Friday, May 2, 2014

An Age Forsaken

The fantasy setting whose development I have been chronicling here is formally called The Forsaken Age. It is intended for more or less out-of-the-box use with games of the D&D family, games whose underlying mechanical assumptions are all fairly similar: the various Retro-clones, Pathfinder, Castles & Crusades as well as the various flavors of D&D proper. And, perhaps, Rolemaster. At this time I'm not terribly concerned about stats, but I'll get to that; it's my intention for this to land on a tabletop next summer (2015,) so that's what I'm slowly working my way towards.

Thus far I have established, in previous articles, a basic map and about half of the linguistic framework for the Eastern Isles of Llethra, which is where (it is intended) the campaign will be set. Now I'm going to move to a different topic for a while: cosmology.

For the sake of clarity, though, there's something I should mention. I have another fantasy setting, Ytherra, which has been many years in the making and which is not a kitchen sink fantasy world. There is a blog for it, HERE, where you might get a little taste of it, but to be honest I don't post often there. Ytherra was intended as a gaming setting in its genesis but moved far afield from that in its development. I am still working on it, but at this time it's my notion to some day write a novel set there. It is not at all connected to the Forsaken Age, and I am trying to avoid any overt parallels or re-use of material. But of course both projects reflect my own aesthetic.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Inspirations: Powers & Perils

Powers & Perils is one of those games whose infamy for being terrible outweighs its actual ghastliness, and whose loudest detractors typically display an unfamiliarity with it. Make no mistake, though — while P&P is not the atrocity that some would hold, neither is it an unfairly maligned masterpiece. While it is a deeply flawed game in the vein of the "fantasy heartbreaker" it nevertheless contains some striking ideas and features. It's also a game that I, perhaps irrationally, have a considerable fondness for and I think it warrants more respect than it gets.

Powers & Perils is a game that really needs to be viewed in the context of 1984, when it was released. It's often criticized for being presented using the case system, a quaint and wargamey style that was commonplace at the time even in RPGs and which some prominent and beloved companies (like I.C.E.) did not wholly abandon until many, many years later. It's easy to call them goofy and unwieldy today but nothing stood out about case-numbered rules in 1984. P&P is also taken to task for the complexity its rules, which is admittedly high — and unnecessarily so. It's a textbook example of bad complexity, mechanically convoluted but without any notable gain in simulative power, in contrast to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery, which is complicated but gives you very high amount of detail for your trouble. Again, though, this wasn't at all unprecedented at the time; you'd be hard pressed to dispassionately analyze P&P alongside, say, Aftermath or Space Opera or even later versions of the Hero System and come away thinking it was that much heavier than any of those games. To single P&P out among all those fussy early 80s RPGs seems like an unfair oversimplification to me; in half-remembered anecdotes and outright fables P&P's heaviness is usually overstated today. It's undeniably clumsy and baroque but not impenetrably so, and does play a bit cleaner than it reads. No one would ever call it elegant, but it was playable.

I not only played but ran P&P back in the day. It wasn't a mainstay of ours but something we broke out on occasion because it had some interesting pieces. Although there are a handful of stalwarts still enjoying this old turkey after all these years, P&P is not a game that many people would try to play today, except perhaps as a curiosity.

Some might find that exercise to be worthwhile. As difficult as P&P is to get into and as much of a hassle as it is to play, it does have a number of features that are novel or well-developed. There is no "class" in the game, the only distinction being between characters with casting ability and those without, and anyone can learn some magic. The skills are largely professional, so it you want to be a ranger-type you buy the Forester skill, and if you want to be a ninja you buy Assassin. These skills have their own subsystems of governing rules that vary in complexity. It's an idea that was better-developed in SPI's DragonQuest, but it's not half-bad here. There are also "natural magicians," essentially a powerful third character type that you can end up with as a result of a roll on a character features table.  There are rules for sustenance; a derived stat tells you how many Food Points you need to eat in a day without being penalized, and various game systems touch on that rule, including some spells. It's a little more complicated than it needs to be but quite sensible; the privation rules in An Age Undreamed Of are inspired by this mechanic.

