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!
Middenglum is the colloquial name for a region which encompasses the lawless, sparsely populated western hinterlands of Ahlsheyan and Myedgrith, which in turn bleed into territory claimed by no nation — Middenglum proper, home to all manner of ne’er-do-wells. Across the Agunune Sea (“AHH-goo-noon”) is an equally sparsely populated section of Kuruni, all but abandoned by the Kurun as it’s so far from Kura’s stomping grounds.
Long ago, the Ahl named this area Mē Dān Gēŋ (“mee dayne geeng”), which means “land of no opportunities” in Ahl. Despite its inviting protected bays, the whole area is so inhospitable and resource-poor than the early Ahl wanted nothing to do with it, and that has largely held true to the present day. Over time, Mē Dān Gēŋ became “Middenglum,” a dreary place full of society’s dregs and cast-offs. Bandits, pirates, fugitives, and scoundrels of all stripes wash up in Middenglum.
It is also, however, a secret “un-nation.” The territory bounded by the mountains on three sides and the sea on the fourth — Middenglum proper — is the birthplace of the null slimes. Null slimes are a species of sentient, psychic oozes, and they most often dwell underground. Most never leave Middenglum proper. But among those who do interact with the wider world are some of the most sinister threats to surface-dwellers in all of Godsbarrow.
Null slimes have no agreed-upon name for their species, and most slimes do not have or use names for themselves. The most prominent deity in null slime culture is the Absence. To worshippers of the Absence, voids of any kind are sacred: the tunnels they leave behind as they burrow beneath the earth, the absence of life caused by murder, the power vacuum created by an assassination, the black caves they hollow out to form subterranean temples.
Null slimes venerate the Absence in different ways. For many, using their bodies’ natural acidic secretions to sculpt holes and voids in rock, or seeking out places where there is no light or sound, are the best way to practice their faith.
But for others, nothing celebrates the Absence like causing voids out in the world. They plot and scheme, manipulating surface-dwellers to collapse governments, start wars, and hollow out people’s faith in their own gods. Middenglum is a perfect base of operations for them: Pirates and cast-offs come and go all the time, and people with little to lose are often more vulnerable to psychic manipulation. A telepathic whisper or two is all it takes to stow a null slime aboard (hiding, for all purposes invisibly, in the bilges) and begin a campaign of bloodshed on the high seas — and beyond.
Choose about six major geographical features.
Agunune Sea (“AHH-goo-noon”), notoriously rough, virtually always windy, and prone to long, frequent, and powerful storms
Jōkjār Mountains (“JOKE-jayre”), which hem in Middenglum proper on three sides
Go Quietly Strait, which connects the Alpan Sea to the north with the Agunune Sea, so named because sailors know it’s best to “go quietly” through the waters around Ghhol lest they draw the bloodthirsty attention of the Ghhola pirates
Slljrrn’s Footsteps, the collective name for the scattering of islands off the coast of Middenglum; legend has it that Slljrrn journeyed to the Unlucky Isles across the water, and wherever he paused on his travels an island sprang up from the sea
Twin Deaths Pass, which is the easiest way through the Jōkjār Mountains from a geographical standpoint, but actually the hardest way — because if the horrors from the range to your right don’t get you, the horrors descending from the left will
Umbreg Forest, a swath of bandit-haunted woodland notable for its sickly trees and poisonous flora and fauna; null slimes have carefully cultivated these woods as a source of deadly toxins, and many of Dormiir’s nastiest poisons originate here
Create six nations or groups of importance.
Middenglum is the heart of this region, and gives the whole area its name. It’s not a nation per se, as it includes portions of Myedgrith and Ahlsheyan — and its original inhabitants, the null slimes, do not use names. Most people, whether inside or outside of Middenglum, don’t know about the null slimes. Middenglum is a place where the dregs of Dormiir wash up, fight amongst themselves, raid neighboring kingdoms, and take to piracy on the high seas. But its true rulers are the null slimes: sentient, psychic oozes who most often dwell underground. Most never leave Middenglum proper. But among those who do interact with the wider world are some of the most sinister threats to surface-dwellers in all of Godsbarrow.
Ghhol (“GUH-holl”) is the largest island off the coast of Middenglum, a wind-lashed place that somehow always smells like vomit and death. Not a nation in any formal sense, it’s the domain of a sprawling extended family of ruthless pirates who bathe in its stinking pools, and whose diet consists of the mutant fish that dwell in the noxious surrounding waters — and the people aboard the ships they scuttle. They worship Ghhole, a titanic eel several miles long who slumbers coiled in the labyrinthine submerged tunnels that honeycomb the island (deep, deep down).
Consuming the polluted seawater in which Ghhole steeps is part of the Ghhola pirates’ religion, and it makes them fearless and bloodthirsty in battle. Anyone can become a Ghhola pirate. Anyone. You just have to be willing to walk the walk, and you’re in. Despicable folks of all species and walks of life wind up here. (Oddly enough, for the very brave and desperate, Ghhol is also an ideal place to hide. Assuming you can stomach living the life of a Ghhola pirate, that is…)
The Red Flag Isles are collectively claimed by the various squabbling clans that all fly the red flag of piracy. In keeping with the rest of Middenglum, this isn’t a nation in any meaningful way. Red Flag pirates prey on shipping through Go Quietly Strait, and often venture south into the Agunune Sea or north into the Unlucky Isles. The only thing they all agree on is avoiding Ghhol.
Binmeque (“binn-MEKK,” no linguistic touchstone) abuts Middenglum proper to the south. The Binme (“binn-MAY”) have learned how to thrive despite their proximity to the dangers on their northern border. The mountains help, but Binme culture is the key: Starting at age four, every Binme is supposed to learn soldiery and a trade, and one’s usefulness to Binmeque is the hallmark of one’s worth. When someone becomes too old or infirm to fight, they learn to perform other military duties: scouting, observation, logistics, cooking, etc. In essence, virtually the entire country of Binmeque is an army, and every soldier is also a farmer, trader, blacksmith, etc. (Like every society in Dormiir, Binmeque isn’t a monoculture; there are Binme who don’t follow the stereotypical “Binme path” in life.)
One avenue to Binmeque’s continued prosperity lies in providing safe passage through Go Quietly Strait to their neighbors to the west and north. Captains heading to or from the Unlucky Isles often hire Binme escort vessels to accompany them, and Binmeque maintains strategic outposts in Middenglum, the Red Flag Isles, and southern Kuruni to facilitate this business. These outposts are incredibly well supplied and defended — which they have to be, because they’re frequently attacked by pirates, monsters, and raiders of all stripes.
The sparsely populated hinterlands of Ahlsheyan, Myedgrith, and Kuruni are also considered part of Middenglum. Including Binmeque, all four nations bordering Middenglum proper have decided that none of them want this territory.
Identify regionally-significant gods.
