Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Now PUBLISHED! Brazen Backgrounds: Character Backgrounds for Bronze Age Settings is LIVE!!!

I am very excited to announce that my Bronze Age character background generator is now published and available right HERE at!!! (affiliate link) From the DriveThru page:

"Welcome to BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS, a character-background generator written specifically for role-playing games in Bronze Age fantasy settings - and written by a professional scholar, with a doctorate in the study of ancient history and archaeology. System-neutral, this resource can also breathe life into characters for any low magic, low fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery campaign.

From the moment of character generation, these backgrounds will ease players into a setting that many find less familiar than the faux-medieval worlds more common in fantasy games. While some character background products offer a one-word or one-sentence description of each career, BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS describes twenty-four period-appropriate backgrounds, and then expands each background with small random tables for further detail. Many backgrounds add a piece of appropriate equipment to character inventories, or suggest character motivations and personalities. With this guide and a handful of dice, you can easily generate thousands of medium-detail backstories for Bronze Age characters who lived a little before becoming adventurers.

Reflecting the writer’s own background as an ancient historian, the introduction also briefly discusses tips on gaming in a Bronze Age-inspired setting, and provides a short list of suggested titles for those wanting to learn more about Bronze Age history, archaeology, religion, equipment, and fighting techniques."

Tell us more! Can we have examples? 

Why yes, of course.

A 1-page background description.

There's a robust .pdf preview available on the DriveThru page, but I'll unpack a bit more here too.

For example, here's just one sub-category within the "Performer" background:

"You were a puppeteer. Several times each year, the great cities hold puppet-shows reenacting the oldest legends and deepest tales. New cults also hire puppeteers to help spread their counter-narratives. You are adept at crafting and using puppets, at ventriloquism, and at copying funny voices. Add “medium humanoid puppet” to your equipment inventory."

As you can see, a few lines of added detail for this background flesh out what a character might be good at, imply the setting in which adventures take place, and add a swank piece of gear to play around with (I imagine there are a million ways characters could get in or out of trouble in a dungeon with ventriloquism and a medium humanoid puppet...). Then, you can roll to see why this character left the profession. To give two examples, there is a world of difference between two reasons a "Priest/Priestess" might have left:

"You couldn't bring yourself to carry out your first human sacrifice"


"You couldn't bring yourself to carry out your seventh human sacrifice."

Yikes! Not all are quite so gnarly, of course. Whether grim or not, many of these will open up room for those players who want to explore character personalities and motivations. Add two or three backgrounds together and you'll get a character with a very mixed, unique backstory, only requiring a few dice-rolls to set up [Can you imagine a character with the Performer-Puppeteer background AND the Executioner background? A sinister creep carrying a big axe - and a puppet? Just gives me the willies thinking about it].

Anything else? 

The .pdf is fully bookmarked for easy navigation.

One of the things I really aimed at here was more than just loading this thing up with trivia. I tried to evoke some big themes, particularly the ways in which Late Bronze Age Mediterranean societies seem to have struggled with social tensions between the controlling palaces and those living outside the system (see my "Burning Palaces" post for more on that). The backstories here are very diverse, but many reflect a world of oppressive control that is also teetering just on the brink of anarchy. Many characters generated using this tool have had experiences, or have made choices, that reflect that difficult reality. This is not to say that this is a very grimdark product; it isn't. But Brazen Backgrounds implies a setting with a lot of antiheroes - as well as champions seeking some kind of redemption for themselves and the ones suffering around them.

Ok then!
Folks, I'm delighted to make this available. Please check it out. If you grab a copy, I'd love to hear your feedback, either here or on the DriveThru site. Thanks, and very happy gaming!


Friday, May 24, 2019

A little more progress...

Oh man! I've been quiet on here since I've been working on Brazen Backgrounds, a detailed character-background generator written specifically for Bronze Age campaigns (but also useful for most sword-and-sorcery settings). I finally just finished the pre-layout draft, and the thing is 30 pages.

Next up - adventures in layout...I'm hoping to have this thing available on DriveThru within the next few weeks. Please stay tuned if this sounds like your kind of thing.

Monday, May 13, 2019

WIP: Character Background Generator for the Bronze Age (or any Sword and Sorcery setting)

Tables, they said, illuminate a setting by giving us random tables!

