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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.)

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

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

In yesterday’s post I sketched out some high-concept stuff about Godsbarrow, and having finished Worlds Without Number‘s “The World” steps I’m moving on to “The Region” — the slice of Dormiir called the Unlucky Isles.

As with the first Dormiir post, large portions of this one are pretty raw — more or less straight from the Notepad file I’ve been massaging and into WordPress. (I’ve learned that if I obsess over polish at this stage of worldbuilding, I get bogged down and never get much further. The raw fire of creativity is where it’s at!)

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

The Unlucky Isles

Name the region.

The Unlucky Isles, so named because the god Slljrrn (“SULL-jern”) died here, sinking into the sea and cursing this scattering of islands — and because the isles draw the ill-fated like moths to a flame.

An aside: names

Before I tuck into the next step, there’s some advice about names in WWN that I love and want to share here:

Conventional fantasy names tend to be random nonsense-syllables picked from the creator’s cultural phoneme stock, and places often end up as the city of AdjectiveNoun or the NounNoun river. While some of this can work perfectly well, it’s easier for the GM to pick some obscure or extinct real-world language known to nobody at the table and use it for names. Even if the words they use from it have no relation to what they’re naming, the consistent set of sounds and syllable patterns will help give a coherent feel to the work.

Worlds Without Number, p.119

That tracks with languages in Star Wars, which are (or were, anyway) often real-world languages not likely to be familiar to a primarily English-speaking audience; I’ve always thought that was a fun approach.

I decided to stick to dead languages. Paleolexicon offers dictionaries of long-dead languages, and browsing through them was a lot of fun. In coming up with names, I used dead languages where it felt right, and made up my own bullshit everywhere else (because I do enjoy making up my own bullshit).

That shook out to dead languages for some names associated with three nations — Etruscan for Brundir, Proto-Turkic for Ahlsheyan, and Thracian for Yealmark — and made-up stuff for the other three.

Choose about six major geographical features.

Before this step, I started working on my map. I used Worldspinner to cycle through arrangements of continents until I found one that pleased me, and then switched to Worldographer Pro to build my hex map. (I’ve been using Hexographer, its predecessor, for almost a decade; both are excellent, and both offer robust free versions.) I can’t think too much about a fictional place without a map of it, so I’m jumping ahead a bit, WWN-wise.

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

Armed with my landform map, I jotted down my major geographical features, adding them to the map as I went:

  • Ulscarp Mountains, a range of jagged, snowcapped peaks in Ahlsheyan
  • Vykus and Vnissk, the twin volcanoes of Deathsmoke Isle
  • The Ockwood, a vast, dense forest in Brundir
  • Sculn Hills, a rocky region on the island of Rasu Miar, in Kadavis
  • Atrachian Wastes, a region of badlands and dead forest in the Arkestran Dominion
  • The Vorga Forest, light evergreen woods that dot Meskmur
All six major geographical features of the Unlucky Isles

This step necessarily bled into the next couple, as kingdoms, gods, and other elements of the setting popped into my head, were iterated upon, and got plugged into the other region-creation steps.

Create six nations or groups of importance.

Brundir (“BRUNN-dihr”), the largest and most central of the Unlucky Isles. Brundir is rich in natural resources, including timber and arable land, and boasts a coastline full of protected bays. Brundir is a mercantile power with a large and powerful navy. It’s also a haunted place and a breeding ground for strange creatures, thanks to Slljrrn’s lingering essence, and Brundirans tend to have a pessimistic streak.

Arkestran Dominion (“arr-KESS-trun”), stretching off the map to the north. A militaristic, expansionist elven nation, the Dominion sits atop an entire pantheon of dreaming gods and makes extensive use of the Wraithsea to exert their influence across Dormiir. The southern reaches, however, are lightly populated hinterlands dominated by the inhospitable Atrachian Wastes; the Dominion’s main focus is to the north…for now.

