Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Merovingian Sandbox (continued): the CIVITAS-centered campaign setting

We’re back! Let’s continue my recent discussion of early Merovingian society as an alternative template for a lower-prep ‘vanilla’ fantasy sandbox setting. I’ve suggested at least four ways that Merovingian Gaul is well-suited for that role:

  • it’s a post-collapse points-of-light setting, but with dials for ‘brighter lights’ if you want them
  • greater organic social mobility than later feudal European societies; better-suited for classic PC career trajectories
  • political-social geography that scales up excellently as you build a campaign through play
  • a reusable sandbox - cultural-political assumptions that support effective re-use of the same living campaign world in new campaigns
What that earlier post introduced, this post will flesh out in more detail. Please note that I won’t offer here a comprehensive survey of Merovingian history or society. The comments chain for this series’ initial post offers a number of text/resource recommendations for those who want to dig deeper. That’s partly to preserve my own time, but it also will keep the most widely game-able content front and center in this discussion. As I wrote recently, I won’t be terribly offended to learn about any anachronisms in your elf-game application of these ideas! Just recently, I’ve been running myself through a bit of solo Ironsworn in my own personal example Merovingian sandbox…which is good fun…and I certainly (and deliberately) include some elements that I know perfectly well don’t really belong in 6th-century Gaul. Play on!

Again, my aim is not to perfect historical accuracy in your games, but to inspire you with social-political structures that can make play more coherent and satisfying - while offering a refreshing alternative to the 5,000,003 extant ‘fake feudal’ settings already out there.

Sounds good? Let’s dive in.


Today's post will focus on the late Roman and Merovingian-style civitas (to be explained momentarily!). I think that putting this institution at the heart of setting design can make campaigns more interesting and easier to run. To unpack what I'm talking about, we need to get a little technical and discuss the geographical organization of space in late antique and early Merovingian society. 

At the lowest level, the countryside was divided up into pagi (singular pagus) - rural districts (the word is related to modern French le pays, 'country, region' and thus English 'peasant'; our English word "pagan" comes from Latin paganus, "someone who lives out in the countryside" - in other words, "a rustic, a redneck, a hick" - the term 'pagan' reflects ancient urban prejudices, the urban focus of many early Christian communities, and the slower Christianization of the rural population). Out in the pagi, you'd find your little villages, your land-owner estates and various farms, your shrines both ruined and current, maybe an isolated monastery here and there, your mines, various workshops, etc. 

But even though the pagi formed the lowest level of geographic 'building block', it was the next step up that really was fundamental for social organization. 

Multiple pagi together formed the territory of a civitas (plural civitates) - a "city" (sort of; the word is related to Spanish ciudad and English 'city'). A civitas was a city - an urban central space - but it was more than that; the term also encompassed the entire territory surrounding the 'city'. If you're familiar with the large counties and county seats of the western United States, they provide a useful mental analogy: a whole lot of fairly open space administered from a central location. The key thing to understand is that there was a difference between 'urban' and 'rural' space, but the entire thing was the civitas. In many cases, the territorial outlines of civitates still reflected in part the territories of old Iron Age Gallic tribes/polities from before the Roman conquest centuries earlier. So you can translate 'civitas' as 'city' but there's some cause for seeing it as related to tribe, nation, or district (though each such translation would have its own limits or problems too). 

For example, around the year 311 CE - back in late Roman times, prior to Merovingian rule - a resident of the Aeduan civitas (around Autun in modern Burgundy) gave a formal speech to the emperor Constantine, and asked rhetorically: "for which gens [race/people/clan/nation] in all the world should ask to be placed before the Aeduans in love of the Roman name?" As that flowery question attests, a separate identification with one's local territorial name was understood as important, centuries after the Roman conquest, and was perfectly compatible with loyalty to the Roman state. 

The pattern continued into Merovingian times. Here's a key point: for descendants of the Gallo-Roman population living under Merovingian rule, the civitas was a primary focus of identity. To put that more simply, if someone asked you "who are your people?" your answer usually would name your civitas. Yes, you might identify as a Roman (or as a Frank), you might be Christian, but your geographic allegiance was tied to your local 'city'. 

In the wake of the "fall of the western Roman Empire" and the fragmentation of many economic, social, and administrative networks, the centrality of the local civitas provided a measure of continuity despite the collapse. One often reads that "the medieval church inherited and filled the vacuum left by Roman government in the West," but that statement is fairly misleading. Surviving written sources were mostly written by and/or kept by churchmen, so (surprise!) they tend to reflect ecclesiastical or monastic interests. But the glue holding society together owed much to the continuation of local government within the civitates. In fact, as often as not it was the church's own adaptation to late Roman civic and provincial structures that made it a useful part of local administration! (I'll return later to the important roles bishops played within civitates). 

Even as long-range networks suffered profound (but not total) disruption, even as violence swept across much of Gaul, life in many civitates continued apace. The centrality of the civitas meant that peasants still dealt with local landowners, local families still sought advantageous marriages within local social networks, local administrators still collected taxes (and the continuance of taxation into Merovingian times now looks more important than it did to scholars generations ago). It was, now, less likely (though not impossible) for locals to interact with travelers from afar; but they still interacted routinely with fellows from across the same 'city' territory. So you can almost think of the civitas as a kind of cellular organismic structure, keeping life in motion, even when isolated from other communities - like a self-sufficient (if less complex) single-celled organism. 

And that's why the city/civitas is the basic building block for a Merovingian sandbox: just as every complex living organism is made up of discrete cells, kingdoms and large territorial units were made up of, and relied heavily on, individual civitates

Compared to older Roman bureaucratic institutions, Merovingian top-down administration was pretty laughable (though only in comparison; again, modern scholarship has developed more sympathy and respect for 6th-century government). When kings or princes held territory, what that meant functionally was controlling the appointment of administrators at the civitas level, and controlling access to the tax revenues and military recruitment from across a civitas' lands. This isn't too dissimilar from later feudal relationships ("I've little effective bureaucracy, so you send me troops and $$$ when I need them") but there was a key difference: power certainly was personal, but the focus of royal-local relationships retained a wider collective/communal aspect. 