First, multiple people suggested different kinds of random tables for my Brazen Princes Bronze Age setting; then Jorunkun mentioned lifepath tables, and d4 Caltrops posted a very nice character background d100 table, which got me thinking. I've been a big fan of character backgrounds in lieu of a formal skill system ever since I first laid eyes on Barbarians of Lemuria, and I have enjoyed using them in various other systems/settings. Done well, a background system is quick, efficient, setting-suggestive, and capable of breathing life into stale old "Brogdab, Human Fighter, level 1." On the other hand, many background tables, awesome as they are, just give you a one-word or one-line description of a career or vocation, which means they lean on ideas or knowledge already at the table to flesh things out.

So I thought about beginning with a more-detailed background generator as a first tool for my Brazen Princes project, and I now find myself elbow-deep in exactly that [To be clear, however, this thing would probably work really well for many low-magic sword-and-sorcery settings].

I expect that new characters should each have 2, or in some cases 3, backgrounds apiece (I have my own character generation hack for Into the Odd that these can fit into, in which a player can choose a 3rd background in exchange for a different benefit). I'm finding that this backgrounds project is taking quite a bit more time than I'd hoped, partly because I'm aiming for conceptual density and away from redundancy, and because I've bitten off somewhere between 30-40 backgrounds. I thought I'd come up for some air and show anyone who cares what this thing is capable of.

It starts, naturally, with a die-table and those one-line descriptions of background types. You roll for a background category and then for individual backgrounds within that category. So, for example, the first category of possible backgrounds is:

d10 Killers:
1-2 Charioteer
3-5 Foot soldier
6-7 Brigand / Counter-brigand
8  Street Tough 
9 Executioner / Palace Torturer
10 Pirate / Raider

...but each of those results has its own further entry with a few sentences of description, then two d4 tables: "Tell us something about this background" and "Why did you leave?" Here's a sample entry from another background category, "Outsiders & Rogues":


Poisoner / Taster
Skilled in the detection - and application - of poisons, these specialists serve in the shadows or stand unobtrusively at the side of great lords, sniffing and sampling food and drink meant for the lips of the very great (and very paranoid). Poison-tasters likely have built up tolerances to low levels of common toxins. They are, of course, quite adept at poisoning others, too. 

Tell us about this background (1d4):
1 You once saved a dozen lives by detecting the aftertaste of a common poison in a particularly fine, expensive wine. Because you had built up a tolerance to that particular poison, you finished off the rest of the wine with great contentment. They’re still telling that story in the palace. 

2 You perfected a method for masking the nutty aftertaste of a common liquid poison. Apparently, one of your associates sold the secret, because the technique is now being used by other specialists around the Inner Sea. 

3 By adding a lethal ‘special ingredient’ to the ritual cakes at a controversial royal wedding, you once prevented a civil war. 

4 In many cases, the only difference between a poison and a drug is the dosage. You were a drug-maker for a famous physician, until the local lord snapped you up and made you his pre-banquet taster.

Why did you leave (d4)? 
1 Whoever poisoned the frontier lord’s drink was very good. They concocted a mixture that was subtle enough to escape your keen nose, mild enough to slip under your own tolerance threshold, and dangerous enough that repeated doses over several weeks killed off your employer, whose sons turned on you. You barely escaped with your life. 

2 After a few near-misses, you decided that you need greater familiarity with foreign toxins. You set out across the Inner Sea, seeking new information on drugs and poisons wherever you go. 

3 The local governor was cruel, brutal, and debauched. You were all too happy to sell a vial of poison to coat the assassin’s blade…but the assassin was betrayed by a lover, your part in the plot was revealed, and you fled. 

4 Really, you have to ask? You just got tired of sipping possibly-poisoned wine and went looking for other work.  


Putting these tables together means that with the clatter of some dice you end up with characters like the following (all this info is generated from dice results):

Foot Soldier and Physician: You were a chariot runner, a skirmisher paired with the chariot corps, so you know a foreign noble lord well. You were badly wounded in battle, and left behind with some peasants. You recovered, but your comrades were long gone. You then studied to become a Physician; the treatment of wounds on the battlefield was your specialty. Eventually, you became convinced that medical lore from the Old Empire has much to teach you, so you sought out the company of the sort of adventurers who might help you find undiscovered ancient texts. 

Royal Official and Pirate: You were a very senior scribal official in one of the smallest, least significant palace-states. You miss the feeling of being respected, but you also know how limited your real influence was. Eventually, however, a rival accused you of treason and you were driven away. With few options, you became a crew member on a merchant vessel, but the violent captain turned to piracy and threatened to kill any crew who wouldn’t help. You were only able to leave the pirate’s life when the ship sank in a storm and you washed up on a nearby beach. 

