Friday, 10 June 2016

Fantasy Map Review - A Teaser for Erce

I've been stalling on finishing my Map Review Series - Given that the last one to review is my own. I am a bit shy and self-conscious about it really, given the body of work I have reviewed prior to it.

Anyway, I probably should just accept it will never be finished and get around to sharing it. Until then, here is a teaser to share with players for the Calmir Eastwilds, one of the Borderland regions in Erce and one of the prime campaign areas

Here is a snapshot of the whole setting and where the Eastwilds fit in.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Now you too can use Alignment Languages

Back in the day, when I thought alignments were stupid and confining to character development and lawful/chaotic made the least sense of all, nothing was more contrived than alignment languages. From the Rules Cyclopedia:

Each alignment has a secret language of pass- words, hand signals, and other body motions. Player characters and intelligent monsters always know their alignment languages. They will also recognize when another alignment language is being spoken, but will not understand it. Alignment languages have no written form. A character may not learn a different alignment language unless he changes alignments. In such a case, the character forgets the old alignment language and starts using the new one immediately.

So because of your philosophical convictions, you learn how to speak a new language. Right, way to go putting everything in black and white. I wondered if anyone ever actually used this bizarre device at the table.

Of course, since then I've done a U-turn on a lot of this. I've embraced alignments as a great tool for world building, once it is understood as 'picking sides' in a struggle between metaphysical factions rather than personal conviction. I've landed on Law & Chaos as represented on basic D&D being more suitable for D&D-style gaming than good vs evil (though I include that as well). And looked at using Clerics as mystical champions of alignments more so than gods as a way showing how alignments are less philosophy and far more cosmic forces that can not be ignored in a setting. And, like the world of the Keep on the Borderlands, Erce Dominions of Law are "narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures."

So I figured - Why not take an extra look at alignment language as well and see how it works? At first, I was still struggling somewhat with it, until I realised there were literary precedents for it. Most notably - Tolkien. 

Middle Earth is a world where words have power (an assumption D&D shares) and certain languages are more magical than others, notably elven and the black speech. 

Replacing these with Lawful and Chaotic and suddenly  alignment languages make a lot more sense:

  • When Gandalf recites the inscription on the One Ring in black speech Chaotic at the Council of Elrond, the darkening effect is tangible. 
  • The password to open the gates of Moria is the Elven Lawful word for 'friend'. 
  • And notably a variety of spells - Elrond's raising the water against the Ringwraiths and healing Frodo, Glorfindel Speaking with Animals (Frodo's horse), Frodo invoking 'Hail Eärendil brightest of the Stars!' to activate Galadriel's phial in Shelob's Lair - All of are incanted in sindarin the Lawful tongue
  • It is not a stretch to assume that the bird who speaks to Bard of Smaug's weakness, or giant eagles, are speaking Lawful when communicating with humans either. 
  • Galadriel says that her arts are somehow not the same as Sauron's, even though mortals call them both magic.  Obviously, because one invokes Lawful spells and the other Chaos magic.