The most prominent deity in null slime culture is the Absence. To worshippers of the Absence, voids of any kind are sacred: the tunnels they leave behind as they burrow beneath the earth, the absence of life caused by murder, the power vacuum created by an assassination, the black caves they hollow out to form subterranean temples.
The Ghhola pirates worship Ghhol, a titanic eel several miles long who slumbers coiled in the labyrinthine submerged tunnels that honeycomb the island (deep, deep down). Its body pollutes the waters on and around the island of Ghhole, and the tainted water and resulting mutant fish contribute to the depraved bloodthirstiness of the Ghhola pirates.
The pirate clans of the Red Flag Isles hail from all corners of Dormiir, and tend to worship the gods they grew up worshipping (to the extent that they care about gods at all). No god of the sea wants anything to do with the waters in this region, so no one god stands out among the many worshipped here.
The Binme venerate the Fourteen. This pantheon is composed of gender-neutral, human-looking deities whose apparent age ranges from four to a hundred, with none preeminent over the others. Each oversees an aspect of Binme culture, from various martial roles to farming, sailing, and trade. Most Binme feel closest to the members of the Fourteen who represent their chosen trade and military duties, and learning a new trade or martial role later in life brings them closer to new members of the pantheon. Well-made objects and well-grown crops (and so forth) are believed to contain the spark of a member of the Fourteen, so orthodox Binme strive to always produce their best work in the hopes of thereby attracting the divine.
The gods of Myedgrith, Kuruni, and Ahlsheyan are covered in their respective write-ups.
Unlike my recent previous regions, I haven’t mostly finished the next step — the map — at this point, so next up is putting some more elbow grease into cartography.
I never get the roads, rivers, etc. on the “tile” boundaries quite right, but nonetheless I get a thrill out of seeing Godsbarrow start to come together as each region is added to the larger map.
Here’s a (clumsily) stitched-together map showing the first four regions: the Unlucky Isles (where I started, top center), the Gilded Lands (top right, my second region), Kurthunar (top left, third), and the Ice Courts (bottom, number four).
Despite all the details that would need to be tidied up as part of turning this into a finished map (mainly boundaries, but also finalizing scales and adjusting labels to suit the zoomed-out format), this map makes me happy. Godsbarrow feels like My Place in a way it wouldn’t without this map, and if you decide to play a game there I hope it will also feel like Your Place.
This is where I started, around March 2021 (in Worldographer):
I’ll go where my muse and mood take me, but the logical next stop after finishing my regional write-up for the Ice Courts would be to fill in the bottom leftmost map section. Six of my tiles, arranged thusly, is not coincidentally about the same shape as a map from the old Forgotten Realms boxed set.
I adore that set and to this day hold it up as one of, if not the, best examples of a published campaign setting designed for actual play (rather than GM wankery). Capturing some of the feel, the energy, the excitement I got (and still get) from opening that box, unfurling the maps, reading the marvelously concise and flavorful books, and playing in that version of the Realms is a core design goal for Godsbarrow.
After that, I’ve been thinking of another double-width map above the Isles and Gilded Lands, or maybe even a triple that also includes Kuruni.
Visually, that would center the Unlucky Isles as the heart of the developed portion of Godsbarrow (which, from a campaign setting creation standpoint, it is). With three tiles across the top and the ninth in the bottom left filled in, I’d also have mapped out all/most of the Arkestran Dominion, all of Kadavis, and all (probably?) of Ahlsheyan, and I’d have around a dozen countries developed at the regional level.
I like leaving unfinished nations on the map, places that need another tile to complete them. It helps the setting feel real and gives me an easy hook for future mapmaking and development.
Philosophical navel-gazing and hobby streaks
There are lots of things about worldbuilding that are philosophical in nature (like leaving countries half-unmapped). I’ve slowed way down on worldbuilding in the past few months, as I have with painting miniatures (though for somewhat different reasons), but I write at least a sentence, or make progress on a map, every day. And that snail’s pace is still producing more worldbuilding than I’ve done in decades, including much, much more cartography than I’ve ever done before.
I sum this approach up as “Something > nothing” or “Any progress beats no progress.” My interests and hobbies are like little fires, each in its own little hearth. Sometimes one fire is raging, and the others die down. In the past, I’ve let fires die out rather than banking them so that they stay alive; using hobby streaks as a motivational tool is as deliberate departure from that approach. I bank some of the fires, ensuring they don’t go out and that they’re on my radar (man am I mixing metaphors here), and let others go out entirely.
Right now I’m banking my worldbuilding fire, making a little forward progress every day, and tending to other fires that are burning hotter: watching more anime, reading more manga, and playing more Halo Infinite and Jedi: Fallen Order. And that’s okay! When those tail off, another interest or two will flare up.
Today I wrapped up my second region of Godsbarrow, the fantasy campaign setting I started working on earlier this year: the Gilded Lands, situated just to the east of my first region, the Unlucky Isles.
The Gilded Lands are anchored by Kadavis, the largest and wealthiest of the six nations that comprise this region. With its obsession with ostentatious displays of wealth and status, the near-universal cultural practice of wearing elaborate masks, and the magic-rich blight of Nus Palavar, the haunted graveyard of Kadavis’ small gods, decadent Kadavis has a swords and sorcery vibe to it.
The other nations of the Gilded Lands are quite different. Garshán is a land of gnomish traders who prize efficiency in all things. Many Sou gnomes also make their home here (albeit temporarily). In the south, expansionist Lonþyr plunders the Mormú-Hús Mountains and fights with its neighbor, Yrfeđe — once part of the same country. Yrfeđe is a dark place with a bit of a Norse vibe, defined by the predations of the seemingly unstoppable đargnr — the “sleeping shadows,” who emerge from the woods at night to feast.
Kostivolsk, a sinister halfling theocracy, keeps the đargnr on the other side of the border by sacrificing their own people to their oppressive deity, Xlě̀-Ceth. Centuries ago, the church began a ritual that has continued, unbroken, to the present day: Kosti dance or chant without cessation, until they drop dead. That endless sacrifice pays their god to shield Kostivolsk from the đargnr.
And at the center of it all is Mormú, the greatly diminished homeland of the Grshniki gnomes, and the source of much of the region’s wealth — most of which has been plundered by its neighbors. A pale shadow of its former glory, Mormú is divided over whether to give up and be absorbed by another nation, or continue their ceaseless guerilla war against the larger powers that they’ve waged for centuries.
Mapping and developing the Gilded Lands
This time around, I played a little looser with the Worlds Without Number steps — and having already done a whole series of step-by-step blog posts about creating the Unlucky Isles, I didn’t repeat that part of the process.
For the Gilded Lands, I started with the map. At any given stage of the WWN development process, my map was typically a step or two ahead. This was a fun approach, and it felt more organic. Whenever I was in the mood to draw, I worked on the map; when I wanted to write, I wrote.
