RPG Blog Carnival — Fantastic Locations

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

My friend, Keith J. Davies, is hosting the RPG blog carnival this month and invited me to participate. I figured it was as good a thing as any to dip my toes back into game design and hobby writing with.

Normally, I have a stock of specific worlds I develop content for, one of which I have detailed fairly extensively. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to go that route here and throw something together for any of those, so I thought I’d ruminate instead and see what develops:

At the mid-point of my gaming hobby-career, I realized I was spending too much time running my players through the same-old same-old in terms of locations–vast plains, musty dungeons and crypts, crowded cities, and so on–and that I had a map full of places that were…just places. They didn’t grab attention and drag you towards it. I wanted to pepper the entire map with mysteries and unique, fascinating locales full of adventure and secrets. I wanted every land and every city to be unique and have its own obvious character and compelling draw. Sometimes this was fairly difficult, and in trying too hard the results would be cheesy and inconsistent.

So I came up with my first rule: if you can’t make it fit without straining, it probably isn’t going to work. My method was to shelve the whole idea and go back to the beginning, to try something entirely new. Of course the question is: what’s “straining”? That’s an individual call, something you’ll have to learn to notice when you are trying fit an idea into place. It tends to crop up with pet ideas, when you are too attached to an element(s) of a location’s design that you don’t want to let them go, but you’re fighting to put them in and something is telling you it feels forced and incohesive. The best idea then is to go back to the last comfortable point; otherwise this is how cool locations throw themselves on their own sword.

The second rule I’ve found with trial-and-error: less is often more. Stick with one-or-two core concepts–don’t laser-shark it. (Though sometimes more is actually more. Personal judgement call.) Dozens of interesting points and bits all mashed together in one area tend to detract from the fantastic nature instead of enhancing it, because it doesn’t allow players to get their imaginative feet under them, leaves them flailing rather than enjoying the strangeness.

And the third rule is something I had learned from numerous games in the indie scene: openness is key. What do I mean? I always tried to inject something fantastic and unique into the set pieces for the adventures I ran but it didn’t always work out. Usually this was because the fantastic and interesting stuff was hidden by the adventure and needed exploring and effort on the part of the players to dig out. This meant the interesting stuff was a bad carrot, it didn’t draw, because it was only interesting once you found out it was interesting–so it didn’t lend itself to being a hook. Here’s how it works: tell the players about or introduce them to the cool stuff right up front.

I’m going to apply this to a newly developed location, something I come up with here just for this, and like some other folks in this month’s carnival, I used the generator over at Seventh Sanctum to kick things off and get some (hopefully new) ideas in my head. What follows are the more interesting (to me) results culled from the lists generated:

  • Dungeon of Memories
  • Cursed Mountains of Crystal
  • Insane Mountains of Automatons
  • Marsh of Burning Spirits
  • Steel Manse of Agony
  • Metal Catacombs of Ancestral Terror
  • Shadowy Tunnels of Sacred Agony
  • Unknown Crypt of Drowned Blasphemy
  • Spire of Metal

These are all evocative (to me, anyways), and I think I could actually develop an entire adventuring area from it.

The whole vibe makes me think of lurking machine-terrors hidden in forgotten ruins that protect the dark secrets of a mysterious past. A sort of apocalyptic-vibe where the world was once techno-magical, but the people over-reached or the machines rebelled, a great war or plague occurred (scorched earth option enacted?) throwing the world into the dark ages while the machines slept in their hidden fortresses, etc. (A combination of “Barrier Peaks” and Final Fantasy VI.)

At first I was thinking of a dark, ruin-laden swamp that bordered a mountain range of made literally of crystal. But after some thought, the whole idea wasn’t really gelling for me. Pieces of it are, though.

So, further thinking along these lines…apocalyptic, crystal, automatons…perhaps this world is undergoing a secondary ice-age, during which the long-dormant machines have begun to awaken and spread, seeking fresh materials and resources. (Bits here are inspired by an article from a Dragon magazine of long-ago.) They lair within and make hives within encroaching glaciers — massive, broken walls of ice the people call “mountains”. This is actually the foundation of a setting I’d semi-developed years ago…so that isn’t a direction I meant to go, but I’m being drawn to it with the whole “crystal” really means “ice” ideas.

What’s all this “ancestral” and “sacred” and “blasphemy” stuff in the names though? Lots of religious ideas creeping around there, it seems. Maybe the machines posed as gods to the mortal races before the mortals wised-up and overthrew them, driving them into hiding, but not before they blasted the world and reduced its population to pitiful scavengers?

Maybe the world is dotted with metallic fortresses the people huddle within for protection from the bitter Long-winter; each fortress is filled with mostly long-dormant or non-functional technology, though myths persist of “cores” that can awaken the miraculous and arcane powers of the citadels in rooms hidden away deep inside the metal structures (where no one goes, because they are full of ancient traps). (This has kind of a “Too Human” vibe, with medieval-level humans surrounded by technology they see as magic, living in a vast city of metal that is surrounded by enemies.)

I’m thinking of knights who carry ancient semi-technological weapons would be neat–massive electric lances full of circuitry–with magicians who can influence technology. And priests who can destroy it, perhaps? It is best that any item of technology is more-or-less unique and irreplaceable, because no one knows how they work or how to fix them, though some people know how to keep them in generally working condition (until the techno-wizards, a semi-new class I foresee available at the start of the conflict when the machines start appearing, and learn how to control the machines or even make new ones or repair old ones when they start taking apart and studying machines). I don’t want techno-magical shops, though: maybe one or two black market tech dealers can find you stuff, or sell you stuff (that is probably junk), but you can’t buy tech at a shop and there is no mass or even limited production of such items.

