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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Dwarves in Godsbarrow: poignards and the Snarl

At 2:30 this morning I woke up from a dream about the dwarves in Godsbarrow and the Snarl, realized it was an idea I’d never seen anywhere before, and knew this was a chance to contribute to the collective lore of my favorite fantasy species. So I grabbed my tablet and wrote it down, couldn’t get back to sleep, and got up to turn my notes into this post.

The Snarl

You know those tragic instances where a huge crowd (in a sports arena, lets say) panics, and the weight of all those bodies exerts a terrible, crushing, fatal pressure on anyone trapped against a barrier? That sometimes happens when dwarves assault an underground fastness.

In a warren of tunnels, all it takes is an unexpected dead end or a wave of reinforcements on either side of the fight and the two opposing forces can literally get jammed together, immobile, with nowhere to go, as more bodies pile into the same too-small space.

This is called the Snarl.

Left unchecked, a Snarl is an awful thing. Pressure and lack of air can kill everyone involved, and the sensation of being trapped in a press of flesh, with one’s mortal foes, unable to escape, is simply dreadful. (That haunting image is what struck me when I first awoke.)

Shouting and other signals can’t be heard over the din, or seen through the press of fighting bodies, so dwarves rely on smell to avoid a Snarl. Underground-dwelling dwarves in Dormiir carry tiny ampoules of scented liquid. Each unit, clan, or other group has their own unique concoction, but they all carry a powerful, overwhelming scent. When crushed, either by the force of a Snarl or actively, by a dwarf trapped in one, the vial shatters and releases its potent stink.

Especially in snug spaces already tight on air, one vial’s scent might not travel far — but the scents from several of them will. That smell signals a Snarl, and it tells every dwarf within range to halt, retreat, and then work undo the Snarl.

Some foes know of this practice, and will also work with the dwarves to untangle a Snarl when they catch a strong scent. Historically, a Snarl successfully undone often leads to a peace treaty between the dwarves and their snarl-mates, making it an oddly effective, if accidental, form of diplomacy.

Poignards

I didn’t dream about poignards, but while I was lying bed, half-awake, thinking about Snarls, my brain started pondering effective weapons for medieval tunnel-fighting — and out popped poignards.

The stereotypical dwarven weapon, the axe, isn’t actually a practical choice for fighting in confined spaces. You need room to swing an axe, especially a two-hander, and tunnels and snugs and crawlways don’t tend to allow that kind of maneuvering room. (The same goes for picks, mauls, longer swords, etc.).

Dwarves who fight in tunnels prefer short thrusting weapons, especially poignards, and it’s rare to meet a dwarf underground who doesn’t have a poignard or two. Warriors often carry several, each set up to be drawn in a different position (boot, belt, upper arm sheath, etc.). Some will also carry a longer, heavier weapon — like an axe or pick — that they can unlimber when fighting in caverns and other larger spaces.

Daggers and crossbows are also popular choices. A two-edged dagger can be a good alternative to a poignard, and a crossbow offers a compact ranged option that can be fired — once — even in a narrow tunnel. And dwarves girding for battle often don spiked armor and spiked gauntlets, which work as deterrents and effective weapons in their own right.

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Godsbarrow’s third region: Kurthunar

This region is a twofold experiment. One, it diverges from Worlds Without Number‘s (paid link) directive to “make about six nations/groups,” as I’m making two new ones and using two existing ones. And two, it’s the first region that features gods as physical presences, just out there in the world doing god stuff.

And those gods absolutely define their respective nations — as it should be. At first my concept for Kuruni seemed kind of simplistic, but then I thought about it a bit more. If your god rolls up, twenty feet tall, glowing like the noonday sun, casually hefting the Diamond Hammer of the Ages — a single blow from which can knock the peak off a mountain — and says, “I like fighting,” you’d say, “Me too! Who should we fight?” And when Kura says, “IDGAF, let’s fight each other,” that’s what you do.

Kuruni is that, multiplied by an entire nation. It’s not a monoculture, but it is a culture more tightly defined and less varied than most of the others I’ve sketched out to date. Kura isn’t someone your ancestors knew, or that the church talks about, or that no one’s seen in centuries; she’s that huge woman over there, drinking ale by the barrel, and boy does she love cracking skulls.

Aaust wasn’t that, to start with. It was a largely secular nation, a peaceful place isolated by its geography and dedicated to scholarship and building stilt houses taller than your neighbors. And then The God That Eats boiled up out of the earth and started. Eating. Everything.

Kurthunar

Choose about six major geographical features.

  • The Godblight, the miles-wide — and growing — region of devastation left behind by The God That Eats
  • The Bacberand, the massive expanse of swampland at the center of Aaust (where many of the Thefaine are found)
  • The Salt Coast, the extended swath of salt marsh that forms much of Aaust’s coastline
  • Qaburzani Sound, the many-branched body of water that forms the eastern boundary of the Aaun Peninsula
  • The Great Library of the Cliffs (“Faial Thaneseie” in Aaunish), a network of canyons in Aaust carved from lip to floor with millions of linear feet of runes, accessible via scaffolds, cranes, and tunnels, and organized in a system known only to the army of sages who maintain it
  • Forge of Huradi, a holy mountain in Kuruni (and its tallest peak); Kura flattened its top, infused it with her power, and now uses it as a forge to craft weapons for her favored champions
  • The Thefaine, vast, strange obelisks that dot Aaust, attracting and warping wildlife into huge monsters

Create six nations or groups of importance.

Aaust (“OW-oost,” linguistic touchstone is Old French), which occupies the Aaun Peninsula (“OW-oon”), is a peaceful, insular place that was, until recently, best known for its vast marshes (with some settlements only reachable by flat-bottomed skiffs and barges), stilt-dwellings, scholars, the great Library of the Cliffs (millions of linear feet of Aaun runes engraved into cliffs to form a permanent library that collects works from all over Dormiir; nothing less permanent lasts long in the marshes), and the mysterious Thefaine pillars (“THEH-fayne”). Jutting high into the air, the Thefaine attract and warp wildlife, giving rise to massive — and weird — creatures. But the Aausti aren’t frail scholars who roll over and die when faced with danger; they possess centuries of knowledge and prize resourcefulness, craftiness, and survival.

Aausti culture places importance on the height of one’s dwelling. This began as a practical matter: Aaust is low-lying, barely above sea level in most places, so it’s particularly susceptible to Dormiir’s extreme tides. It’s generally regarded as worse to build high and suffer a collapse than to build slightly lower, but soundly. Drummers, signal torches, pigeons, and lanterns with signal mirrors are used to communicate between towers — and throughout Aaust, as these are all methods that work equally well in the bogs and marshes (and some are subtle enough to avoid monsters’ attention).

The Aausti ability to coexist with monsters is going to come in handy, because two years ago Aaust became best known for one thing: The God That Eats, a kaiju-sized giant slug which awoke from millennia of slumber. This monster exists solely to slither slowly across Aaust and eat anything in its way: people, towns, cities, mountains — and even several of Auust’s small gods. As it eats, it grows. It is a slow-moving apocalypse, ceaseless and inevitable.