I still consider the Unlucky Isles to be the default starting location for a Godsbarrow campaign (if there were ever to be a Godsbarrow campaign!), so I won’t be zooming in to detail out a smaller section of the Gilded Lands map just now. (For the Isles, I zoomed in on Sanχu, a province in Brundir.)
Here are the Gilded Lands and the Unlucky Isles together on one map (sorry about the seam!).
I did my best to get my two maps to line up, but from Wonderdraft’s perspective I’m doing this all backwards; I should be creating a continent-level map and then using the software to zoom in on regions. But I prefer this approach, where I’m letting my ideas flow and not hemming anything in about what’s outside my immediate area of focus.
For example, wanting to know more about Kadavis — which is on the eastern edge of the Unlucky Isles map — is what prompted me to work on the Gilded Lands. Feeling like there should be a big east-west “spray” of mountains in the Gilded Lands, and just going for it, is what gave rise to my favorite nation in that region: Mormú, the besieged, greatly diminished, fractious kingdom of the Grshniki gnomes, beset on all sides by hostile powers.
I’ve got a full region worth of write-ups to proofread and turn into blog posts — and while I work on that, I also need to get rolling on a third region! As with the Isles, the Gilded Lands feature multiple countries that extend off the regional map. These serve as anchors for adjacent maps, like Kadavis did for this one, and “seed the ground” for future development.
I don’t know where I’m headed next. After writing about the Gilded Lands a little bit every day for the past 10 weeks or so, my instinct is to shift my focus elsewhere — maybe explore Ahlsheyan and points south, or go north and figure out what’s going on around (and on) the Lachyan Sea.
Last Wednesday, my Seattle group started up a new D&D campaign set in a friend’s homebrew world. She unveiled the map for her setting, and it was amazing — pro-level cartography, tantalizing and inviting and clear, both functional and beautiful. She mentioned in passing that she’d created it in Wonderdraft, a mapping tool I’d never heard of before, so after the game I asked her how hard it was to create a map that awesome using Wonderdraft.
Not that hard, she said.
Now, to me that sounded like Michael Jordan casually sinking shots from mid-court, one after another, without even looking, while saying “It’s not that hard.” But she gave me some benchmarks for why it wasn’t that hard, how it involved a lot of painting (a plus for me), and how much simpler it was than learning Photoshop. That last one was key, because I’ve dabbled with Campaign Cartographer and it 1) felt a lot like trying to learn Photoshop, which I found to have a cliff-shaped learning “curve,” and 2) made me want to give up my worldly possessions and go live in the woods as a hermit.
So I took the plunge, watched a couple YouTube tutorials (D&D Breakfast Club’s tutorial 1 of 4 and Icarus Games’ video on transferring maps to Wonderdraft), and within 15 minutes I’d determined that 90% of what I wanted in a professional Unlucky Isles map was something I could do in Wonderdraft — and, like my friend said, it wouldn’t be that hard.
TL;DR: The new map of the Unlucky Isles
This map took me about 20 hours to make (including time spent finding assets and learning how to use Wonderdraft):
And here’s its predecessor:
I was worried I’d have to create every map twice so that I could take advantage of Worldographer’s numbered hexes, a feature not found in Wonderdraft. But Wonderdraft has a robust user community, and that community has created a tool to give you numbered hexes. I also realized that while I always build my maps with old-school hexcrawling in mind, 99% of my fantasy RPG play has not been old-school hexcrawls.
In fact, 99% of that play has been in games that would benefit more from a Wonderdraft-style map than an old-school hex map. I’ve also found that I’m not taking advantage of one of Worldographer’s killer apps, which is the ability to map the same setting at the world, continent, and more local levels (with automagical terrain generation and child maps). And when I can drop a hex grid on my Wonderdraft map, run an addon to number those hexes, and have the best of both worlds (no pun intended), that really seals the deal.
Whoa, that’s too many cities! And too many people
Redoing this map — and expanding it — in Wonderdraft prompted me to name a lot more stuff. While browsing r/Wonderdraft I came across a comment on a user’s lovely map about there being too many settlements (not a universal truth, but a salient point for an RPG setting), and that plus my own mapmaking made me realize that I had too many cities in the Isles. I’ve wondered whether the Isles were too populous ever since I started ballparking the numbers, but this threw it into sharp relief.
So, a reckoning. I wiped out all the labels I’d created on my first big “map day” (after jotting down all the names for future use), rolled up my sleeves, and tucked into some revisions.
I’m leaning on two sources here, and moving WWN itself to the background (because those numbers skewed high): Medieval Demographics Made Easy (MDME), which the ever-brilliant S. John Ross has graciously made freely available with a very permissive license (and, as such, is now hosted here on Yore); and a Medium post by Lyman Stone looking at the same topic through the lens of Game of Thrones. They’re in broad agreement, which is good enough for me.
Let’s start with approximate hex counts, not worrying yet about what might count as wilderness (except in the lone very obvious case):
Arkestran Dominion: 215 hexes not counting the Wastes
Yealmark: 41 hexes
Brundir: 420 hexes
Rasu Miar: 165 hexes
Mainland Kadavis: 133 hexes of Kadavis proper on this map
Meskmur: 115 hexes
Ahlsheyan: 225 hexes on this map
I’m mapping in 6-mile hexes, which contain roughly 9 square miles. Ross and Lyman agree that a medieval (~1,000-1,500, more or less) population density of 100 people per square mile was an outlier reserved for only the most populous, arable nations. At 900/hex that’s 1,100 people/hex fewer than WWN posits — and most countries in the Isles will be well below 100/square mile.
Ross notes that 14th century England had about 40 people/sq. mi.
Lyman notes that if you average the figure from 1,000 to 1,500 CE, Scotland had about 4-8 people/sq. mi. (and, disagreeing with MDME, England comes out to 11-30 people/sq. mi.)
Whichever stat you use, the country I tend to treat as my benchmark for medieval population figures — England — has a lot fewer people/sq. mi. than my original estimates for the Isles. There’s also the whole fuzzy consideration that while the average medieval European country was just rotten with hamlets and thorps and whatnot, so dense with settlements that you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting the next one over, worlds designed for D&D-style adventuring need blank spaces.
Just to get the ball rolling, let’s say Brundir has 40 people/sq. mi. (420 hexes, not counting any as wilderness). That’s 151,200 people. WWN and MDME would both put about 5,000 people in Brundir’s largest city; WWN postulates about 15,000 in cities nationwide. The next largest would be 2,500. Both of those are pretty small cities — in fact, MDME doesn’t even consider a settlement a city if it has fewer than 8,000 people in it.