The game has an intriguing take on alignment, as though the author took the Gygaxian term and ran with its literal meaning. In this game alignment is not a moral label but an actual affiliation with one of a number of cosmological factions. None are "good" or "evil" in any real sense, not even the dread Kotothi. Any character can have alignment but for magicians the choice is crucial, because it's from these forces that their powers flow, and different alignments provide different abilities. A mage sworn to Law, for example, has a very different range of powers from one affiliated with the Sidh. It is perhaps the most purely Moorcockian implementation of the basic idea of alignment that I have seen.

The structure of the spell lists is also interesting. While there are individual spells as usual, there are also clusters of related spells that are learned as a group, for example, "Fire Powers" or"Astral Powers." This is one (of several) inspirations for AAUO's magical Arts. A lot of the spells are neat. There's a Sidh spell called "Foyson Theft," for example, that extracts the Food Points from a meal, rendering them as a small amount of tasteless and odorless white powder, and the food itself void of any nutritional value but otherwise unaffected.

P&P also has a pretty good old-school encounters system out of the box, and one of the best and best-developed treasure generation systems I have ever seen, with an emphasis on treasure that's not just coin and enchanted trinkets. With it you can generate all kind of things like books, carpets, maps and scrolls, paintings, metal ingots, glassware, old journals, statues, bolts of cloth and jewel-encrusted items. Built into this is an elaborate system of mildly magical materials such as herbs, various gems, unicorn horn and such that cane be made still more potent if magically enhanced. All this in addition to a system for generating magical items that's quite decent on its own.

There's an implied setting which seems very intriguing in the core set but falls flat when presented on it own in Perilous Lands, one of three add-on published for P&P. In a way this world supplement is the perfect companion to P&P, sprinkled generously with interesting nuggets and a few veins of gold but not really fully baked and with the gaps filled in somewhat halfheartedly. It another piece, though, that catches a lot of flak for being a thin veneer over historical western Europe. That's not a baseless accusation but it glosses over many subtleties in the setting (like the nation founded by survivors of a crashed spaceship!) and singles out this product from dozens (at least) of others for whom it is equally true.

While the Perilous Lands setting doesn't really sing to many, I challenge anyone to look at P&P's adventures and tell me they contain nothing to like. County Mordara, in the P&P base set, is a lovely little sandbox-with-a-plot. Tower of the Dead, the game's only adventure supplement, is a full-fledged mini-campaign in its own right, setting the players up against a unique lich and his minions and set amid a city dominated by warring gangs. (This backdrop makes a lot more sense if you've seen Gangs of New York.) It's not entirely like any other adventure I have ever seen.

The real oddity of Tower of the Dead that limits its utility is that it's geared to be a high-level excursion for experienced players with powerful characters, yet it's one of only a very few adventures published for the game, the others being the aforementioned Country Mordara (included in the boxed set) and a couple in Avalon Hill's Heroes magazine. It was a really weird choice for P&P's only standalone module, but then, it's not like Avalon Hill really knew what they were doing with this line.

I've always felt that Powers & Perils is the kind of game one can learn a lot from. Among its lessons are the value of good presentation, tight mechanics and aggressive development — all things that it teaches by the potency of its failures. In that context it also shows how a game can be less than the sum of its best parts, and how the games should ideally be designed holistically. But it's also got some admirable subsystems with a lot of merit on their own terms, a flavor that's quirky and memorable and some nice adventures. I'd sold mine off years ago but have recently re-acquired the game, which won't be leaving my hands again.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Inspirations: RuneQuest

Back in the very early days, before I had seem much besides D&D and maybe a little bit of Champions and Traveller, one of the things that widened my eyes to the broader hobby was a copy of Ian Livingstone's Dicing With Dragons, which was an interesting book in a lot of ways.

Most obviously, Livingstone is an English writer and presented RPGs from an English perspective. One of the games he described in detail was Chaosium's RuneQuest, then in its iconic 2nd edition. It was, for a few years, my only exposure to RuneQuest, because though Livingstone talked about it as if it were a major RPG, it wasn't until later that I actually got to play it. And it was decades before I personally saw a copy of that fabled 2nd edition... but by then it had lost some of its impact, because I had already discovered the third edition, still crafted by Chaosium but this time published by Avalon Hill, a storied arrangement warranting an epic series of posts in its own right.

