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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-thu”). Sanχu is one of the eight caθna (“KATH-nuh”) into which Brundir is divided (provinces, basically). People from Sanχu are referred to as Sanχuns.

Flesh out its history.

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

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

Decide how it is ruled and identify the ruler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The governor of Sanχu is Prasanai the Ochre, of σuθi Duru (“PRAH-suh-nye,” “DOO-roo”). Prasanai is a Miaran who settled in Sanχu after many years raiding its coasts. She rose to head of σuθi Duru by assassinating her rivals and exerting control over Miaran raiders (“Do what I want, and you’ll be safe from the raiders”).

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

Identify the enemies of the rulers.

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

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

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

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

Make a rough map of the area.

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

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

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

Place ethnic groups and demihumans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After some consideration, I love this one:

  • Values they esteem: courage and valiance in danger

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, I think I’m good!

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

Assign local gods and religious traditions.

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

Big picture

θana (the forest; the versatility of trees) and σethra (good fortune), commonly referred to as the Mast and the Sail (the strong, well-made foundation that enables you to catch the winds of good fortune, taking you away from the ill luck of the Isles).

Local picture

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

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

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

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

The Many Tongues of Skulvezar

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

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

Sanχu is home to a thriving cult of Skulvezar.

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

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

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

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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.)

Categories
Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

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

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

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

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

The Unlucky Isles

Name the region.

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

An aside: names

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

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

Worlds Without Number, p.119

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

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

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

Choose about six major geographical features.

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

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

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

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

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

Create six nations or groups of importance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identify regionally-significant gods.

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

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

Make a sketch map of the region.

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

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

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

The current state of the map

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

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

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

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