In just two years, it has devastated a wide swath of Aaust, killing thousands as it devoured entire towns — and threatening the very existence of the nation. Nothing wounds it, nothing the wizard-sages of Faial Thaneseie (“FYE-ell thanh-ESS-ee-yay”) have tried has worked, and it’s beginning to look like only Kura — the god of neighboring Kuruni, who literally walks the earth — might have a chance of stopping it. The God That Eats can’t digest precious metals and gems, so those get forced out through its skin and left behind. This makes the devastated areas in its wake lucrative for those foolhardy enough to risk getting that close to the worm.

Kuruni (“koor-OO-nee,” linguistic touchstone is Urartian), often called the Land of Kura, is a warlike place defined by its warlike god, Kura — a glowing, muscular woman twenty feet tall, and a constant, physical presence who takes part in battles, performs great works, and walks among the Kurun. Kuruni is a place of gladiatorial combat (not in the Roman vein with slaves fighting lions, but as a highly-valued profession and the ultimate expression of Kurun values: strength, cunning, will, and fearlessness), ritual dueling, trials by combat, and other martial pursuits. The Kurun mostly fight each other, but once every generation or so they unify, turn their attention outwards, and engage in fearsome campaigns of pillage and expansion.

Ever since The God That Eats awoke in neighboring Aaust, Kuruni has been marshalling its strength — physical, magical, and spiritual — to seal the border between the two nations, establishing a bulwark against the worm should it turn to the northwest. Kuruni mercenary companies — part religious group, part family creche — have long been seeking glory in the marshes of Aaust, testing their mettle in ritual combat against the many monsters of the swamps. These days, the few that have returned have come back as wealthy people, but 99% of them don’t come back at all.

Ahlsheyan is part of this region, but I’ve already written it up. I’ve added relationships, wants, and one historical event specific to Kurthunar.

The Arkestran Dominion is also part of this region, but I’ve already written it up. I’ve added relationships, wants, and one historical event specific to Kurthunar.

Identify regionally-significant gods.

Kura (“KOO-ruh”), the cheerful but fearsome warrior-god who defines the nation of Kuruni. She stands twenty feet tall, glows like the noonday sun, wields the Diamond Hammer of the Ages — a single blow from which can knock the peak off a mountain — and loves to fight. Her existence places Kuruni on a constant war footing; war is a way of life. But it’s mostly internal war, and the conflict isn’t driven by hatred but rather by the cultural need to prove oneself in battle.

Here’s how I sum up Kura: If your god rolls up, twenty feet tall, glowing like the noonday sun, casually hefting the Diamond Hammer of the Ages — a single blow from which can knock the peak off a mountain — and says, “I like fighting,” you’d say, “Me too! Who should we fight?” And Kura says, “IDGAF, let’s fight each other.” And then you all fight each other, and drink, and boast about it, and then do it all again the next day.

The God That Eats, a kaiju-sized giant slug which recently awoke from millennia of slumber. This monster exists solely to slither slowly across Aaust and eat anything in its way: people, towns, cities, mountains — and even several of Auust’s small gods. As it eats, it grows. It is a slow-moving apocalypse, ceaseless and inevitable. Before its arrival, Aaust was largely a secular nation, devoted to study and survival, with a handful of small gods related to scholarship, the marshes, and resourcefulness.

The gods of Ahlsheyan and the Dominion are covered in my Unlucky Isles material.

Make a sketch map of the region.

I did this alongside the written worldbuilding, just as I did with the Gilded Lands. The Kurthunar map appears at the top of this post.

Here’s Kurthunar in context, alongside the two other regions I’ve developed so far:

My first three regions of Godsbarrow

Assign two important historical events to each group or nation.

Kurthunar is mainly about Aaust and Kuruni, so I’m only doing one event apiece for Ahlsheyan and the Dominion. (They both already have two apiece in my Unlucky Isles write-up.)

Kuruni

  • Economic Boom: Wouldn’t have picked this on my own; that’s awesome. Centuries ago, Kura took an interest in Kuruni’s iron mines — a rich resource that had provided the raw materials for weapons and tools that had helped Kuruni become a powerful nation. On a whim, Kura blessed the entire mountain range, infusing it with a portion of her power. Now those mines produce the purest, strongest, easiest to forge iron in the world. Kuruni ironwork is world-renowned and always in demand, and the weapons wielded by its massive (if fractious and disorganized) army and mercenary families are always of the highest quality. As a result of this boom, smiths and blacksmithing play an outsized role in Kuruni society, and Kuruni religion is largely based on blacksmithing and fighting.
  • Weak Throne: Although the Great Library in Aaust records legends of a time before Kura, in Kuruni itself there is no “before Kura” — but there was a time, centuries ago, before Kura was a constant, earthly presence. And with Kura’s constant presence came a steady erosion of Kuruni’s government. Who needs a mortal ruler when your god walks among you? Kuruni’s government collapsed, and for many years it essentially ceased to exist. But Kura herself revitalized it, creating a loose political structure based on trial by combat, feats of strength and bravery, gladiatorial prowess, and knowledge of the arts and sciences related to these things. This structure persists today, with most of Kuruni’s traditional “political class” inhabiting the least visible portion of it — “knowledge of arts and sciences.” The most visible portion is exemplified by gladiator-governors, dozens of tribal and clan-based factions fighting each other, and a culture of “if you’re fit to rule, fight me and prove it.”

Aaust

  • Immigrants: A century ago, the largest group of refugees ever to leave the Arkestran Dominion pulled off their exodus almost undetected — and they fled to Aaust. This was a purely practical choice: Aaust is close, and wild enough that the refugees believed they could hide forever. They didn’t reckon on the sheer number of giant, dangerous creatures with which they’d have to contend — nor with the Aausti’s comprehensive oversight of their own realm, even in its wildest reaches. Fortunately, Aaust welcomed them with open arms. In addition to simply being people who needed help the Aausti were happy to provide, these refugees knew things about one of the most secretive and dangerous countries in Dormiir that no one else did. Their additions to the Great Library have been numerous — and the Aausti have hidden the refugees for a hundred years. Some elves have simply become Aausti, or disguise their true nature, while others hide in the wild places; many work in and around the library. All are still hunted by the Dominion.
  • Terrain Change: Aaust wasn’t always such a marshy place. But over time a combination of its low-lying land, Dormiir’s powerful tides, and seasonal flooding turned vast swaths of Aaust into bogs, salt marshes, and mires. These swallowed and rotted many of Aaust’s forests, making timber scarce. Marshes also consumed much of Aaust’s coastline, and a combination of timber scarcity and lack of coastal ports mean that Aaust has no navy (nor even any ships to speak of). Wood and iron still exist here, but those resources are concentrated in just a couple of places. Hides, leather, and textiles are more common in Aaust than one might expect in a medieval fantasy world.

Arkestran Dominion

  • Freakish Magic: While the Bloodsong Isles are nominally part of Aaust, the lone Aausti settlement, Silotre, is that nation’s only real claim to them (and Silotre is a weird, isolated place). With four Thefaine pillars concentrated in a small area (the only other place where four appear so close together is the spot that birthed The God That Eats…), the main island is essentially Monster Island from the Godzilla movies. Long ago, a Kasdinar from the Dominion tasked with exploring the Wraithsea around this peculiar island discovered that they could guide the spawning of monsters here and shunt creatures into the Wraithsea at birth. The Kasdinar went rogue and has lived here ever since, birthing monsters into the dreams of sleeping gods. What could go wrong?