So, if you were a king and you wanted more power and wealth, you wanted more civitates. You could (and some did) launch destructive raids for plunder into neighboring territories, but that wasn't a great long-term solution. What you really wanted was to secure effective control over the tax proceeds of an entire civitas. To do so, you probably needed to start a war, but a scorched-earth war of total conquest would be ... kind of stupid, since it would destroy the very resources you were trying to annex. Better to fight directly against the army of your opponent (or just murder/threaten them) and wrest control of a fairly intact civitas when done. Alternately, you could use intrigue: find some way to subvert those in office at a neighboring civitas, and get them to open the gates to your troops. Bloodless and enriching. 

Who were those office-holders? Rulers typically appointed a Count to oversee a civitas. Above a Count, a Duke might be given authority over a region, consisting of a group of multiple civitates. Altogether, these would make up your kingdom. But there was just one "Merovingian realm" - one of the more curious aspects of Merovingian history is the profound fragmentation of Merovingian territory across "Francia". This, too, is because of the role of civitates. Focused on gaining more tax proceeds, princes often accepted/demanded control of different cities even when they weren't geographically adjacent. This could lead to weird political maps like these: 

Vidal de Lablache, Gaul in 561

...which changed, only 27 years later, to this: 

Vidal de Lablache, Gaul in 587

ALL that colored territory makes up "the Merovingian realm" - but it was divided, again and again and again, into smaller holdings reporting to different members of the family dynasty. Their internecine struggles kept political affairs lively, but the importance of the civitas not only shaped but also constrained (to some extent) the destructiveness of warfare (with notable exceptions...). 


Alongside, and parallel to the structures discussed above, Christian churches maintained a related territorial system. Little parish churches out in the pagi reported to bishops in civitates. In fact, by the later sixth century, in most cases the location of a bishop's cathedral seat and a civitas 'capital' were usually synonymous. Bishops themselves reported to metropolitan bishops who oversaw provinces, which initially followed the old map of late Roman provinces very closely. The map below, for example, illustrates late antique church provincial boundaries (with one full province, Lugdenensis Prima, highlighted): 

Adapted from Mathisen & Shanzer, Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources

In this way, even when old Roman governmental structures fell apart, ecclesiastical networks did continue to keep lines of communication between civitates open. It got trickier when kings nabbed themselves new civitates, so that different bishops across one province oversaw flocks reporting to different kings. This could lead to the creation of new 'chains of command' disrupting old structures. 

Written sources also suggest that kings or their agents often felt worried about the potential for bishops to betray kings. There's a pretty good chance that those suspicions were (usually) unnecessary, but numerous episodes involved some fear that a bishop might open the gates/hand their city over to agents of another king. This sometimes led to violent oppression in which counts attacked, imprisoned, or exiled suspect bishops. Remember the intrigues I mentioned above? Far from being out of the limelight, Merovingian bishops were such central figures in late Roman society that they almost automatically got caught up in the political affairs of the age. 

Ok, whew. That's been a lot of nerdy stuff, hasn't it? Let's switch gears now and talk about applying it all at the gaming table. 


If you're still with me, thanks for bearing with all that background. Now how can it help us run a smooth campaign?

+ BUILD IT AS YOU GO: you know that (excellent) advice to start small with a campaign map, and only build what you need? The pagus-civitas-province/region-kingdom spectrum offers a template for building just what you need, but with enough structure for everything to work coherently when you're done. Want to run some Lvl 1 types through a small dungeon-crawl after they tussle with bandits or wolves? Fine, create one pagus - one rural district. Just throw a few small square miles onto paper, with a background awareness that 'somewhere out there' lies "the city" - the seat of the whole local civitas. If you're feeling ambitious, go ahead and name the civitas/city. That's all you need, but if you want more, this whole little area has built-in integration with a larger unit nearby. 

Then, after the PCs have leveled up a bit, have a local landowner or a priest or bishop call them into the local city for help with some urban adventures. Note that the people in power in the city are NOT isolated from the rural districts; their own local social networks demand their involvement all over the civitas, so it's quite appropriate to introduce them as early as you want. 

As time goes on, ambitious PCs might become local landowners, abbots of local monasteries, Count of the local city, bishop or archpresbyter of the local city, etc., etc. But wait, they can't ALL be Count of the city, oh no! Wait - in what's now Burgundy, there is some evidence of the Burgundian kingdom (early contemporaries who fell to Merovingian conquest in the 530s) assigning TWO Counts per city, one to administer 'Roman' affairs and one to oversee the immigrant Germanic Burgundian population. Problem solved. 

Later, you can start branching out into much bigger adventures that require engagement with surrounding civitates. The nice thing about the civitas model is that the whole thing tesselates, while permitting diversity. You needn't know what's over the horizon until you need it, but you know it will follow the same basic pattern of rural districts integrated with a central civitas seat. Who knows what happens next - maybe PCs become Dukes of surrounding regions, or even fight their way into the royal dynasty and becomes sub-kings. 

+ WAIT, IS THIS A FRAUD? HOW IS THIS ANY DIFFERENT FROM ANY OTHER SETTING? Yeah, don't feudal maps also include lots of little villages and some cities and kings who want to squeeze it all dry while still looking good in the history books? 

Yes. But fairly differently. 

As I've discussed before, feudal societies (while very, very diverse) had their own certain logic. 

As an overgeneralization, feudal societies organized space in less coherent ways (I think that's a fair way to describe what I'm getting at). Chartered towns were generally exempted from many of the feudal/manorial land-tenure relations around them. They were, of course, still connected to the land in various ways, but the underlying social structures tended to emphasize difference between rural and urban spaces. In the Merovingian civitas model, rural and urban spaces are more connected by coherent social networks, rather than divided between them. This means that a patron for that dungeoncrawl mission last week is just as likely to want the PCs' help in town, and vice versa. PCs can go back and forth between all the different landscapes of the campaign and become more integrated into society at each step, rather than always drifting as outsiders. There's a certain mystique of the alienated drifter-adventurer that many gamers find appealing, but I suspect this tells us more about our own individualistic society than it does about the past. A Merovingian sandbox offers a post-collapse and often bleak and violent setting, but one where social networks and identities matter. 

