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