Saturday, February 29, 2020

Maps Galore - Fractals and World Maps

Most holidays I poke fun at my wife for making hosting guests harder than it needs to be.  She'll demand to do things "the right way", which usually means cooking gigantic dishes from scratch.  Not quite growing your own wheat in the backyard for a season and milling it to make your own homemade flour, but it's usually close to that; we've grown our own pumpkins in the garden for pumpkin pies.  There were many years of trying to make pumpernickel rolls from scratch.  We discovered a nearby Amish market last year and holiday cooking has never been better.  The Amish are spectacular bakers.

So it is with some chagrin I must to confess how I became distracted when I sat down to make a map for Erda.  Somehow "sketching an area map for my new campaign" devolved into "Gee, I should learn various fractal mapping softwares and create a full fractal world, with climate, wind patterns, ocean currents, and naturalistic erosion".  So that's where I've been hiding out a couple of weeks.

I've owned a piece of fractal mapping software for a while, "Fractal Terrains" (FT3) that's part of the Campaign Cartographer suite (CC3).  I hadn't used Campaign Cartographer in a few years, so I needed to dust it off and re-acclimate - it's a powerful CAD-style drawing platform, but the learning curve is real.  My mapping journey took me into fractal world building, leveraging a free fractal tool called "Wilbur" to apply naturalistic erosion and generating rivers on a fractal world, and ultimately importing maps back into CC3 for finishing.  (There are tutorials out there, and the various online cartographer groups with the pros are filled with helpful folks, so it's not like I could've done this without the wisdom of actual experts).

Onward to the maps.  First up, here's the actual fractal world itself after development in Fractal Terrains, erosion in Wilbur, and then brought back into Fractal Terrains to add rivers:

Erda in Fractal Terrains
Here's the same map but switched from an equidistant rectangular projection to a globe, shifted to view the main continent that's acting as my equivalent to fantasy Europe.  (I love the globe view, I should do a version with "earth-like" coloring and some wispy clouds).

Erda Globe View
Below is the same map after some treatment in Campaign Cartographer.  This is very much a working version, as I still need to name the continents and oceans, make sure the rivers carry over, add arrows for currents and prevailing winds, that kind of stuff.  The jpg export isn't a good resolution.  Anyway, I'll be working on the CC3 version during the week to add those elements (names, currents, winds).
Work in progress - the Fractal Map in Campaign Cartographer
Here is a zoom on the starting continent in the northwest corner (created in Fractal Terrains).

Northwest Erda
...And below is an actual "fantasy version" of this section that I could use as a world map to start writing about the game world.  I'd have to check scale, but the continent is fairly massive - probably 50 miles to the hex like the original World of Greyhawk.  This would be akin to a parchment world map the players could have as a starting handout about their "Known World".  As I add notes about the places, I'll circle back to the map and put in major cities.  The starting area will be a zoomed in version of the area called the Midlands, at a reasonable hex scale (6 or 8 miles per hex or thereabouts).

Erda - The Known World
The Midlands are a chaotic collection of small holds and warring kingdoms, something like Dark Ages Britain at or before the time of Alfred the Great - Mercia, Wessex, Anglia, Northumbria - the area map will have all those types of small kingdoms mapped out.  There have been Northmen invasions, and areas carved out from the coast reminiscent of the Danelaw from real-world history.  Seems like a cool area and time period to give the D&D treatment, add lots of fantasy and magic, with plenty of strife and threats of invasion.  The megadungeon, Harrowdale, is on the western moors of the Midlands.  Beyond the western hills is the Gloaming, a region of misty highlands and kings of the old folk.  The Gloaming is Celtic / Irish / Gaelic in flavor - a place of druids and faiths that predate the church.

Heading east is the sprawling empire of Caronia.  I've had it titled this way in one of my notebooks since last year - but I may need to rename it depending on what happens with this scary carona virus!  As it stands now, Caronia is a sprawling homage to Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.  The Great March is a military zone manned by border nobles of Caronia and mercenaries of The Folk, the barbarians and woodmen of the southeastern vales (including Grossval).