As members of the same civitas, starting PCs can be as different from each other as you want, but they retain a common sense of place and a shared identity. They are more or less invested in a community (albeit one with its own, potentially vicious, internal politics). 

HARUMPH, FINE. NOW TALK MORE ABOUT INTRIGUE MISSIONS. Ok, I'll humor you. Although you can just build up your setting layer by layer, you can have even more fun if you decide early on to locate play right on the borderlands. That might mean a B2-style Keep on the Borderlands frontier, but it could just be (or could also be) the edge between two civitates, especially two civitates owing allegiance to different kings. 

In that context, things can get quite interesting, quite early on. 

That landowner you interacted with last session - why is he meeting with warriors from just across the border? Who is framing the local bishop for treason (or is he being framed)? Almost from the start of a campaign, you can weave in a plot to subvert the local civitas and flip it to a neighboring kingdom. How will the PCs react? Will they join the plot, and profit? Will they stop the plot, and secure favor from their own Count or King? Shenanigans ensue, with plenty to do for Fighters, Thieves, Rangers, and Clerics. 

DIDN'T YOU SAY SOMETHING ABOUT RECYCLING YOUR CAMPAIGN SETTING? Yep. Let's say you try this out, and you like it. You run an epic campaign after which your players have become Counts, Dukes, Metropolitan Bishops, and even Queens or Kings! Nice. Now those characters have left their fingerprints all over things. What if you've invested lots into the setting and you'd rather not reinvent the wheel for another campaign? 

Remember how I showed two maps above that illustrated shifting royal borders in just a few decades? 

Unlike later European generations that favored primogeniture (the firstborn kid, usually male kid, inherits everything), Merovingians practiced partible inheritance - chop that property up, and give a bit to all the heirs! This is why the political map looked so fractured, even though a single Merovingian realm theoretically existed. Periodically, a strong ruler did emerge to consolidate that whole realm into one big territory. No big deal - upon that strong ruler's death, the whole thing was liable to get chopped up once again. 

This means that, in a Merovingian-inspired sandbox, you can have characters achieve profound glory by conquering or consolidating the entire realm, but you can count on cultural practices dividing everything back up again within a few generations. So long as you maintain the same basic cultural practices and civitas identities across your setting, you run and rerun and rerun the same setting, a couple generations later each time, without retconning or pretending away the achievements of an earlier group in play. 

OK - I'm going to stop here for now. There's loads more I could discuss, but I'm not sure whether any of this is making sense or seeming compelling. What should I clarify? What ideas have I sparked? Does this all make sense? I'll find out - if you comment.

Happy gaming!

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Merovingian Sandbox (quick preamble update): Skerples on Gregory of Tours on Merovingian rulers

 For those interested in my emerging/pending little series on a Merovingian-inspired fantasy sandbox, I've just noticed that Skerples (of the Coins and Scrolls blog) had an interesting post back in 2017: a "Table of Rulers" with a metric ton of sample lines borrowed from the early Merovingian-era bishop/historian, Gregory of Tours. Arranged on a random-roll table, the entries allow one to: 

...roll up barbarian kings, tormented bishops, feuding dukes, brutal counts, and any other disreputable people your setting might require. Imagine you are reading a history book about your setting, or a ruler in your setting. Roll 2 or 3 times on these tables to get some sentences that might appear in a paragraph about your ruler.

A cool resource, and quite worth checking out if you're waiting patiently for me to get my next proper installment posted here. Meanwhile, stay tuned!

Monday, May 16, 2022

Early Merovingian Gaul/France: A Great Alternative Template for a 'Vanilla' Fantasy Sandbox Setting

It’s been too long since I dished up a post drawing on my other identity as a scholar! Ironically, for a professional historian, I’m not terribly worried about a little anachronism or historical inaccuracy in my elf-game settings (I save that for my day job). But GMs can only benefit from understanding the structural logic of whatever actual societies might have inspired a setting. The patterns that characterize a society generally exist for a reason; such reasons offer a GM leverage for organizing factions and plot hooks that make organic sense within the campaign world. A little historical awareness can be particularly helpful for livening up that old bugaboo, the ‘vanilla’ or generic fantasy world. Quite often, however, one encounters ‘medieval’ settings that actually evoke early modern or even modern social customs and sensibilities, just dressed up for the Renn Faire.

(For some favorite examples of my thoughts on harnessing real historical lessons for campaign worlds, consider posts on the logic of feudalism, late antique "barbarians," Late Bronze Age palatial society in the Near East, or collapse across history, and maybe check out my background generator for Bronze Age characters, which is on sale this month [affiliate link]). 

In addition to the common faux-feudal medievalish settings out there (or, of course, more 'ancient' settings following the tropes of Swords & Sorcery), there are a number of early medieval-themed settings (one thinks immediately of the ubiquitous Viking-'inspired' game resources out there, or of the more robust Anglo-Saxon-themed Wolves of God from Sine Nomine games [affiliate link] or Paolo Greco's Wulfwald). Early medieval societies offer particularly moody and evocative source material, but the very constraints and smaller scales of those societies may limit some classic dimensions of RPG campaigns. 


However, I don’t think I’ve seen campaigns inspired by the structures of early Merovingian Gaul/France - that is, what is now France (basically) between the end of Roman rule and the rise of the Carolingian dynasty (think Charlemagne). I came here today to say this: a campaign setting modeled at least structurally on the Merovingian realm of the sixth century would offer a really useful template for a fun ‘vanilla’ fantasy sandbox campaign, because REASONS:

I’ll Take My Collapse Medium-Rare, Thanks: 

It’s a Points of Light setting, but with dials to adjust the chaos to taste. We are very much talking about a post-Collapse setting atop the ruins of a mighty empire, with all the mayhem, disorder, and barriers to communication you might desire - but also a resilient society holding on to important elements of the past (with more governmental competence and ability than previous generations of scholarship tended to recognize). 