So how about Brundir with a population density of 75 people/sq. mi.? That gives Brundir the following stats:
28,000 in cities
9,300 in the largest city
3,780 sq. mi. of territory (420 hexes)
1,575 sq. mi. of which is farmland (175 hexes, using MDME’s formula of 1 square mile of farmland supporting 180 people)
That feels more right to me than my initial WWN-driven population estimates. I don’t need to delve any deeper for the time being, but when I do this is the route I’ll be following.
Two things that have really been making Wonderdraft sing for me are Mythkeeper, a free tool which automates adding new assets (symbols, etc.) to Wonderdraft, and the Cartography Assets site, which is chock full of free and paid Wonderdraft asset packs. I fell in love with symbols pulled from old maps, so all of the forests, mountains, etc. on my Unlucky Isles map are drawn from historical examples.
For the sake of my sanity — and so that, if you like, you can create maps in this style — I’m recording some of the Wonderdraft choices and options I’ve used to create this map. Some things, like the map textures, are visible on a finished map when you load it in Wonderdraft — but many are not. Which of the seven sets of mountain assets did I use? What brush opacity did I color them with? That’s what this list is for.
In general, I’m always using brush #3 (the blotchy spray), and varying scales but usually 50% or below. All the names (Vischer, etc.) refer to assets or asset packs on Cartography Assets.
Mountains: Vischer or Widman mountains, #976035, brush opacity 1.0
Snowcapped peaks: Just paint the tips #FFFFFF, brush opacity 0.5
Volcanoes: Van Der Aa mountains, AoA Volcanoes Pencil smoke, #976035, brush opacity 1.0
Snowbound mountains (as in the Ice Courts): Paint the tips #FFFFFF, brush opacity 1.0, then add light squirts of #976035, brush opacity 0.25, just to break things up visually
Barren hills: Ogilby hills, #C8AD93, brush opacity 0.5
Verdant hills: Vischer regular hills (which are grassy/overgrown), so far only painted as forests
Forests: Vischer or Van Der Aa assets, with individual Vischer trees mixed in, #74A035, brush opacity 0.5; usually I add a few squirts of #2E6020, brush opacity 0.5, for variety
Deep Forests: #2E6020, brush opacity 0.5
Dead trees: Mix of default dead trees and Zalkenai’s dead trees, black, varying scales, #828864, brush opacity 0.5
Marshes: Vischer wetlands assets, with a few Widmer individual trees mixed in for variety, #37835E
Aausti marshes: As above, but instead of individual trees mix in Ogilby scrubs
Scrubland: Mix of Ogilby and Vischer scrub, #BAB26D, brush opacity 0.5
Farmland: Vischer furrowed fields, #BAB26D with a couple blasts of #74A035 for good measure
Broken lands: Popple hills, so far only used in the Atrachian Wastes so they were painted as dead trees
Devastation of The God That Eats: As broken lands, but without the hills and with Ogilby heaths
Vineyards: Vischer vineyards, a few squirts of #735B79, brush opacity 0.25
Snow-covered terrain: #FFFFFF, brush opacity 0.1, applied in single-click “squirts” with the widest brush possible for the terrain, aiming for a light, blotchy whiteness
Ruins/mysterious towers: Vischer ruins and monuments mixed with Van Der Aa towers, with Popple scrubs thrown in until it looks right; #828864, brush opacity 0.25, with a few squirts of brush #1 around it for blending
Weird obelisks: Vischer ruins and monuments; colored #828864, brush opacity 0.5 (So far, only used for the Thefaine in Aaust.)
Settlements: Custom Colors assets (included by default), #00000
Cities: Circle with dot in the center, 50% scale
Capital cities: Circle with star in the center, 50% scale
Raise/Lower Landmass Tool for coastlines: Roughness 2
Labels: Gentium Book Basic Bold (included), outline #000000 thickness 1 (except for bodies of water)
Nations: #B93841, font size 48, curvature 0.15, always horizontal
Cities, capital cities, towns: #B9B4B4, font size 20, no curvature, always horizontal
Castles, forts: As cities, but font size 14
Ruins: As castles, but curvature -0.2 instead of horizontal
Large bodies of water: #7EABA1, font size 36, outline 770C232C, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
Small bodies of water: As large, but font size 14 or 24
Rivers: #B9B4B4, font size 10, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
Major geographic features: #B9B4B4, font size 24, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
Minor geographic features: #B9B4B4, font size 14, curvature varies but always curved, orientation varies
I also like to mix in squirts of brush #1 (spray paint), 0.5 opacity, to blend the transitions between painted areas (primarily the default “not arable” beige and “arable” greenish-brown).
Non-English letters in labels
I’ve found that it can be handy (on PC) to have the Character Map app open for easy cutting and pasting into Wonderdraft labels. Every character won’t paste, presumably because my Wonderdraft font choice doesn’t include it — but enough do for me to get the job done.
And on the language front, Lexicity is another awesome resource for dead languages. It’s not as straightforward as Palaeolexicon, since it curates links rather than simply presenting dictionaries — but it has a lot of resources to offer.
Wonderdraft isn’t as simple as Worldographer. For the purposes of creating a setting using Worlds Without Number (paid link), it is 100% Too Much Gun. When I’m working on a setting, creating a polished, beautiful map is a step that becomes a vast gulf between me and producing actual gameable content, and it leads to abandoned projects. It’s the antithesis of WWN’s highly successful “never give up your momentum, never stall out trying for perfection” philosophy.
But at this stage, with a full cycle of WWN’s region creation and kingdom creation under my belt (as in, I could run a game set in the Isles tonight), and as I’ve already moved on to a second region of Godsbarrow, making a pretty map of the Isles isn’t a roadblock of any kind. I don’t need it, and it’s not holding anything up; my Worldographer map is perfectly functional for play.
There is, however, no substitute for sitting down to play and having a gorgeous map in front of you — one that raises questions, makes you want to explore, and makes the setting feel real. If you’ve ever opened up an AD&D Forgotten Realms product and unfolded one of those glorious maps, you know that feeling. I want that for Godsbarrow, and I hope my map succeeds at that goal.
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.
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?
Located in eastern Brundir, Sanχu is anchored by Cape Reckless (hex 3020 on the Unlucky Isles map), the city situated at the river delta along the eastern coast of Brundir’s central bay.
Why start there? It’s in the middle of the Unlucky Isles map, but it’s not centered on Brundir’s capital city (and, presumably, its most populous region). It’s close to Yealmark, with the Dominion just to the north — and the divided isle even closer. A day or two’s ride to the east, you’ve got Rasu Miar and its raiders; Deathsmoke Isle and Meskmur are also accessible from that eastern river delta (by boat, of course). There’s a vast, haunted forest — the Ockwood — just to the south, and presumably plenty of sparsely-populated areas nearby. It also features a tempting blank space in its southeastern “quadrant.”
Pick a linguistic touchstone and give your kingdom or area a name.