Alignment Language in Erce

Alignment Languages in Erce is much like described above. They are archetypical and antecedent languages of metaphysical power - It is something discovered innately, as if remembered, and sometimes uttered spontaneously (the way Matrim Cauthon in Wheel of Time would utter curses and battle cries in the Old Tongue without even realising it is an example of how people tap into Alignment language, as is the ancient belief of poetic inspiration being sent by the gods, as if sourcing it from some ancestral memory).
All divine spells are incanted in alignment language. The runes carved all across communities within the Dominions of Law are carved in the Lawful language. 
Alignment language is also used for mundane basic purposes such as identification (calling out Lawbearers on the road, ), prayers ("godspeed"), customs (sacred hospitality of the host), rituals (marriage) and proverbs. This is because even such  'normal' invocations do have some power and are, effectively, very mild spells/prayers that anyone can cast. 
Fluency in alignment language is a matter of metaphysical commitment. Two clerics would be able to hold conversations in Lawful (though mostly on themes relevant to Law), whilst a casually Lawful peasant would only know common phrases such as alluded to above. Angels only ever speak Lawful. Lawful people who don't speak much Lawful generally understand what is being said, even if they can't articulate themselves well in Lawful themselves. 
Technically, there is nothing stopping a Chaotic person from learning some Lawful and identifying himself with a Lawful greeting. But words have power. Lawful sounds to a Chaotic as vile as Gandalf's black speech recitation did to the elves who covered their ears. And vice versa. It is defiling oneself to a certain extent to do so (imagine Gollum having to speak Elven). And the world itself will respond to such blasphemies in one form or another. The clouds do not grow dark when orcs chant "one ring to rule them all" in black speech. But when Gandalf blasphemes all Rivendell with it, it has a different impact. There are magic items that allow the wearer to circumvent such things of course
This also tells you why OD&D writes  "While not understanding the language, creatures who speak a divisional tongue will recognize a hostile one and attack."
The common tongue of mankind is originally a derivative of the Lawful tongue. This is also part of the reason that Common has avoided the balkanization that Latin did for example. Its origin gives it an inherently orderly and stable character. The other reason is that the gods of law have a vested interest in there being a common tongue and have prevented it from fragmenting. 

In the end, I have flip-flopped from alignment languages being one of D&D's worst contrivances, to it being an element that does a great job of demonstrating the value of My 3rd Maxim ("As made above, so seen below") in action - It takes a high level concept, alignment as a metaphysical force, and shows how this has consequences on a mundane level of the world. Something that really makes the conceits of the setting come alive. Alignment isn't just something used to order the layout of the outer planes. It is something with everyday impact for everyone.

The consequences may seem significant. Yes, you can use this to identify lawful vs chaotic people. But this is generally not a problem in a world like Erce, nor the world of the Keep on the Borderlands where the lines of alignment are sharply drawn.

Imagine A Song of Ice and Fire having alignment languages. The impact would be negligible. Those who are not Lawful (wildlings, children of the forest, other things Beyond the Wall) are readily identifiable as Chaotic without much need for language checking. Whilst the people of Westeros may be lying, cheating, murderous asshats, they are at least lawful and on the same side against whatever is beyond the Wall. That someone would foreswear Law altogether, such as Mance Rayder who abandoned his vows, would be something extremely rare.

I don't believe this works on the level AD&D took it to (nine alignments = nine languages). And certainly not for 2nd+ edition alignments where alignments are used as personality traits to be roleplayed moreso than allegiances to be honored. 

Though Erce has some room for good and evil, it is dispensible and it plays up the Law/Chaos angle far more. Hell, I even ditched Neutrality since, in my view (sorry, Moorcock), it is not a faction. There are some who may relate to the opposition more (the Lawful(N) barbarian followers of the old gods who live close to the wilderness perceive Chaos very differently than the strictly Lawful advocates of the Hearthstone Church and the White Goddess. Likewise, elves C(N) may be creatures of Chaos, but they have civilising elements to them that means they can be found in the world of men on rare occasions. But people with a heart full of neutrality? No. In the heat of WWII, no one entered the war fighting to maintain status quo.

Humanoids, Part III: Kobolds

Kobolds wrap up this little mini series on humanoids. Not because they merit a special place or anything. Really, it's just that they didn' fit into the previous two and they have just enough going for them to be mentioned anyway. I should say in advance: It's not a generous treatment.

Kobolds, as the lowest hit die humanoid on the block, get the dumpster treatment. With goblins feyed up, made a bit more spooky and capable, Kobolds are the ones left to fill another niche.

A quick look at the wiki page for Kobolds shows that kobolds play a very different role than goblins: They are house spirits, mining spirits, sailing spirits, performing menial chores for humanity. In other words, they are a race connected with civilization far more so than the mythic wilderness. And generally, in the garbage end of the hierarchy.

Intelligent rats. They are basically sapient vermin.

Kobolds in Erce are found in every major city in the west. They live in sewers and slums, making a living from scavenging, cleaning, tinkering and other labour too menial or dangerous even for the poor. They are also frequently used as miners, due to their skill in this particular area and dispensability as labour.