Street Tough and Tomb Robber/Burglar: You were a semi-enslaved pit fighter. The well-to-do made and lost fortunes gambling on your fighting skills, but you gained little more than scars. You finally stole enough to buy passage on a ship or caravan heading elsewhere. After falling in among a gang of burglars and tomb-robbers, you had a brief, intense love affair with a noble’s ward, who had caught you in their chambers during a burglary. Later, after breaking into a remote tomb, you encountered something in the burial chamber that whispered your name as it crawled forward into the torchlight. You didn’t stop running for hours, and then you went looking for a different way to pay for food. But you haven’t had the nightmare in several years, and now maybe you’re bold enough to raid the darkness again. 

These should give a lot of room to express difference among brand-new characters.

What do you think? Would a dozen or so pages of these background descriptions help at your table?

- 'Gundobad'

Monday, May 6, 2019

Brazen Princes: Looking for Feedback on a Bronze Age Setting Idea

So, in recent weeks some of you here or on MeWe have responded to blog posts by encouraging me to write up a setting guide for a Late Bronze Age-inspired campaign. 

Gulp. I, uh, kinda took the bait. 

Today's post, then, is not a general discussion about ancient history and roleplaying, but rather a sneak peek of my Bronze Age setting project (working title = Brazen Princes). To be clear, I'm really fishing for early feedback here; I'm hoping to hear some honest impressions of what I lay out below. Does this sound like the kind of setting you'd want to play or run? Would you be happy to throw some market-level $$$ at a setting guide that made adventures in this world easy to run? I'm quite willing to accept negative or critical or even just apathetic feedback, as I'd far rather hear that now than later :-). 

I have a lot more to say about my vision for the structure of a play-focused, highly-usable setting guide itself, but for now, let me know what you think of this world. The world of Brazen Princes is a land of ancient kingdoms slowly losing their grip, of old, necessary trade-routes severed by angry elemental spirits, and of peasant hordes enslaved by an undead amphibian hive-mind; a world in which amber or lapis lazuli inlays in a blade's hilt offer sympathetic resonance with sun and sky, making the weapon proof against dark elemental monsters. A world where a merchant-ship may carry luxury goods, vital bronze, or strategic astronomical intelligence from wise women who forecast the fluctuating strength of humanity's enemies. It is a realm of arrogant sorcerer-kings nursing old grievances, and of long-oppressed minorities who suddenly find themselves the most essential demographic in the world. Their choices will bring order to the world ahead, or leave it a mess of burning palaces

The Powers

Possibly obvious, but the cosmological worldview here comes from asking "what would it look like for animism to be true, but also a coherent part of a Hebraic monotheistic worldview?" The approach is also slightly flavored, probably too slightly to be noticed, by aspects of medieval Byzantine theology (sorry, I know, I am a serious nerd). The intent is to offer a (to me) refreshing alternative to the usual sword-and-sorcery cosmologies, while still allowing for pretty much everything present in most S&S - and also being subtle enough to just get out of the way if you want to plug in something more to your taste. 


In the beginning, Creator made the heavens and the earth. To make Creator’s presence manifest to the cosmos, Creator made human beings as Image-bearing viceroys, called to rule with power, balance, and humility. Alas, we had other ideas. . . 

Our ancestral Fall into sin is now only a dim legend, but its tragic effects still shape the world. Yet the oldest prophecies promise that Creator has abandoned neither the world nor us. Our tale, however, is not of the coming age of redemption, but of an older time – an age of silence and waiting, when violence and deceit are everywhere, and goodness seems only a lamp-wick flickering against the darkness. 

The Elementals

The Earth itself teems with life-force. Meant to aid us in the world’s governance, creation’s elemental energies longed for the coming of Image-bearing men and women. We came, but we Fell – and creation learned from us more than it had sought. From our lips, creation heard new concepts: love, cultivation, and music; also falsehood, theft, and murder. 

Some elementals shrank back from us in horror and confusion. Others, though groaning for the unsullied Image, still submitted to broken humanity. Eager to do their part in the world’s ordering, many such elementals took the form of useful objects, artifacts endowed with elemental power and ready for human use. Some few elementals, however, drank too deeply of human darkness…and made it their own. Drunk on our failings, dark elementals wander as murdering fiends, or cruelly dominate those foolish and desperate enough to revere them as gods.