Meskmur (“MEHSK-murr”), a small kingdom of sorcerers on the southernmost edge of the Unlucky Isles, is a secretive, isolated place. By and large, the Meskmuri stay out of the politics of the Isles, and so Meskmur serves as the de facto “neutral ground” for moots, summits, and other gatherings (collecting payment and tribute in exchange). Temples and shrines to Jiur and Sarrow, the Red Twins central to Meskmuri faith, dot the island.

Ahlsheyan (“ahl-SHAY-ahn”), a chilly, windswept dwarven kingdom which abuts the Unlucky Isles to the south. Ahl dwarves are equally at home deep underground and plying the waves. The three pillars of Ahl society are wind, waves, and stone (representing impermanence, opportunity, and the past, respectively), and Ahl relationships are often tripartite (polycules, business ventures, etc.). Ahl “wind sculptures” — made of stone shaped so as to change in interesting ways as they are worn away by wind and weather, and not sold or exhibited until decades after they were first made — are famous throughout Godsbarrow.

Kadavis (“kuh-DAVV-iss”), in the east, is notorious for the raiders who populate Rasu Miar (“ill-fated land” in Kadavan), the island that marks its westernmost territory. Between the rocky Sculn Hills and the pall of smoke emanating from Deathsmoke Isle, Rasu Miar is a harsh place; outcasts, exiles, and wanderers who don’t fit into Kadavan society often find their way here. Kadavis itself is a prosperous, decadent kingdom composed of dozens of squabbling fiefdoms. Kadavan culture places great value on ostentatious displays of wealth and glory.

Yealmark (“YALL-mahrk”) consists of two small islands wedged between the Dominion to the north, Kadavis to the east, and Brundir to the south, and is the youngest kingdom in the Unlucky Isles. Formerly part of Brundir, Yealmark was granted to the Nuav Free Spears, a large mercenary company, some thirty years ago as payment for a contract. The Free Spears are disciplined in battle but run wild between contracts, so Yealmark is a strange mix of organized martial society and raucous revelry, and attracts more than its share of pirates, ne’er-do-wells, and adventurers as a result.

Identify regionally-significant gods.

  • Brundirθana (“THAH-nah,” the forest; the versatility of trees) and σethra (“SHETH-ruh,” good fortune), commonly referred to as the Mast and the Sail (the strong, well-made foundation that enables you to catch the winds of good fortune, taking you away from the ill luck of the Isles).
    • Etruscan is my source for some Brundiran names, including special characters like Sigma and Theta (used above).
  • Arkestran DominionTaur Kon Drukh, the Ceaseless Flame, who burns away the threads of fate woven by other gods, and soothes the slumber of the old pantheon (ensuring the Arkestrans don’t lose access to the Wraithsea).
  • MeskmurJiur and Sarrow (“JEE-oor” and “SAH-row”, the Red Twins, believed to live inside the volcanoes Vykus (Jiur) and Vnissk (Sarrow) on Deathsmoke Isle, and venerated in large part to keep them there — and away from Meskmur itself (ditto the smoke, which most often drifts north instead of south, fouling the air over Rasu Miar).
  • AhlsheyanKōm (“COMB,” wind, impermanence), Ebren (“EHB-run,” waves, opportunity), and Iāka (“ee-YAY-kuh,” stone, the past) are the cornerstones of Ahl faith and society.
    • Proto-Turkic is my source for some Ahl names.
  • KadavisIskuldra, the Golden Mask (“iss-KUHL-druh,” wealth, glory, recognition), principal deity in a pantheon that includes over 200 “small gods” (other aspects of prosperity, commerce, fashion, etc.) who are venerated in its many fiefdoms.
  • Yealmark — Pays obeisance to Brundir’s principal gods, θana and σethra, but also to Bruzas (“BROO-zoss”), the god of blood and revelry from their original homeland, Nuav (whose symbol is a blood-filled golden bowl).
    • Thracian is my source for some Yealmark names.

Many islefolk also pray to Nsslk (“NUH-sulk”), son of long-dead Slljrrn, who sleeps beneath the waves in the Unlucky Isles, in the hope that their prayers will keep him from dying — and thereby further cursing the Isles.