The southern coast of the continent is home to the principalities of Aurum and the theocracy of Topaz, inheritors to civilization after old Valorum fell in the magical apocalypse that reconnected the magic worlds and allowed fresh invasions from Jotunheim and Niflheim, creating the current dark age.  Beyond Valorum (and off the map to the south) the lands turn dry and desert and we find the ruins of antiquity.

Above the whale road are Scandia and Greatland, the two nordic realms of the setting.  Invasions of giants and dragons from the west have made the northern cultures tough and fatalistic in the face of ever colder winters and darker nights.  A culture of "vikings" has developed, with sea-faring reavers attacking softer targets from Aurum all the way along the whale road to Caronia.  North of the Calden Sea is Thule, where I'll place the Black City when I work on a 5E update to that one.  So far my kids have been pushing me to build out Harrowdale rather than revisiting the Black City first, but we'll see what the rest of the player group says.

Anyway, this what I've been doing instead of writing blog posts for a week or two.  I've been on a map-bender!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Open World Building - Arbitrate Your Sandbox

Last year I picked up a kindle book written by Alexander Macris called Arbiter of Worlds, a general collection of essays on how to build and run an old school campaign, and why this is the most satisfying and memorable approach to adventure gaming due to emergent story.  Honestly, if you're still out here reading OSR blogs, even that of a 5E adopter like myself, it's stuff you probably already know (albeit collected into a handy guide and presented in a conversational tone).  A lot of it's right there in the 1E Dungeon Master's Guide, nestled among all the purple prose and Gygaxian expository.  Alex, incidentally, is the developer of the Adventurer, Conqueror, King system (ACKS), a BX-style retro-clone with the campaign and worldbuilding elements dialed up to 11, with an especial focus on economics, domains, and warfare.

Both ACKS and Arbiter of Worlds suggest a campaign building approach called "top down, zoom in" that mirrors how I like to approach campaign building, so I'm going to give the methodology a try as I start working on "Erda".  Like it says in the name, you start with the world concept, develop a large area map, establish some broad brushstrokes around the history of the setting, and craft some notes on culture.  Then switch to the local area where adventures will start for the "zoom in" portion, creating a small area hex map, points of interest, settlements, dungeons - the detailed sandbox area.

It's a rational model and mirrors how I think about world-building.  I like to start with the big picture, but it's important to shift gears quickly into the pragmatic stuff that's actually going to matter at the table in the first few game sessions.  Following a constrained methodology will help stay on a plan.  With than in mind, as I develop the campaign setting and megadungeon for the Harrowdale campaign, I'm going to test-drive this "top down, zoom in" system and post the progress here.

As for the rest of Arbiter of Worlds, the essays are good.  I'll pull it out to refresh and see which ones warrant discussion out here on the interwebs.  I read it on the iPad during some air travel last year in a 3-4 hour burst - I get in most of my pleasure reading on work trips.  (I'm currently working on Ovid's Metamorphoses, a gap in my classics knowledge).  Arbiter of Worlds is a $5 kindle book over at Amazon (link here).  However, if you already own ACKS, much of the top down/zoom in approach is already laid out in the campaign building chapter (Secrets).

I'll be back soon with more notes on the Erda campaign, and updates on my Adventurer's League gaming: Descent into Avernus - blech, and the start of Dungeon of the Mad Mage campaign - two thumbs up!!  Plus my home game has started their exploration of Acererak's "Tomb of Annihilation" in Chult.  We'll have stories.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Checking in on Chult - Fane of the Night Serpent