What?! A Danish warband attacking our sixth-century coast?
And it's mentioned later in Beowulf? But they're shown here in 15th-century gear?
Nah, bruh, the blogger said a little anachronism is ok ... it's the structural chaos that matters!

Zero-to-Hero Progression That Fits: 

From the perspective of RPG design, a Merovingian-style ‘medieval setting’ offers better social mobility than the feudal societies of later centuries, in ways that are more conducive to a typical PC’s career path. Arguably, the setting’s social structures also offer better reasons for an adventuring party to move seamlessly between urban, rural, and wilderness adventures in the service of the same patrons or goals. 

Listen here, Lady!!!
Whether you had me stabbed and then visited me on my deathbed to rub it in or not, you can't make me forget that you're an interesting example of female power and social mobility!

Low-Prep and Build-As-You-Go: 

Compared to later feudal settings, the setting’s built-in political geography scales more organically to match the widening scope of classic campaigns, without requiring the GM to prep more than is needed at any time. Merovingian political structures make it easy to start hinting at high-level faction stuff at level 1 if you want to, or to add those things in on the fly at higher levels without doing violence to the logic of structures you’ve already built. Oh, and remember that wise, common advice to start a hexcrawl campaign with just three hexes and then build out if you need more? Not only would that work in a Merovingian-inspired setting, it would work particularly well. 

Behold your sandbox: Gaul in 587 (de la Blache)

Conquer, Rinse, Repeat: 

You know that thing where some otherwise great campaign settings get permanently hobbled because of the accomplishments of a previous generation of characters? [paging Dragonlance to aisle four, please…] Due to the political geography mentioned above and some Frankish cultural assumptions, a Merovingian-inspired sandbox is innately repeatable between campaigns. In other words, Merovingian-inspired settings would work really well for a ‘living campaign’ world; once you’ve done the work to build your setting, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you want to start a new campaign, but you also don’t have to retcon anything that happened previously. [That may sound like a feature of any decent setting; what I’m arguing is that a Merovingian-inspired setting would be particularly good at recycling, compared to other options]. 

For now, I’m going to drop this as an introductory post to whet your interest. I’ll plan to unpack each of these elements in much more detail soon. Please let me know if this sounds interesting or if you already have any questions! Due to some recent spam attacks, comments currently require moderation, but I'll be happy to process them. 

Happy gaming. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

aaaaand now we'll try comment moderation...

 Hmm. Every few days, I get another wave of spam attacks from the same source, turn off blog comments, wait a few days, turn them back on ... and then the spam attacks recur. Somehow I've become a repeat, high-volume target (should I be flattered?). 

I guess we'll try open commenting but go with comment moderation for a while. You're lame, spam-bot. 

Saturday, May 7, 2022

[Update] Comments are re-dis-enabled

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Nope. Sigh. Comments going off again for a bit due to the internet being the internet. 

I hope to post soon a discussion of why early Merovingian Gaul/France offers an excellent 'alternative vanilla fantasy sandbox' template for D&D campaign settings. Stay tuned. :-) 


UPDATE: the stream of fake comments I had to delete today seems to have abated for now, so I've re-enabled commenting. That means you - yeah, YOU! - should leave a real comment on some posts! Make the internet safe for actual thoughtful dialogue again! 



 The blog has been bombarded with autobot fake comments. I'm temporarily disabling comments until the Necron overlords get bored and go bother some other blog, which I hope will occur soon. :-) 

Stay tuned ... my grades are submitted, the school had its Commencement today, and I may just need to slap down some fresh blog content in the near future. 

Happy gaming!

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Dungeon Extraction Posse vs. the Chaotic-Body Snatchers, or: Another Reason to Go Back into the Dungeon

Here's a weird idea to address a practical problem: how to take any published, well-organized, ready-to-run dungeon or megadungeon 'off the shelf' - then increase opportunities for factional interaction while offering a coherent reason to go back into the dungeon again, even if the last four levels already should have made the PCs rich.

Let's say you've got some large dungeon or megadungeon you'd like to run, but it needs a bit more pizzazz. Factions always help, but not all published dungeons excel there. Or maybe the issue is one of motivation: explaining with a straight face why the bold adventurers who got 10,000 gold pieces in their last haul and can retire honestly now are returning to face nightmares unspeakable in even deeper holes. 

I dig many aspects of XP-for-gold, but coming up with some kind of mission or objective beyond just LOOOOOT can transform the feel of a dungeoncrawl (or any session). Games like Into the Dark or The Nightmares Underneath build dungeons around sources that leak evil or darkness into the world; PCs journey into dungeons to shut them down. I think that's a cool premise, but it's best suited to dungeons designed by GMs with that goal in mind. [NOTE: the links on this page are Affiliate links].

I was thinking today about ways one might spice up something like, say, Gunderholfen - a megadungeon reputed to be very easy to run, but a little vanilla (I haven't read it, though it sounds good) ... and I struck on the idea of the interplanar fugitive network dungeon manhunt-crawl

Um, what


Right, so bear with a little madness here. 

The fifteen fiendish lieutenants of Tartarus have long sought to invade our world, and failed ... but now, the Prophetess says, they have found a breach, a way in. They are among us. 

Or, maybe the Eleven Foetid Sorcerers of Yithang failed to seize the kingdom eight generations ago, but they swore they'd return - then projected their consciousnesses forward through time, seeking vulnerable hosts in their future (and our present).  

Or Githyanki, or Elemental Lords, or whatever. Pick your Evil-Bad Magical Conspiracy of choice. Horrible villains from Somewhere or Somewhen else are pushing their way into our space, our time, our reality - and if they are not stopped, they will destroy everything we hold dear. But they are just now arriving, and they need time to wax in strength before all their powers are present with them...