Make a sketch map of the region.

Mapping advice is scattered around the worldbuilding chapter, and doesn’t perfectly match the book’s setting, so I did some head-scratching and came to my own conclusions. WWN recommends a square 200 miles on a side, with 6-mile hexes, for the region map — but the example in the book is more like 300 miles x 360 miles, and I liked its size. So I went with 60 hexes by 50 hexes (widescreen monitor-shaped, not book page-shaped), for a regional area of 108,000 square miles.

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

WWN notes that rivers and (optionally) large lakes/inland seas come next, and to make logical rivers I needed to add some mountains and hills to my extant map (and fiddle with some of the existing features, too). That plus country labels gave me the map I used to open this post:

The current state of the map

Worldographer has a really cool feature called Child Maps that auto-generates a version of your current map on a different scale, with a number of hexes per parent-map hex that you determine. For example, I can take the Unlucky Isles at World level and step down to Continent level with 6 hexes per hex, and Worldographer will spit out that massive map.

WWN’s process doesn’t have you adding cities and other features to your kingdom-level map, but major features do appear on its example map. I want to see more detail than I currently have on my region map (at 6 miles/hex), so my next step will be to add cities and features to this map. (If I were about to start a campaign, I’d probably set it in a central region of Brundir, generate a 6-hexes-per-hex child map, and add villages, caves, dungeons, ruins, and so forth to those 1-mile hexes.)

I’ll do that as part of answering the three remaining WWN questions about the region — and in another post, as this one’s already massive!

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

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Dormiir, also called Godsbarrow: worldbuilding using Worlds Without Number

Earlier today, a chance comment on RPGnet alerted me to the release of Worlds Without Number (paid link; there’s also a free version of the game), Kevin Crawford’s fantasy version of Stars Without Number (paid link; and again, there’s a free SWN), which I immediately bought. That in turn led me to think about how I feel like a bad gamer for never having had my own fantasy setting that I’ve tinkered with for years, and run games in, and the ways in which I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to setting creation.

For example, writing two paragraphs before getting lost in daydreaming about what accent colors I’m going to use the in the setting book I eventually publish…and then thinking about how difficult it would be to build up a brand, a company, and a potential audience again; or how I’m going to screw up and accidentally use a bunch of problematic tropes I don’t recognize as being problematic; at which point I abandon the project and go watch cartoons.

But I also realized that getting properly into miniature painting has given me a blueprint that works for my weird brain — one that I might be able to apply to worldbuilding: Pick a big goal, pick a small goal, pick a goal somewhere in between; work on it for at least a few minutes a day; blog about it, as the mood strikes, to help make it real (and because it’s fun if other people use it). I think I can use that model here.

So I sat down with Worlds Without Number, skipped to the worldbuilding section, and started reading. I’ve loved Crawford’s work for years, and we share a strong commitment to not making stuff that won’t have a direct impact on play at the gaming table (unless making it is fun in its own right). Brass tacks, realistic expectations, time spent well — I’m right there with him.

But first, the Larch

I didn’t want to abandon Bleakstone, or its successor setting, the Crystal Marches — but I also didn’t want to feel like I was retreading old ground. I didn’t build momentum last time, so why would it work differently this time?

I love settings with colloquial names formed from ordinary words, and I was thinking about my longtime interest in an island setting — when poof, the name “the Unlucky Isles” popped into my head. I wondered why they’d be unlucky — and hey, wouldn’t it be cool if they were cursed by the gods?

Or what if a god had died there, and bad luck was a lingering aftereffect?

“A world where gods can die” was the boom moment I needed to get my creative juices flowing.

(From here on in, this post is pretty raw — basically just straight from my notes, archiving my thoughts as they first came to me.)

Dormiir

I popped up Worlds Without Number and started answering questions, sketching in high-level setting concepts while I thought things through.