In my weekly home game, we're about to start the final chapter of Tomb of Annihilation (the erstwhile tomb itself).  We just finished "Fane of the Night Serpent", the third chapter.  Tomb of Annihilation is the best written campaign adventure for 5E, particularly if you like older adventuring styles.  The campaign features 4 general story arcs - free form exploration across a sprawling jungle hex crawl; discovery and exploration of a lost ruined city sunk in a jungle chasm; infiltrating a subterranean fortress of Yuan-Ti in the ruined city (the Fane of the Night Serpent); concluding by finding and entering the Tomb of Annihilation itself.  If you're a long time D&D player familiar with TSR's history, I'll point out the hex crawl sections of Chult are very reminiscent of X1 The Isle of Dread from the 1980's Expert Set.  The ruined city and Yuan-Ti fortress are nods to I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City.  The Tomb of Annihilation itself is a riff on S1 Tomb of Horrors.  It's several fantastic old school homages in one big campaign.

As the players explored the ruined city, it became apparent they needed to collect nine stone cubes from various trap-filled shrines in order to enter the Tomb.  They were harassed by ambushers and spies of the Yuan-Ti while exploring the city, culminating with the final shrine, where they learned the cube is already gone, and a taunting message from their Yuan-Ti adversaries dared them to come to the Yuan-Ti lair, the Fane of the Night Serpent.

There's no right answer on how to prosecute a conflict against the Fane.  There are ways to infiltrate it stealthily, and characters in the level 7-8 range have various magic resources to come up with an appropriate plan - disguises, invisibility, trickery, scouting for back doors, you get the idea.  Not my guys - they opted for your basic "full frontal assault".  It's 5E after all, and they're practically comic book heroes.  (My old-schooler in the group frequently gripes his dwarf cleric is basically a "Villains & Vigilantes" character with super powers).

The entrance to the Fane is a 20' tunnel beneath a ruined palace, ending in colossal metal doors on tracks.  They used Stone Shape to warp the walls around the main gates and create an entrance point for characters to squeeze one at a time around the edge of the door, and treated it like their own "once more into the breech" moment.

It was quite challenging.  There are pits with snakes right on the other side of the gate the players didn't account for, and not everyone was ready to jump the pits after squeezing around the gate.  There was also a handful of reptilian bruisers on guard duty (Yuan-Ti Brood Guards) and a boss, and a few of the characters that made the jump actually got shoved immediately backwards into the pits as a tactic by the brood guards.  With all of the "Fey Step" spells available to the group, the pits and the door breach didn't delay them too long, but they quickly found themselves pinned down and trying to hold their "beach-head" on the far side of the gates.

In another nod to "old school ways" the Fane has a temple roster that lists how all of the inhabitants respond when the alarm sounds.  It's very reminiscent of the defense roster in WG4 Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, a Greyhawk module where the players encounter an all-out defense when they breach the Forgotten Temple.  Those 1E adventures demanded that players be competent war-gamers and tacticians*.  One of the bosses even telegraphed that an alarm would be sounded, literally commanding an underling, "You - go alert the complex!", in Draconic.  For whatever reason, the players didn't prioritize taking out the runner, and a round or two later a gong echoed throughout the underground vaults of the Yuan-Ti.  The fight quickly bogged down into a Tharizdun-like siege as monsters flooded in from different parts of the dungeon.  (Note - the hardback book does not provide how many rounds it takes each group of monsters to respond, so that's a bit of work the referee needs to do to stagger the incoming forces - I used a blend of movement rates, distance from the entrance, and randomization that took into account what they were doing when the alarm was sounded).

My players were mentally unprepared to retreat.  When you've known only victory, you cannot tell you're outmatched until it's too late, like frogs in heating water.  If this were 1E their innate paranoia and fragility would have convinced them to bail a long time ago instead of assuming their plot armor would carry them through.  Instead, the Yuan-Ti "Nightmare Speaker", Fenthaza, the high priestess, joined the fight (with her controlled Air Elemental) as well as the Yuan-Ti champion, a brutal warrior named Sekelok.  By this point the players had defeated 15+ brood guards, probably 6+ Yuan Ti Malisons, a few basiliks, a rampaging triceratops... charred bodies were piled in the halls, smoke stung their eyes.  But resources were dwindling, mistakes were made, and the dwarf cleric went down beneath Sekelok's pounding two-handed sword.  Take out the healer and the 5E elevator stops working.  The players noted the Yuan-Ti were avoiding killing blows.  "Keep them alive", Sekelok was roaring to the others, "their blood will feed Dendar the Night Serpent on the sacrificial stone".

