I love comics. But how I read them has changed over the years, from all single issues as a kid to all TPBs in college to all-digital…and then back to single print issues. And now back to digital-only again, but this time for good (I think).
Reflecting on the notion of pulling or subscribing to single issues in this, the fourteenth year of the pandemic, it feels a bit like starting to buy CDs again. Would I start buying CDs again? Nope. There’d be no point.
Everything except the smell and feel of a printed comic, and the implementation of double-width splash pages, works better for me in digital format.
From the early 1980s until 2000, I read all of my American comics in print as single issues. In 2000, when Preacher ended, I switched almost entirely to reading TPBs. It wasn’t until 2019 that I started up a pull list again.
That lasted about a year, until the pandemic hit and I fully committed to digital comics in March of 2021. I was subscribed to 12-15 X-Men books every month, and that eventually burned me out; after a break, I came back with a leaner subscription list that stayed steady for a few months. I transitioned back to print in February 2022, when comiXology went from awesome to pretty crappy overnight.
And then in May of this year I realized I just wasn’t going to read single issues in print again. Never say never, of course, but I canceled my pulls and went back to digital-only. Most of my big-two reading these days is older runs on DC Universe Infinite or Marvel Unlimited, and it’s incredibly rare for me buy TPBs anymore.
On the manga front, I was almost exclusively a tankōbon reader from childhood through the end of 2020. Subscribing to Shonen Jump online in 2020 was a seismic shift for me, and I’ve done about 90% of my manga reading digitally ever since. (Series I’m attached to in print for one reason or another make up the other 10%.)
Like music, and then novels, and then movies, as much as I love holding a comic in my hands the convenience of digital options outweighs that love 95% of the time. My eyes aren’t getting any younger, and it’s hard to argue with backlit pages I can read anywhere, zoomed-in as needed, without having to manage, store, and haul around hundreds of pounds of stuff every time we move.
I don’t think my love of print will ever vanish entirely; that connection runs too deep. But nowadays I mostly buy print comics as slabbed books, or intending to send them to CGC, so I can hang them up and enjoy them that way.
Look upon this trend, my creaking RPG shelves, and weep
This reckoning is coming — slowly, but inevitably — for my RPG collection and reading habits as well. I passed the tipping point where my PDF collection outnumbered my print collection years ago, and the amount of time I actually use my print RPG books in play has diminished steadily for the past 5-7 years.
For now, I still buy print RPG books that are special in some way, because they’re gorgeous, out of nostalgia, or because they offer usability advantages in some specific cases (mainly modules, sometimes, or handing books to other people). But I’ve thinned my print RPG collection by 40% over the past couple years, and I don’t miss a single book from the culling.
The intersection of convenience and usability is the ultimate reaper.
That’s longer than my time blogging on Gnome Stew (just shy of 8 years) or Treasure Tables before that (just over 2 years). Hell, it’s almost longer than both of them combined.
Part of why Yore continues to work for me is that it’s my place to write whatever I want to write, not worry too much about whether anyone is reading it, and post when the mood strikes me — without keeping any sort of schedule, resulting in fewer posts per year than either GS or TT (by a long shot).
I do hope folks enjoy it, though! I’ve been posting gaming stuff online since the late 1990s, and one consistent throughline over the past 20-plus years is that I generally post stuff I find interesting that I think other folks might find useful, or enjoy, or both.
Godsbarrow isn’t the first fantasy setting I’ve taken a stab at: It was preceded by what are, in hindsight, several “proto-Godsbarrows,” and from time to time I like to go back and cherry-pick my best ideas from those early iterations. A post that just says “Yay, 10 years!” is kind of boring — so I figured I’d blow the dust off an old proto-Godsbarrow post and see what it has to offer.
I picked a Yore draft post entitled “file” from March 18, 2013. I probably haven’t looked at it since then, and I have no idea why it’s a draft post rather than a Notepad file on my PC like the rest of my worldbuilding notes.
Guiding principles for worldbuilding
That post included some stuff that very much informs how I’m developing Godsbarrow nearly 10 years later. Like these guiding principles:
Don’t be subtle and don’t hold back: If it’s worth noting, it’s worth taking too far. Don’t avoid clichés; they work well in games.
Dot no Is and cross no Ts: It doesn’t have to be done to be playable. It will never be done. Being unfinished is a virtue.
