Saturday, February 4, 2012

Remaking a World

Previously, I gushed about the prospect of changing gears and starting up a new campaign. Now I want to go into a little more detail about what the setting for this campaign will be like. I stated previously that I was taking the campaign world that my old group from high-school used -- it was, in fact, our first consistent campaign world, and the first setting we ever used for more than one campaigns' worth of characters -- and revising the world along a number of relevant dimensions:

1) Make the geography more difficult to deal with, so that a journey of several hundred miles actually feels like it.

2) Dial back the technology. Instead of steamworks and science, stick with a properly pseudo-medieval feel, like Lord of the Rings. Maybe renaissance-level technology in the world's most advanced points of light-and-civilization, but nothing more advanced than a wheel-lock pistol or a cuckoo clock.

3) Space out the islands of civilization, and make the setting more parsimonious with its cultures and races; less "kitchen sink" than it was. For example, there's no need to include both Gnomes and Hobbits if they fill the same narrative niche. Ditto for Elves and Fauns.

4) Related to the idea of a small number of major cultures in the setting, I'm going to increase the number of religions I want to deal with. Previously, I would either use real-world religion, or make the entire game-setting a religious mono-culture (kind of like how in the Elder Scrolls world, everybody seems to worship the same gods and revile-but-worship-anyway the same daedric princes). This time around, each culture gets its own distinct religion.

5) Earlier, I stated that I want to dial back the feeling of explicit historical and legendary inspiration. That said, there's still room to model these cultures and mythologies after some real-world sources, and it's still important (in my opinion) to make the fantastic elements resonate with recognizable myths and fairy tales.

6) Ultimately, even though the game is going to play out like a hex-crawl sandbox on the local scale, it's important to remember that epic high fantasy is not about players playing in a sandbox, killing monsters for phat loot and base glory. It's about the characters getting caught up in a Big-Time Epic Story that carries them half-way across the world, whether they want to make the journey or not. The map must therefore be what amounts to a series of small, increasingly challenging sandboxes, with bottleneck passageways between each one and the next.

Certain of these assumptions are already built right into the Retro Phaze game as-written, so there's very little about the ruleset that I'll actually have to change for the sake of this campaign. But that's as good a place to start as any.


The standard Retro Phaze game includes four classes (Fighter, Monk, Rogue, and Wizard) plus an optional fifth class, Bard. I see no reason not to allow all of these classes in my next campaign. As for races, Humans and Elves and Dwarves will figure prominently, and I'm pretty sure I'll be renaming the halfling race as Gnomes, just because it has that fairy-tale feel to it. I envision the Gnomes for this setting as inspired equally by Tolkien's Hobbits, McKiernan's Warrows, and Lucas's Nelywn, plus an ever-so-slight inclination towards tinkering and alchemy. Then, just for good measure, let's add a fifth race as well: Centaurs. The addition of a cavalry unit always adds an interesting tactical option to the battles.

Cribbing somewhat from the Elder Scrolls, I want to give this setting three major cultures: a vaguely Norse or Germanic culture in the north, an Imperial Roman culture in the south, and a (more or less barbaric) Celtic culture in the West. As in Middle-Earth, the East will be given over to baddies and monsters. Looking back to that old map of Faerith, I can see a few country names that might just fit some of these cultures well. Laomark, the north kingdom, will be used for the Nordic culture. Eroyia (the "o" added to aid pronunciation; we weren't as particular about that in our youth) for the westerly Celtic-style culture; and, although it's not prominent on the map, the south of the Lethandrian continent was historically dominated by a Connaian Empire, which serves as well as any for a great southern empire. And Rune is going to stick around too: it was pretty explicitly based on Rohan once upon a time, and so let's make it a former part of the empire, a grudging ally, that sort of thing.

Most of the Lethandrian continent will have to be kept wild and sparsely populated -- in fact, I want it as depopulated as some of the wilder continents in the earlier NES Final Fantasy games, or at the very least, as overrun with wargs and trolls and other nasties as Eriador in Middle-Earth. Ah... but I'm forgetting the most important part. In the midst of all this brutal wilderness, there has to be one idyllic little isle of goodness, the place where the little folk dwell, along with some more-or-less oblivious humans. All the better if it's completely, geographically isolated from the mainland: an island. With this idea in mind, I decided that the campaign would begin on a large island called Latia (pronounced "lay-sha"). The north of Latia is a ruined, blighted land, the remains of an ancient kingdom called Œrland (or Örland), still populated by monsters and a minor villainous overlord (perhaps a 5th level party could finally do away with such a blackguard). The south of Latia is home to mainly Gnomes and Humans, with a few members of the other races (Elf, Dwarf, Centaur) to be found here and there, in very small numbers. Weak monsters, like goblins and wolves, stalk the wilder parts of even the southlands, and a foreboding Ancient Forest in the middle of the island is rumored to be the home of a fearsome white dragon.

Okay, so here's a rough sketch of the revised Lethandria. As you can probably guess from the squarish marks around the isle of Latia, I've already started blowing up that part of the map, detailing it on 8.5"x11" hex paper, at a scale of five miles to the hex. It should also be apparent right away that the geography of the continent is much more convoluted, and the addition of rivers and mountains and swamps and badlands will only increase this sense of "valley, chokepoint, valley, chokepoint..."

