Thursday, March 29, 2012

No Time for Blog, Dr. Jones!

So, last week I met a girl, who kinda screwed my whole schedule.

Not only did I miss out on DC Gameday (where I was looking forward to playing a Savage Worlds wild west version of the Battle of Badon Hill), but my wife and I didn't even get out to see John Carter (which I've heard is awesome, even if it flopped - which I personally blame on an atrocious advertising campaign... that first trailer sucked!). I haven't gone to work, and--needless to say--this still nascent blog is lagging.

This is all fine, though, because at 6 lbs, 10 oz, she's the most beautiful girl I've ever met. :)

But rather than let March run out without at least some kind of post, I'm chiming in on this. I'll keep ranting about my imaginary world soon after I catch up with the real one.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Risus Monkey has reposted an awesome bit of gaming history: the Ryth Chronicle. If anyone has come to this site from somewhere other than the Monkey's page, I encourage you to run and check it out. The story goes like this:

A few years back, I was working a cool job where I got to watch a lot of TV. My boss, a fellow named Len, mentioned off-handedly that he once a chance to make a career in gaming, having known a guy back in the day who had made millions of dollars from role playing games. I thought of all the people in the world who had made shit tons of money from role playing games. Only one came to mind.

"Len," I asked, "Did you know Gary Gygax?"

That is how I learned that my boss had been an avid gamer back in the early 1970s. He told me a tale:
Once upon a time, a poor and unknown guy named Gary invented a game called "Dungeons and Dragons." He traveled the world (well, the upper Midwest) selling this new and innovative game at "conventions." You see, many centuries ago in the early 1970s, there were so few gamers in the world, they had to travel to meet up with one another.
Len met this brilliant young geek and purchased his wares. With a friend, they made up a place called Rythlondar, and proceeded to have adventures. Along the way, they had to invent some things like combat tables and 20-sided dice to facilitate their gaming. Sometimes they had to call Gary long distance and ask him what was up with the rules. Their characters grew in power and majesty until one day everyone was slain by something big and nasty. LOL!
Since this first generation of gamers had no internets to connect them, they had to record everything on paper. These papers were then sent by "post" to places all across Michigan! Some time later, Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States.

At least, that's how I remember it.

In any case, Len passed me Xeroxed copies of his old gaming notes, which are an amazing history of an early, first-generation D&D campaign. One night, I brought them to a gaming session and showed them to Risus Monkey, who (appropriately) went bananas. He scanned them, posted them to his blog, and got in touch with Len and his co-creator John to do interviews and everything. The result is now fully available for the world to explore and study. 

If you haven't already seen them, I highly encourage you to head over and take a look. It's freakin amazing.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Let's Play Geography!

Let’s take minute to talk mechanics. Let’s face it: if you’re into creating worlds for gaming, you’re probably into the process as much as anything. I love geography and am fascinated by geology (I love those How the Earth Was Made documentaries – they’re like nerd crack!), which is part of the reason I enjoy creating worlds so much. So, as I’ve created this world I’ve given a great deal of attention to the physical structure of the land itself. These things require some thought.

It’s a few years old, but Rich Burlew (the Giant in the Playground himself) gives an interesting discussion of the logic of building the geography of a fantasy world. He emphasizes the inherent logic of how elevation, water, and civilization work together.

After I read this, I went back to my old maps of Kimatarthi, and I found that my treatment of the issue was very similar to his in that there is an underlying logic for how everything fits together. You can’t just slap together mountains and swamps and rivers and cities and expect it to be a coherent thing. Kimatarthi itself has been affected by plate tectonics, volcanism, and erosion. Its people are influenced by climate, terrain, economics, and natural disasters, such as ravenous goblin hordes.

So, when I made an initial sketch of the world, it was clear that the shape suggested two plateaus separated by a long valley. I decided that the heights would be rather dramatic and unlivable. Therefore, civilization has to exist at the lower elevations. Water also flows down, and it seems that if there’s just one main valley almost all of the smaller streams would eventually come together at a central river. I decided to make this river run south until it fans out into a marsh and goes over Land’s End.

The positions of the cities are defined by this geography as well. Down south, Bryss benefits from substantial glacial runoff, and is protected from the desert by mountains. Also, its higher elevation keeps it a bit cooler.

In the east, Mudun can also take advantage of water, elevation and arable land, but it’s vulnerable to attack. Everything in the east was destroyed during the Goblin War, and that whole region is still goblin territory.

Though everything west of the Great Rift is mostly desert, the gap all the way up north is the only passage to Bryss. Caravans making that long journey would have to outfit themselves, and so Markaz developed into a trade hub at the last inhabitable point beyond the Western Desert. These positions also suggest a relationship among the cities that feeds into the larger political environment… but that’s something I’ll explore later.