The Rule of Two Things: Each point of interest on the map should be most notable for two things. Remembering lots of things is hard, especially as a player; remembering two is easy.
The world is the world: If there are giants in the hills, it’s because there are giants in the hills–not because the PCs are “ready” to face giants.
I’m probably tempering #1 a bit these days, and #2 is less relevant as parts of Godsbarrow get more fully fleshed-out — yet entirely relevant in some ways. For example, the Godsbarrow campaign I’m currently running is going just fine despite the setting being nowhere near finished.
I don’t hew religiously to #3, but it does tend to be how I think of points of interest. If one needs more than two things to make it sing, that’s cool — but less is often more. #4 is 100% still how I worldbuild and how I run D&D-alikes.
Godsbarrow: at least 10 years in the making
This 2013 draft isn’t the oldest proto-Godsbarrow material, although it’s close. The oldest stuff on my hard drive that’s recognizably the rough clay from which I’m molding Godsbarrow dates back to April 2012. Like all worldbuilding, naturally there are much older ideas that bubble up and work their way into current stuff, but back in 2012-2013 I was actively building a setting — variously called Bleakstone or Waymark — using elements that are part of Godsbarrow.
Skulvezar, Godsbarrow’s god of skeletons, makes an appearance in that 2013 draft post. Proto-Skulvezar was more closely connected with demons; I tightened him up for Godsbarrow. Ditto the town of Cape Reckless, in the Unlucky Isles. I would have sworn Cape Reckless dated back to maybe 2016, not 2013, but there it was.
Hexcrawl points of interest
There are some names in there I need to pull into Godsbarrow — and the village of Garbriar definitely needs to make an appearance: “Garbriar is famous for its spicy prickleberry stew and for having the ugliest villagers in all of Saxum. By local tradition, village roofs are thatched with prickleberry branches.” (There’s a Rule of Two Things write-up, complete with breaking the rule with a third thing.)
Here are a few other points of interest, which I was writing up hex by hex in 2013. There’s some stuff here that would be right at home in Godsbarrow, and may just wind up there.
The Godsroad (0705): Maintained by laborers from Temple Town (often those doing penance or donating their time to a Church), the Godsroad is neutral territory between Saxum and Harth, traveled by traders, pilgrims, and soldiers alike.
Great North Road (0607): Laid down by the Vazdurak Empire centuries ago, the Great North Road is wide, clear, and well-traveled. It serves as the main trade route connecting Harth and Saxum. Waymarks — statues of demonic figures that stand about waist high, many weathered almost beyond recognition — are placed every quarter mile along the north edge of the road.
Cursed Grove (0906): This twisted, overgrown forest’s name isn’t hyperbole: Anyone who spends the night here has a chance of becoming cursed. Curses tend to last a few days and include things like being struck mute, seeing everyone around you as a demon, crying blood non-stop, or shouting “Hail Murgoth!” every few minutes. Every variety of mundane spiders can be found in the Cursed Grove, and in great numbers.
Galconny (0607): Galconny was previously the northernmost city in the Vazdurak Empire, and the present-day city is built on the bones and ashes of that one. Where the old architecture survives, it’s all devils and demons: sinister carvings in every archway, markets held in ancient arenas formerly devoted to blood sports and sacrifices, brown-stained cobbles that never come clean.
Our Dragons Are Different
Back in 2013, I had a whole thing where I was reimagining all of the staples of D&D monster manual — a perfect example of the Our Elves Are Different trope. I have mixed feelings about that trope, but I guess on balance I like it. It hearkens back to the grand tradition of heartbreaker fantasy RPGs, which isn’t an unambiguously good thing, but it also has real practical weight for anyone designing a fantasy world for publication. Why? Because it gets straight at this key question: Why should anyone play a game in your world instead of the countless existing fantasy campaign settings?
When it’s done right (which is the hard part), “because our elves are different” is a pretty solid answer to that question. (Not the only answer, of course!) If you’re running D&D or any D&D-alike, and the world is broadly based on some of the common themes therein, you probably need elves. But do they need to be D&D or Tolkien elves? No…but they should have enough in common that you can identify them as elves — while being different in ways that evoke the setting you’re trying to create and add your enjoyment while exploring it.