RuneQuest 3 rubbed a lot of existing RQ fans the wrong way and bashing it in favor of RQ2 was the hip thing to do for many years. It added a few new rules that some felt cluttered up the system, but more importantly it distanced the rules from Glorantha — one of the finest settings in the history of RPGs — as the default setting. I was unaware of any such drama at the time, of course, having never seen a live RQ2 book in the wild and therefore having no appreciation, except by vague hearsay, of how good some of that early Glorantha-based RQ stuff had been.

Time and a collecting budget gives one new perspective. But to this day I still feel that RQ3 was a better implementation than RQ2. The rules changes were almost all minor, and the big one, Sorcery, was a significant and welcome addition. The separation of RuneQuest from Glorantha, though, was very important and, I would argue, a good move for the game.

I think it can now be seen much more clearly that even in the early days there was a tonal disconnect between historically-colored, gritty RuneQuest and dreamy, mythic Glorantha. RuneQuest just wasn't an ideal match for the kind of game that Glorantha was increasingly being designed for. That had to have been a factor when the time came to design a new game system for Glorantha, when it appeared that RuneQuest was lost forever in the mire of Hasbro's buyout of Avalon Hill. The resulting game, HeroWars, which developed into something pretty terrific in its own right in time, was nothing at all like RuneQuest.

Despite this, Glorantha worked well enough with RuneQuest in the 2nd Edition days that many of those products have acquired legendary status. I think the reasons are twofold. One, those early books, the Griffin Mountain, Cults of Prax, Pavis and Big Rubble and the rest, are just that damned good. Glorantha has always shined brightest when presenting itself from the ground up from the perspective of the myth-tellers. When described from the top down Glorantha is weird and off-putting and yielded some really awkward and even useless products like the Glorantha book from the 3rd edition boxed set. When you try to present a coherent description of Glorantha as a whole it collapses into a haze of contradictions and half-explained but nevertheless vital elements.

The second reason is why I personally prefer 3rd edition over 2nd; RQ is a marvellous and very powerful engine for simulating a wide variety of fantastic and historical settings. I think tying it to a single milieu obscures that. It's one of the only games to treat magic in the same way as it's handled in, say, the Icelandic sagas; not as some arcane art practised by some dusty wizard shuttered up in a tower, but as one of the facts of everyday life in a world seen as mythic by its inhabitants. Anyone might throw a hex or cant his blade to sharpness, or invoke the blessings of a harvest goddess. All while not neglecting the power and subtlety of the dedicated practitioner.

Just when it seemed that RuneQuest might be dead forever, it came back in the guise of a new edition from Mongoose. This was, I would argue, a misfire in some respects, because the Mongoose edition of the rules took a good part of their core flexibility away and shunted it into supplement bloat. The core book felt like crippleware. Although everything that was lost eventually came back, I didn't feel Mongoose did right by RuneQuest until their second edition, now called MRQ2. But it resurrected RuneQuest as a viable brand after years in limbo. And very interestingly Mongoose opened up RuneQuest via the OGL, allowing them to continue publishing the MRQ2 rules as Legend after they lost the rights to call it RuneQuest... and allowing me to pilfer from it for An Age Undreamed Of.

After Mongoose the game went to Design Mechanism, which put together a 6th edition that is absolutely terrific, playing to all of the strengths of every edition of the game. It is a weightier system than RQ2, for certain, but it also does a lot to model almost any setting inspired by history and roughly realistic in tone. More importantly, it places characters firmly in the context of their societies within those settings, one of the game's traditional virtues.

Its five magic systems add a ton of flexibility, lacking only something more strictly along the lines of Stormbringer-style summoning... but you can import stuff from other BRP iterations easily enough, or build it from the tools already in RQ6. For clarity the book is second to none. I find myself in desperate need of this volume in hardcopy.

Monday, December 30, 2013

New Hexcrawl Rules Ready for Alpha!

I am planning a face-to-face tabletop event in January. Since neither the new setting nor An Age Undreamed Of are in playtestable states, I'm going to use Labyrinth Lord as the rules set and Hârn as the setting. This is ideal because we'll also be playtesting the wilderness exploration module from An Age Undreamed Of, which is complete (in alpha form.)