I have always enjoyed the mental exercise that comes with figuring out why things are the way they are – both in real life and in pretend. The nice thing about inventing a world, though, is that you can follow an interesting idea and see where it leads. When you run to a dead end, you can just think up another string that makes sense. I once read that Tolkien reported that he felt that he was exploring a world more than inventing one. And I can see how he’d feel that way.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


In descriptive terms, I have a good idea of how magic works in Kimatarthi. As I noted in my last post, however, I’m less sure of how to capture that feel with a gaming mechanic.
So here’s the deal.

In the days before the Goblin Wars, magic was unknown. Kimatarthi was very much like our own world. There was superstition, religion, belief in spirits – but no magic. When the goblin armies arrived, however, they decimated the world with an ability to could conjure fire, wind, and lightning. They brought a powerful and destructive new force with them, true magic.

Though mankind eventually turned back the onslaught, the world’s collective psyche was scarred by the horror of the dark “goblin arts.”  They considered it evil and associated it as one and the same as the scourge that had wiped out cites, towns, and villages by the score. Yet there was a small contingent of people who became convinced that magic was not purely evil. These taught that magic was a natural force that could be studied and harnessed not only for destruction, but for the good of society.

Society is society, however… and society would have none of it. Magic was born of evil and was a direct challenge to the authority of the gods. Anyone who dabbled in this blasphemy was hunted down. If they were not torn to pieces and burned by enraged mobs, they were tortured and publicly executed by the authorities. The use of magic was unequivocally declared illegal, and magic-users were forced underground.

I plan to incorporate this tension into the campaign. I would hope that the players would want to join the underground subversives dedicated to exploring this wondrous new phenomenon. Yet, they will have a choice, and they may choose to support the law and the righteousness of the old ways. They may choose to work to eliminate this devilry from the world. Or it may be something on the edges of the campaign that falls into the background. But magic is an integral part of the setting.

Regardless, I have a gaming tension to resolve. Magic is a natural phenomenon that clearly the goblins have mastered. This implies a complete magical ontology with schools and libraries of spells of many varieties. In game terms, the goblins could be working directly from the Players Handbook. On the other hand, this aspect of the cosmos is completely foreign to the PCs, who are exploring it and perhaps redefining it as they go long. As a gaming mechanic, this lends itself to a more narrative style of magic use, where the players have more freedom to describe the effect they want to create.

So I am faced with this dilemma. I want magic to be open to a wide segment of characters, rather than tied to an innate ability or years of study in a guild. So, I want to find a system where Magic-use could be as easy as adding an aspect or a feat, but then particular methods of wielding it could be skills. I think I would like to base magic use on skills, perhaps with spells nested inside other skills, much like specializations. Then of course, the system also has to serve as a guide for determining the difficulty of spells -  starting a camp fire as opposed to casting a fireball, for example.

This post has definitely been helpful in helping me to articulate what I want out of a magic system. I need to stew over this for a bit more, though. If anyone has any suggestions for a cool, flexible game mechanic for playing magic, I’d welcome your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What System?

Everyone who has posted comments so far has asked a simple and sensible question: what system do I plan to run? Ok... so Risus Monkey is the first and only commenter at this point, but it’s a good question, and one’s that worth a post. So far, this world has been nothing more than my mental sandbox, and I haven’t yet played a game in the setting. But I have given a lot of thought to the matter… I just haven’t come up with a good answer yet.

When the first ideas that eventually became Kimatarthi came to me, I was thinking about it in terms of AD&D 2nd edition, which is what I grew up with. This coincided with the first sizable gap in my gaming life, so it’s the best I knew of until I learned about D&D 3.5. I actually have notes packed away discussing how I’d run the game in one of these systems. Still, they didn’t quite work for me. My first hesitation was that the playable characters of Kimatarthi are too limited for anything of the Gygax pedigree. This setting has no elves, dwarves, halflings, kenders, or anything else. PCs can only be human. Also, there are no magic-users or clerics as such (see Magic), so I really felt like I would be cheating anyone who signed up to play D&D. Seriously, when was the last time someone played D&D with all human party… without magic?

I also gradually began to envision a campaign that wasn’t just dungeon-diving and goblin-bashing, but could also include interesting interpersonal conflict with politics and intrigue. D&D is not the best system out there for all that drama stuff. Other systems, like FATE are better equipped for this. FATE has a lot of good aspects, and I particularly like its in-game character creation mechanic. By developing characters over several rounds that potentially cover years at a time, it is possible to add years (decades?) of social history to Kimatarthi over, say, an hour of gaming. That would be awesome.

Another system that has some cool rules for “social battle” and intrigue is the Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying.  But although I like that dynamic, I’m not sure that’s the right system as a whole. Plus, I don’t necessarily want my players associating Kimatarthi with Game of Thrones all the time.

