other mushroom folks are either farmers (and boy does mushroom farming look weird), who supply food to the snowbound Ice Courts, or diplomats, whose approach to intrigue is rather…unique.

While neither Lonþyr or Yrfeđe is part of the Ice Courts proper, 1) they’re on its map, and 2) they’re close enough to have political and other connections to the region.

Yrfeđe (“EHR-feth,” linguistic touchstone: Old English), in the northeast, is a superstitious land of dense forests, high winds, and harsh weather. Closely connected to Lonþyr by ancestry and culture, the two nations have been at odds for centuries. Yrfeđe is a rough-and-tumble place known for its timber, fish, and fortified towns, but infamous for the Wyrdanwod. The Wyrdanwod, particularly its eastern half, is home to the much-feared đargnr (“THAR-ghnir,” which means “sleeping shadows” in Emnian), who slumber inside ancient trees, or beneath the earth, and travel the Wraithsea at night to feed. Everyone in this bedeviled place carries a torch, candle, lantern, or other light source — as bright light is one of the few things that can harm a đargnr.

Lonþyr (“LONN-theer,” linguistic touchstone: Old English), along the coast of the Greatwater Āŕ, is a small country rich in gold, silver, and gems — the mineral wealth of the Mormú-Hús Mountains (off the Ice Courts map to the north), which Lonþyr has pillaged for centuries. Always seeking to encroach further into Mormú, Lonþyr is constantly fighting Grshniki guerrillas in the foothills — and struggling to retain its foothold on the southern end of Many Sorrows Pass, the only overland trade route connecting it to the northern Gilded Lands.

Lonþyr and Yrfeđe were once a single country; now, they’re feuding neighbors bound by bloodlines that span their shared border. The đargnr that plague Yrfeđe don’t trouble Lonþyr, which provokes much bitterness among the Yr. Long ago, Lonþyr pulled something dark and strange from the deeps beneath the Mormú-Hús Mountains, and this artifact — the country’s most closely-guarded secret — is what protects them from the đargnr.

Identify regionally-significant gods.

Valkenschirm is a mix of non-worship (their god is dead, and good riddance…though not everyone feels that way) and a stew of faiths and pantheons from outside its borders, which Valken nobles try on like shoes or ball gowns. This has led to Valkenschirm being a popular destination for proselytizers from many faiths across Dormiir — and, given the stereotypical Valken attitude towards deities, has also put the nation on the radar of several hostile gods who don’t appreciate being taken so lightly.

To make matters more muddled, the Scions of the Wolf are a local religion based on the blessing of lycanthropy, officially without a deity — though the hardcore believers say that Abäschern, or at least the non-shitty parts of him, lives on in all of them. Like much in Valkenschirm, it’s confusing.

The Harmonious and Celestial Abäschern — essentially Abäschern’s ghost — is worshipped in Skølprene, and is very nearly the state religion. Worshippers believe that Abäschern didn’t die but instead merely changed state, ascending from godhood to an even higher plane of celestial existence. They’re wrong: Abäschern is just dead. There are those in Skølprene who recognize this — but it’s an exceedingly dangerous thing to say out loud.

Outsiders joke that Myedgrith, Celestial Lamp of Eternity, is its own god — and they’re not entirely incorrect. By and large, the Myedine are glad to have Abäschern gone and have embraced non-worship. But there is also a persistent — and dangerous — strain of orthodox Abäschern worship alive and well in Myedgrith, the Black Pelts, who worship Abäschern’s corpse as if it were still alive. The fact that the corpse is entombed in Valkenschirm does not sit well with the Black Pelts…

The Zull worship no gods. Or, from an outsider’s point of view, their notion of god, self, nation, and city is one, and that one is each island’s respective fungal entity and its “children.”

Ahlsheyan’s tripartite pantheon is covered in the Unlucky Isles write-up — though some southern Ahl did worship Abäschern, and now find themselves either adrift and godless, doubling down on the Ahl faith, or taking a page from Valkenschirm’s book and sampling other pantheons.