As a concept, “elf” is delightfully mutable. (That same mutability is one reason superheroes are so neat.) I like elves, and dwarves, and halflings, and other staple fantasy species, and I’m enjoying riffing on the core concepts of these species in Godsbarrow. The only elves I’ve written up so far are from the Arkestran Dominion, and their species originates in the Wraithsea — their ancestors were literally born out of the dreams of sleeping gods. A lot of what makes an elf an elf clicks in a different way when that’s the starting point.
In that same vein, the dragons I wrote up for Waymark in 2013 are pretty appealing to me in 2022 — and thus far I haven’t written the word “dragon” in connection with Godsbarrow. Not every fantasy setting needs them, certainly, but I can see going this direction with dragons if they ever appear in Godsbarrow. (The petrified expanses led directly to the next iteration of this unfinished setting, Bleakstone.)
Dragons haven’t been seen in Waymark for over two centuries, and most people think they’re just a myth. The strange stony expanses found throughout Waymark are most often attributed to dragons, and are most often called Wyrmstone. They’re shunned and feared by just about everyone.
There are six dragons in the world, each a Prince of Hell. They’re arch-devils in service of Skulvezar, revered as the Apocalypse Dragons by the Vazdurak Empire and now simply known as dragons. Their touch petrifies everything around them — the ground, people, plants, animals, everything.
Waymark is dotted with expanses of Wyrmstone, places where a dragon set foot on the earth and permanently transformed the landscape–and anyone or anything unfortunate enough to be in the area–into bleak grey stone. Wyrmstone expanses have existed for as long as anyone can remember, but rumors persist that new areas of Wyrmstone have begun to appear, and that existing areas are expanding.
From my 2013 notes on Waymark, one of the unfinished settings that laid the groundwork for Godsbarrow
It was neat to find this old post, poke through it, and see the lines connecting it to present-day Godsbarrow. Hopefully you enjoyed this bit of noodling.
If you’re here, reading this, thank you for checking out Yore — whether you’ve been stopping by for years or are visiting for the first time. Here’s to the next 10 years!
I’ve finished my first draft of half the countries in The Unlucky Isles!
I also have about 60% of each of the other three countries written up, awaiting all the new material and restructuring I’ve done with the first three, as well as a good chunk of the introductory elements.
It’s clocking in at around 20,000 words so far, which is already more than I expected when I started this book.
When I was planning to lay it out in my word processing software, include a few pieces of royalty-free historical artwork, and convert it into a PDF, I was a lot closer to done. But I’m going a slightly more involved route — and that’s given me time to slow down and really consider what I want to see in a setting book like this.
Which in turn has meant writing a lot of new material, restructuring more of the existing material than I expected, and doing a deeper dive into each country — while, I hope, still striking the balance between depth and conciseness that works best in a regional gazetteer like this one.
I’m also just plain having fun. Rounding out the corners of these places with “sensory snapshots,” notes about cuisine and names, and all the details that bring a fantasy nation and its people to life has been a blast. I’m learning about Godsbarrow as I write about it, which brings me joy — and I’m working to share that joy with you in a useful, gameable way.
Want to be notified as soon as The Unlucky Isles is published?
My friend and former partner in crime at Gnome Stew and Engine Publishing, Matt Neagley, asked what the best way was to find out when The Unlucky Isles is published, and that’s a great question with an easy answer.
On the Halfbeard Press publisher page [affiliate link] on DriveThruRPG, on the left side of the page, you’ll see a spot that says “Check this to follow Halfbeard Press” with a little checkbox next to it.
Check that box, make sure you don’t have publisher emails turned off globally on DTRPG, and you’ll get an email whenever Halfbeard Press puts out a product — starting with The Unlucky Isles.
After spending 15 months developing Godsbarrow, getting to actually start up a campaign in this setting was the spark I needed to convince me to give publishing another shot.
Today I founded Halfbeard Press, the company I’ll be using to publish Godsbarrow material.
Halfbeard Press has a logo, an incredibly spartan website, a (currently empty) DriveThruRPG publisher page [paid link], and a plan: I’m about 50% done writing its first product, a gazetteer of the Unlucky Isles.
Many, many thanks to my wife, Alysia, my kiddo, Lark, and my friends Alice, John, Reagan, and Renee, who consulted on numerous iterations of the logo and made it so much better than my first draft (with special thanks to Reagan for suggesting the half-beard be on the left, and merged with part of the H).