  • Gods can die, and in its early days the world was a tomb to many of them.
  • Magic and other strange phenomena are attributed to long-buried gods, their essences leaking into the soil, water, and air.
  • The current gods will die someday, too — and every time a god dies, their death shakes the world.
  • When young gods die, their essence may only influence a small region — but entire kingdoms and continents are shaped by the essences of dead older gods.
  • Some gods don’t die, but go into a state of torpor much like death; their dreams can become real, and people can enter those dreams
  • Bleakstone, the Crystal Marches, and other setting concepts I have can become part of Dormiir.

After spending the evening answering the questions in the first section, “The World,” I wrote this post. (The free version of Worlds Without Number includes this entire section, so I’m not giving away Kevin’s farm here.)

The World

What’s the name of this world for people in your campaign’s scope?

Dormiir (“to sleep” in French, with an extra “i”), but most people in the Unlucky Isles call it Godsbarrow (with barrow being a tomb-mound; Goadsbarrow is a real place in England, which I also like).

Are natural physical laws mostly the same as in our world?

Yes, except that Godsbarrow has two moons. One in a stable orbit (providing Earth-like tides) and the other in a highly eccentric orbit, which causes wildly powerful tides at the two points where it passes closest to the planet. (Coastal communities must be built accordingly.)

The weird moon is believed to be the corpse of a titanic deity, curled up into a ball. Some religions hold it to be the source of all magic.

Are there any spirit-worlds, alternate dimensions, novel planes of existence, or other cosmological locales generally associated with the world?

The Wraithsea is the common name for the un-place composed of the dreams of sleeping gods. People can go there in their dreams — or be drawn there — and if they linger, they disappear from the physical world.

Are there any grand global-scale empires or groups that impinge on the campaign’s scope?

The Arkestran Dominion (“Arkestran” is an elven word for “eternal”) sits atop the tomb of an entire pantheon of dreaming gods, and uses the Wraithsea to extend its influence across the world while its military might expands the borders of their empire.

How interconnected are the parts of your world?

About like medieval Earth, where people have heard things about faraway places — but more often myths and legends than actual facts. Regional weirdness caused by long-buried gods tends to keep people close to home, but nothing stops folks from travelling.

Are there any vast global events that have happened recently?

Bakhmyut, He Who Holds Back Hell — the principal deity of the country of Duspira — died five years ago, plunging the entire world into darkness for three days (one for each thousand steps in the passage to hell guarded by Bakhmyut, the Three Thousand Stairs).

That darkness lifted everywhere but Duspira, which has remained under the night sky ever since. Bakhmyut’s death also unleashed strange magic and stranger creatures, which have been spreading outwards from Duspira — along with ordinary Duspirans, fleeing a land in which no crops will grow.

Up next is “The Region,” which I already have going in my little Notepad file on Godsbarrow.

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

Categories
Solo RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

RPG actual play: Thousand Year Old Vampire

I was going to do a Twitter thread while playing through Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV), a solo RPG by Tim Hutchings in which you’re an awful, awful vampire, but couldn’t figure out how to provide a meaningful content warning that would 1) persist and 2) allow people to avoid the whole thread while 3) still making it comprehensible. So here we are!

Content warning: violence, allusions to self-harm, gore, torture. Intended for a mature audience.

Also, this game is stunningly gorgeous and I highly recommend it. I posted about its beauty here on Yore; you can buy a copy from Tim on itch.io.

In this post I’m going to try to preserve the rapid-fire delivery of a Twitter thread because it suits the Quick Game for TYOV (one of its two modes of play) and my own inclinations.

Character creation

Your vampire is a collection of Memories, Experiences, Resources, Skills, other Characters, and the trait which identifies you as a vampire, your Mark. My first Experience is a character summary:

  • I am Garnier, son of Roland and Isabeau, born in southern Brittany in 14th Century France; I became a monk to avoid poverty but found strength in my faith

It’s around 1340 at the start of this playthrough; the Black Plague is just starting its grim march through Europe.