Yrfeđe and Lonþyr share a pantheon; it’s covered in the Gilded Lands write-up.

On a side note, why not “atheism” instead of “non-worship”? I’m an atheist, so it’s nothing to do with real-life religiosity. In Godsbarrow, gods are real, evident, and walk the earth — as they do in Greek mythology (which is my default touchstone for how gods work this setting). Atheism isn’t really a thing in Godsbarrow because there’s no question about whether the various gods exist. One of them rules the country of Kuruni; you can have a beer with her, if you’re brave enough. Another’s corpse lies in state in Valkenschirm; you can come and spit on his tomb, if you’re brave enough. So I use “non-worship” because it makes more sense in the context of Godsbarrow than “atheism.”

Make a sketch map of the region.

I started with the map, as has become my habit, and worked on it in parallel with the written worldbuilding. It’s at the top of this post.

I have a little Godsbarrow side project bubbling away that’s competing for my writing time, which is part of why I haven’t finished the Ice Courts yet. But I am starting to feel the itch to work on a fresh region, so maybe that’ll goose me into wrapping this region up sooner than later.

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number. I’m using the setting-creation approach detailed in Worlds Without Number [paid link], which is a fantastic resource.)

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Godsbarrow: Why not create a world map first?

Writing yesterday’s post about banked fires and leaving countries partially unmapped made me realize how much I’ve thought about this stuff over the past several months, and how non-obvious some of it might be to anyone outside my personal flesh-prison.

I’m sort of mapping Godsbarrow the least efficient way possible . . . but stitching together my big map is proof that, for me, the dumb way that creates extra work in the future is the key to my success.

Why not start by mapping the continents?

I see gorgeous continent-level maps all the time on r/Wonderdraft. And it makes sense: Look how many things in the map below I will need to fix in order to turn X regional maps (the “tiles”) into a unified pan-regional map that spans a large chunk of Godsbarrow, none of which I’d have to fix if I’d started with a larger canvas.

Future Martin is not going to thank Past Martin for the extra work required to correct every boundary on this map

Hell, even if I’d stayed at the regional scale (rather than continent scale) but started with a six-tile blank map in Wonderdraft, filled it with ocean texture, and then added landmasses one region at a time, I’d wind up with a finished map that had none of the technical issues present in the map I currently have. But I know me: That blank space would have overwhelmed me, made this feel like work, and probably torpedoed the whole venture.

Every boundary, every thing I develop, is a constraint. Starting with continents establishes a whole bunch of boundaries right off the bat. Starting without even thinking about continents leaves all that stuff where it belongs, for now: nonexistent or purely notional.

Why? Three reasons.

Because WWN says so

Worlds Without Number [paid link] advocates strongly for not building stuff you don’t need, and I agree. More than three decades of gaming, including several abortive attempts at creating campaign settings which began, full of excitement, with me creating world maps, has taught me that I virtually never need to know about continents at the gaming table.

Is it nice to know what the Forgotten Realms looks like at a world map level? Absolutely. And maybe in a published setting with the scope of the Realms, I’d expect that. (Here, as a WIP on a blog, I absolutely don’t expect that.)

But in actual play, have I ever needed to know what the continents look like, or what the whole of Faerûn looks like? Nope. Not even once.

Which flows into…

Conversation of time and creative energy

I’m one guy, doing this for fun, not getting paid for it, with a finite amount of free time and creative energy, and spending those resources worldbuilding means I have less time and energy to spend on other things — including the more gameable aspects of worldbuilding.

If I spend a bunch of time and creative energy on a world map of Godsbarrow that I don’t even need, I might burn out. Even if I don’t burn out, I will have spent those resources making something I don’t actually need and placing constraints on my future worldbuilding.