Brundir’s linguistic touchstone is Etruscan, which applies to the entire nation. (I use Palaeolexicon for my dead languages.) I like the idea of this area having its own name or nickname, so it’s called Sanχu (“SANK-hu”). Sanχu is one of the eight caθna (“KAHTH-nuh”) into which Brundir is divided (provinces, basically). People from Sanχu are referred to as Sanχuns.
Total Collapse (rolled): A century ago, a ship set out from Cape Reckless on an expedition to recover relics — blood, bones, flesh — from the god Slljrrn’s corpse. When it sailed back into port, no one was aboard. Its sails were black, its weathered planks were tarred red, and the tolling of a great sonorous bell could be heard from within. A curse spread from this ship to the city, and from there to the rest of Sanχu.
It afflicted most of the population, and those cursed were fated to have the worst possible luck. If something they did could go wrong, it went as wrong as it possibly could. The entire caθna dissolved into chaos within weeks.
Many tried to destroy the ship, but no one could get near it. Eventually, cursed relics were brought in from Brundir’s capital and unsealed in Cape Reckless; the dark entities within swarmed the ship and dragged it beneath the waves.
Xenophilia (rolled): Past efforts to reduced the number of Miaran raids on Sanχu’s eastern coast gradually grew into a relationship between Sanχu and the blighted isle. Sanχu has absorbed many refugees, expats, and former raiders from Rasu Miar, and with them has come an appreciation for Kadavan culture among the native Brundiri. Sanχu has welcomed dozens of Kadavis’ small gods, picked up Kadavan customs, and bolstered its naval crews with Miaran ex-pirates.
Noble Strife (rolled): Some time ago, Sanχu spent 10 years being ruled by a dead person — and not undead, but actually dead-dead. The caθna is generally known for its loose relationship with the laws of the land, and a minor σuθi (“SOO-thee,” essentially a noble house) saw an opportunity to carve a blood-red path to power. They succeeded, but the σuθi’s inner circle feared her new clout and decided to assassinate her just as she assumed power.
They covered the whole thing up, and for the next decade no one saw the ruler of Sanχu. Eventually, that same inner circle collapsed into chaos and blood, and things returned to normal — save for some peculiar local customs now in place to ensure that Sanχu’s leader is verifiably alive.
Decide how it is ruled and identify the ruler.
“Give names and a sentence or two of definition to the rulers in the area, with the tables starting on page 132 providing some help.”
Here’s what I already know: Brundir as a whole is ruled by the Red Admiralty, composed of nobles, schemers, folks elevated on merit, etc. There are nobles, and Sanχu has noble houses (the σuθi). It stands to reason that a mix of lineage, scheming, and merit goes into the government here, too. And given Brundir’s naval focus and the fact that the government is an admiralty, that’d be a fun throughline to echo here.
That means I don’t need some of the tables in WWN. There’s one ruler, with a patchwork of local-level nobles under them. The ruling class is mixed: hereditary, political, etc.; it also changes, via coup or whatever.
Sources of Legitimacy could be a fun one, though. I rolled an 8, “They brought greater prosperity to the land.” That fits with Brundir’s role in the Isles, and tells me something interesting about Sanχu.
“How do they exert their will?” A 10, “Hireling enforcers employed at need.” Neat! That’s not where I’d have gone on my own. Following the sandbox principle of playing with the toys you already have, let’s make that mainly a mix of Nuav Free Spears and ex-raiders from Rasu Miar.
Forms of rulership I already know, and I guess it’s closest to “Seniormost representative of the ruling class.”
Diseases of Rule also sounds fun to roll. I got a 1, “The ruler’s trying to crush a too-powerful lord.” For the One-Roll Government Details charts, I rolled:
Ruler: outsider with few existing allies
Ministers’ problems: out of touch or lazy in their work
Strength of government: firm economic control over the land
Stability of government: relatively stable, with strong legitimacy
Officials recently causing problems: corrupt village headmen acting as tyrants
Recent government event: major faith was offended by the rulers
Okay, so let’s sum that up into a sketch of the current ruler of Sanχu and the nature of its government.
The governor of Sanχu is Prasanai the Ochre, of Σuθi Duru (“PRAH-suh-nye,” “DOO-roo”). (The Brundiri word for “noble house” is σuθi; its first letter, sigma, is Σ when capitalized and σ when it’s lowercase.) Prasanai is a Miaran who settled in Sanχu after many years raiding its coasts. She rose to head of σuθi Duru by assassinating her rivals and exerting control over Miaran raiders (“Do what I want, and you’ll be safe from the raiders”).
No one likes Prasanai, but no one disputes her right to rule — and economically, Sanχu is doing well under her governance. Her puppet officials through the region are causing problems, though, and Prasanai herself has run afoul of the Brundiri religion by over-harvesting the trees of the Ockwood (for masts, of course) and not paying proper obeisance to θana in the process.
Identify the enemies of the rulers.
Three σuθi were harmed or slighted most by Prasanai’s rise to power and the dominance of σuθi Duru: Karkana, Faladum, and Veśi (“kahr-KAH-nuh,” “fahl-ah-DOOM,” “VEH-shee”). The lord of σuθi Karkana, Velenθalas (“WEL-enn-thahl-ahs,” the “too-powerful lord” from an earlier roll, who is non-binary) has convinced the other two to ally with them in a bid to topple σuθi Duru. They’ve seized on Prasanai’s limited understanding of Brundiri religion as one path, mobilizing the faithful; their other path is paying Miaran raiders unaligned with σuθi Duru to stir up trouble.
Choose one or more problems or goals it’s facing.
Combining some earlier results and choices: Miaran raiders not loyal to Prasanai are being bribed by the mayors of many coastal towns to attack their neighbors and rivals, harass traders so that they choose their towns instead, etc.
Velenθalas, lord of σuθi Karkana, is encouraging, enabling, and leveraging this practice — and it’s on the verge of becoming a larger problem. Enough disruptions will prompt retaliations, weaken σuθi Duru’s rule, and could even lead to towns mustering their militias and attacking one another directly. Unchecked, that could in turn lead to wider chaos — and even start a civil war, as native Brundiri turn on Brundiri of Miaran descent.
Make a rough map of the area.
For my purposes, at the moment, I don’t need this. I already have the major features of Sanχu mapped out at the 6-mile-hex level, including its relationship with neighboring regions of Brundir.
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.)
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
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.
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).
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?
“Common” is a bit boring, but boy is it useful in actual play. I’ve already established that each of the nations in the Isles has its own language, but I’d like a common language as well. I also haven’t mentioned halflings or gnomes at all in the Unlucky Isles — so what if Dormiir’s “common tongue” is gnomish or halfling Tradespeak?
Shit, gnomish sailors sound awesome, and with water playing such a big role in the Isles, and waterways extending away from it in every direction, a lingua franca based on trade and shipping makes a lot of sense.