The following are true:

+ the villains find their way into our reality through fractured, warped prisms: via chaotic minds

+ thus, the baddies are not just chaotic body-snatchers; they are chaotic-body snatchers. They steal the bodies from chaotic/evil NPCs. In other words, pick a random dungeon: some of its intelligent NPCs or foes are actually possessed or replaced by the time/dimension-bending foes described above. 

+ there are multiple such infiltrators; they know of each other and are (only loosely) in communication with each other. They form a general network, hidden among the existing networks and factions present in the dungeons of the Realm. 

+ each such infiltrator lurks in the dungeon, like a dire chrysalis, waiting for their presence to be complete, their powers fully manifest, their will ready to crush the light above. That day has not yet come. It comes quickly. 

So, it's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the poor Chaotic Evil humanoid brutes down on Dungeon Level 4 are the first unwitting victims. 


I've agreed to run a summer campaign for my kids and their neighborhood friends. It needs to be a low-prep, open-table affair. For true off-the-shelf readiness, it can be hard to beat a well-organized published tentpole dungeon. But sometimes endless dungeoncrawling can look a bit dry. 

What intrigues me about this post's idea is that it could add instant menace and stakes to any ol' dungeon. Pick a published dungeon that looks easy to run, pick any seven individual foes in the book, and suddenly you've got an investigative game with a hidden social network of interplanar terrorists layered right on top of that existing, easy-to-run content. You're not just running a big dungeon, you're breaking up a Night's Black Agents-style conspyramid at the same time. So now you've got a mega-faction to hunt, and any existing factions in the dungeon can pair up with those villains, or maybe even turn against them (can you convince the gnoll band to work with you against the traitor in their midst? What if that traitor is their own warlord?). 

Maybe you do this in one big megadungeon. Maybe each level has one Interloper. Or maybe you run an overland hexcrawl with many little dungeons, but about a third of your dungeons or ruins host an Interplanar Interloper. 

Maybe you keep XP-for-gold, but you also grant really significant XP for each fugitive Interloper killed. Heck, maybe you grant five times as much XP if you can bring the villain to justice on the surface - the Sages Royal really need to interrogate each one for intelligence about who else is coming, so trying to extract a prisoner from the dungeon becomes the real gold standard for earning XP. Each Interloper knows a bit about the others, and may yield key clues to the locations or identity of other members of the network (paging the 3 Clue Rule...). And of course you could run a series of Fronts or an Events table that moves the bad guys' plan closer and closer to Doom, so that the campaign stakes really are meaningful if the players dawdle too long. 

Oh, and in between searching for these interplanar doomsters, the PCs have a reason to head back into the dungeon over and over again, doing all that normal stuff they need to do to explore the dungeon...

Will I try running this? Shrug - not sure. But I am intrigued. 

What do you think, world? Pros/cons? Seen anything like this before in action? Am I crazy? Or am I just hosting one of the Foetid Sorcerers of Yithang

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Even More Warhammer Miscellany


Humble Bundle is running a big bundle of Soulbound RPG products. Soulbound is the Warhammer: Age of Sigmar RPG. In recent months, I posted a three-part deep dive into Soulbound, and would certainly recommend the system. If my review or other materials have piqued your interest, that Humble Bundle is a great way to dive into the system with .pdfs at a very affordable price, while supporting charity. 


Back in January, I posted about some Warhammer kitbashing going on chez Gundobad. I mentioned some interesting Chaos Warriors I'd picked up second-hand at my FLGS - interesting because many of them are kitbashed hybrids, built using both Chaos Warriors and their mortal foes, the Stormcast Eternals. As I noted in that earlier post, I feel this gives many of them a great vibe - sort of like "paladins gone horribly wrong", like heroes who maybe still think they're on the right side of things...but they're very, very wrong. 

Anyway, yesterday I got some paint on one of the boys: 

I haven't worked much with purples, so this was a bit of an experiment. I'm not sure whether I'll ditch this scheme or paint up a whole mini-squad in similar colors. Overall, I'm pleased. 


One more thing. I've a new favorite Warhammer-themed Youtuber: the fun, funny, very well-informed, and thoughtful Arbitor Ian. It seems he's only been cranking out videos for about a year, but he's got some really excellent videos to watch, equally informed by Oldhammer sensibilities and the latest GW tidbits. 

Here, I'll recommend two quite different videos:

Warhammer Beer. Yep. 

Here's the best and most entertaining concise synopsis of 40K lore/history that I've seen. 

A great channel, recommended. Happy gaming, all!

Thursday, March 17, 2022

The d20 lore-for-XP table: from my Iron Age Isle of Dread/alternate Nithia campaign

A while ago, I finished running a campaign set on the Isle of Dread - not just any Isle of Dread, mind you, but a heavily modified sandbox version, incorporating a variety of additional content from modules and my own imagination, and set in the same Iron Age alternate-Mystara setting that featured in my earlier B10 Night's Dark Terror campaign

It occurs to me that I should share here some of the things I ended up doing in that rewarding campaign. Today's post contains a lore-dump. Well, yes, but it's a lore-dump with a point. 

See, for this campaign, I made finding and collating lore one of the campaign objectives: PCs gained XP by finding ancient texts that could flesh out their knowledge of the past. They had two in-game reasons to do so: one character, with a background as a Scholar, learned that his sister had been kidnapped by an up-and-coming potentate who wanted to exploit a new court history for political leverage - so he was told to go research a history in exchange for his sister's return. But the other players were also investigating a series of mysterious, cultic killings around the Sea of Dread, killings apparently connected to a dark group with ties to something from the past. But what was that ancient evil, and what did it have planned in this age? And why had one of the PCs lost a year of memory "between campaigns", and was reported as having been active around the Sea of Dread during that missing time? 