Which flows into…

Because whimsical, improvisational worldbuilding is more fun for me

I’m not here to police anyone’s “lonely fun.” I upvote those gorgeous continent maps on r/Wonderdraft, and I love that folks are making cool shit even — especially — if it’s not how I might have made it. As my wife often says, with genuine affection, “You do you, Boo-Boo.

But personally I find it much more freeing, and more fun, to develop a Godsbarrow region without any real idea what’s next door. When I step back for a minute, as I did when stitching together that large map above, I see a developing setting that I never would have come up with this way if I’d sketched out all the coastlines for the large map at once.

Toriyama Akira and the art of improvisational creation

This connects nicely to having just finished watching Dragon Ball and started Dragon Ball Z. I was curious how much of Z Toriyama Akira had planned when he was working on Dragon Ball, and apparently the answer is “none of it, or at least not much of it, especially early on.” He was just doing what interested him, following his heart and seeing where it led him, and the end product — Dragon Ball — is full of whimsy and surprises and strange turns it likely never would have been full of if he’d mapped it out from the beginning.

Circling back to Godsbarrow, if I’d written up the Unlucky Isles knowing that a slug-god-kaiju was crushing mountains to the west (in Kurthunar) and the region to the south was locked in perpetual winter and populated by, among others, courtly werewolves and mushroom pirates, I would have written it differently. For one thing, I’d have had to hold a lot more ideas in my head while writing it. For another, I’d have worried about conceptually mapping out all of the nations’ relationships with places further away, which likely would have made me lose interest.

If I synthesize all of my regional write-ups into a unified document, will I need to add and tweak some things? You bet. Just like my stitched-up map, what came later would necessarily prompt a gentle rearrangement of what came before.

But as a price to pay for capturing the original raw spirit of Godsbarrow, channeling that into the Unlucky Isles, stoking the fires of creation and diving in while they burned brightly, and creating something that I still want to continue developing eight months later, that is a vanishingly small price indeed.

TL;DR: Start small. Which is, like, the oldest RPG worldbuilding advice ever. This post explains why I started small, and why, eight months after starting work on Godsbarrow, I still love this approach despite the imperfections it introduces into the process and the WIP version of Godsbarrow.

See also: Yore

A lot of what I’ve said here also goes for Yore itself. This blog will be celebrating its 10th anniversary later this year, on August 28th.

I’ve been blogging since 2005, and Yore is my third RPG blog. I ran Treasure Tables (still archived on Gnome Stew) from 2005-2007, and ran and contributed to Gnome Stew from 2008-2016. I may have my math off a bit, but I believe I wrote 871 posts on TT and 453 on GS.

So not only does my post count here — 463 as of this one — exceed my count on the Stew, even prior to the actual 10th anniversary I’ve already posted on Yore for longer than either of my previous blogs. Yore is the one where I just do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it, whether or not that’s an efficient way to build an audience (it’s not), get pageviews (it’s not), create a brand (it’s not), make money (it’s not), or stay relevant in the RPG hobby as a whole (it’s not).

In other words, philosophically Yore is pretty similar to Godsbarrow. I loved writing on Treasure Tables and Gnome Stew, and look back fondly on those years. But part of the reason I’m still blogging here, nearly 10 years on (and well past the heyday of blogs’ relevance in the hobby), is because here is the place I just do my thing. Or don’t do it. Or shift gears and do new things.

I know folks out there have gotten good mileage out of stuff I’ve posted here, and that brings me joy. I hope it continues to be the case. In the meantime, I’ll just keep puttering away and doing my thing.

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number. I’m using the setting-creation approach detailed in Worlds Without Number [paid link], which is a fantastic resource.)

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B/X D&D Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Godsbarrow map: the first four regions (plus noodling on banked fires)

I never get the roads, rivers, etc. on the “tile” boundaries quite right, but nonetheless I get a thrill out of seeing Godsbarrow start to come together as each region is added to the larger map.

Here’s a (clumsily) stitched-together map showing the first four regions: the Unlucky Isles (where I started, top center), the Gilded Lands (top right, my second region), Kurthunar (top left, third), and the Ice Courts (bottom, number four).