Ahlsheyan

  • Plague: Not long ago, one of the Thefaine on Aaust’s Salt Coast warped a school of venomous octopi — which then became mired in the marshland at low tide and died. The Thefaine’s magic continued to warp their corpses, and by the next high tide — the one that washed them into the Strait of Gēp Jār — they were bloated, toxic balloons. This mass of plague-filled weirdness drifted to Ahlsheyan and spread throughout its coastal communities, sickening hundreds of people. The plague eventually burned itself out when the Ahl quarantined those affected aboard a hastily assembled fleet of ships and burned all of the octopus corpses. Consequently, the Ahl living in this region tend to keep a wide berth of the Salt Coast in particular, and of Aaust in general.

Define the relationships between the groups.

I don’t need to know more about what the Dominion and Ahlsheyan’s relationships with, or wants from, each other; I’ve skipped those here.

Kuruni

  • Aaust: Previously, Aaust was seen as a playground for Kurun warriors out to prove their mettle against its giant beasts, and otherwise just thought of as a peaceful neighbor. (The Aausti don’t value martial prowess and don’t have much of a military, and there’s not much there to pillage.) But now, with The God That Eats roaming free? Aaust is a truly dangerous place where even greater glory can be won, but also one that needs to be barricaded off from Kuruni because fuck that noise.
    • Want: For Aaust to wall off the entire Aaun Peninsula at its natural choke point, preventing The God That Eats from entering Kuruni (and points beyond). This is not a popular wish within Aaust, as one might imagine.
  • Arkestran Dominion: Deceitful foes who would otherwise be the perfect opponents: ruthless, effective, and constantly on a war footing. The Kurun want to fight them toe to toe, but they only fight in the Wraithsea and through their catspaws.
    • Want: To goad the Dominion into a “good” fight, soldiers facing soldiers on the field of battle. To this end, a small cadre of Kuruni’s Egurhu Sūūt (“eh-GOOR-hoo suit”) — a spy organization dedicated to keeping Kuruni safe and strong, so secretive that it remains a secret even from Kura, whose towering rage at learning of this “cowardly” organization would end in its utter destruction — plans to infiltrate the Dominion’s navy and guide a fleet into Kuruni waters to be destroyed by Kurun ships, thereby by provoking a war.
  • Ahlsheyan: A strange, mercurial nation with vague, inconstant gods. Neutral.
    • Want: Kuruni has shipyards and sailors, but its culture does not emphasize either. Kura wants Ahlsheyan to build a shipyard in Kuruni — most likely on Langfeure Isle (formerly a part of Aaust, but taken by Kuruni long ago and turned into a military training area and embarkation point for ventures into Aaust). This would be part embassy, part Vatican, and in exchange for this territorial carve-out the Ahl would provide Kuruni with ships and naval expertise.

Aaust

  • Kuruni: Neutral to friendly. Kuruni routinely violating Aaust’s borders to come in and hunt monsters isn’t great — but given that Kuruni could easily wipe Aaust out militarily, and given that their incursions reduce the population of giant beasts, there’s an upside to the whole situation. Kuruni also provides soldiers to defend the Great Library of the Cliffs, and has protected the library several times over the years.
    • Want: For Kura to come to Aaust and kill The God That Eats. Aaust has sent ambassadors to simply ask; they were rejected for “showing weakness.” They’ve tried subtle diplomacy, gifts, and talking up how much glory would be won by slaying the worm; nothing has worked. The Aausti are starting to wonder if Kura even can kill The God That Eats…
  • Arkestran Dominion: A dark and dangerous place, but one that has — thus far — been easy to keep at bay. Aaust is naturally inhospitable to most non-Aausti, and the swamps, giant monsters, and Aausti cunning have kept the Dominion from troubling them.
    • Want: If anyone other than Kura can kill The God That Eats, or at least force it back into hibernation, it’s the Dominion — and a rogue faction of the Aausti government is now desperate enough to pursue the very bad idea of asking the Dominion for help.
  • Ahlsheyan: A fascinating place full of knowledge that needs to be added to the Great Library, and the source of much of Aaust’s imports (by way of oceangoing trade).
    • Want: The water border between Aaust and Kuruni, Qaburzani Sound, is a constant source of trouble for the Aausti. With little wood in Aaust, the Aausti have few ships; their coastline is always vulnerable to Kuruni raiding parties, adventuring expeditions, etc. They want the Ahl to sell them a fleet to patrol their coastline.

Arkestran Dominion

  • Kuruni: A threat to be managed, and less pressing than its enemies to the north. As long as Kura stays there, and the Kurun are largely content to fight each other, Kuruni can be ignored.
    • Want: The Dominion wants Kuruni-forged weapons for its vast army, and they’ve heard rumors of a vast secret armory deep within the Tiru Mountains (“TEE-roo”). Those obviously won’t be for sale, and the Dominion would rather not piss off Kura while trying to take them — so a large, diverse Kasdinar has been formed to find the armory, steal the weapons, and get away without implicating the Dominion.
  • Aaust: A stinking, salty swamp full of annoyingly resilient people and dangerous monsters. Aaust is largely a “dead” zone in the Wraithsea, and has no significant gods the Dominion could put to sleep in order to expand its Wraithsea capabilities — so this has become a place to avoid, for the most part.
    • Want: The Dominion wants The God That Eats. If its path, appetites, or both can be controlled (a big if), whoever wields that power can alter the course of nations — or simply wipe them out. This is a full-court press, with Wraithsea-based spy operations, agents flooding into Aaust in secret, mercenaries brought in for brute-force efforts (and to distract from the subtler, more important efforts), etc. Six Kasdinar have formed to achieve this goal, or portions thereof.

Ahlsheyan

  • Kuruni: The notion of letting one deity guide the entire nation is alien to the Ahl, as is the idea of basing an entire country on fighting itself. As Ahlsheyan has plenty to occupy it in the Unlucky Isles, and as Kuruni is not a naval power, the Ahl keep an eye on Kuruni but don’t generally pay it much regard.
    • Want: To know Kura is to know Kuruni, and with the arrival of The God That Eats next door Ahlsheyan needs to know Kura’s plans. To that end, they have dispatched a cadre of spies and other rogues to infiltrate Kuruni, get close to Kura, and report on all of her activities. If caught, they would have to fight a pissed-off god.
  • Aaust: A fascinating but dangerous place to visit. Aaust is full of opportunities, but since the rise of The God That Eats those opportunities have been more than balanced out by significant risks.
    • Want: To convince Aaust to allow Ahlsheyan to copy the entire Great Library of the Cliffs (by a combination of rubbings, wax casting, and extraction of slabs of cliff face) and recreate it in Ahlsheyan. Before the arrival of The God That Eats this would have been a non-starter for the Aausti, but now…

And that’s it — the whole region in one post! Next up is a double-width region that sits just south of the Unlucky Isles and the Gilded Lands: the Ice Courts.

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

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

The Gilded Lands 3 of 3: national relationships and wants

This post wraps up my region-level development of the Gilded Lands.

The six nations of the Gilded Lands

Define the relationships between the groups.

This step in Worlds Without Number has two components: what each nation generally thinks about each other nation, and a specific thing they want from each of them. I keep them brief, and I always try to make the want an adventure/campaign hook.