So, gnomes! I love gnomes. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise to longtime Yore readers.) And the detour I took while creating Sanχu — which might well have not come up at all without WWN’s steps, or without having just finished the excellent Netflix series Shadow & Bone — is one of my favorite things I’ve created in Godsbarrow to date.
Tamosi, and Sou and Sirali words in general, are based on Carian. Carian is a dead language which originated in Caria, in Asia Minor. As with the other linguistic touchstones I’m using for Dormiir, I learned about it on, and am harvesting words in Carian from, the excellent Palaeolexicon.
The gnomes of Siral (“SIHR-ahl”) lived in constant fear of their spiteful, vengeful principal deity, Omob (“Oh-mob”), for whom no amount of obeisance and tribute was ever enough. Some fled, settling in other places throughout Dormiir, but most Sirali believed that if they abandoned — or worse, attempted to kill — Omob, it would destroy the entire world. So they stayed, and they suffered.
Long ago, in a fit of rage at the Sirali, Omob tore an 8,000-meter (Everest-height) mountain from the earth, flipped it over, and smashed it into the center of Siral. The mountain struck like a meteorite and cracked, shedding million-ton rock faces and devastating the region. Uncannily, much of the mountain remained bound together by Omob’s seething magic — so there’s literally a jagged, upside-down mountain dominating the landscape of Siral. It’s a few hundred meters across at its current base (the ground) and half a mile wide towards the top, which is two miles high, and is now called Ntokris (“un-TOKK-riss”, which means “the shattering of our home and our people” in Tamosi).
As a people, most gnomes reached the same conclusion on that dark day: Fuck Omob, fuck having a home that evil prick can destroy, and fuck gods in general. Not all gnomes, of course (species does not equate to monoculture in Dormiir); many stayed in their devastated homeland, fearing a greater cataclysm if they abandoned Omob.
But most of them left, scattering to the four winds in boats and ships, and over generations they established the borderless, landless, boundless “nation” of Souan (“SOO-ahn,” which means “our home is on the water and under the sky” in Tamosi).
The borderless nation and Dormiir’s common tongue
Sou gnomes have plied the seas and rivers of Godsbarrow for ages, connecting faraway countries through trade for many generations — and so their language, Tamosi (“tamm-OH-see”), has become the common tongue of Dormiir, often informally called Tradespeak. While most nations have their own languages, Tamosi is widely spoken throughout the world (and especially in ports and major cities).
As a trade tongue, one reason Tamosi works so well is that it excels at expressing complex concepts with a single, short word — like “Ntokris,” which says “the shattering of our home and our people” in a single seven-letter word of just three syllables.
Sometimes the Sou come together in great moots, anchoring or lashing together their boats and ships and forming temporary floating towns and cities to trade, swap stories, marry, celebrate their freedom from Omob, and mourn their kindred who stayed in benighted Siral.
Sou gnomes are a common sight throughout Dormiir, and they’re welcome almost everywhere. Collectively, they’ve traveled the world more extensively than just about any other group; from shallow water to the high seas, the Sou are everywhere.
I’m closing in on a fully developed region of Godsbarrow now — and honestly, this is the first time in 30+ years of gaming that I’ve had this much of a world developed to this extent. It’s an awesome feeling, and Worlds Without Number (paid link) continues to deliver. Not only that, but five weeks into daily worldbuilding I’m still having fun, I still love this setting and want to know more about it, and I’m still not getting bogged down in details that will never matter at the table.
This was the longest step so far. It doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to be a lengthy step, but at the same time I’ve got six nations so that means 30 relationships and 30 wants. That takes time! I also found myself falling into Star Wars prequel territory, as in “Who gives a fuck about a trade dispute?” — so I kept stepping back and trying to come up with new wants/relationships that avoided the trap of being boring and/or same-y.
One way I did that was by writing just one or two things a day, rather than banging out a bunch of them at once. Another was to jot down every nation’s wants after I was done, and check that quick list against the original summary of each nation to make sure I was using this step to bring out the flavor and character of each country.
I also found that every relationship and want was a potential wellspring of fun worldbuilding, which I enjoyed a great deal. Lots of new setting details sprang from this step. I also made sure that every want was either an adventure/campaign hook or a source of multiple hooks, because this process is all about creating useful, gameable content.
Define the relationships between the groups.
There are two components to this step: What each nation thinks, generally, about each other nation; and a specific thing each one wants from each of the others. My quick and dirty map with borders will help visualize what’s what in the Isles:
As with a couple of the other steps in WWN, this one doesn’t match the example region in the book. There are lovely write-ups for each Latter Earth nation in the region, but they don’t have national relationships or wants listed for them. Consequently, I might be doing this wrong! Or at least not approaching it from an optimal perspective, maybe?
For example, my default is “What does the government think of this nation?” rather than, say, “What does the average Brundiri think of Ahlsheyan?” I don’t know if this is the right approach, but it was a fun process and my output feels pretty gameable.
Yealmark: A dangerous wildcard. The Dominion hasn’t encountered a “mercenary nation” before, but has seen what the Free Spears can do when mobilized.
Want: To install an “advisor” in the court of Yealmark who, through bribery and other means, can entice the Free Spears north to work for the Dominion. If that fails, the wraith-priests will consider a Wraithsea assault to wipe out the Free Spears’ leadership.
Brundir: A foe that currently requires too much work to eliminate. Brundir is on the Dominion’s list to be crushed, but not at the top; their concerns are to the north (and not in the Isles).
Want: To use the Wraithsea to enter the god Nsslk’s dreams and assassinate him, thereby “poisoning” the waters around Brundir with his essence — and perhaps even compounding Slljrrn’s curse on the Isles. A devastated Brundir would be much easier to assimilate into the Dominion.
Kadavis: A juicy target. Kadavis has over 200 gods and a is a wealthy nation — a ripe prize for a country that owes much of its power to its sleeping pantheon and mastery of the Wraithsea, and which is always seeking to expand its domain.
Want: The Dominion’s wraith-priests want to locate one of Kadavis’ “small gods” and put them into god-sleep, giving the elves a local nexus for their machinations in the Wraithsea. If they succeed, they’ll do the same with every Kadavan god they can find.
Meskmur: The key to keeping the peace in the Isles. If Meskmur were to fall, or disclaim its neutrality, it would destabilize the region — making it easier for the Dominion to swoop in while the island nations fight amongst themselves.
Want: To destroy Meskmur through a campaign of infiltration, Wraithsea manipulation and assassinations, and other nefarious means. A large, well-financed Kasdinar (“KASS-dinn-arr,” a formal — but usually temporary — cadre of wraith-priests and their agents dedicated to a specific purpose; think Oaths of Moment in pre-Heresy Warhammer 40k) was formed to accomplish this goal.