I also came up with three Skills, three Resources, and Characters — and four more Experiences, each tied to those people/things. Here are my starting Characters:

  • Melisende, a beautiful young woman in the village of Réconfort near the abbey; she visits regularly to transport wine made by the monks (mortal)
  • Brother Eudes, a beautiful young monk who is secretly my lover; he loathes himself for straying from God (mortal)
  • Abbot Roul, iron-fisted ruler of our abbey; he believes in harsh punishment for all offenses, no matter how minor (mortal)
  • Qadir, an ancient, withered, stick-like vampire who haunts the abbey’s library, feeding on the monks; it illuminates manuscripts in blood (immortal)

Resources are a secret copy of the key to the abbey’s forbidden book room, a love letter from Brother Eudes, and my personal Bible I am illuminating for the abbey’s collection. Skills are Conceal My True Feelings, True Prayer, Skulking About. My other four Experiences are:

  • Brother Eudes, at great personal risk, slips me a love letter during Mass; I feel truly alive for the first time
  • I press the abbot’s key to the forbidden book room into a bar of wax and carve a copy; my visits there are frequent
  • Melisende, to whom I am drawn, asks to see my illuminated Bible; I feel more strongly about my faith in God than I do about her
  • I sneak into the abbey’s forbidden book room for the first time and encounter Qadir, its eyes coal-black; it mocks my prayers and delicately slits each of my wrists

And finally, my Mark — Garnier’s “vampire tell”: The wounds in my wrists never heal, and must always be bound or blotted with cloth; I cover them with my sleeves and change the dressings often.

This is a game about surprising yourself, and forgetting

As you move through the game’s prompts (with die rolls determining where you land), each will fuel a new bit of your story and require you to create an Experience. Some will prompt you to check off a Skill or Resource; the game ends when you must do that and cannot.

You’re not in complete control of your character. You make many of their decisions, but not all of them; it’s intended to make you uncomfortable, and it works.

When you gain enough Experiences, you’re forced to discard your Memories — flitting through the centuries, you cease to be who you were. Although, cruelly, you may retain legacies of those memories: people you used to know, skills you still possess despite having forgotten how you gained them, etc.

I’m not going to write out a whole journal here, nor give away Tim’s farm — rather, I’ll try to give you a sense for how the game plays and feels by sharing what came of the prompts I encountered on Garnier’s journey.

Prompt me, baby

The first prompt is always the same supposed to be rolled, but I picked prompt #1: you kill a mortal Character close to you, and gain the Bloodthirsty skill. (Updated because Tim mentioned on Twitter that the first prompt is the result of a die roll, like all the others.)

I kill Melisende the next time she comes to the abbey to collect the wine, drinking the blood from her wrists the way Qadir taught me; I feel nothing

Garnier

From there, die rolls lead you forward or back through the prompts — and each prompt is layered, so if you land on it again you can pick a new layer to explore.

My second was about being exposed:

I am found out to be a killer, and convince Eudes to run away with me, lying to him about everything; we pose as itinerant monks — I am now Roland

Garnier, now called Roland

I put that one under my Memory about my beloved Eudes. Unfortunately, he got the next prompt as well:

Unable to live with our many sins, my beloved Eudes threatens to reveal me; I kill him, and drink because I hunger

Roland (Garnier)

At this point I have 2/4 Skills checked and 0/3 Resources checked. These are still Garnier’s salad days.

Decades later, Garnier has forgotten all about the abbey’s forbidden book room (although not about Qadir) and the Plague has largely ended. He blends in for many years. Until:

I sneak into a monastery and drain every last monk; I leave the last one alive for days, draining him and watching, and then steal all their gold

Garnier

A couple observations

In solo games I tend to create the biggest piece of shit I can think of and then see what it’s like to live their life. I want to be uncomfortable, yet also delighted — in a slasher movie sort of way — at my character’s awfulness. TYOV is very much my jam.

TYOV is also an evil game. It fucks with you. It fucks with itself. It fucks with its own rules. It places you in discomfiting situations and makes you proceed.