Even in countries where slavery is not practised, kobolds are generally considered chattel. Chattel to be endured at that. Due to their reputation for petty thievery and burgling, and for being vengeful murderers against any who slight them, killing a kobold is also generally not considered a crime.

The best they can hope for is to attain service as manservants or scribes with middle class freemen who may treat them with some dignity. Since kobolds are highly pack oriented, it is rare to find such solitary kobolds however, even when the opportunities are there.

They are excellent tinkerers and in fact quite imaginative creatures. To most humans, this simply comes across as the eccentric excess of un-ordered minds - Proof that kobolds lack the mental discipline to be efficient craftsmen or labourers and are basically useless.

Kobolds are at heart survivors - No race is as adaptable to circumstances in most any society, even if it means taking the low road more often than not. Despite their willingness to humble themselves to such extraordinary degrees, kobolds have an odd sense of pride. Their reputation for causing mischief, even killing, those who rebuke or humiliate them is well earned.

Kobold tribes outside cities and human or dwarven communities are fiercely independent and territorial. And here their creative tinkering manifests in a variety of traps unmatched by any other races, ranging from inanely complex and overt ones to deadly subtle. Usually, they can be found mining their own small realms in search of metals. The ubiquitous presence of traps through their complexes ensure that larger races leave them alone. 

Monday, 6 June 2016

Humanoids, Part II: Trolls

This is a followup to Giving Humanoids a Raison d'être, where I cover the Goblins Bugbears, Ogres and trolls. Or simply: Trolls. Let's throw in hill giants, ogre magi (Onis) and hags for good measure.

The humanoids discussed in the previous entry were, in a sense, write-ups of Gygaxian Naturalist critters. In this article, the remaining ones will be those of a decidedly more mythic bend. I've compiled them all under the label: Trolls.

I've never loved the D&D troll. As a critter, it is a fine piece of work. Everybody fears and loathes regeneration. But trolls, at least as a Scandinavian, has unavoidable mythic connotations to me that Poul Anderson's strange concoction does not meet in any shape or form. The D&D 'troll' is wonderful Chaos Beast no doubt, but it is not mythic. And trolls are mythic. Instead, I've stripped the D&D troll of its rank and title and assigned it to some others critters of mythic origin who could really do with a bit of mythic re-enforcement in D&D and are essentially English equivalents of the Scandinavian troll.

Trolls in Scandinavian lore come in different sizes - From small 'trollfolk' popular in Denmark to near Jotun like giants in Norway. I blended in the concept of the Hulder (also known as "troll wives") and the stories of how female Jotun are often great (and normalsized) beauties and threw in hags for good measure as they are basically ugly troll wives full of sorcery and wickedness.

What I mean by Mythic here is that they are more quintessentially 'otherworldly'. My Beastmen, Hobgoblins and Orcs are all of human origin, or close enough, and related to humanity. They can be explained, understood. Mythic creatures are not. They belong to a different world order beyond human ken, the mythic realm - Reality in the Mythlands is narrative and impressionistic moreso than natural and 'realistic' and so are the creatures of myth.


Trolls are an ancient and primitive race that primarily occupy the Mythlands and Borderlands of Erce, encroaching at the edges of humanity every so often. They are steeped in sorcery, savage force and primal instincts and many tales are told of the to frighten children and warn off the foolhardy from going into the dark wildernesses that trolls call home. Nonetheless, though most stories of them are of greed, cannibalism and cruelty, there are also stories of surprisingly gentle trolls who can be bargained with.

Four kind of trolls are generally distinguished: Goblins (also known as 'pygmy trolls'), Bug bears (also known as 'bogey men' or simply 'trolls' ), 'True' Trolls (also known as 'ogres' and 'hags') and great trolls (hill giants). It is unclear how distinct or similar these four truly are. They can be found mingling together as often as they keep to their 'own kind' and it is believed that goblins, though more like to give birth to more goblins may just as well have ogres in her litter and vice versa. Nonetheless, this writeup will pretend that these four kinds are distinct and treat them accordingly. Reader beware that the reality of it may be significantly more fluid.