Ahlsheyan: Third in line to be conquered, after Brundir and Meskmur. For now, the Dominion has a neutral relationship with Ahlsheyan, with some trade flowing in both directions.
Want: With its unchanging pantheon of three active (not sleeping) gods, Ahlsheyan is difficult to access via the Wraithsea. The wraith-priests want to “exhume” one of the Dominion’s slumbering lesser gods and transport them — still asleep — to a secret site within Ahlsheyan. Step one is for Dominion agents to identify that site, and a Kasdinar is currently undertaking this mission.
Arkestran Dominion: A target for expanding Yealmark to the mainland. The Free Spears are nothing if not audacious, and with Brundir having their back and the Dominion largely ignoring its own hinterlands, the southern reaches look ripe for takeover.
Want: To annex the Arkestran city in the marshes just north of Yealmark, along with all of the surrounding land visible on the Unlucky Isles region map up to the border of the Wastes. Yealmark correctly views the Wastes as a barrier to the Dominion reacting quickly enough to stop them (holding this territory, however, is a different story).
Brundir: A staunch ally and former patron. The Nuav Free Spears have become a more potent force since they established a home base, including shipping, trade, training grounds, etc., in Yealmark, and that’s thanks to Brundir.
Want: To add another piece of Brundir to Yealmark. The Free Spears have their eye on the disputed island between Brundir and the Dominion. Having it deeded to them would take the problem of defending/contesting it off Brundir’s plate, while also giving Yealmark a larger foothold in the Isles — and more room to invite other Nuav mercenary companies to join them here.
Kadavis: Potential customers, especially Kidav Taur. The Free Spears have been exploring the possibility of helping Kidav Taur achieve its independence — but the catch is that the Miarans can’t afford them.
Want: Rumor has it that Bruzas, the Free Spears’ primary deity from back in Nuav, once traveled to Rasu Miar and drenched the entire island in sacred blood. Where the blood pooled, strange things grew. The Spears want to find these holy sites — and if they do, they may lay claim to Rasu Miar on that basis.
Meskmur: A mysterious place whose neutrality means it isn’t likely to buy the Free Spears’ service, and therefore not of particular interest.
Want: Yealmark wants to know more about Deathsmoke Isle and the Red Twins who are said to live in its volcanoes. Their religion teaches that fire and heat are the stuff of life, but Deathsmoke appears to bring only death to Rasu Miar. The first Free Spears scouts sent to the island disappeared without a trace.
Ahlsheyan: A wealthy potential customer. Right now, Brundir pays better — and being granted Yealmark has won the Free Spears’ long-term allegiance. But like any mercenary company, their allegiance can be bought…and Ahlsheyan has deep pockets.
Want: The Free Spears have established a handful of secret outposts in the foothills of the mountain range that crosses northern Ahlsheyan. They intend to gradually build up their strength there and then offer both Brundir and Ahlsheyan the opportunity to employ the Spears in a surprise attack; the low bidder gets attacked.
Arkestran Dominion: A sleeping giant, best ignored if at all possible — but if they turn their attention south again, they will need to be met with force. The Red Admiralty has spies (mainly elves) in the Dominion’s southern reaches, hard at work helping to foment the rebellion that simmers there so fighting it will keep the Dominion busy.
Want: To goad the southern reaches into open revolt against the rest of the Dominion.
Yealmark: A staunch and incredibly useful ally. The Red Admiralty sees only benefits in maintaining strong ties with Yealmark, and is careful to never imply that Yealmark is a “client state” — although elements of the Admiralty view it as one.
Want: To ensure control over the Free Spears, the Red Admiralty wants to bury a set of haunted relics throughout the capital city. Brundiri Afuna Kavθa (“uh-FOO-nuh KAW-thuh,” wizards who are part ghost-talker and part spirit-wrangler, and almost always haunted themselves) would be able to use those relics to bedevil, beguile, haunt, or assassinate Yeal officials as needed.
Kadavis: A potential catspaw, but also a valuable trading partner. Mainland Kadavis cares little for Rasu Miar, and the island itself is split between loyalists and secessionists. Manipulating Rasu Miar can help Brundir maintain its status as the principal power in the Isles.
Want: Brundir’s Red Admiralty wants to goad Rasu Miar (and especially Kidav Taur) into attacking Meskmur — a rival power broker and the controller of volcanic smoke that could easily be redirected to Brundir.
Meskmur: A twofold threat, but also useful one. One, Meskmur conserves its considerable power by remaining outwardly neutral in the Isles (never officially confirming that it is slowly destroying Rasu Miar via Deathsmoke Isle), and Brundir would like to cement its own role as a power broker. And two, if Meskmur decides the Deathsmoke plume should veer west instead, it would threaten the very existence of Brundir.
Want: The Admiralty wants to assassinate Meskmur’s deities, the Red Twins of Deathsmoke Isle, thereby permanently removing the threat posed by the twin volcanoes — and much of Meskmur’s hidden power in the Isles.
Ahlsheyan: With its expertise in shipbuilding, powerful navy, and foothold on Brundir’s doorstep, Ahlsheyan poses a threat to Brundir’s dominance of the Isles. But since Brundir took the significant half of Slljrrn Isle, the Admiralty has strived to keep the two kingdoms in a state of uneasy peace — one that still allows trade, and which avoids open war.
Want: To convince Ahlsheyan’s seaport on Slljrrn Isle to declare its independence and join Brundir, either outright or as a client state. The city is relatively distant from Ahlsheyan’s political center, and Brundir already controls half of the island where it is located. With the Red Admiralty in charge, this is a campaign of sabotage, diplomacy, assassination, infiltration, and skullduggery.
Arkestran Dominion: Rasu Miar doesn’t much care about the Dominion (and vice versa), but mainland Kadavis views it primarily as a trading partner with whom they’d like to do a lot more business.
Want: To figure out how Slljrrn’s essence created, and is expanding, the Atrachian Wastes — and then weaponize that same process against Meskmur, ravaging the entire island.
Yealmark: For mainland Kadavis, the future governors of Rasu Miar. Kadavis has seen the best way to buy the allegiance of the Free Spears, and they want in — but without actually giving up any territory (and the associated glory). For Rasu Miar, a juicy target for raiding and infiltration. Yealmark is such a chaotic “party island” that opportunities for both abound.
Want: To convince the Nuav Free Spears to take over governance of Rasu Miar, which would remain a territory of Kadavis. Kadavis views this as all upside for itself, and all work for Yealmark.
Brundir: An aggressive, militaristic nation with too few gods, but also pretty good at keeping peace in the Isles. The Miarans also view Brundir as the provider of the juiciest, but most dangerous, targets for piracy.
Want: An assassin bearing a Brundiri tattoo was recently caught in the Kadavan capital, but before she could be captured the woman dropped dead and a ghost flew out of her corpse and then vanished. For Kadavis, this was like capturing a stealth bomber: Brundir can do what?! Who was the target? Are there more of them? How can we spot them sooner? How do we capture one alive?