I am releasing the draft version of these rules, which are pretty adaptable to whatever vaguely d20ish game system you like, right HERE. Hopefully I can get some feedback on it before the game. Anyone care to have a look?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mapping the Eastern Isles

After many years of using Fractal Terrains in various editions I have abandoned it for this project. You can certainly get good results out of it, but the problem seems to lie in then doing much with those results in Campaign Cartographer. I have simply had enough of the crashing. So I went back to doing my initial design the old fashioned way... on paper.

The first image here is the result of that effort. While obviously incomplete I am fairly happy with it and in terms of area it is far more room than I need. A continental landmass or two and a chain of large islands, of which the latter will be the developed area, the so-called (because I haven't a proper name for them yet,)"Eastern Isles."

Of the Eastern Isles, two are by far the largest. The smaller of these is yet un-named (because its name will be Dariscene) but the larger I can now name Llethra, from our naming language of Cythric.

After the continental map I drew an expanded map of the isles, littered with notes and features. This became the basis of my digital map.

I am sticking with Campaign Cartographer because it will produce the results I want and I'm very familiar with it. And at least this time around, I have a solid design that was transferred to CC without too much fuss or grief.

This was done manually; you can scan a paper map,drop it into the background as a bitmap and trace it in by hand, but I think that's more trouble that it's worth — I don't demand that great a fidelity with my paper map.

This third image is the current map of the isles in CC3. You may notice that the islands appear a bit wider compared to the drawing; this is due to my developing a mapping system between the paper and CC3 maps that didn't quite line up with the proportions of the paper maps. This might get corrected as the map gets developed, or it might not; the coastlines on this map are more or less the final coastlines but I may tweak, in addition to adding some minor islands and lakes and things of that sort. This can be done as each district is detailed. The hexes shown are 42 miles across, by the way. They are the "Large Hexes" that I have mentioned before.

The red lines represent the general flow of mountain chains, extending southwest into the continent of Emen, and northeast to the so-called "White Isle," a forbidden place beyond the ken of man. This is in some sense the edge of the world.

The purple line is where we touch on the subject of the last several posts. I call this the D/C line — names to the west of the line will tend to be Dariscene, except for a few settlements on the northwest coast which are named in Skörkaga. Names to the east of the line tend to be Cythric in origin.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Grammar and Wordbuilding

There are a couple of additional considerations that we need to talk about before starting to construct words from our list of morphemes. Just how do those morphemes come together to form words? This is a question with a lot of complicated answers, so we're going to stick to our Indo-European inspirations and ignore a lot of possible variations and intricacies. Even within that limitation, though, there's more than one way to build names. So we need to answer a few basic questions about the grammar of our naming language in order to proceed. We don't need an entire grammar, but we need to know a few things before moving on.


In most languages there is some provision for what's called grammatical number. This generally applies to nouns and pronouns but in some languages verbs and adjectives must agree with the number of the noun they are related to.

English, like most major languages, recognizes singular (nouns of the number one) and plural (more than one). Grammatically this is signified by tacking an -s onto the end of the noun or some variation thereof. So singular coin becomes plural coins, but singular loaf becomes plural loaves. Generalizing this rule, we might say that plurality is denoted by a suffix -s, except where the word ends in /f/, in which case the sound changes to /v/ and the suffix becomes -es. (English also inherits weird pluralization rules for many words from other languages, but we're ignoring that.)

Denoting number can be much more complicated than this. In Latin the plural form depends on the declension and case of the noun, and there are many possible combinations. Some languages, including Arabic, recognize a third, dual number. In still others the distinction is not between singular (one) and plural (more than one) but collective (any number) and singulative (only one.)

For Cythric we are going with a simple rule. If the noun or pronoun ends in a vowel, plurality is indicated by the suffix -ga.If it ends in any consonant other than n, the suffix is merely -a. If the singular has final n, the suffix id -da. (This does imply that if our nouns have cases indicated by inflection, that that inflection is something other than a suffix. Which is fine, and which we may or may not ever care about, and even then there would be ways around it.)

Thus singular eddra "song" becomes plural eddraga, "songs." Singular hearhm "helm" becomes plural hearhma "helms." And singular firhn "hall" becomes plural firhnda, "halls."