Kadavis

  • Yrfeđe: A haunted place best avoided, a trading partner, and an obstacle to making Mormú a client state. Their smoked meats are especially prized in Kadavis.
    • Want: The Kadavan embassy in Ulfærn-Dennic is engaged in a long-term mission of bribery and skullduggery aimed at convincing the Grshniki that Yrfeđe is not as secure an ally as it seems, thereby bolstering the case for client statehood.
  • Lonþyr: A rival, and sometimes a trading partner. Lonþyr and Kadavis both mine the same portion of the Mormú-Hús Mountains, and Lonþyr controls the southern end of Many Sorrows Pass (as well as all of the coastal ports along a large section of the ocean south of Kadavis).
    • Want: Control of the south end of Many Sorrows Pass. Always trying to avoid open warfare, Kadavis has attempted this many times. The current plan is to find the most dangerous thing they can extract from Nus Palavar, sneak it into Castle Nefre, and let whatever foul curse inhabits the artifact pollute the castle and its environs. If this works, it will make the whole pass horribly dangerous . . . but hey, it might wipe out the Mor presence in the center of the pass, too.
  • Garshán: A close trading partner, and generally an ally. Kadavans love novelty and the opportunity to show off new things to their neighbors, and acquiring stuff from far-off lands is a big part of that — and something at which Garshán excels.
    • Want: Kadavan nobles have heard rumors from far-off lands that someone has killed a god and turned its corpse into a delectable candied treat — a truly one-of-a-kind culinary experience. They’re tripping over each other to acquire it, and most of the interested parties are paying huge bounties to Garsháni traders, calling in markers with those traders, or otherwise trying to coopt Garshán’s expertise to ensure that if this monstrosity is real it lands on their table.
  • Kostivolsk: A strange place that would be funny if it weren’t so sinister. Best kept at arm’s length.
    • Want: The Kosti abducted a Kadavan noble from a troublesome family. The government doesn’t actually want her back; the family does, and will go to extremes to make that happen.
  • Mormú: An inconvenience which keeps Kadavis from efficiently mining the Mormú-Hús Mountains. If the Grshniki would just accept the inevitable, they could become part of Kadavis.
    • Want: Annexing the Mormú-Hús Mountains — and all of Mormú in the process — would increase Kadavis’ wealth immeasurably, as well as its ability to ostentatiously display that wealth. Kadavis is mounting a major diplomatic effort to convince the Grshniki to become a client state, with a caravan of wine, delicacies, and trade goods to sweeten the deal. As a client state, Mormú would gain allies against their neighbors, most notably Lonþyr.

Yrfeđe

  • Kadavis: They don’t care about us, and we don’t care about them. A possible ally against Lonþyr, save that allying with Mormú precludes allying with Kadavis.
    • Want: To convince Kadavis to stop mining the Mormú-Hús Mountains. The Dýgan doesn’t care about Kadavis, but a third of the Dýfeón does. Their squabbles over the importance of this venture, and the means, have resulted in several parallel, non-overlapping efforts (hiring outsiders, spies, assassinations, magical skullduggery, etc.).
  • Lonþyr: A foe, but it’s complicated. Yrfeđe was originally part of Lonþyr, and families and bloodlines straddle the border. Reconciliation is viewed as impossible; enmity is driven by Lonþyr’s treatment of the Grshniki and by their apparent immunity to the predations of the đargnr.
    • Want: To find out how Lonþyr has avoided being overrun by the đargnr. The Yr don’t know about the actual reason (the artifact stolen from under the mountains), so they’ve spread spies throughout Lonþyr to gather information.
  • Garshán: A valuable trading partner. Yrfeđe exports timber, worked wood, fish, furs, and smoked meat. Apart from iron (which they get in partnership with the Grshniki), they import almost everything else — and much of it comes from Garshán.
    • Want: For Garshán to set up a permanent outpost of Sou gnomes on Lake Be-Hédan. The threat of the đargnr has thus far kept the gnomes from establishing a presence there.
  • Kostivolsk: Somehow, even darker and stranger than Yrfeđe itself. Resented because they can keep the đargnr at bay, but pitied because of how they must do it.
    • Want: Kosti scouts and raiders keep turning up deep inside Yr and Grshniki territory, appearing as if from nowhere — which means they’re coming up from tunnels under the mountains. The Yr want to find and seal those tunnels.
  • Mormú: A staunch ally. The two nations are longtime trading partners, and their peoples are intermingled. Among the nations of the Gilded Lands, only Mormú stands with Yrfeđe against the đargnr.
    • Want: To build a joint outpost with the Grshniki — a fortress carved into the face of a mountain, full of windows to keep it well-lit, that might serve as a bastion against the đargnr. And, if it works, it could become a template for moving more Yr into Mormú so that the two nations can more easily protect one another.

Lonþyr

  • Kadavis: A rival too large to crush outright. With Kadavis controlling the north end of Many Sorrows Pass, and pressing Mormú from the north, it assists Lonþyr as a byproduct of sharing similar goals.
    • Want: To take the north end of Many Sorrows Pass from Kadavis. This would put Lonþyr in control of virtually all overland trade in the Gilded Lands, and give it a base from which to crush Mormú’s fortified presence in the center of the pass — an open war that could split Mormú in half and leave Lonþyr in full control of Many Sorrows Pass.
  • Yrfeđe: A rival, but it’s complicated. Absent the đargnr, Lonþyr would be trying to annex portions of Yrfeđe — but now they want Yrfeđe to be sealed in a bubble to keep the evil inside. Bloodlines cross the border, and family ties go back countless generations.
    • Want: To unlock the secrets of the Grshniki artifact that keeps the đargnr away from Lonþyr, find a way to extend that protection to Yrfeđe, and then use that knowledge as leverage to force Yrfeđe to become part of Lonþyr again.
  • Garshán: Weak, passive, and of little import. The Garsháni take nothing, therefore they are irrelevant.
    • Want: To pit Garshán against Kadavis, leaving more room for Lonþyr to muscle Kadavis out of Many Sorrows Pass and the mountains in general. Lonþyran spies plan to kidnap several Garsháni elders, spirit them into Kadavis, murder them, and stage the crime to look like the Kadavans were responsible.
  • Kostivolsk: A strange place, best avoided. The Kosti focus on submission in exchange for power is utterly baffling; Lonþyrans take what they want.
    • Want: Lonþyr has heard that the Kosti have ways into a layer of tunnels under the mountains which are less-trafficked, letting them scout and mount raids from relatively safe quarters. The Lonþyrans want access to those secret passages.
  • Mormú: A foe to be crushed. There’s no malice in it, the Grshniki are just in the way of Lonþyr taking what it wants: the mineral wealth of the Mormú-Hús Mountains, control of the middle of Many Sorrows Pass, and the cessation of constant guerilla attacks on their mines and forts.
    • Want: To plumb the depths of one of the Grshniki God-Tunnels and leave behind a god-killing artifact. The plan is to acquire a legendary cursed chalice from Nus Palavar, in Kadavis, and then steep it in the cursed waters of the Unlucky Isles. With the artifact twice-cursed, they get it as deep as they can and let go, hopefully crippling or killing Nújag-Húarn.