In the canonical Mystara, Nithia was an ancient kingdom that "now" survives in the Hollow World. My version makes a deliberate shambles of the canon, and has the Nithian population as a more self-conscious remnant along the Sea of Dread (the Scholar PC was of Nithian ancestry, and he ended the campaign as the petty king of a new Nithian state on the Isle of Dread. It was pretty epic).  

In our Iron Age "Mystara", the players' antics in an earlier B10 campaign
left "Karameikos" divided in two.

Here's how the lore-tables worked in my campaign. At the start, I gave the players a King-List of Nithia-That-Was from the Great Library of Rothago (Minrothad and Ierendi were fused into not-Phoenician island city-states). The king-list contained the barest outlines of history, and a chronological list of the monarchs of Old Nithia. In other words, the players started the campaign knowing everything that appears below in the non-indented, non-numbered sections, but the rest had to be puzzled out as they discovered lore in random sequence [the notes on absolute chronology ("from 3,000 to 1,800 years ago" were added artificially for player convenience)]. What would make matters more complicated for the players to figure out was that some parts of the old Nithian lands now lay beneath the sea (it took them a while to figure this out as they worked with an old map they found, and tried to reconcile it with their exploration of the Isle of Dread).

Funny, that doesn't look like the Isle of Dread...does it?

As they explored the Isle's ruins and found a variety of preserved ancient texts, the players triggered lore rolls. I needed simply to roll 1d20 and feed them the resulting snippets of history, which they could place in the right chronological spot using their "king-list." When all was said and done, the "full story" below was known, the players confronted the ancient evil and saved the world from another cataclysm, and the Scholar led an assault to get his sister back from the Pirate Queen holding her captive. Amateur RPG archaeology, for the win! 

On my own version of the X1 sandbox, I removed a number of spots, tweaked many others, added in the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (renamed "Tharis"), added two new human settlements to the island and worked out their political relations, and replaced the X1 plateau "finale" with AA 35, Desert Shrine of the Sightless Sisters, also integrating it into the island's political network and the hidden cult threatening the world. THERE COULD BE SLIGHT SPOILERS FOR EITHER OF THOSE MODULES IN THE TABLES BELOW, though these will reflect my own substantial changes. 

Good times. 


First was Nithia’s Golden Age, lasting from 3,000 to 1,800 years ago. 

In this age reigned the kings from Ardaka I to Ardaka XII. 

And in the time of Ardaka I was the Royal Prophecy, that each lord of Nith should reign a century at a time, and their kingdom never fail, except that a firstborn heir fail to take his father’s throne after a hundred-winter reign. 

And from this age forward the Historiomancers of Nithia recorded their lore, hiding it away in deep archives to study and weave its patterns.

And in this age was the Priesthood Undivided, but also there came the Philosopher Kamuan.

+ In the time of Ardaka XI there came the Philosopher Kamuan, teaching that material creation is but a prison for pure spirit. And, said Kamuan, “hate the lusts of the flesh and the flesh itself, for such bring only suffering; but seek instead enlightenment where pure mind wanders beyond the firmament.” And many called him mad, but some among the Priesthood Undivided heeded his words, and began to look to the stars - and beyond.

Then was the Age of Division, lasting from 1,800 to 1,300 years ago. 

Then reigned Ardaka XIII.

+ In the time of Ardaka XIII, some among the Disciples of Kamuan made contact with beings who claimed to be extra-firmamental spirits; and from these, the Disciples harnessed strange new powers, thanks to which the Disciples’ influence began to spread widely.  

Then reigned Ardaka XIV. 

3 + Ardaka XIV was the first king to patronize the Disciples of Kamuan and to fund their research with royal resources. He took from the Order of Historiomancers their Archive at Tharis in the southern highlands, and gave that site to Kamuan’s Disciples. There, they began their experiments in projecting consciousness. 

Then reigned Ardaka XV. 

4 + In the time of Ardaka XV, the Disciples learned the arts of necromancy from their spirit allies. Seeing that they had such powerful knowledge, the king gave to the lords of the Disciples command of the armies of Nithia; and the sorcerer-generals pushed the royal banners deep into the northern mainland.

5 + But the son of Ardaka XV, being devoted to the order of creation, without his father’s permission selected for himself a private reserve among the army’s officers. And naming them his Falcon Guard, he charged them to uphold Order in the empire in wholesome ways, and to keep watch against any evil by the waxing Disciples.

6 + And Ardaka XV learned what his son had done, and was wroth; and he ordered that the Falcon Guard be disbanded after the execution of its leading men. But the king’s son defied his father, and vowed to share his officers’ fate. So for love of his son - and because of the Royal Prophecy - Ardaka XV relented, and the Falcons continued their watch. 

7 + But meanwhile, even as they grew in temporal power under Ardaka XV, the Disciples were frustrated in their greatest goal. So they began to dabble with flesh itself, thinking that by thus understanding the limits of flesh, they might better escape it. Thus they gained the name Flesh Lords, who wove themselves the more into aberrations of flesh, the more that they struggled against embodiment.

Then reigned Ardaka XVI, and the Falcon Guard with him. 

8 + When Ardaka XVI came to the throne, he gave to the Falcon Guard direct command of his armies; and he severed direct royal patronage of the Flesh Lords. But the Disciples now were too strong to force them to disband; and there was muttering against the king. 

9 + Because Ardaka XVI had robbed the Flesh Lords of their armies, they made dark experiments in laboratories in the priestly highlands and along the empire’s northern rim. And thus they bred vile armies of their own, crafting inhuman aberrations from human stock: beast-men, and snake-men, and jackal-headed legions, and the gobrach hordes. And these forces they held ready.

Then reigned Ardaka XVII.

10 + Ardaka XVII maintained his father's policies, yet with less zeal. Mainland barbarian tribes in the northeast threatened his coastal holdings and consumed much attention and many resources; and so he was distracted, and unprepared for civil war when it came. 