I don’t regret selling Engine Publishing in 2019. It was the right choice. But I have missed publishing (or aspects of it, anyway), and I always suspected I’d be giving it another shot at some point.
Like Yore, which is more personal, barebones, and eclectic than my more focused ventures (Treasure Tables, Gnome Stew, Engine Publishing), I’m taking a smaller, quieter approach with Halfbeard Press.
I’m trying to do as much of it as I can myself, even the parts of it (cough cough graphic design) where I’m, at best, a clumsy dabbler with decent ideas. I’m not taking out thousands of dollars in loans to fund upfront publishing costs (as I did for Engine Publishing books). I don’t have a marketing budget, or an established readership like the gnomes had when we published Eureka [paid link] back in 2010.
Hell, this might not work out at all. Like Engine Publishing back in 2009, this venture is far from being a sure thing. But no matter what happens, I’m excited to be working on a short book about a campaign setting I love.
As soon as I have more to share about the Unlucky Isles gazetteer, and Halfbeard Press, you’ll hear about it here!
Yore has been quiet, but I’ve been busy for the past couple of months — hobby-wise, painting Warhammer 40k terrain (which I haven’t gotten around to photographing yet) and starting up the first Godsbarrow campaign.
After over a year of lonely fun creating this setting using Worlds Without Number [paid link], it’s absolutely delightful to be running a game set in Godsbarrow. There’s a simple, powerful magic to creating a setting and then playing in it, and it has been decades since I ran a game in a homebrewed setting. (Most of my fantasy campaigns have been set in the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance’s other continent, Taladas, Warhammer’s Old World, or Spelljammer, with detours into Ravenloft and Dark Sun.)
Even when I did run games set in my own world, as a kid, my settings were never very developed (not that that’s a bad thing), and none of them were ever My Setting in the way that Godsbarrow is. This time, it feels different.
Bal Acar, hexcrawling, the the Keepers of the Thousandfold Chains
The three of us wanted to play a hexcrawl, exploring a strange and dangerous place, and we liked the idea of using Dungeon World [paid link] and exploring Godsbarrow.
Before our first session, I created the largely unexplored island of Bal Acar (situated north of Kadavis, east of the Arkestran Dominion, and northeast of the Unlucky Isles) for us to collaboratively develop through play. And unlike the rest of Godsbarrow, I left it blank save for one settlement, Drem Kallow, which would be the party’s home base.
During the first Godsbarrow session (ever!) on June 7, 2022, the other players, my friends Greg Mumford and Rustin Simons, created the Keepers of the Thousandfold Chains, a coven of witches who both bind and exploit the Bleating Horde, an infinite evil — a deity whose every aspect contains part of the whole.
Both of their characters, Auderna, witch of the Bleating Horde (Rustin), and the Witchblade Dabr de Aaust (Greg), are part of the coven, and have had nightmares about demons, riddles, and Bal Acar. The coven tasked them with exploring Bal Acar to seek the truth behind prophetic dreams and the irrational, unnatural scratchings of sages which spoke of that strange place.
In our second session (June 14), we finished up character creation and started mapping the area around Drem Kallow using The Perilous Wilds [paid link]. (Which, as an aside, isn’t just one of the best Dungeon World supplements ever written — it’s one of the best gaming books ever written.) That mapping process stretched into our third session, on July 5, when we started in-character play — the first time characters had ever ventured into Godsbarrow!
The mapping process from TPW was a hoot, and it produced all sorts of stuff none of us would ever have come up with on our own. I staunchly resisted the urge to develop Bal Acar in any way between sessions, with the lone exception that A Market in the Woods [paid link] was just too perfect to pass up; I knew I wanted that one on the map, so when it was my turn to add a steading, I added the Market.
We’d previously decided that rather than Dungeon World’s default “hard frame” start, we’d open with the expedition leaving Drem Kallow. The guys picked the Market in the Woods, known for being a source of information about Bal Acar, as their destination, and headed out into the driving rain to explore Bal Acar.