For example: A century or more has passed and Garnier is now on his fourth name. He has fled to a foreign land, a place where he knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. I have to write an Experience for that . . . but if I fill up my first Memory, the one which appears first in this post, that will put me perilously close to forgetting who I am.

I don’t want to fill that slot.

Which, of course, is exactly the kind of gleefully wicked friction TYOV is designed to create.

Checking in with Garnier

A couple of centuries have passed. Garnier now lives in Greece. He has renounced God, discarding his 200-year-old personally illuminated Bible — which I chose to destroy over the letter from Brother Eudes.

One: holy shit, that’s making me feel things.

Two: how did Garnier preserve any faith for 200 years of being as evil as he is?

By the 17th Century, I no longer remember being Garnier at all. I strive to live an unremarkable mortal existence to avoid detection. In addition to my suppurating wrist wounds, I walk in an animal crouch and see Melisende — my first victim, who I no longer recall — in half the people I meet. I have been ground down by what feels like the inevitability of time, the curse of immortality weighing on me.

I’ve been happy precisely twice in 400 years: When Brother Eudes (who I later killed) confessed his love, and when I slipped into a 200-year torpor and felt nothing.

As fate and chance would have it, my last remaining skill is True Prayer. I’ve met my progenitor, the impossibly ancient vampire Qadir, and found in him now a kindred spirit. Little more than Qadir’s protection (which I’ve taken as a Resource) stands between me and the final death.

TYOV’s mechanics are deceptively simple. The natural probability of the roll you make every turn tends to drive you deeper into the book (though you do backtrack as well, just less often). The deeper you go, the more the prompts trend towards an ending — or an Ending, if you prefer.

I hit my final prompt and said aloud, “Holy shit, this is it.” And I knew instantly just what shitty, terrible form this ending would take for Theodorus — the name Garnier adopted in the 1600s and will now keep, eternally in the thrall of Qadir, the vampire who made him what he is.

My final Experience was this:

I am Qadir’s thrall, only his protection, his care, can stave off the final death; I live only to live, feeling nothing save the desire to continue being, forever

Theodorus

Fuuuuuuuuuuck that’s bleak.

Friends, Thousand Year Old Vampire is extraordinary. I’ve played a ton of solo RPGs, and this one does things I’ve never seen before. It lays out its goals and accomplishes all of them; it’s rewarding and moving and disturbing to play; and at the end of my first playthrough I feel wrung out.

This game rocks.

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Dead Friend and Two OSR Dungeon Crawls

I’ve added a couple new books to my list of my favorite free & PWYW RPG products on DriveThruRPG (covering about 3% of the 7,500+ products available) that are both so good that I want to talk about them here.

The first is Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy, by Lucian Kahn, which is a two-player RPG — one of my favorite types of game.[1] One of you plays a necromancer; the other plays the necromancer’s dead friend. It reminds me of Murderous Ghosts (which I love), and I can’t wait to try it.

In it, you place a ritual symbol in the center of the table, surround it with a ring of salt, move coins around, hum, make strange utterances — and try to pursue wildly opposed goals — like “bring your dead friend back to life” for the necromancer, and “kill your friend” for the dead. It’s a polished and fantastic-looking little game, too.

The other is John Battle’s Two OSR Dungeon Crawls, which provides what it says on the tin. Bland title aside, these are both fascinating dungeons. It would benefit from some editing and a nicer layout, but the content is delightful — so delightful that I dropped it right into my “I’d love to run these modules anytime” folder.

My favorite of the two is The Globe, which involves an enchanted snow globe, a tooth-stealing lich, a host of mummies, a truly terrifying variant of mummy rot, and some deeply creepy moments. It also includes something I’m always excited to see in any dungeon crawl: potentially campaign-shaking consequences based on how the PCs handle it.

[1] When I first started gaming, one GM and one player was the only way I played for a couple of years. In retrospect I don’t know why I didn’t try to link up the separate friends I gamed with, but the intimacy and tone of two-player gaming is so fantastic that it just never occurred to me.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Excisions: “lazy GM” and “it’s like herding cats”

I’ve excised these two phrases from my gaming lexicon: “lazy GM,” in any form (“lazy game mastering,” etc.), and “it’s like herding cats,” when used to refer to players.