Garshán

  • Kadavis: One of the largest markets in the world, a vast coffer of wealth just waiting to be transferred to Garshán one trade caravan at a time.
    • Want: One of the most unscrupulous trade guilds in Garshán, the Wayfolk guild called Uelkaecz Blue Coster (“WELL-kay-ish”), has a buyer for the personal ceremonial mask of the Oracle of Iskuldra, and they plan to steal it. This is possibly the most valuable, most heavily-guarded artifact in all of Kadavis…
  • Yrfeđe: A dangerous, depressing place that’s fine to visit, just don’t linger. But also a source of trade goods prized throughout the Gilded Lands and beyond.
    • Want: To learn the truth behind the rumor that Yrfeđe controls a secret tunnel leading under the mountains and emerging in Kostivolsk — which, if passage rights can be secured, could give Garsháni traders a way to avoid Many Sorrows Pass entirely.
  • Lonþyr: The bully of the Gilded Lands, without which trade would be more efficient and peace more commonplace.
    • Want: Coster of the Murghain (“muhr-GAYN”), one of the most-reviled trading companies in Garshán, wants to get Lonþyr hooked on an opium-like jelly from a far-off land. Their hope is that by spreading this jelly, called Kiir-nektaat (keer NECK-tot”) far and wide, they’ll make Lonþyr so docile that they become less of a threat to the rest of the Gilded Lands.
  • Kostivolsk: A strange place, in which it’s best to spend as little time as possible, but full of things people elsewhere want. Some traders have elevated efficiently trading within Kostivolsk to the status of an artform.
    • Want: A Landfolk guild, the Yastili (“yoss-TIH-lee”), has become possessive about overland trade routes through Kostivolsk. To improve their efficiency, they want Kostivolsk to grant them exclusive trading rights.
  • Mormú: An ally, though a complicated one. Garshán’s Sirali population gives this nation a unique insight into what it’s like to be beset on all sides by hostile powers — and, depending on one’s beliefs, abandoned by their god (as the Grshniki appear to have been). But aiding Mormú, at least openly, risks alienating every other power in the Gilded Lands save Yrfeđe — and all of them are more powerful than Garshán.
    • Want: To secretly aid the Grshniki in retaking the north and south ends of Many Sorrows Pass. Passing through three nations’ contested territory to trade with points south is inefficient and dangerous, and of the three powers Mormú is the most likely ally.

Kostivolsk

  • Kadavis: A decadent, wasteful nation full of indolent layabouts, undeserving of its riches. Too big to piss off, but relations are generally chilly.
    • Want: Jealous of the prized wines made in Vinu Kremru, just west of the Kadavan border, the town of Stymret — home of the famous Stymret Red, a vintage from the northern foothills of the Mormú-Hús Mountains — plans to hold a huge sacrificial ritual in order to magically wither all of Kremru’s vines, thus ensuring its own preeminence.
  • Yrfeđe: The source of all of Kostivolsk’s woes, home of the cursed đargnr, and — at least to those who question why the Kosti must live as they do — the reason why life is pain. If Kostivolsk could burn Yrfeđe to the ground and salt the earth, it would.
    • Want: To destroy Yrfeđe utterly. Not by force of arms, which Kostivolsk couldn’t do, but insidiously, from within. This effort is ongoing, and takes place on many fronts: poisonings, abductions, souring their alliance with the Grshniki, etc.
  • Lonþyr: It’s complicated. Lonþyr hates Yrfeđe, so they’re an ally in that regard. But Lonþyr has also figured out how to avoid the scourge of the đargnr without the extreme measures Kostivolsk must take, so they’re a source of frustration and a rival as well.
    • Want: To find out how Lonþyr avoids the đargnr. Kostivolsk began sending spies to Lonþyr some time ago, and now they’re everywhere. Active temple-based efforts at home send power to Kosti spies courtesy of Xlě̀-Ceth’s dark blessings, enabling them to hide, assassinate, and otherwise get up to no good with virtual impunity (albeit at great cost to those performing the rituals).
  • Garshán: Neutral. Kostivolsk doesn’t have time for Garshán, and Garshán isn’t an expansionist power, so they just coexist.
    • Want: A prophetic vision from Xlě̀-Ceth revealed that a powerful and sacred artifact, the Book of Yirg (“yeergh”), is hidden somewhere in Garshán. In order to find it, the Kosti have begun killing traders and using magic to impersonate them — and in the process, have assembled a surprisingly effective spy network in Garshán.
  • Mormú: An annoyance, but also a good source of sacrifices to Xlě̀-Ceth. The Kosti plunder the mountains for blood as well as minerals.
    • Want: Kostivolsk is secretly building a temple to Xlě̀-Ceth inside Mormú, deep underground. If completed and sanctified, it would make it much easier for them to abduct and sacrifice Grshniki…but it also might protect the surrounding area from the đargnr. For that latter reason, a hardline Grshniki faction is secretly aiding the Kosti in this effort.

Mormú

  • Kadavis: A hostile invader that’s too large to fight off. Kadavis is less aggressive about incursions into Grshniki territory than Lonþyr, but it has stolen just as much land and wealth from the gnomes.
    • Want: Mormú wants to take back the north end of Many Sorrows Pass, currently under Kadavan control. It already controls the center, perhaps its greatest bargaining chip when it comes to staving off the other powers in the Gilded Lands. Control of the north end would enable it to lock Lonþyr almost entirely out of northern overland trade.
  • Yrfeđe: Mormú’s sole true ally in the Gilded Lands. Their bonds are many, including trade, intermingling of their peoples and settlements, and the common threat of the đargnr.
    • Want: The Yr are adept at making, using, and maintaining light sources (as one might expect), and the Grshniki want them to help find their absent/slumbering/dead god, Nújag-Húarn, who many believe is somewhere in the unexplored depths beneath the mountains. This would drain people and resources from Yrfeđe, in addition to being incredibly dangerous.
  • Lonþyr: A hated foe, with which they are at war. Of all the nations in the Gilded Lands, Lonþyr has taken — and continues to take — the most from the Grshniki.
    • Want: Hardline “we should fight everyone and take our territory back” Grshniki have learned that Lonþyr stole a mysterious artifact from Mor territory long ago, although they don’t yet know that Lonþyr is using it to keep the đargnr at bay. The artifact is sacred to the gnomes, as it appears — in frustratingly vague terms — in ancient legends about their god; they want it back, at any cost.
  • Garshán: A neutral trading partner. Garshán has considerable goodwill with the Grshniki simply because they’ve never stolen land or resources from Mormú, but they’re also far enough away that the two nations don’t have strong ties — and Mormú has a full plate just dealing with neighboring threats.
    • Want: The Grshniki have recently heard tales of a “god-finder” in some far-off land. Whether that’s a person, an artifact, or just a fairy tale, they want to Garsháni to acquire it — if it exists — and sell it to them.
  • Kostivolsk: An invader, only less hated than Lonþyr and Kadavis by dint of being too preoccupied with internal problems to be as large a threat to Mormú as the others.
    • Want: To find a way to unleash the đargnr on Kostivolsk, breaching whatever magical or god-given “barrier” currently keeps the shadows out. Let them suffer as we suffer.

And for now, that’s it for the Gilded Lands! I’m currently working on my third region, Kurthunar, and have plans for my fourth and fifth.

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

Categories
Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

The Gilded Lands 2 of 3: regional gods and historical events

The next step in Worlds Without Number‘s region-creation process is…

Identify regionally-significant gods.