I was able to savor the utter disbelief across my player's faces as more Yuan-Ti descended on the entrance siege and one by one, the player characters fell into unconsciousness beneath the terrible beating.  It was better than a TPK since we don't even have to restart the campaign!  It's okay readers, take a moment and gloat along with me - you can do it.  The characters awoke stripped, manacled, and bruised, in darkened fetid pits looking up at dim grates high above their heads - prisoners of the Yuan-Ti.  I guess that's one way to get into a fortress.

When we regrouped the following week, the players had to deal wtih being in separate pits, with other prisoners of the Yuan-Ti (not altogether stable or sane), and try to piece together what they could learn about the Yuan-Ti's plans.  They'd be given the chance to undergo the Yuan-Ti transformation (if human) and join the monsters as reinforcements, or sacrificed (if non-human) or made into a mindless slave.  This became a fairly roleplay heavy session.  The Yuan-Ti spymaster eventually came to interrogate them, and had one of the mouthy characters, Woodson, dragged before the boss - the ancient undead warlord Ras Nisi.  Stories of Ras Nisi had been circulating in the campaign lore since the beginning, so it was a momentous meeting.  Furthermore, Ras Nisi was rotting away, like a mummy!  Woodson figured out he had the Death Curse, and was dying just like their patron.  If you're unfamiliar - the Death Curse that initiates the campaign is unraveling Raise Dead and Resurrection magics, like a form of magical leprosy, and blocking all future Raise Dead or Resurrection magic across the world.

The players were able to convince Ras Nisi their mission to defeat the Death Curse would fix him, too... They knew he had a harem of Yuan-Ti lovelies, "clearly your concubines find your current state repulsive, when you recover you'd be able to know a gentle touch once more..." that kind of stuff to appeal to his vanity and self-preservation.  Great role-playing, and they were able to cut a deal with the Yuan-Ti boss to take out his rival (the awful Nightmare Speaker, Fenthaza) and continue their mission against the Death Curse.  They also learned a critical piece of in-game lore - Ras Nisi's ally is an ancient lich, Acererak, and the Tomb of Annihilation is one of his legendary death trap dungeons!  Now Ras Nisi believes Acererak betrayed him because of the Death Curse.  The players already knew Acererak was involved somehow - there's literally a "Green Devil Face" on the cover of the book - but now they could port in all their Acererak lore above board at the table.

Ras Nisi's minions arranged a plausible pre-dawn jail-break along with a rough map to Fenthaza's lair, and the players developed a plan to sneak in and kill her.  (Now they finally remembered to use the Invisibility spells, their Silence 15' Radius, their Helm of Telepathy, etc etc).  They took down the Nightmare Speaker and her various bodyguards and warlock attendants in short order, earned back all of their stone cubes (including the precious 9th cube they needed from the Yuan-Ti) and escaped into the grey morning mists of the city, free once more.

Collectively, the players remarked these were the best two game sessions in recent memory - plenty of emotional highs and lows, some hubris was cured, but in the end smart play, good role-playing, and effective tactics got them back on top.  That concluded Sessions 26 and 27 for our Chult game.  Next up - they Tomb of Annihilation itself!

*I've found that G-1-2-3 can also devolve into dungeon sieges, especially the entrance to the Fire Giant dungeon, and some of the Drow and Kuo-Toa locales in the D-series as well.  Very nice that Tomb of Annihilation contemplated a dungeon siege response.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A Cosmology for Erda

After months of running published campaign adventures, the call to create has become too urgent - now is the time to start building a campaign setting and adventures.  When last I got together with my neighborhood group, we had 'The Talk'.  The frank "should we be playing an OSR game or 5E game" talk.  One player was firmly in the OSR camp, one was on the fence, and three were firmly on Team Fifth Edition.  So we're sticking with The Fifth, but we agreed to bring old school gaming elements into it.  Now that's settled, I'm embarking on building a real campaign.