Meskmur: A hated foe for Rasu Miar; largely ignored by mainland Kadavis. For Miarans, Meskmur is what turned their inhospitable home into one that’s almost uninhabitable. No power in the Isles hates another as much as Rasu Miar hates Meskmur — and that goes double for Kidav Taur.
Want: Kadavis, both mainland and Rasu Miar, wants to stop Meskmur from directing the smoke plume from Deathsmoke Isle towards Rasu Miar. The mainland doesn’t care nearly as much (it’s only Rasu Miar…), but many Miarans would happily raze Meskmur to the ground if it was within their power.
Ahlsheyan: A trading partner, generally neutral. Kadavis buys ships and ship parts (Ahl masts are in especially high demand) from Ahlsheyan, and exports fine marble and one of its most notable delicacies, tightly sealed jars of a spicy jelly that smells like rotten fish. Rasu Miar raids Ahl ports specifically to steal those same ship parts.
Want: Kidav Taur wants Ahlsheyan to be the first nation to officially recognize it as a country in its own right. Representatives of the rebel government have been quietly meeting with higher-ups in Ahlsheyan, angling for an official diplomatic meeting on Meskmur.
Arkestran Dominion: A fascinating but dangerous nation. Meskmur actively seeks to stay off the Dominion’s radar…while trying to learn its secrets.
Want: To extract the secrets of the Dominion’s expertise in navigating and using the Wraithsea. Meskmur’s wizards are already powerful; this would make them much, much more dangerous.
Yealmark: An undisciplined but powerful upstart nation. They’ve never shown any enmity towards Meskmur, but presumably they would for the right price.
Want: To establish a combination temple to the Red Twins and embassy in Yealmark’s capital, letting them keep an eye on things while encouraging the Yeal to seek diplomatic solutions over mercenary ones.
Brundir: A nest of wealthy vipers. If provoked, Brundir could squash Meskmur like a bug, or simply blockade the island and starve the kingdom to death. But Brundir backs Meskmur’s role as a neutral power, both politically and financially, making it a valuable ally of sorts.
Want: To build a temple to the Red Twins in Brundir’s capital city, the first step in spreading the state religion of Meskmur to Brundir. The sorcerer-priests know that more worshippers will strengthen the Red Twins, and since Meskmur “controls” them that will in turn strengthen Meskmur.
Kadavis: A valuable ally. Kadavis makes frequent use of Meskmur’s services as a neutral meeting ground, both for Isles politics and for meetings with dignitaries and negotiators from places outside the region. Further, Kadavis is a valued trading partner.
Want: Meskmur wants to take over Rasu Miar. Old enmities may have been the reason why Meskmur began slowly killing the island with volcanic smoke and ash, but that evolved into a slow-motion power play. If they succeed, then the plume from Deathsmoke Isle will blow in a new direction…
Ahlsheyan: An ally and useful foil in keeping Brundir busy. Ahlsheyan’s triumvirate values Meskmur as a neutral meeting ground; Meskmur subtly encourages Ahlsheyan to heat up its conflict with Brundir.
Want: To use magic to plant false evidence of a Brundiri plot to assassinate the Ahl triumvirate, keeping their current cold war at just the right temperature.
Arkestran Dominion: A long-term threat. Not because it’s an elven nation (the trite cliché of elf-dwarf animosity doesn’t exist in Godsbarrow), but because the Dominion is manifestly expansionist and ruthless in pursuing its goals.
Want: To incite the Dominion to attack Brundir again, starting with the divided island occupied by both nations. That would give the Ahl a chance to attack from the south, facing less of Brundir’s military might.
Yealmark: As Ahlsheyan is currently “under the waves” (focused on opportunity), Yealmark is seen as a potential ally — and not blamed for turning the tide in the battle for Slljrrn Isle; that blame is laid squarely on Brundir. But what can Ahlsheyan offer Yealmark that could convince the Nuav Free Spears to turn on Brundir?
Want: To poison the alliance between Yealmark and Brundir, enabling Ahlsheyan to move against Brundir without having to worry about the Free Spears joining the conflict.
Brundir: A hated foe, but a complicated one. Ahlsheyan doesn’t want to dominate the Isles through conquest, but they do want ownership of all of the islands south of Brundir. Although Ahlsheyan has better ships, Brundir has a larger navy and the allegiance of the Nuav Free Spears. So the current state of relations is largely a cold war.
Want: Ahlsheyan disputes Brundir’s claim to every island located between the two nations, and they want them back. All of them were part of Ahlsheyan in the distant past and feature heavily in Ahl legends, and all are home to ruins significant to the Ahl faith.
Kadavis: An ally bound by blood and history. Long before their current borders were established, Ahl and Kadavans intermingled, settled, and established roots in each others’ territories. There are countless Kadavan dwarves with Ahl ancestors living in Kadavis, and significant settlements of people of Kadavan ancestry exist throughout Ahlsheyan.
Want: Pirates from Rasu Miar plague the strait the separates the island from mainland Kadavis, making it a much less attractive shipping lane than Ahlsheyan would like. Ahlsheyan has quietly undertaken a secret pirate-hunting campaign, but the government wants Kadavis to grant formal letters of marque so they can wipe the pirates out with impunity.
Meskmur: A valuable partner in maintaining peaceful trade in the Isles. Whenever a dispute with another nation arises, Ahlsheyan almost always defaults to proposing a meeting on Meskmur to resolve things peacefully. (It’s least likely to do so when Brundir is the nation in question, but even that depends on which member of Ahlsheyan’s ruling trio is dominant.)
Want: Legends tell of a site sacred to the three principal Ahl deities hidden in the woods at the center of Meskmur. Ahlsheyan wants permission to search for it, and if denied they may attempt the search in secret.
With this step heaved across the finish line, I’m faced with a choice:
Tackle the final step in WWN’s “The Region” section, which is adding faction stats to the nations/groups in the Isles. I like this step because it will produce interesting information, but it’s also most relevant only if I use WWN’s domain-level mechanics in play at some point — and I don’t know if I will.
Skip that step and move to developing a starting area within one nation in the Isles. This is awesome because it means the Unlucky Isles would be 100% ready for play (and then some!) at a moment’s notice. Plus I’d get to play with WWN’s excellent local-level tools.
Skip both of those steps, move one map “segment” to the north, east, or south, and start “The Region” over with a new area of Godsbarrow. From a worldbuilding standpoint, this probably makes the most sense — and I’m excited to know more about the larger nations circling the Isles, and to see how running through these steps again with a new place feels.
I guess I’ll make that call tomorrow, when I need to do a bit of worldbuilding (my daily streak is still unbroken!) and have to put fingers to keyboard.
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.
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):
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.