  • 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.
  • YrfeđeCniht-Cild (“KUH-neet kild”), They Who Drive Out the Shadows, was a minor deity in Yrfeđe until the đargnr came. Now they are almost universally worshipped, with the rest of the pantheon relegated to minor roles. Given the nature of gods in Dormiir, however, the continued existence of the đargnr begs a question: Why does fervently worshipping a god of light not fix that problem? The answer is that Cniht-Cild is fickle, bored, and petty; they remember how little the Yr cared about them for centuries, and now they’re exacting their revenge.
    • As a result, Yr society is split between the ultra-devout (who think they’re just not praying hard enough) and the self-reliant, who look less to Cniht-Cild and more to their own torches, wits, and neighbors.
  • LonþyrFeórþa (“fey-OHR-fuh”), the Spiked Hammer, sits atop Lonþyr’s pantheon. Feórþa encapsulates three aspects of Lonþyran culture: the hammer represents building and strength; the spike, taking what you need by force; and the whole as a mining tool, the source of Lonþyr’s wealth. The Church of Feór is the state religion in all but name, and deeply woven into every aspect of Lonþyr.
    • Yrfeđe and Lonþyr worship the same gods, just in different ways and degrees. Cniht-Cild is a minor figure in Lonþyr; apart from miners, almost no one in Yrfeđe worships Feórþa.
  • Garshán — The Garsháni hold that efficiency — their culture’s defining trait, alongside trade — is not the result of any one thing, but rather of many small things in combination. (“The best horse won’t get you far if it’s hitched to the worst wagon” is a common Garsháni proverb.) Garshán also has a long, intertwined history with the Sou gnomes, who worship no gods. As a result, religion is not a major force in Garsháni society, although there is a pantheon of trade-related small gods, the Uhr Theg (“oor thegg”), who are politely and convivially appreciated by many Garsháni. Garshán has also absorbed the customs of the surrounding nations where it suits them, casually acknowledging small gods and spirits from Kadavis, Lonþyr and Yrfeđe, and other lands throughout Godsbarrow alongside the Uhr Theg. (Their dour neighbors to the south, in Kostivolsk, have a saying about Garshán: “They have many gods, but little reverence for any of them.“)
  • KostivolskXlě̀-Ceth (“SHLEH-keth”), who offers power and favors in exchange for personal sacrifice, is the sole deity of Kostivolsk and permits no others. The Cethinzalk Church (“KETH-inn-zalkh”) rules Kostivolsk, largely because it has proven so adept at managing — and weaponizing — what Xlě̀-Ceth can offer. Draining half of your own blood, or taking a vow of permanent silence, or repeating Xlě̀-Ceth’s name until you faint is all well and good — but true power comes from convincing thousands of others to do a little bit of that on your behalf.
  • Mormú — Long ago, Nújag-Húarn (“NOO-jagg hwarn”), often called the Half-Dead, grew the Grshniki gnomes from veins of precious metals and gems deep beneath the Mormú-Hús Mountains. Every gnome it grew diminished its power slightly, but the lightless vaults of Dormiir were lonely and it craved companionship — so it continued to grow gnome after gnome until the caverns were teeming with them. When surface-dwellers began tunnel under the mountains to steal their wealth and invade the Grshniki homeland, Nújag-Húarn was too weak to stop them. It retreated deeper into the earth, and has not been seen for centuries; the Grshniki know only that it is still alive, as they would have felt its death. Some seek it out, hoping to restore Mormú that way; others have abandoned Nújag-Húarn, just as it abandoned them; and most acknowledge their half-dead god as their near-mythical maker, long lost to them.

Make a sketch map of the region.

As with the Unlucky Isles, I started with a map. This time, though, I fleshed it out down to the town/road level of detail as I went, rolling with my ideas and mapping in more detail early on, zooming in and out and switching from writing to mapping freely along the way.

By the time I was working on historical events 2+, I had a finished draft map with 100% of the names in place.

My finished map of the Gilded Lands

Assign two important historical events to each group or nation.

Kadavis

  • Consequences + Internal War: Long ago, what is now Kadavis was claimed by dozens of different warlords, warpriests, and wealthy traders, each worshipping its own pantheon of gods, and all of them — people and gods — often fighting one another. Eventually, this boiled over into open warfare, and the Gilded Lands were consumed by it. The Oracle of Iskuldra, High Warpriest of the Golden Mask, emerged as the victor. The Oracle demonstrated the power of Iskuldra, and wielded that power to consolidate the disparate kingdoms into fiefdoms. She popularized the wearing of masks, both to venerate Iskuldra and to ensure that the first thing people from different fiefdoms saw was not the face of a former foe, but the mask of a shared faith. In time, the Oracle united all of these lands into the nation of Kadavis.
  • Magical Disaster: As soon as I’d created Nus Palavar, I knew I wanted a classic magical disaster to give Kadavis a proper sword-and-sorcery feel. So: Long ago, when the nation was young, Nus Palavar was where Kadavans buried their dead gods. Over time, the energy of those corpses — always unpredictable, often cursed, and made more so by proximity to other dead gods — accumulated, until eventually it boiled over. Waves of chaotic magic roiled Nus Palavar, spreading out across the neighboring region. In one village, every villager dropped dead; in a nearby town, the ground turned to liquid; dozens of miles away, animals were turned inside-out.
    • Now the Bloodspire, monument to the dead god Ykvida (“ikk-VEE-dah”), Sealer of Wounds, dominates the landscape of Nus Palavar, presiding over a haunted, fell place full of ruins, half-buried dead gods, magical monstrosities, and the ne’er-do-wells who seek out such places. For miles around it, Kadavis is empty — civilization having wisely abandoned, or simply never taken root, in this cursed place. Nus Palavar is practically right outside the gates of Kul Tyrar, the capital of Kadavis, and decadent Kadavans do their best to simply pretend it doesn’t exist.

Yrfeđe

  • Evil Wizard: One of the options for this one is “powerful magical entity,” so this event is the appearance of the đargnr. People had lived in Yrfeđe for generations before the đargnr first began emerging from the Wyrdanwod. Why did the đargnr come? Despite decades of exploration, research, magic, and divination, no one knows. Why can’t Cniht-Cild simply banish the đargnr? No one knows (although a large segment of the population believes it’s because they aren’t praying hard enough). Why can’t they be reasoned with? No one knows. Why are they always hungry? No one knows. The đargnr simply are, and they simply do what they do. That’s what makes them so terrifying. Their predations have completely transformed Yrfeđe and Yr society; they are why this is a haunted, desperate place.
  • Praetorian Coups: In the years after the đargnr first appeared, the Dýgan (“DYE-gann,” the First Axe and ruler of Yrfeđe, chosen by the Dýfeón, “DYE-fay-ohn,” the Many Axes; they’re the ruling council) fought hard against them — but also resisted the growing power of the nascent church of Cniht-Cild. By tradition, each of the Dýfeón sent 20 of their finest warriors to serve as the Dýgan’s retinue, the Fætan (“FEH-tahn,” the Sharp Blades), representing the collective loyalty of the council to their chosen leader. The Fætan saw the Dýgan leading their land to ruin and darkness (in their view), and rose up in a bloody single-night coup, slaying the Dýgan and any of the Dýfeón who stood against them. They then installed a new Dýgan from their own ranks.
    • Ever since the Night of the Sharp Blades, the Fætan have been an independent force, with no loyalty to specific Dýfeón or to the Dýgan; they are loyal to the land, and will give every drop of blood to the fight against the đargnr. The system whereby the Dýfeón choose the Dýgan remains, but it’s essentially theater: The Dýgan is chosen by the Fætan, and their choice is rubber-stamped by the Dýfeón in deference to tradition.