The Flesh-Lords

The weird, necromantic beings we name Flesh-Lords first appeared some seven centuries ago, around the time of the Old Empire’s collapse. Not even the wisest sages truly understand them, though astute scribes do guess at aspects of their origin. They came from a place beyond the world-wall of sky-bearing mountains. It was not their intent to reach our lands; hateful of all fleshly embodiment, they sought to cast themselves as pure conscious spirit among the lights beyond the firmament. Instead, they found themselves among us, still trapped in flesh.

Convinced that their attempts to escape embodiment should have succeeded, these beings assumed that the fault lay not in their goal but in their methods. They tried again and again, casting their collective minds into ever-newer forms. At last they concluded that spirit must be adequately prepared to separate from flesh, and that flesh must be suitably modified to aid that process. Ever since, they have become crafters of flesh, dabbling in the arts of transmutation and necromancy, experimenting wantonly on themselves and upon all whom they enslave.

Whether they were ever individuals, or always shared collective hive-minds, is unclear. They are at least three beings. Thinking as a single mind, an entire army of embalmed humanoid frogs now rules most of the Land of the Lotus. The Amber Route in the far west is menaced by undead fish-men, and the Catacomb Lords in the mountains north of Gharit share both leather-winged lizard forms and a single consciousness. With each new defiling mutation, those who set out to escape the gift of embodiment become only more what we call them: Flesh-Lords.  Their inhuman tyranny is a stench in the land.

The Blockade

A century ago, the elemental energies of the Inner Sea assembled in council. The Old Empire that had ordered both human society and elemental cooperation was long gone, but the sea’s surface still crawled with human ships: vessels full of slaves, of pirates, of merchants’ wares sold using false weights, of darts and blades that ate lives in the name of one kingdom after another. Men on ships offered worship to the sea, pushing it away in disgust, while others bent to serve dark elementals or even the necromantic Flesh-Lords.

At last, the sea could take no more.  The sea-spirit council pronounced Blockade against human shipping, threatening to sink any human vessel. They suffered only one exception. All across the Inner Sea, around the edges of human empires, the sea had observed small flotillas of boat-people, desperate refugees pushed out by war or oppression and left without even a patch of land to call their own. These floating bands the sea-spirits marked, placing the sign of the wave on their bodies. To the Wave-Marked and their descendants the sea granted passage-right; any ship with one Wave-Marked human aboard would remain safe. Any other ship, to this day, is attacked and destroyed within an hour of its setting sail. Thus human shipping was quieted, but not stilled.

The Blockade and the unexpected prominence of the Wave-Marked have transformed the politics of the Inner Sea. This is now an age of crisis and of falling thrones, but also an age of new dreams for those once oppressed.

The Nations

The default assumption is that Player Characters belong to one of the Wave-Marked bands, but their adventures may take them to many exotic lands.

The Death-Land of the Frog and the Free Nomes

Animated by a single hive-mind, an undead frogman army has gained control of most of the Lotus-Realm, an ancient land of fertile fields under brooding, bejeweled tower-tombs. To fuel its arcane Flesh-Lord engines, the Frog sucks even the sun’s warmth away, leaving much of the Death-Land sunk in a perpetual night lit only by stars. Beyond the Frog’s rule, a few human Nomarchs still refuse to bow the knee. Can the Free Nomes unite to hold back the undead Flesh-Lords, or will their own squabbles and ambitions prove their ruin?

The Five Houses of Hadd

Using chariot technology borrowed from the steppes, the House of Hadd once brought stability to much of the East. Since the Blockade, however, pressure from beastmen, Flesh-Lords, and Wave-Marked raiders has broken the region’s unity. Now, five successor ‘rump states’ – each claiming to represent the legitimate House of Hadd – alternate between bitter warfare and mutual defense through ever-shifting alliances. A few generations ago, the Frog almost crushed the Five Houses; only a fortuitous raid on the Death-Realm’s tombs by a large Wave-Marked band forced the undead legion to withdraw. The Houses of Hadd were spared, but another hammer-blow could come at any time.