Goblins are small, greedy, mischievous and often malicious creatures who live deep in the woods and underground. Cunning and masters of stealth, goblins frequently venture into the borderlands, thanks to their honed abilities to remain unseen. They are notorious for snatching livestock and children from outlying farmsteads. People in the borderlands are known to make sacrifices and offerings to appease the goblins and keep them from these practices.

Though many goblins are vicious and simpleminded creatures, a fair number have well developed intellects and magical ability is not uncommon among them. Goblins are known for being capable sorcerers and illusionists, able to wreak havoc on entire communities. 

Goblins also have a reputation for being masterful craftsmen and dweomersmiths. Such goblins are also known as "Dark dwarves" though any relation to regular dwarves is yet to be established.

Use stats for goblins, but with generous serving of sorcerer and druid caster levels every so often.


Bugbears are the things that go bump in the night. Also known as bogey men, or simply 'trolls' they are what usually comes to mind when one thinks of a troll. Though many tales are told of their savage and frightening appearance, few people have ever lived to tell of their appearance. Indeed, of those unlucky enough to encounter them, most of them die before they even catch a glimpse of what stalks them - For bugbears, like their lesser cousins, are masters of stealth and most commonly roam in the night, unseen and unheard, dragging away fools to their cookpots who did not know to stay behind locked doors in the safety of their homes that night.

Use stats for bugbears.

"True" Trolls

Whether 'true' trolls are the original troll species from which the others are descended is not known - But they identify themselves as being so and have the brute force to enforce their claim.

Unlike their lesser cousins, true trolls are not known for their cunning and stealth.  They are rather more infamous for their stupidity in fact. They roam in broad daylight and are feared for their ability simply run down their victims - That and their insatiable gluttony for human flesh. Of all the trollkin, none are as menacing to mankind as the 'ogres'.

Some true trolls are more true-blooded than others. Perhaps it is some evolutionary throwback to a time when trolls were less savage, but some are born with more dignified appearance, wits and terrific magical ability. Sadly, their hearts are every bit as wicked as their more brutish cousins - When trolls congregate in larger numbers it is usually under the leadership of one of these 'ogre mages'.

Use stats for Ogres and Ogre Mage.

Great Trolls

Great trolls are the rarest among trolls - fortunately. They are also the most dimwitted of trolls. So hidebound are they that they are commonly found accepting the leadership guidance of smaller trolls, simply because they have at least figured out that they eat better and stay alive longer in the company of their smaller brethren. They rarely venture into human lands, preferring the wilderness. Though if a human should be foolish enough to venture into the mythlands where they might stumble on a great troll, they are immediately singled out for dinner.

Use stats for Hill Giants.

Female Trolls

Female trolls, often known as "troll wives", in particular seem to defy categorisation. Regardless of the type of male troll company they keep, they can be anything from diminutive to huge and range from being hideously ugly to incandescently beautiful. 

The beautiful ones are almost always redhaired and often known as Huldras. Whilst uglier ones, said to be so due to their evil sorcery, are known as hags or witches.

Huldras are one of the most common trolls humans are likely to encounter face to face. When troll families starve, the wives go into the borderlands to entice young men to follow them into the woods where their brothers can carry them off to the cookpots. There are tales of huldras falling in love with mortal men and marrying them. But not enough that any sane man should not run at the sight of one.

Use stats for hags. Huldras use similar stats (but with significantly higher Charisma and often Intelligence as well) as their male brethren, even though they look slight and humansized.

Some fool adventurer tried to abduct save the Troll King's Daughter from her horrid troll family. She showed up with all her cousins to teach him what's what.

Closing Thoughts

Bugbears and goblins were, to my mind, really in need of being freshed up into something more than 'smallest hit die joke humanoid' and 'large orcs'.

Making them mythic and almost fey I think gives them a totally different aura. Goblins in particular deserve to live up to their folkloric reputation as genuinely frightening creatures. Both them and bugbears gain a lot of mileage from being mostly unseen creatures.