Lonþyr

  • Freakish Magic: Just a year or two after the first appearance of the đargnr in Yrfeđe, miners in Lonþyr pulled something dark and strange from the deeps beneath the Mormú-Hús Mountains, and this artifact — the country’s most closely-guarded secret — has protected the country from the đargnr ever since. While it is rarely far from the capital and Lonþyr’s leader, a secretive group of assassins, sinister priests, and twisted wizards moves the artifact regularly to ensure that its location is difficult to pinpoint. It changes them, and over generations it has changed the ruling class in Lonþyr, as well. It warps them in body and spirit, often in unpredictable ways. Some have chafed under this strange yoke, but even they acknowledge that without this fell thing Lonþyr would likely suffer the same fate as its neighbor to the east.
  • Internal War: The two halves of Lonþyr — the east, which is now Yrfeđe, and the west — were always divided by cultural distinctions, but never especially sharply. Resources formed another division, with the west having more coastline (and therefore trade) and the east having more timber, wildlife, and other natural resources. But it was dealings with the Grshniki gnomes of the Mormú-Hús Mountains that broke Lonþyr in two — and the emergence of the đargnr that made reconciliation impossible.
    • The west took what it wanted from the mountains, mercilessly slaughtering gnomes as they pushed further into their territory. The east, after some uneasy skirmishes in the early days, made peace with the gnomes, trading with them and binding their two peoples together quite strongly. “Who started the civil war?” is an unwise question to ask in either nation (as is “Who ended it?”), but the end result is inarguable: Yrfeđe seceded, or was excised, and one country became two. During the aftermath, the đargnr came; generations of bad blood between the two countries have coalesced into a simmering feud that continues today.

Garshán

  • Xenophilia: This second region features a lot more baked-in history up front, so this is another one I’ve already got more or less done before hitting this step. The Garsháni have been marrying Sou gnomes since the two cultures first encountered one another. Garshán is populated primarily by a mix of humans, half-gnomes, and (on the water, especially in the bays along the Lachyan Sea and on Lake Valkayan) by Sou gnomes. This is a two-way street, with the Sou picking up Garsháni cultural traits and practices — though not, for obvious reasons, religion — and carrying them around the world. There’s also a healthy blending of both cultures that exists throughout Garshán, such as great moots which take place here. Normally a Sou-only affair, moots in Garshán welcome Sou, Garsháni, and blended families.
  • Class Struggle: There has always been some contention in Garsháni society between traders who prefer to ply the seas and rivers, traders who prefer to travel on land, and traders who prefer to do both. These days, it’s mostly a light-hearted rivalry — a tradition, more than an actual division. But long ago, the Wavefolk claimed superiority over the Landfolk, and both groups thought they were better than the Wayfolk (those who favored neither mode of travel). Guilds grew up around these divisions, many of which persist today, and the drive for greater efficiency and higher profits festered, leading to a long period of cutthroat conflict, skirmishes, and bad blood between the factions.

Kostivolsk

  • Twist of Fate + Freakish Magic: Freakish Magic reads as good, so Twist of Fate says to make it bad instead. The Cethinzalk Church has always played a role in Kosti society, but the first priest to discover that many small sacrifices to Xlě̀-Ceth could be harnessed just as a single large sacrifice could, Àgnęte (“egg-NEW-teh”), set Kostivolsk on its path to becoming the brutal, oppressive theocracy it is today. Àgnęte, Warden of the Sacred Blood, strengthened the church, took over the government, and bled — literally and figuratively — the Kosti in service of his own twisted aims. Those aims became synonymous with the church itself, and in time the church became synonymous with Kostivolsk.
  • Noble Function: Kostivolsk’s nobility lost much of its power when the church took over. They retained some of it by ensuring that noble birth was viewed as the most important factor in producing the best Bloodfolk and Chanters, and that tradition continues today. Kostivolsk’s noble families intermarry, maintain lineages, and contribute their children to the holiest of causes: dying for Xlě̀-Ceth. These families are interconnected with the church hierarchy, some of which is also hereditary.

Mormú

  • Urbanization: When Mormú’s neighbors began encroaching into its territory on all sides, the Grshniki were forced to retreat, then retreat again, consolidating more gnomes into fewer places. The capital city, Ilmú Feyn, became the default rallying point for displaced Grshniki. The tunnel network linking the city to various points throughout the mountains was expanded, and the capital itself grew in every direction: upward, by further hollowing out its home mountain; downward, by opening up shafts into caves below; and outward, sprawling into nearby caverns and sub-caverns. It is now one of the largest cities in the Gilded Lands — despite being all but invisible from the surface.
  • Great Builders: When the first Mor created by Nújag-Húarn began to build, they built ornate, jewel-encrusted stalagmites and stalactites to honor their maker — the God Spires. When Nújag-Húarn receded from the world — deeper underground, most Mor believed — they began to bore deep vertical shafts, the God Tunnels, in hopes of reaching Nújag-Húarn. Graven with runes, studded with gems, and built to be traversed with ropes, handholds, and climbing skills, many Mor go on pilgrimages down the God Tunnels. Not all of them come back.

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

Categories
Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

The Gilded Lands 1 of 3: concept, geographical features, and nations

I’m currently working on my third region of Godsbarrow, Kurthunar, so this post and those that follow are me catching up on moving my Gilded Lands material from my PC to Yore.

Name the region.

The Gilded Lands, so named because most of its nations are wealthy, and most of that wealth comes in the form of precious metals and gems extracted from the mountain range that sits in the middle of the region. Gilding also implies decadence, and in a sword and sorcery context maybe even rot and decay. The largest nation here, Kadavis, is both decadent and, in places, rotten; and most of its neighbors are rotten in their own ways.

The Gilded Lands

Choose about six major geographical features.

  • Mormú-Hús Mountains (“MOHR-moo HOOSS”), rich in gems and precious metals, and the source of much of the wealth in this region (and its name)
  • Cæfester Woods (“KAI-fess-tur”), deep and teeming with wildlife
  • The Wyrdanwod (“WEER-dan-waud”), which surrounds Lake Be-Hédan, providing Yrfeđe with timber and fish; its eastern half is dark and full of terrors
  • Seat of Iskuldra, the sacred mountains where Kadavis’ primary deity, Iskuldra, rules her Court of Masks and oversees a squabbling pantheon of hundreds of small gods
  • Lake Valkayan (“VAHL-kye-ann”), so large it’s practically an inland sea, which links Kadavis, Garshán, and Kostivolsk
  • The Black Lakes, silty, mineral-rich lakes with geothermically heated warm water
  • Many Sorrows Pass, the only easy overland link between the northern and southern nations of the Gilded Lands
  • Nus Palavar, the haunted graveyard of Kadavis’ small gods

Create six nations or groups of importance.