11 + Seeing that Ardaka XVII would not reverse his father’s decisions, the Flesh Lords despised the court. But they judged, too, that their age-long central aim - spiritual transcendence - had failed only due to a lack of adequate power. Therefore the Flesh Lords unleashed upon their Nithian brethren their undead and humanoid forces. Breaking like an unexpected wave upon the empire, these hordes slaughtered all in their path as human sacrifices; and with dark relics they gathered life force as they slew. Whole provinces were razed, and across the north, nearly half a million were slain.  

12 + At the time of the civil war under Ardaka XVII, the Flesh Lords also seized the southern Priestly highlands, and directed the war from their strongholds there. From that fastness they unleashed all the life-force they had stolen, hoping to rip apart the firmament itself and to cast themselves beyond it. But, wary after many setbacks, first their twelve lords anchored their consciousnesses to a simple brazen hand mirror; a way back, should they fail yet again. 

13 + The Flesh Lords’ bold venture against Ardaka XVII failed. The firmament held - though not a few star-elementals were knocked to earth, and some burned in the sea, while others wrapped themselves in the hatred of the Flesh Lords and became hidden tyrants of dark cults; and the wise say some linger to this day. The Flesh Lords themselves, however, achieved nothing, and as their strength was spent their wrath was impotent. 

14 + Then in dire anger, the Falcon Guard of Ardaka XVII moved against the Flesh Lords in their strongholds. Those they found they slew with cleansing flame and beaten bronze and the bright power of Order. Other Flesh Lords, hidden in a deep secret vault beneath their stronghold at Tharis, the Falcons could sense but not find. Reaching out with power, the Falcon Guard spent most of the might allotted to them to trap and bind the Flesh Lords where they lay hidden, and they sealed them beyond the reach of mortal man. 

Then reigned Namak-Ardaka, the Peerless King, who wed twenty-seven times, and sired no children. 

15 + Two-score years into the reign of Namak-Ardaka, a scavenger looted an old brazen hand-mirror from a ruined highland stronghold, and carried it away north to the plains. Through this theft, men unwittingly renewed contact with what should have been locked away, and with enslaved minds, men began secretly to worship hidden lords, and plot how to free them. 

16 + Meanwhile Namak-Ardaka continued to produce no heir, though he promised twenty-seven times that a new bride would ensure his legacy. More and more desperate he grew, until he welcomed those who whispered quietly of lost Flesh Lord arts, and he allowed their secret ministry even at his own court.

Then was the Cataclysm, and the Breaking of the World. 

17 + In the last year of Namak-Ardaka, the Flesh Lords’ puppets made dagger-wands from a Soul Worm’s fangs, and etched in them a labyrinthine glyph of life-binding. With these tools they secretly marked many, and through their marked vessels they grasped the life force of whole towns and city neighborhoods. Then, after the appointed year’s time, there came the second Great Killing. And the king himself was among the slain, and the line of true kings of Nithia failed; and all the life-force of that cull the cruel Flesh Lords drew through the mirror and turned against their bonds. 

18 + With Namak-Ardaka slain and the world in the balance, the Falcon Guard poured forth all its remaining power to keep the evil ones imprisoned. So terrible was that struggle, in which both sides exhausted their might, that the land itself was cracked and drowned around them, and the lands of the empire were overthrown, and chaos filled the earth, and waves overrode most of the empire. And the Flesh Lords failed and fell back into their prison, and their mirror was lost in a city drowned upon the plain, and forsaken beneath the sea. And the Falcon Guard spent nearly all its strength, and most of them perished in the strain of that contest. And now the world is broken. 


Tuesday, March 8, 2022

My House Rule for Identifying Found Magic Items

 In our current campaign, I've hit upon a convenient house rule for the identification of magical items found in treasure. I know that a purist would demand that players use trial-and-error to figure out what every potion, wand, and suit of magical armor does -- or use magic/pay a magic-user to tell them. On the other hand, my group has limited real-world windows for play-time, and I'm not really keen on spending those few hours playing "drink the potion and see whether it levitates you or kills you."

I used to 'solve' this problem by just telling the players what they'd found, and how it worked.  

This saves a lot of time, but it also means certain magic items just don't work - namely, cursed magic items, or even magic items with some unusual wrinkle or hidden cost of use! [Or, uh, I could just lie to my players, which I don't want to do]. 

But recently I hit upon a compromise solution that I've started using, and am pretty happy about. I don't know whether others have used it, but I'll share it here in hopes it helps someone else. 


When the players recover a new magical item, I roll a d6, where the players can't see it. 

+ If the die shows 2-6, I tell them exactly what the item is and does.

+ If the die shows a 1, I tell them they can't figure out what the item is, and they'll have to hunt someone down who can tell them - or experiment.

+ If the item is cursed or harmful...I roll the d6 anyway, but regardless of its result, I tell the players they can't figure out what the item is.

I'm not misleading the players; I've told them explicitly how the rule works. They know that in the rare cases that I won't identify a found magic item, it means either that it's cursed, OR they got a 1 on the 'identification' dice roll, and it's not cursed but something potentially quite useful. 

In play, this means that the players can decide when something is worth experimentation, but it becomes an unusual and interesting quandary, not a recurring grindy drag. 

So far, this rule has led to one cursed item that I refused to describe; there were enough contextual factors around it that the players fortuitously decided to destroy the item instead of trying to use it. Then, in our most recent session, they found a useful magic item but I rolled a 1, so now they've got an amulet pendant of unknown properties (a player tried it on, and nothing happened, so they'll have to try something else to see what this thing go pay a sage to identify it). 

Meanwhile, we can get on with the business of looting dungeons, without nerfing cursed or poisoned items. Yay!

Happy gaming! 

Saturday, February 26, 2022

In Praise of the Half-Blank Hexmap / Illmire + Brandonsford + etc. (contains SPOILERS)

This post reports on my new home campaign (a sandbox combining The Evils of Illmire with The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford), plus a comment on the enjoyable tension of GMing a hexmap with deliberate gaps. 

Please note: this post will contain SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS for both of those (excellent) published adventures. If you are a player and you read this, you will be sad, and you will lose all hope and reason to continue, and you will end your days wishing you had heeded my warnings. 