I don’t care how anyone else games unless it negatively impacts others, including me, but I submit that these two phrases need to go the way of the dodo.

Fuck this noise

There’s no such this as a lazy GM.

GMing is as much art as craft as science as performance, and some approaches to it require work. But for fuck’s sake, no one is a “lazy GM” because they don’t enjoy, and/or don’t do, the parts that feel like work to them.

I’m not lazy because I don’t like spending hours doing game prep, and neither are you. Conversely, if doing hours of prep isn’t work for you, that’s awesome. Do what you love!

When GMing feels like work, I don’t enjoy it. When I take out the work, I love every minute of it. There’s no work I “should” be doing that I’m not doing, so “laziness” doesn’t apply.

Fuck that noise, too

I love the phrase “it’s like herding cats.” It’s fun to use; the visual is fantastic. But I loathe when it’s applied to players.

Translated, it sounds like this: “It’s hard to get my players to what I want.”

Well, duh. Maybe talk about what everyone wants, and do that instead? Or find a group that wants the same things you do?

Gaming is alchemy. It’s magic and science and hokum all in a big ball, and sometimes you turn lead into, well . . . other lead. But when you turn lead into gold, through play, it’s fucking magical.

In my experience, “herding” players toward that goal has a much lower success rate than putting down the fucking lasso, getting off the fucking horse, and joining the cats.

Ixnay

As concepts, these phrases are insulting and counterproductive. They send a bad signal to new gamers: that you have to do a bunch of work to be a GM, and that players need herding — neither of which is true.

Adios, “lazy GM” and “it’s like herding cats.” You won’t be missed.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Inclusivity, old days, fun taxes, and empathy in gaming

In the wake of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, two posts about gaming and inclusivity have stood out to me.

To both, I say right the fuck on.

The “good old days”

The first was Steve Kenson‘s The Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days. On what sorts of characters he wants to play, Steve says:

Do I want to play someone who is like me and either deal with the world as it was then or ask the GM for a fantasy variant where homophobia and misogyny (which spring from the same root) don’t exist? Or should I play an asexual character—or even a heterosexual one—in order to fit in and dodge the issue? They’re the same questions queer people have to ask themselves about their real lives all the time, and that can be wearisome when it comes to something that’s supposed to be just fun.

This gets at privilege, in a nutshell, and Steve’s conclusion is as painful to read as it is accurate:

If, by chance, you’ve read all the way to the end of this and find yourself thinking, “Wow, that sounds like it would suck all of the fun out of things. Do we have to deal with such heavy stuff in our games?” Well, then you have some small idea of how it feels for some of us all of the time. While it must be nice to have the option to just ignore it, but some of us don’t. Consider that as you create your next world.

I was nodding while reading that, because I used to say things like, “I just want to play.” Which sounded reasonable to me at the time, but makes me wince now, as I type this.

Changing how I approach gaming in order to be more welcoming to other folks isn’t hard. Nowhere near as hard as, say, being the object of ridicule, bigotry, hatred, and exclusion, like millions of LBGT folks — and other minorities, of all stripes — are every fucking day.

The fun tax

The second post that stopped me in my tracks was Curt Thompson’s “And on the topic of inclusion in gaming” over on G+.

We’re gamers. We accept FTL, strong AI, magic, vampires, dragons and superpowers as part and parcel of the gaming experience. As givens, even in ‘historic’ games, a lot of time. If we can accept those, we can damned well accept that prejudices can be overcome. Even erased.

Who gives a shit if “that’s how it was” if making it that way in a game sucks the fun out of it for others? Curt ties this back to privilege, and his point is similar to Steve’s:

But for me it always comes back to that concept: the fun tax. Should there be a extra burden for gamers like us? And at my table, the default answer to that is no.

A-fucking-men.