Kadavis (“kuh-DAVV-iss”), the heart of the Gilded Lands. (A signifanct portion of Kadavis — notably, the island of Rasu Miar — extends west into the Unlucky Isles.) Kadavis is a prosperous, decadent kingdom composed of dozens of squabbling fiefdoms. Kadavan culture places great value on ostentatious displays of wealth and glory. Masks are a key part of Kadavan society, the fancier the better.

Yrfeđe (“EHR-feth”), in the southeast, is a superstitious land of dense forests, high winds, and harsh weather. Closely connected to Lonþyr by ancestry and culture, the two nations have been at odds for centuries. Yrfeđe is a rough-and-tumble place known for its timber, fish, and fortified towns, but infamous for the Wyrdanwod. The Wyrdanwod, particularly its eastern half, is home to the much-feared đargnr (“THAR-ghnir,” which means “sleeping shadows” in Emnian), who slumber inside ancient trees, or beneath the earth, and travel the Wraithsea at night to feed.

Their existence — and predations — have kept Yrfeđe from becoming as wealthy as the other nations of the Gilded Lands. Everyone in this bedeviled place carries a torch, candle, lantern, or other light source — as bright light is one of the few things that can harm a đargnr. Unlike the other countries in the Gilded Lands, Yrfeđe has a good relationship with the Grshniki gnomes of Mormú, trading timber, fish, and other goods for mining rights, gems, and precious metals — and working together to keep the đargnr at bay, as they also stalk the tunnels of eastern Mormú.

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

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

Garshán (“GAHR-shahn”), in the northeast, is the only country in the Gilded Lands whose wealth does not come primarily from the Mormú-Hús Mountains; instead, it all comes from trade. Garshán is the “gateway to the east” for the Gilded Lands, bringing goods overland and across the Lachyan Sea. Garshán has excellent roads, and ships, and their traders are well-known throughout the Gilded Lands.

The Garsháni have been marrying Sou gnomes since the two cultures first encountered one another. Garshán is populated primarily by a mix of humans, half-gnomes, and (on the water, especially in the bays along the Lachyan Sea and on Lake Valkayan) by Sou gnomes. Garsháni society tends to be focused on efficiency, and the Garsháni believe that every journey which is both swift and smooth honors the Uhr Theg (“oor thegg”), the celestial family of trade-related small gods who make up their pantheon.

Kostivolsk (“KOSS-tih-vollsk”), is a sinister halfling theocracy that stands in stark contrast to its western neighbor, decadent Kadavis. Kosti culture was shaped by their strange, oppressive deity, Xlě̀-Ceth (“SHLEH-keth”), who offers power and favors in exchange for personal sacrifice. The bigger the sacrifice, the greater the reward. The Cethinzalk Church (“KETH-inn-zalkh”) rules Kostivolsk, largely because it has proven so adept at managing — and weaponizing — what Xlě̀-Ceth can offer. Draining half of your own blood, or taking a vow of permanent silence, or repeating Xlě̀-Ceth’s name until you faint is all well and good — but true power comes from convincing thousands of others to do a little bit of that on your behalf.

When the đargnr first emerged from the Wyrdanwod, just south of the border with Yrfeđe, the church began a ritual which has continued unbroken for centuries. Every major church started a chant to Xlě̀-Ceth, accompanied by ritual bloodletting and ceaseless dancing, which has never ceased. Some families are born to become Chanters, Deathdancers, or Bloodfolk, and will die in those roles; particularly devout worshippers will intone the Ceaseless Chant for days on end, stopping only when they drop dead (and someone else picks up the Chant). The ritual is still working to this day; the đargnr do not trouble Kostivolsk.

Mormú (“MOHR-moo”), a narrow strip of mountains smack in the middle of the Gilded Lands, is the home of the Grshniki (“gurr-SHNEE-kee”) gnomes, who originally claimed the entire Mormú-Hús mountain range as their homeland. Their deity grew them from veins of precious metals and gems deep in the earth, and Grshniki have a sheen to their skin, hair, and/or eyes, evocative of gemstones, veins of silver, crystalline mineral deposits, etc.

Mormú has been assailed from all sides for centuries, with Kadavis and Kostivolsk pushing into their territory from the north, and Lonþyr and Yrfeđe doing the same from the south. (The underground portion of Mormú is considerably larger than the territory on the surface.) Some Grshniki have cooperated with their neighbors — capitulated to their oppressors, other Grshniki would say — or even become citizens of those nations. Others have rebelled, waging a centuries-long guerilla campaign to to reclaim the whole mountain range. One thing almost all Mor agree on, however, is that they’re not giving up another inch of ground.

Linguistically, Kadavis, Garshán, and Kostivolsk are supposed to feel vaguely similar. My linguistic touchstone for Kostivolsk is Proto Slavic; I riff on that for the other two. Yrfeđe and Lonþyr share a common tongue, Emnian (“EMM-nee-unn”), for which the linguistic touchstone is Old English. Garsháni has evolved to incorporate Tamosi, and in its present state it’s a hybrid of the two languages; almost all Garsháni speak Tamosi, as well.

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

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

The Godsbarrow handbook: an omnibus page for my Dormiir posts

With two regions done, my Godsbarrow material needs some organization — so I created the Godsbarrow handbook, a page of links and notes that attempts to organize all of it in a meaningful way.

Still very much a WIP, but as ever I’m wary of making the page — and this worldbuilding venture — too much of A Thing, because when I do that it tends to start feeling like work . . . and then collapse in on itself.

As I’ve done with miniatures, a little bit at a time is the way to go here.

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

My second region of Godsbarrow: the Gilded Lands

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

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!).

Two regions of Godsbarrow, the Unlucky Isles and the Gilded Lands

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.

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

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Godsbarrow Tabletop RPGs

Remapping the Unlucky Isles with Wonderdraft

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):

Still technically a draft, but this is the Unlucky Isles as of May 11, 2021 (created in Wonderdraft)

And here’s its predecessor:

My old map of the Isles, created in Worldographer

Some realizations

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.

Two examples:

  • 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:

  • Population 283,500
  • 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.

Wonderdraft settings

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): As snow-covered terrain, 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
  • 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
  • Vineyards: Vischer vineyards, a few squirts of #735B79, brush opacity 0.25
  • Snow-covered terrain: #FFFFFF, brush opacity 1.0, with brush opacity 0.5 around the edges and a few squirts of #847F6D (opacity 0.1) mixed in to break up the whiteness a bit
  • 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
    • Towns: Dot, 35% scale
    • Forts: Filled diamond, 35% scale
    • Castles: Box with X in it, 35% scale
  • Roads: Solid line, #411602, width 3, roughness 0.33
    • Crappy roads: Dashed line, #411602, width 3, roughness 0.33
  • Rivers: Width 4, roughness 2, meander distance 0.6, generally with “river source fade-in” turned off
  • Borders: Dotted line, #BB101C, width 3, roughness 0.33
  • 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.

Summing up

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.

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

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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

Godsbarrow: Sou gnomes and Tamosi, the lingua franca in Dormiir

After finishing my region-level work on the Unlucky Isles, I zoomed in on one area of Brundir — Sanχu, one of its eight caθna (provinces). While working on the “place ethnic groups and demihumans” step in Worlds Without Number (paid link), I realized that this was the first time I’ve had to think about language in a context that might impact play.

“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.

Linguistic touchstone

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.

Siral

The gnomes of Siral (“SIHR-ahl”) lived in constant fear of their spiteful, vengeful principle 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.

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