The current state of Godsbarrow, created in Wonderdraft and stitched together in MS Paint

Despite all the details that would need to be tidied up as part of turning this into a finished map (mainly boundaries, but also finalizing scales and adjusting labels to suit the zoomed-out format), this map makes me happy. Godsbarrow feels like My Place in a way it wouldn’t without this map, and if you decide to play a game there I hope it will also feel like Your Place.

This is where I started, around March 2021 (in Worldographer):

My original landmass outlines for the Unlucky Isles

I’ll go where my muse and mood take me, but the logical next stop after finishing my regional write-up for the Ice Courts would be to fill in the bottom leftmost map section. Six of my tiles, arranged thusly, is not coincidentally about the same shape as a map from the old Forgotten Realms boxed set.

I adore that set and to this day hold it up as one of, if not the, best examples of a published campaign setting designed for actual play (rather than GM wankery). Capturing some of the feel, the energy, the excitement I got (and still get) from opening that box, unfurling the maps, reading the marvelously concise and flavorful books, and playing in that version of the Realms is a core design goal for Godsbarrow.

After that, I’ve been thinking of another double-width map above the Isles and Gilded Lands, or maybe even a triple that also includes Kuruni.

Visually, that would center the Unlucky Isles as the heart of the developed portion of Godsbarrow (which, from a campaign setting creation standpoint, it is). With three tiles across the top and the ninth in the bottom left filled in, I’d also have mapped out all/most of the Arkestran Dominion, all of Kadavis, and all (probably?) of Ahlsheyan, and I’d have around a dozen countries developed at the regional level.

I like leaving unfinished nations on the map, places that need another tile to complete them. It helps the setting feel real and gives me an easy hook for future mapmaking and development.

Philosophical navel-gazing and hobby streaks

There are lots of things about worldbuilding that are philosophical in nature (like leaving countries half-unmapped). I’ve slowed way down on worldbuilding in the past few months, as I have with painting miniatures (though for somewhat different reasons), but I write at least a sentence, or make progress on a map, every day. And that snail’s pace is still producing more worldbuilding than I’ve done in decades, including much, much more cartography than I’ve ever done before.

I sum this approach up as “Something > nothing” or “Any progress beats no progress.” My interests and hobbies are like little fires, each in its own little hearth. Sometimes one fire is raging, and the others die down. In the past, I’ve let fires die out rather than banking them so that they stay alive; using hobby streaks as a motivational tool is as deliberate departure from that approach. I bank some of the fires, ensuring they don’t go out and that they’re on my radar (man am I mixing metaphors here), and let others go out entirely.

Right now I’m banking my worldbuilding fire, making a little forward progress every day, and tending to other fires that are burning hotter: watching more anime, reading more manga, and playing more Halo Infinite and Jedi: Fallen Order. And that’s okay! When those tail off, another interest or two will flare up.

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number. I’m using the setting-creation approach detailed in Worlds Without Number [paid link], which is a fantastic resource.)

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Godsbarrow’s Ice Courts region: overview and geographic features

Happy new year, Yore readers!

My fourth region in Godsbarrow is two map “tiles” wide, sitting south of the Unlucky Isles and the Gilded Lands. It’s the map where most of Ahlsheyan sits, plus the rest of Lonþyr and most of the rest of Yrfeđe — and new nations, of course.

The Ice Courts

As you can see above, I finished the map before the write-ups (and I’m actually still working on the tail end of the written material). But for this post I’m jumping in with the first step from Worlds Without Number [paid link]. As always, this is more or less straight from my notes in Notepad, not fully polished (etc.).

Name the region.

The Ice Courts, so called because this region is a hotbed of courtly intrigue locked in perpetual winter. Though climate and geography have always made this a cold region, the unnatural winter stems from the death of a god: Abäschern, the Wolf of Summer (“ah-bay-SHURN”). Abäschern once blessed the land, ensuring that despite its climate and geography the region was arable and full of game to hunt, and blessed its people by making them werewolves. But in time he became bored with the world, and his petty streak turned to outright cruelty. He reveled in the thrill of twisting the land to his ends and hurting his followers, and the entire region became a dark place.