I've got a framework I'm following to build out the sandbox and adventuring region, I'll post about it in the next week or so.  My goal is to make a basic "bog standard" Dark Ages type setting, which has to be high magic to align with the values of the Fifth, and lots of recognizable tropes - Saxons, Vikings, fallen empires, a powerful and omnipresent Church.  The game is less about any unique elements in the setting than it is a few colorful megadungeons.  Which reminds me - the setting is Dark Ages and Vikings so I can ultimately put a version of the Black City there.  Another megadungeon idea that's malingered on my blog for several years was called Harrowhome (now titled Harrowdale) - a haunted ruin out on the moors, cluttered with the detritus of ages past.

My idea for Harrowdale has always involved an artifact from space that plummets to the earth like a meteor, blazing through the atmosphere, burrowing deep into the ground, leaving behind a deep molten shaft.  The thing is a MacGuffin of sorts, a shard of Chaos or seed of primordial evil, a thing that breached our universe from the anti-verse, the egg sack of a nascent Great Old One or future Cthulhu.  A rough beast waiting to be born.  The shaft is discovered by neolithic humans and cave peoples, and rediscovered by the succeeding civilizations that sweep across the land.  There are always death cults, prophets of doom, deranged sorcerers, and similar mad men that discover the ancient shaft on the moors, descend below Harrowdale, and leave their mark on the expanding dungeons.  Meanwhile, the Black Cyst continues to sink into the earth, emanating its dreams of madness and destruction, and growing.  It's been growing in size for more than five millenia.

Church of the Ancient Astronaut
The cosmology of Erda, the world I'm using for Harrowdale and the Black City, is essentially "weird fantasy".  I love 1960's Jack Kirby comics with the Celestials and Eternals, Erich Von Daniken's "ancient astronauts", and HP Lovecraft's Great Old Ones as immortal monsters that plunge from star to star leaving behind ruin and madness.  In recent years I've greatly enjoyed the Thor movies with their science fantasy interpretation of the Nine Realms and Midgard.  Don't they provide a great reference for a D&D cosmology?

Planar Gates don't take you to other dimensions, they open connection points (wormholes) to other planets, folding space and time.  Faerie is a planet that barely spins beneath a green sun; the Unseelie live on the dark side of their planet, haunting icy castles on a hemisphere of eternal night and eternal winter.  Hell is probably a gas giant or some similar massive body, its terrible gravity increasing as a visitor delves deeper into Hell until they reach the 9th circle, a frozen core where movement itself becomes almost impossible due to Hell's unbearable weight.

My equivalent to Rome, an empire I'm tentatively calling Valorum, fell a half millennium ago during an astral conjunction of the planar gates, when the portals to the realms of monsters opened spontaneously and giants of Jotunheim and dragons of Nifleheim freely entered the world of men, wreaking havoc and destruction.  Maybe that's how Elves and Dwarves got into the world, as interlopers.  For the Norse peoples this was Fimbulwinter, the start of Ragnarok and the end times.  For civilization, it was the end of Valorum and the beginning of the Dark Ages.

There are "gods" on some of the other planets that resemble figures of myth and mythology, but they're just powerful monsters.  The angels themselves are a race of space-faring aliens that battle at a breach between our universe and the great beyond (a realm of insanity known as the Tatters).  They act a bit like space cops and fraternal shepherds to the mortal races, although their duties at "the breach" have kept them away from earth for thousands of years.  An early visitation from space established primitive forms of monotheism centered around the Maker, or the Prime, after Aquinas' Prime Mover.

It's an approach to cosmology that well reflects my pop culture interests without doing any lasting harm to D&D's default assumptions.  It's going to be great fun to develop.

*The image is from an actual church in Salamanca, not the fictional planet of Erda