A Danger (per TPW) was encountered on day one (the 1 on the map), so I rolled it up randomly using TPW. Auderna, Dabr, their abnormal goat, Thett (a Horde Goat, connected to their deity, who can talk), and their two hirelings, Nus and Amsan Peśna (both rolled up randomly using TPW), bypassed the danger and made camp. They missed on Manage Provisions, and now don’t have enough food to make it to the Market and back; a problem to solve down the road.
The TPW hexcrawling moves, and the random tables for Dangers, were solid gold. Even with zero GM prep, and only a small amount of collaborative prep (characters, backgrounds, and the starting map), player choices and the outcomes of moves were all we needed to get things off the ground in an interesting way. The random danger I rolled up, the Shattered Man, will likely become one of the fronts I create before our next session.
Our sessions are short (about two hours), but even with only an hour of in-character play we got a feel for the two PCs and two out of three NPCs, and a feel for Drem Kallow; established a feeling of danger in exploring Bal Acar; introduced a strange entity, the Shattered Man, with a connection to Nus, and collaborated to make him more than just a wandering monster; and came away excited for our next session. It was a blast, and one of the most fun sessions I’ve played as a GM.
There’s a strange alchemy to gaming, and from Greyhawk to the universe of The Expanse (which began as an RPG campaign) settings which have been lived in, filled with the quirks and twists and perfectly odd elements introduced by the groups that have gamed there, are fascinating in part because they’ve been infused with that alchemy through play. It means a lot to me that Godsbarrow is now part of this tradition, and I can’t wait to run more sessions set there.
Returning to Twitter during the pandemic made me realize three things:
I miss the social connections and serendipitous path-crossings and discoveries that social media can be good at facilitating.
I miss Google+ a great deal.
As much as I get #1 from Twitter, it brings me angst at least as often as it brings me joy — and it’s never brought me nearly as much joy as Google+ did.
Considering what a Musk-ified Twitter could be like got me thinking about leaving, and reflection on what I wanted out of social media — if anything — made me realize how important #2 on that list was to my calculations.
I want Mastodon to feel as much like G+ as possible. It has some of that feel, more of it than I’ve felt anywhere else, and that makes it worth my time.
There’s curation on my instance, BBS-style, by an admin I trust. I can curate my follower list to ensure that I follow folks who primarily post about gaming stuff.
There are no circles, but the first two points should help there.
If I post gaming stuff, generally off the cuff, and keep my posting reasonably focused, then I’m helping that work out from my end.
That sounds like a good start.
What it ain’t
I’m incorporating something into my usage of Mastodon that I learned from G+ going away: A fair number of my G+ posts should really have been blog posts, so when my Spidey-sense tingles I’m going to listen to it.
Yore is my most permanent home online. It’s been running since 2009 and a blog since 2012, longer than than Treasure Tables and my time on Gnome Stew.
For conversation and rejoicing in our shared hobby: Mastodon. For permanence: here, where it should be.
On smaller audiences
Why leave a huge potential audience on Twitter for a much smaller potential audience on Mastodon? Well, why not? Google+ was always smaller than Twitter, and I was happier on G+. Both are smaller than Facebook, and that place mostly made me miserable.
I left a large readership on Gnome Stew for a much smaller readership here. I left publishing, with 40,000+ sales worldwide, for not publishing, with zero sales worldwide.
There are cons in both cases, like fewer people interacting with my work. But on the pro list is something that’s become increasingly important to me: I just do what I enjoy, and if other folks enjoy it too then that’s awesome.
When someone in Godsbarrow dies at sea, the Headless Child lays claim to them.
If they died in sight of their own god, or gods, or if their faith was strong enough, the Child cannot take them. But if not, they join the Endless Fleet, serving its unspeakably cruel captain for eternity.
And the Endless Fleet has but one mission: to bring ruin to all of Godsbarrow, and to the gods who murdered the Headless Child at the dawn of creation and discarded Its corpse into the sea — or abetted those who did, or stayed silent and did nothing.
The Child’s appetite for vengeance is as black and bottomless as the sea, and as endless as Its fleet.
: This idea grew out of the concept of the Black Fleet, in which Klingons who died honorably sail after death, which I first heard about in an early episode of Star Trek: Discovery. I’ve already got a black ship in Godsbarrow — what about an endless fleet, instead? And one in which no one sails voluntarily? And what’s the creepiest captain I can think of for that sort of fleet?