Next up

Part 3 - mostly just an afterthought on kobolds.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Four Maxims for World Building

This is a re-post of an article I originally posted at Strolen's Citadel, which ended up featured in, Issue 441 as well. I am posting it here as it still informs my general approach to worldbuilding.

I thought I’d share here a short list of four maxims that I use for good fantasy world building to flesh it out in a believable way that makes a setting come to life as a distinct world.

1. Internal Consistency, not Realism, is the benchmark of a believable fantasy world.
You don’t need to make your world realistic to make it believable. What is key is that the elements in your world are internally consistent. Whenever you add an element to your campaign, be at a race, city, country or person, always ask yourself the following questions:

Where did it come from?
How does it affect the elements around it?
How do the elements around it affect it?

Also take time once in a while to consider how the various layers of your world interacts. If ogres are accepted members of society, this is probably gonna affect fields of hard labour and what makes a better cityguard than a band of ogres? In my world for example, there are no half-elves or half-orcs. This affects how closely elves and humans interact and segregates them more as races.

You don’t neccesarily need to write these things down, but you need to have an idea of this as you go along. In fact, as you add more and more elements to your world, it becomes a very helpful tool for you as it becomes much easier to place new elements in your world in suitable places where you know it makes sense for them to be there.

The real world is obviously a great source of inspiration for this as it is a model example of a world that is internally consistent, but you need to consider how things such as gods, magic etc. affect natural and sociological laws. In fact, in a world that really is created by gods, it might even make sense to disregard natural sciences as valid. A quick real world example are the fundamentalist Christian sections of American society that have a hard time coming to terms with theories like evolution. Why? Because it doesn’t mesh with how God is said to have created the world.

2. Focus on what can be known.
Unless you are in it for timewasting, don’t bother wasting time on details no one is ever going to know about. It doesn’t matter where your main continent lies in relation to the southpole unless global exploration features in your world (only world I have ever seen such a detail relevant for is Mystara).

Contrary to how it might initially appear, this isn’t an encouragement to be light in detail. But make sure that you focus your level of detail on aspects of the world that players (or readers, if you write stories set in the world) come into contact with. If you combine this with paying attention to internal consistency and find ways of illuminating of these details connect with other elements in your world this helps players connect with your world and makes it come alive, as they interact with living systems instead of random elements.

Focusing on what can be known is focusing on demonstrating your world to your players, so as to not merely be a geographical and cultural backdrop for adventure, but a setting that permeates their actions and lives at every step in a meaningul and coherent way. This doesn’t require the level of detail of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In fact, one easy trick to use is:

3. As made above, so seen below.
This is really just an extention of the two maxims above, but one worth mentioning on its own. When you devote time to thinking about the more general elements of your world, cosmology, how magic works, how nature works etc., don’t just take time to conceive how this connects with the world on a lesser scale, but make sure to create elements that actively demonstrate these things. 
If magic works because of the power of words, make this an integral part of the culture. Nicknames are common because one’s true name is not lightly revealed and knowledge literally becomes power. 
If the weather and terrain is governed by spirits (or are spirits), how does this affect settlement and agriculture? Perhaps an empire has grown rich because it subdued its spirits to make the land bountiful. Maybe dwarves communicate with the mountains to provide them riches through secret runes and rituals known only to them.

This makes it easy to create unique elements that permeate every facet of your world and distinguish it from other worlds in the experience of your players.

4. Be willing to disregard consistency in favour of a good idea.
This might seem like an odd maxim, but the fact is that it is often far easier to throw a good idea into your world and then adjust its internal consistency to make it work than it is to come up with a good idea that will fit into the consistency you’ve conceived of your world so far. This is something to pay attention to mostly in the preliminary proccess of creation. Once you open the world up to others, this obviously only works with elements known only to you.

Looking back years later, if I were to write it today, I would probably add a fifth maxim on adding wonder and mystery to a setting by leaving things hidden, even to yourself as the author. And tie it in with Maxim #2 to underline how brevity is king. But besides that, all of this still holds up for me and I keep referring back to these every so often to check that I am following them.