The Port of Gharit

Through this city’s gates and across its docks flow all the riches of the world’s far corners. Since the Blockade, Gharit has remained one of the few wealthy ports safe from sacking by Wave-Marked bands – mainly because Gharit’s ruling elite recognized the new reality very quickly after the Blockade. For several generations, Gharit has invited prominent Wave-Marked princes and warlords to protect, and profit from, the city’s access to trade. Sooner or later, most Wave-Marked mariners will pass through Gharit. Some of these will ask why other men, and not they, profit more from the city’s trade – and whether such a glittering port really should remain protected…

The Catacomb-Lords / The Endless Steppe

High in the peaks north of Gharit, Flesh-Lords devising new forms plunder both the bones of ancient princes and the fossilized remains of archaic beasts. For all the terror their bone-and-leather wings inspire, these lizard-fiends are no closer to their escape into the stars above. Even further north, the mountains fall into seas of rolling grassland, where barrow-building chieftains master the arts of chariot warfare and trade prize horses for bronze and other goods from the south.

The Courtly Wilds

A southern and a northern peninsula protrude into the Inner Sea’s center, narrowing the sea to a strait. Those peninsulas once held the greatest court-cities of the Old Empire. Perversely, when that Empire collapsed, these lands also fell hardest into chaos and madness. As more and more of the Empire’s subjects gave themselves over to darkness, men fell into beastlike ways, slaughtering and even devouring one another. Today, burned, artifact-rich ruins of the old courts are haunted by deadly bands of centaurs and beastmen – whose forebears, some sages claim, were once human.

The Labyrinthine League

When the Old Empire fell centuries ago, some of its nobles escaped to the islands of the Thalassocracy. Their sorcerer-wanax kings long dominated the Inner Sea – until the Blockade reduced these princes to fuming, scheming prisoners in their own island palaces. But some powerful sorcerer-kings have maintained the ancient network of labyrinth-stations by which the skilled can travel from location to location. Linked by the maze-network and hungry for vengeance on usurping Wave-Marked, the sorcerers of the Labyrinthine League work in many lands to disrupt the new order and reclaim their lost power.

Sha-Utar and the Sage Mothers

Not all the Old Empire’s refugees fled to the islands, and not all dabbled in sorcerous arts. North of the Inner Sea, some escaped into the remote mountains of Sha-Utar, and found welcome there in that land’s quiet, matrilineal villages. Sha-Utar is a peaceful land where men tend sheep, work metal, hunt, and protect the borders, while women learn to farm terraces by hoe or teach the deep lore of stargazers. Using ancient stone observatories, it is the Sage Mothers of Sha-Utar who calculate, season by season, the forecasted celestial movements that will drive the waxing and waning strength of the Flesh-Lord armies. Only able to calculate these fluctuations precisely with a few years’ warning, the Sage Mothers routinely send emissaries to the lowlands, advising any queens or kings of goodwill as to times when the Flesh-Lords will be most dangerous and aggressive, or most vulnerable to human counter-attack.

The New Empire of Mednash

Somewhat isolated in the Inner Sea’s southwestern corner, Mednash is a land of broad rivers that flow down from copper- and ivory-rich mountains. Though Mednash teems with peasant hordes cultivating the river-plains, an oligarchic cabal of four great merchant families rules the country, passing the kingship from family to family in a jealously guarded rotation. Their claimed title – the ‘New Empire’ – is partly premature impertinence, but Mednash is expanding, contracting with Wave-Marked allies to project their wealth and influence abroad. The Mednashu maintain a colony across the sea to the north, from which they have attempted for several generations to gain control of the Amber Route.

The Amber Route

This region in the far west is dotted with old barrows and treasure-mounds, not all of which may be safe to plunderIf these lands were only full of probably-cursed treasures, barbarian tribes, and feuding princelings, no one would pay these lands the slightest notice. But through these lands runs the Amber Route, so they are important indeed. For centuries, luxury goods shipped from even beyond Gharit have passed north on the Amber Route for exchange with tin and amber, both essential for the survival of the civilized thrones back east. Mixed with copper, tin allows smiths to create the bronze weapons needed for royal wars. And sun-gold amber (like sky-blue lapis from the east) is also militarily significant; sympathetically bearing the warmth of the sun, amber inlays on a bronze blade allow that weapon to cut into the forms taken by elemental spirits. Where dark elementals prey upon humanity, a brave hand grasping an amber-and-lapis skyblade is an essential help. The Amber Route is therefore a region of key interest to the great rulers, and the barbarian princes along the route often receive "merchants" who are in fact agents of the various thrones scheming for control of the amber trade. 

Thanks for reading. I have LOTS more to say, but let me know whether it sounds worth saying. :-) 
- 'Gundobad'