The rest flowed out of a recent session of Follow I played with my online group. We’re playing rather unpleasant gods trying to regain our former glory, and touching on hells and limbos and other unifying cosmological concepts — an area I’ve largely left unexplored in my Godsbarrow work to date.
While I was on vacation, away from my Godsbarrow map and the text file where 99% of my notes live, I kept my worldbuilding streak going by emailing myself Godsbarrow ideas. Once I’d done two small gods, rounding things out with a third felt right. I haven’t explored small gods much yet, focusing instead on regional ones, so this was a fun change of pace.
The Spynix Mandus
The Spynix Mandus, the largest pirate vessel in Middenglum’s Red Flag Isles, is in fact a small god. The constant storms, caustic seas, and tearing winds of the region keep it weak by deity standards.
It needs only the worship of its crew to survive, and in the unforgiving environment of Middenglum obtaining even that is a struggle. Most of its crews never even know it’s a god, they just respect its size and power as a vessel. Crews it deems unworthy of it don’t last long.
If the Spynix Mandus ever fell into other hands, more organized than the fractious Red Flag pirates, in calmer waters, and attracted more worshippers, this god-ship would become a force like no other on Godsbarrow.
Polnos Yalba is a small god that is also an inn.
Its location is not fixed. Quite the opposite: Polnos appears in a new location, recharges its spiritual batteries by welcoming guests, and then vanishes without warning, beginning the cycle anew.
It can be a charming place, a terrifying one, a staunch ally, a last-ditch redoubt, or a fickle, fey-touched entity. Its size, style, and other elements often change from one appearance to the next. To date, it has never lingered anywhere longer than a year.
The Selezeer Swords
The Selezeer Swords are a family of blades whose lineage spans centuries. The Selezeer family tree looks much like a human family tree, with generations of swords, child-swords, and branches that bear little resemblance to the trunk.
Each Selezeer sword is a small god. They vary in appearance and motivations, but are always sentient weapons of exceptional quality.
Apart from that, they have little in common. Some branches of the Selezeer family tree are indolent blades, preferring to stay tucked away in their scabbards, while others revel in battle-lust and keep a tally of the lives they have claimed. Some make their nature known to their wielders; others stay silent, never revealing who they are.
Aausti sages estimate the number of Selezeer swords at somewhere between 120 and 200 (although of course they have no way to be certain). Despite the claims made in a popular series of ribald Sou folk songs, it is not known how the Selezeer swords reproduce.
Today marks a year since I started working on Godsbarrow. It’s been a consistently fun process, and even when I’ve banked my creative fires I’ve still done something to make forward progress every single day.
You can find links to all of my Godsbarrow work, loosely organized, on the Godsbarrow handbook page.
Here’s my first Godsbarrow map:
Still a work in progress (as I’m re-drawing four regional maps, adding a fifth, and unifying them all at once), but here’s the map covering everything I’ve developed over the past year:
It’s safe to say that without Worlds Without Number [paid link] and Wonderdraft, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near as far as I have this past year — nor had nearly as much fun.
Assuming I don’t forget to do some Godsbarrow work tomorrow, here’s to day 366 of my worldbuilding streak!
Work on my first proper multi-region map for Godsbarrow continues apace. All of the settlements and roads are in place, I’ve tweaked a bunch of coastlines and island shapes and whatnot, and the center third has its mountains, fields, and most of its forests done.
I also dialed the white back by 90% in the Ice Courts, and shrank the area of the Abvärwinter in the west. A few rivers have moved, and Ahlsheyan has more settlements now. And of course Middenglum is being worked on along the way. (The little triangle of forts along the Ahlsheyan-Middenglum border has been fun to write up.)
Once I get all of the symbols redrawn — and finish Middenglum — I’ll go back in and touch up the colors, add a scale, and then step back and see how things look. If it all feels right, the final step will be adding a couple hundred labels to the map.
I’m not sure how to add region names, or if I’ll even be able to include them; I still need to wrestle with that one a bit more.
As of today, martinralya.com has been online for 13 years. (It wasn’t a blog until 2012.) I can’t believe it’s been that long!
2022 will actually bring three anniversaries for this site: the 13th overall; the 10th anniversary for Yore, which launched on August 28, 2012; and the first anniversary for Godsbarrow on March 16th. I guarantee I will forget at least one of them when the day rolls around!