In an "old-school" game of D&D, it's important that the player characters be allowed to go wherever they want. In a game modeled on linear, epic fantasy, the map itself needs to curb that tendency. (The counter-point to this, of course, is that each individual "sandboxette" must be interesting enough that the players will want to explore it completely before moving onward and upward.)

So, the game will begin on the island of Latia, Gnome-country. Not far from this is Eroyia, a wild land of tricksy Elves and barbarian humans. To the north is Laomark, where rugged Viking humans live on the surface and Dwarves have halls-under-the-mountain. To the south, the Connaian Empire, with its heart in the Corscon peninsula, its frontier on the Sarid peninsula, and the horsemen (and Centaurs) of Rune a breakaway province. To the east, Arkhänia, where one is apt to meet goblins and trolls and dragons and maybe even Chaos Himself.

So far, I think I've hit just about every major point except for two: the setting's mythology (which is one of the best insights into what each culture will look like) and the eventual plot of the game (which is probably best left until after we have characters who have played a few sessions in the first sandbox -- but will almost certainly involve the revival of an ancient, warmongering evil returning to threaten the freedom and safety of the world's human and demi-human peoples). So, onto the mythoi.


There are, roughly, five cultures involved here, three major (Laomark, Eroyia, and Connaia) and two minor (Latia and Rune).

1) Latia is easy. I want Latia to feel very much like the Shire, a sort of vague and romantic image of pastoral England. Like Tolkien's Hobbits, the Latian Gnomes will be largely unconcerned with spiritual matters, but when individual Gnomes are religious, they tend to follow Elvish religion (see Eroyia, below).

2) Rune, being modeled loosely on Rohan and a few other sources (like the Scottish Highlands in the middle ages) has feel more slightly Gaelic than Germanic. The Runemen revere a single patron goddess, Epona, but Runeish priests also take care to placate the Old Gods of the Empire (see Connaia, below).

3) Eroyia is home to two distinct cultures. Humans live on the rugged hills and steppes, and each tribe has its own totem spirit, usually an animal. As for the Elves, they acknowledge three deific forces in the world: the Dagda Mor (the good god), the Morga Mel (the neutral goddess of magic), and the Rhita Gwr (the shadow of evil). The Dagda is revered by all Elves, and symbolized by a white stag (clerics of the Dagda carry a deer antler). Elvish Wizards commonly worship the Morga as well as the Dagda, and carry her symbol (mistletoe). The Rhita (whose symbol is a piece of sackcloth) is despised by most Elves, who see a "shadow of evil" cast on most of the world by the encroachment of goblins, trolls, and sometimes dwarves and men as well.

4) Laomark, far removed from the bright centers of civilization, is a harsh and cold land, with warlike but ultimately benevolent deities, a Pantheon of Seven consisting of Alfader (king of gods), Thynor (god of thunder and war), Aegir (god of sailing), Baldur (who rules the Halls of the Valorous Dead), Freya (goddess of love and justice), Hildrun (goddess of courage), and Jordha (goddess of fertility). Appropriately Viking-esque, but simple enough for a simple game.

5) Connaia has the most complex religious situation. For many centuries now, the "official" religion of this waning and vestigial empire has been the Church of the Three, which teaches that there are only three true deities: Diu Pater (the sky father), Gia Mater (the earth mother), and Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun/son, who promises eternal life to true believers). But once upon a time, the Connaians worshipped a pantheon that wasn't all that different from that of Laomark. The lost deities are five: Mercurius Trismagistus, Phoebus Sol, Phoebe Luna, Dis Pater, and Nereus Oceanus. (a) Mercurius is still worshiped, secretly, by mages and alchemists, but the Church believes that the promise of long life through alchemy is a blasphemy against Sol Invictus and is trying to stamp it out. (b) Phoebus and Phoebe are still widely worshiped in the countryside, but it's considered a mark of ignorant, rustic paganism to do so. Priests of the official Church take worship of Phoebus to be mildly acceptable, if bumpkin-esque, since he is ultimately another version of Sol. (c) Dis Pater, god of the dead, is believed to be a false and evil rival of Diu Pater, and therefore worship of this deity is an abomination to be rooted out and destroyed at any cost. (d) Finally there is Nereus, who is still widely and openly worshiped throughout the Empire. The Church considers this practice theologically erroneous, but ultimately so deep-seated (especially among sailors) that it's not worth the trouble of trying to eradicate. Shrines to Nereus are therefore grudgingly tolerated along the Empire's coastlines.


As you can probably tell, the Connaian Empire is going to feel something like a cross between the Roman Empire, Gondor, the Spanish Inquisition, and Shakespeare's Venice (cf. Othello). But it will be a long time before a party of player characters can ever get over that way. And all of the start of the campaign is going to be confined to Latia, and a major quest to dispense with the evil overlord who haunts the Ruined Kingdom of Œrland. As I'm still drawing up the three-page hex-map of Latia and Œrland, it will be a while before I can get to my next post. That should hopefully be a keyed description, with encounter tables of the Latian overland (paving the way for a few dungeons to get drawn up next)!

1 comment:

  1. Hey, LOVE Retro Phaze! I wrote a review of it for my gaming blog:

    Thanks for an awesome game!