A few centuries ago, the people of what is now the Ice Courts rose up, threw off their shackles, and assassinated Abäschern — and with his dying breath, the wolf-god cursed them unto a thousand generations, casting the land into winter. The curse, plus the warped energy of his magically-active corpse, keeps the Ice Courts frozen to this day.

Valkenschirm (“VAL-kenn-shurm,” linguistic touchstone: Old High German) is the heart of the Ice Courts. What Valkenschirm lacks in size and martial power it more than makes up for in magical power: They’re all werewolves, and Abäschern’s still-potent corpse is entombed here. Years of intermarriage and close ties between the nations of the Ice Courts mean that many outside Valkenschirm are also at least part werewolf (considered a noble blessing), perhaps manifesting only minor signs of their condition.

Part of the reason the Ice Courts are so full of courtly rules, fancy balls, intrigue, and polite skullduggery is that it’s too fucking cold to spent time outside. Since Abäschern’s fall, what was once one nation has split into several, and the region’s focus has turned inwards, socially and literally, with lots of infighting, political maneuvering, and posturing. Alongside centuries of refinement of this culture of intrigue, each nation has also developed its own approaches to surviving in a place where winter is the only season (magic combined with burrows or structures, digging down to geothermal vents, underground mushroom farms, peculiar trees that bear food — not just fruit — all year long, etc.).

Choose about six major geographical features.

  • The Abvärwinter (“abb-FAIR-win-tur”), the local name for the area cast into perpetual winter by Abäschern’s curse, which comprises most of the Ice Courts region
  • Kyögüŕ Sound (“KYU-goorh”), windy and partially iced-over, which separates most of Ahlsheyan from the rest of the Ice Courts
  • The Tadlungwort (“TADD-loong-vort”), the only forest that survived the coming of the Abvärwinter, a strange evergreen wood full of even stranger animals
  • The Zull Pyrendi archipelago, largely unaffected by the Abvärwinter despite being close enough that it too should be snowed under
  • Vulkanöl Mountains (“VULL-kann-ole”), the massive range that covers a large portion of the Ice Courts region
  • Webegezeug Mountain (“veh-BEGG-uh-zoyg”), the tallest peak in the Vulkanöl Mountains — and one of the highest in all of Dormiir, well over 8,000 meters

The next step, nations of importance, is long enough for a post of its own. Onwards!

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number. I’m using the setting-creation approach detailed in Worlds Without Number [paid link], which is a fantastic resource.)

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Map of the Ice Courts, Godsbarrow’s fourth region

I’ve been more in the mood for cartography than writing, so I’ve finished — at least in draft form — the map for the Ice Courts before the region write-up is done. The Ice Courts sit just south of the Unlucky Isles and the Gilded Lands, and this region occupies two map “tiles.” (You can read about all the parts of Dormiir I’ve created so far in the Godsbarrow handbook.)

This is a land of perpetual winter, dwarves, aristocratic werewolves, and mushroom pirates. I love all of those things, so I decided it’d be fun to combine them in a single region.

The Ice Courts, as they stand on November 3, 2021

I’m about halfway done with the written portion. I wanted to see what a double-size region would feel like, giving countries a bit more real estate and adding a significant body of water — since my countries so far have been fairly small, and oceans haven’t yet been seen in their entirety.

It takes longer, no surprise there, but so far it’s been a fun approach. I might do the same thing for the region north of the Unlucky Isles, basically mirroring this approach but two tiles northwards. We shall see!

(This post is one of a series about worldbuilding with Worlds Without Number. I’m using the setting-creation approach detailed in Worlds Without Number [paid link], which is a fantastic resource.)

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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.)

Categories
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.)

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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.)