Grammatical articles specify the definiteness of a noun. In English we have four articles: the definite articles /ðʌ/ and /ði/, both spelled the, and the indefinite articles /eɪ/, spelled a and /æn/, spelled an. The indefinite article indicates some example of the noun, a sword or an apple. The apple indicates some specific apple.

Articles can be differentiated by case, gender and so on; English juts happens to have a fairly simple set (but not as simple as it seems!) Welsh has a definite article but not indefinite version, while German has articles that differ by gender, number and case. Latin has no articles at all; you have to infer definiteness from context.

In Cythric I want a fairly simple system, so we'll again use Welsh as the model and just have a definite article, y for nouns beginning with consonants, and yd for nouns beginning with a vowel or with n.

Word Order

Different languages have different word order. For some languages, like English, word order is very important: "The man climbed the hill" makes perfect sense but "the hill climbed the man" is gibberish. This is because in English the subject of the verb precedes the verb while the object follows it. In other words, English uses SVO word order, and varying from that order requires awkward contortions like "the hill was climbed by the man."

Other languages use different word order: Latin, for example, uses a default SOV order but because the subject and object are indicated by the case those nouns are in word order is very flexible. Most Romance languages are SVO like English, while Welsh and Arabic are VSO. The great majority of human languages are SOV, SVO or VSO, but examples exist of VOS, OVS and OSV languages. And as always, this can get more complicated; German and Dutch use something called V2 word order which is kind of SVO most of the time but not really.

We're going to say that Cythric uses VSO word order. We don't really care too much at this point since the kind of phrases we're constructing won't often include verbs, but later on that may be something we need. Right now we do care about the internal structure of nominal phrases, in particular where the adjective falls. We're going to place it before the noun, like English... but outside the noun's relationship with its article, if any. So a phrase like "the black shield" would be dyw y chaurn, literally "black the shield." Which has a cool poetic rhythm to it.


The genitive is one of a number of noun cases. It indicates possession, composition or origination. Different languages denote cases differently. Latin, for example, has a total of seven cases, of which several partially collapsed into one another. Russian has six and like Latin indicates case by inflection. Finnish has an astonishing fifteen cases. German has four cases and (at least in the abstract) kind of an ideal case system in my opinion. The nominative is for the subject of the verb, the accusative is for the directed object, the dative is for the indirect object and the genitive represents possession or composition. Most languages have cases that overlap with these.

There are two primary ways to denote the genitive in English. One is by adding an -'s or -' to the end of the noun to which the genitive noun is related. The other is to follow the noun to which the genitive noun is being related with of, and to then place the genitive noun after that. So you have constructions like Marcus' gloves or the gloves of Marcus. In both cases Marcus is the genitive noun, related by possession to the gloves. The genitive is either Marcus' or of Marcus.

In Latin the genitive form is derived from the nominative ("naming") form by inflection. So Marcus would become Marci, and the word for gloves (caestus) could be in the nominative or in some other case. Again, this is something that can become very complicated, but we're not going to move too far afield. For Cythric we want something simple and not too alien — and Welsh provides a fine model that we can use to illustrate a different option than those described above.

We will stipulate that genitive relationships in Cythric are denoted by apposition. That is, by the placement of one word with regard to the other. In Welsh the two nouns are placed together with the possessor coming second. So our manipular example would be denoted by the equivalent the gloves Marcus. Note the inclusion of the definite article the. In Cythric it works the same way. So "the king's hall" translates to y firhn wyrhn, literally "the hall king." Note that due to the lack of an indefinite article, just firhn wyrhn would translate implicitly to "a king's hall."


In a sense our example phrase y firhn wyrhn is an ideal example, because it's very natural to assume that if it were the name of a place, the article might drop, leaving firhn wyrhn. From there it similarly follows that the word might be compounded into Firhnwyrhn... perhaps the name of a town that was once the seat of an old Cythric king.