But the big hang up with both of these is the rules for magic and spells. I have to say that I’m not in love with the FATE rules for magic rules. FATE variants offer some hope. I think there is some great stuff in the Dresden Files RPG, but overall it’s too cumbersome for the game I’d like to run. I did find some interesting FATE magic rules called Spirit of Steam and Sorcery, which may could work nicely.

Then again, I could just whip up some basic d20 rules, add a bit of homebrew, and wing it.

Really, as I think that the setting itself will not be impacted very much by whatever system I choose to run a game. As I see it, the stories we tell will be the stories that get told. The gaming system is just the medium for telling those stories. And that’s the fun of gaming.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Great Rift

One of the several dramatic defining features of Kimatarthi is the Great Rift. This is a massive fault line that runs nearly the entire length of the land from north to south. It marks the western edge of the central lowlands and the beginning of the western mountains. The Rift itself is a sheer escarpment some 1,500 meters high, though its prominence decreases in the north.  In my mind, it looks a bit like the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, but much higher.

Pic by Andres Barragan, modified

At the top of the Great Rift, the snow-capped High Mountains roll into the Western Desert. Waterfalls, craggy outcroppings, and interesting irregularities periodically break the cliff face, but it is basically sheer. And since it is so high (and there are no X-treme hobby climbers in Kimatarthi), it is impassible. At its base is the Black River, which itself runs from the north to a small sea in the southern part of the central lowlands. At some points the river runs directly along the sheer face of the Rift, but at other points loose, rocky deposits create a sort of shoreline.

The cliff face gradually becomes less in the north, as the hills gain elevation. It breaks west at its northernmost point, allowing for east-west passage. The city of Markaz rests at this gap. In the south, the Great Rift simply runs into the mists of Land’s End.

Besides being a cool fantasy feature, the Great Rift serves the gaming function of adding distance between zones that would otherwise be relatively close. In the early days of world creation, I found myself wondering why the populations of Bryss didn’t just expand east into the central valley, and why the goblin hordes didn’t swallow up the city along with the other southern towns. It made sense to create a geographic feature that would isolate Bryss, so that it wasn’t tied to the fate of the other southern territories. In so doing, I found that it also forces travel to move north-south, which means that there is a larger frontier for the players to explore. The Great Rift forces caravans to cross the Western Desert between Markaz and Bryss. The Great Rift forces players to base their exploration of the central valley far in the north. In short, I think it is a constraint that encourages more plot hooks and interesting adventures. Also, huge cliffs are awesome.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Cities

There are only three cities in the land of Kimatarthi: Markaz, Mudun, and Bryss. This emptiness is one of the first features I decided upon when creating the land. I liked the idea of civilization concentrated in only a few remote places, the land in between being hostile if not unlivable. Of course, then I had to decide why civilization hadn’t expanded beyond these spaces…

For me part of the creation process is this reverse engineering of history. I find an interesting concept and then figure out how that could have come about. This is when I settled on the idea that Kimatarthi wasn’t always like this – it is a post-apocalyptic world. In fact, these three cities represent the aftermath of the Goblin Wars that wiped out cities and towns by the dozens.  Each of these remaining cities represents a different aspect of that old civilization. (Though I was never really aware of that literary quality until just this minute.)

Markaz was the site of a final battle between humans and goblins. Refugees from all across the land sought refuge behind its walls, and in one final effort mankind was able to resist the goblin tide. Broken, the goblin armies slowly began to scatter and retreat. But these refuges had nowhere to return, so Markaz became a melting pot of the remnants of the earlier era. Here society, economy, culture, and politics are being born anew. This renewal is far from hopeful, however. The city remains a broken mess. It is a wretched hive wherein life is poor, nasty, brutish, and short (it is far too overcrowded to be solitary, though).

One could say that Mudun is the city for the hopeful—or the foolish. Some time after the goblin war, bands of people were willing (perhaps eager) to leave the dregs of Markaz behind. They set out across the valley and rebuilt a city on the ruins of a former trade hub. The location was chosen because the north-eastern plateau is fertile ground, compared to the rocky pass where Markaz sits. Nestled along a river at the foot of the mountains, Mudun is definitely a frontier town. The nearby region allows for agricultural development, but the city itself must be continuously fortified against regular goblin attacks.

Finally, the remote city of Bryss in some ways represents what Kimatarthi once was. Bryss has always been isolated from the rest of the world. It is the only city that has ever existed west of the Great Rift, a massive and impassible escarpment that runs nearly the entire length of the world. Although it is far to the south, the only passage to the west is far in the north at Markaz. Travelers then have to make their way through the desert that dominates the western part of the world before finding a gap that leads back up into the valley of Bryss. This isolation has resulted in cultural differences, but also spared the population from the horrors of the goblin invasion. No doubt, these factors combined generate a bit of resentment between the populations of the east and the west. However, the world needs the good Bryss produces, just as they need the markets.