Empathy

No one’s perfect. Everyone fucks up, and that includes fucking up at being empathetic — at trying to see the world as others see it, and learning from that experience. I’ve fucked up in that way before, and I’m certain I’ll do it again; I’ve been hurt by friends who couldn’t empathize with me, and I’m sure that will happen again, too.

But I’m mystified by folks who aren’t willing to even try to be empathetic. Where’s the cost? Where’s the burden there, exactly? It can be challenging to empathize; it can be draining. But at the most basic level, it can sometimes be incredibly simple.

Empathy trumps hate. Empathy is part of what makes us human. It has a place — an important place — at every gaming table, and in every gaming book.

Categories
RPG community Tabletop RPGs

You can validate others’ experiences without invalidating your own

Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem, by De Scriptorice, has been making the rounds in my circles on G+, and I’ve been trying to figure out what I wanted to say about it. Not because I’m of any importance, but because what that post describes is awful, and speaking up matters.

Yesterday, I read Why Should We Listen To Anecdotal Evidence of Harassment in Gaming? and Why I Don’t Play Magic Any More (both by Ferrett Steinmetz), and it clicked.

De Scriptorice’s experiences

Here’s an excerpt from De Scriptorice’s post:

I am thirteen years old and in a game store for the first time. I examine their selection of dice and take them to the counter to pay.

“How old are you?” asks the balding, middle-aged man behind the counter.

“Thirteen.”

“Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed!” he chuckles in glee. The Warhammer 40K gamers at the table behind him take up the refrain. “Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed! Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed!”

I run.

That’s one of the least-bad experiences she relates, which speaks volumes about the kind of shit she’s dealt with over the years.

My experiences

None of the experiences in those three posts jibe with my experiences as a white, male, cisgender[1] gamer.

I’ve gamed in groups with women, people of color, gay and bisexual folks, and folks with physical disabilities, and if there was harassment at any of those hundreds of gaming sessions, I didn’t spot it.

I love that anyone can sit down together and pretend to be other people for a few hours, no matter who they are in real life. This has shaped my perception of gaming as a positive force, and of gamers as a welcoming community.

But

But. But. The fact that I haven’t witnessed harassment doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not a real problem.

The world is much, much bigger than my worldview. Which is sometimes an uncomfortable thing to realize, but just as often a transformative, meaningful, mind-expanding thing to realize.

And at the same time, recognizing that there’s a harassment problem in gaming, and in related spaces like conventions and gaming stores (and related hobbies, like cosplay), doesn’t invalidate what I’ve experienced. Both truths are true.

It’s possible to both see gaming as a good thing, which it is, and as a hobby that attracts its share of assholes, bigots, sexists, and other problematic folks, which it also is.

Willingness to change

Seeking to invalidate someone else’s experiences of harassment in the gaming community is bullshit.

The same goes for fighting against inclusivity and diversity in games — that’s bullshit, too.

Change is good. Change can be hard! But it’s still good. When I see bigotry, I see people who don’t want to change even a little bit. Who don’t want to acknowledge that the world isn’t exactly as they’re currently picturing it. Whose personal identities appear to be so bound up in their current worldview that calcification is preferable to admitting they’re even a tiny bit wrong.

We — everyone, all of us — should be open to seeing the world in other ways. If someone says they’ve experienced harassment in the gaming community, accepting that as truth costs you nothing.

For those who aren’t open to that, well, Chuck Wendig says it best in this response to folks complaining about gay characters in Star Wars: Aftermath:

And if you’re upset because I put gay characters and a gay protagonist in the book, I got nothing for you. Sorry, you squawking saurian — meteor’s coming. And it’s a fabulously gay Nyan Cat meteor with a rainbow trailing behind it and your mode of thought will be extinct.

Harassment, bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and hate speech have no place in the gaming community.

The more gamers there are rolling dice and making cool stuff and designing weird adventures and sharing their perspectives, the better off all of us are.

That’s what I want gaming to be.

[1] My gender identity matches the gender I was assigned at birth.