Even using our very basic grammar rules and very limited lexicon we can come up with lots of possible names:

  • Ylanwraga, "the Stones," might be an ancient ring of standing stones once used for druidic rituals. Now they lie deep in the wilderness and are used for sacrifices held by a nefarious cult.
  • Frhalim, the high valley. A farming hamlet high in the foothills. Recently plagued by a series of hauntings, possibly orginating in nearby ancient barrows.
  • Sorhmtharn, Hawk's Ford, a small but bustling town at a major river crossing.
  • Eddrachaum, the Shield's Song. A ancient lay of the deeds and death of Gesge, a tribal hero of old.
  • Fearmhlen, the Strong Hall. Seat of Earl Thermge.
  • Gethraga, the Spear Lands. An old name for a fallen kingdom.
  • Hlyndahot, the Hound of Ill Omen. A feared beast that awakes once every thirteen years to devour the blood of the innocent. Note assimilation of /t/ to /d/ following /n/.

With this, our first basic naming language is assembled and with some additions to its lexicon we'll be able to build many more names from it. But all these names are what we might call names in the Old Forms. That is, names as the ancient Cythric people of the isles would have spoken them. Not all names in the Eastern Isles have such an ancient provenance. The next time we touch on Cythric we'll have a look at how that will be reflected.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Cythric Word List

If the previous posts on phonetics and that kind of buzzkill stuff were not your cup of tea, you can start your name-building process here, with this post. If you did follow along with the last few articles you'll know that we have the first two components of what we'll need to develop the Cythric languages into a complete tool we can use for naming; the phonology and phonological rules of its ancestor language. Now we start making words.

There are basically three approaches to this:
  • You can create a set of random tables to build random syllables and assemble them into words. A somewhat slapdash example of this can be found in the alien language tables for Vilani, Zhodani, etc from GDW's classic Traveller line. The results of their implementation are... less than satisfactory.
  • You can use an online utility or program to build your words for you. As with the previous random-ish method, youre going to end up with a lot of junky words that you'll need to sift through.
  • You can make words that match your rules by hand. This works best over a long period but I caution against sitting down and writing up a hundred words in one sitting; you'll go stale fast.
What I'm going to do is hand-craft a few words (word elements, really) and supplement that using gen. How many words do I need? Well, that depends. Ideally, you'd want probably a few hundred, and really there is no number too large, but a lexicon of many hundreds of words is probably overkill for most people needing a simple naming language. For place names, you probably need a few dozen.

Start by observing how place names are built. Place names in England are best for this because their construction is most apparent. Sometimes this is obvious, as in Beaconsfield from Beacon's Field, for example, or Whitchurch from White Church. In other cases it's less obvious, as in Ayslesbury, from Aegel's Fort. It makes perfect sense once you know a burgh is a fort and that in Anglo-Saxon (Old English) the letter g is sometimes pronounced as /y/.

Half an hour with a map and Wikipedia should give you a sense of the pattern of place names... and a good idea of the words you'll need. Here is an exhaustive list of such elements from English place names. By the way, this is the exact method used by Ed Greenwood to construct many of the names in the Forgotten Realms. It's a method that works whether you render the names in plain English or translate them into some other language, although it does presuppose both a roughly medieval western European culture and roughly Indo-European language. Names in the Japanese pattern, for example, are very differently constructed, so for something more exotic you may want to range further afield.

So words for places like river, camp, hill, bay, port, field, mountain, farm, fort, crossing, woods, meadow.  And adjectives like rich, great, wide, tall, hale, and number and color words. With, say, ten or twenty from each group you should have sufficient fodder to start building names. Assign words from your word list to the meaning you've assembled.

Here's my sample starting list of thirty words:

element type meaning
dyw adj black
ethyrhn adj hallowed
fearm adj strong
frapa adj green
frha adj high
ges adj bold
reag adj old
hot adj ill-omened
shrapa adj fertile, verdant
therm adj grim
firhn n (place) hall
hlen n (place) tower
lanwra n (place) stone
lim n (place) river
llan n (place) valley
llyn n (place) farm
osyrhn n (place) river mouth
sirhn n (place) hill
sorhm n (place) ford
thra n (place) land
ashri n (thing) flower
chaurn n (thing) shield
eddra n (thing) song
ge n (thing) spear
hearhm n (thing) helm
hlynta n (thing) hound
tharn n (thing) bird of prey
thorn n (thing) hammer
warhn n (thing) chief, headman
wyrhn n (thing) king

This should be enough to get started with, and I made sure to include some elements that could be used in masculine or feminine personal names as well. Now we are almost ready to commence the actual world building, once we know how words can be put together.