My latest home campaign is off to a rousing start. For rules/system, I'm using Knave as a chassis, supplemented by some serious house-ruling to shoehorn classes back into the game. 

I knew I wanted to run a sandbox/hexcrawl, but I've been burned in the past by my own tendency to over-plan. Various grognards on Ye Interwebs preach the good word of starting small. What do they know? Grumble, grumble...Oh wait, they DO know. Last time I was asked to plan a sandbox (for my kids), I toiled over an artisanally-designed campaign setting, poring over different adventures to seed across the map, etc., etc. Well, we ran one (very enjoyable) session in that campaign...and then it died. 


But we learn. We grow. We try not to repeat the same mistakes. 

This time, I combined several useful assets. First, the cold voice of experience. Second: two really great indie sandbox modules, The Evils of Illmire and The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford (I've reviewed the latter here on the blog, and it has since received some updates, making it even stronger). [Oh - all DriveThru product links on this post are affiliate links, by the way - using them helps support this blog's activities at no added cost to you. Thank you!). Illmire is a compact but really packed hexcrawl involving a sinister cult afflicting a village ... though it turns out the cult is just the tip of the iceberg of what's going on in the region. Brandonsford is much smaller - the adventure's map scale allows the entire thing to fit in one 6-mile hex. 

So, for my new campaign, I decided to slap both microregions down near each other, and just let my players romp in a points-of-light sandbox. 

It's been REALLY GOOD so far.


We started with a Witcher-inspired campaign concept. The players are "Claws" - monster-hunters born with a birthmark indicating their membership in a strange group predisposed to adventure and well-equipped with the requisite competencies. Boom, instant reason to adventure together. I'm granting XP ONLY for treasure collected (though I use silver rather than gold as the standard). 

To kick off the campaign, I gave them a quick overview of the campaign area (in very sketchy detail) and offered three job hooks: go answer a covert plea for help from the Lord Mayor of Illmire, answer an open call for Claws from the leader of a logging camp near Illmire, or go check out these rumors of a dragon disrupting highway traffic near Brandonsford, further East. 

The players decided to start right in Illmire. They met the mayor, quickly realized things weren't right in town, accepted a mission to check out the nearby watchtower, had a bloodbath of a fight with the bandits posing as legit guards there, and wisely ran away from fighting the giant hideous awfulbeast in the basement. The strongest PC got knocked out twice on that mission - ah, the delights of old-school play. 

Then, back in town, the players learned more about the doings of the sinister cult afflicting the area, started freeing some locals from mind-control, and finally launched an assault on the cult's center of operations. Now the local cult leader is dead and the cultists have been driven out of town (for now), though one PC lost his left arm below the elbow...ah, the delights of old-school play. (Actually, the PC should have died, by rights, but I allow the "last stand" and "terrible bargain" death houserules from this juicy post on Boxfullofboxes). 

Then, the players went to check on a weird circus encamped near the town, en route to go hire out to the logging-camp leader. Here is my first modification to Illmire's basic structure. Esmeraldra, fortune-teller at the circus, is already described as an ancient sorceress secretly rivalling the Observer, who is sort of the ultimate power behind the scenes in Illmire. I have decided that the Observer was once a human mage-prince who accidentally fused himself with an interplanar being, and thus went mad - explaining his Beholder-shape now - and Esmeralda's real name is Smaragdia...she was the Observer's queen. So the war between them was a civil war between former lovers. The Witch in nearby Brandonsford, I've decided, was one of the witches who helped Smaragdia resist the mage-prince, so that will be a potential string tying the regions together, too. Smaragdia/Esmeralda has begun cultivating the PCs as agents; if they survive and keep working with her, she'll try to get them to storm her former citadel and take out the demons imprisoned there - I've decided that Smaragdia's main power has been locked down in the need to maintain that prison. In other words, if the PCs do 'solve' that problem, the grateful Smaragdia will be able to seize all her old power. What could possibly go wrong? 

All shall love me, AND DESPAIR!!!

The players can tell Esmeralda is something much more interesting than a random fortune-teller, but they don't know her backstory yet. Well, as of this past session, the players accepted a potion of underwater breathing from her, and have been using it to try to solve the Fishmen problem in the lake west of Illmire. To their credit, they tried hard to find a diplomatic solution, and eventually prevailed in talking sense into the fishman chieftain despite several flare-ups with the reaction rolls/dice. Now, they've just made a deal to spend 24 hours trying to figure out how to cure the cursed fishmen, before they get driven off again. 

And so, onward. I'm having lots of fun!


The hexmap below shows how I've joined up the two published adventures' campaign regions, and situated them within a larger area. South of Illmire, there are two rival 'noble' territories at loggerheads with each other (I thinly sketched out their leaders' personalities using the tables in WFRP's Border Kingdoms guide). "Halfway House" is a fortified inn; "Longbridge" is an interesting settlement detailed in a Raging Swan village background settlement, torn between the nearby feuding powers. 

My normal instinct would be to go hog-wild and immediately fill in all those blank hexes. I have resolved not to do so unless I actually need to. Rather than repeating my earlier habits of over-preparation, this allows me to focus my energies on the already rich resources in the two published modules, while dangling some tantalizing question marks in front of myself. I have added an additional campaign baddie - a sinister noble warlord named Sir Volter Costanze, who I've decided sent the OG Illmire cult leaders into the region to begin with, before they betrayed and abandoned him. But I'm not really sure who Costanze is or what his agenda will be. And I don't need to find out until he becomes more relevant. 

Are there whole kingdoms across the mountains? Howling wastelands? Lands of tyranny and death, or urbane cosmopolitan cities? Who knows! Not me! Not yet! 

I'm really enjoying the sense of creative freedom and promise, but also restraint and discipline, in NOT fleshing out everything on my map. I realize that for many of you, this is just a "well, DUH!" insight, but it's been important and rewarding for me to implement. 

Anyway. Happy gaming!