I do want some limited personal firearms available. Plain old projectile weapons, very old-school one-shot rifles and pistols (I’m thinking black-power frontier days, and pirate-type single-shot weapons), that some very few people still know how to make, or how to keep working. But they’re not overpowering and no more deadly than a crossbow or a lance.

Citadels still have some tech working, which is seen as magic to the populace, and may even be maintained by the wizards and their extremely limited understanding of such: lights (constant, cool panels), heaters running on geothermal energy from vents (rising from shafts driven down beneath some of the citadels), and other minor things. Maybe some still have a few ancient projectile weapons on the walls (machine guns, or more sci-fish stuff like lightning-throwers), or even robotic-ish guardians (warforged!).

Maybe the survivors think the citadels are the homes of the missing “gods”, given to them to survive the world-winter, and whose worship they have returned to because of this? Maybe just some of them think this, and the people of other citadels say they wrested these places from terrible demons and claimed them for man. That sort of political-tension might be kind of fun to have going on; for specific problems that can bring the characters right in, you have priests and followers of the other sect(s) raiding and attacking the “heretics” of other citadels, giving players a chance to intercede as they see fit (or not).

As fun as that sounds I’m kind of iffy on this right now. It feels too complex and potentially distracting from the main and interesting conflict of the locations in the mountains. I don’t want to dull that. I have this picture in my head of fur-clad knights seated on hardy chestnut chargers and carrying massive shock-lances built from pieces of forgotten technology, standing guard upon the icy plains against the threat of harvester machines. That’s my core vision for this idea that I’m working from.

And the cores, I don’t know about them; what do they look like, or rather what do the people think they look like? Crystal cores perhaps? Creating a solid reason for more conflict between the men and the machines and reasons for the mortal races to explore the Crystal Mountains area: knights and adventurers seeking the fabled cores to reignite the citadels.

Perhaps a group of these are the ones who awoke the machines. Such an event could even be the first adventure in an arc that kicks everything off: the players are the adventuring group that accidentally awakens the machines in their search for a crystal core in the mountains. Then build the arc from there, with the players choosing whatever route they want to deal with that particular threat and their part in it (try to fix it, ignore it, etc).

Or perhaps that is the second adventure, and the first is an attack on the character’s home city by the cultists? Which somehow leads to an adventure to the crystal mountains. Either because the cultists desire to bring the citadels back to life as part of a prophesied religious rite that will awaken and please the gods, or because the other sect desires to bring the powers of the citadel to bear to defend themselves against the cultists.

I’m still iffy on that whole bit, but it has me thinking: what if the machines really were beneficent “gods”, and it was luddites who overthrew them and destroyed the world? I think it would be better if basically no one knows or can know the real truth of the apocalypse that brought the Long-winter. That even once the machines show up, no one knows the ancient gods were machines, so it doesn’t change anyone’s mind about worshiping them or strengthen anyone’s religious position. It might even be that some of the machines were protectors, and others went rogue.

Except here’s the thing about the history: who cares? We have some loose details. But we care about the world RIGHT NOW. That’s what’s important. We don’t need to know about the secret history that no one remembers. We don’t need to know what is myth and what is legend unless it immediately and directly impacts play. So I’m not worrying about it, because it doesn’t ever really. Men don’t know. Machines don’t know. It was too long ago, and the men and machines back then didn’t really know, either. Everything had a spin. But we don’t know that, either. Maybe one of the machines remembers, or remembers it the way it thinks it does, and how it acts based on that or what it tells would be the only part that would matter.

Let’s just say we have the Xepherites, and the Followers of Ludd. The Xepherites have a pantheon, and live in separate democratic citadels each of which has a patron god from the pantheon whom they worship for they believe that god watched over their ancestors. The Followers of Ludd are monotheists who believe the Xepher the cultists worship to be demons; they are an expansionist monarchy, ruled by a Tsar, who spend much of their time adding new citadels to their empire.

I don’t want things to be black and white. The Priests of Ludd aren’t technophobes and the Xepherites aren’t machine worshipers.

At the same time, Luddics have tales of giant metal demons, so when the metals they mine are forged, they are elaborately inscribed with holy symbols and the words of prayers to prevent them from becoming corrupted. And the Xepherites will react to the threat of the machines like any other threat (they likely believe their gods to be human…and maybe they were/are). Some of them are bastards anyways, and might join with the machines eventually.

Another good source of immediate conflict are the iron and gold mines the men work, as the machines will be seeking the same resources, attacking to gain control of them (this is a good place to use the “Mountains of the Automatons” bit, though I was also thinking perhaps those mountains contain a large cadre of strange metal-men–and here I’m thinking “warforged”–who keep themselves apart from men — but I don’t know about this one). Additionally, the best source of refined metal is the citadels, which the machines will also target.

Let’s look at some specifics:

The Dungeon of Memories is a a place where holographic personalities are stored and can grant knowledge to the characters. It’s deep underground in the crystal mountains, and is basically a trove of (technological) magic and secrets from the past the characters can reach and explore, full of “ghosts” (holographic entities). The machines are all over this place, though, and it is likely one of the larger (and thus more dangerous) machine hives.

The Unknown Crypt of Drowned Blasphemy is a literally unknown crypt, where the most powerful machine lurks, asleep and waiting to be reactivated. It was destroyed, killed and buried here a long time agao. Perhaps this is the Big Bad of the campaign, the central control hub of the machines and a massive machine of destruction itself, offline until repaired sufficiently by the slow efforts of the smaller machines still serving it, which are disorganized and chaotic without a central control to coordinate their efforts, and that most of the other hives are unaware of. I’m thinking this one is underwater, like a massive (and flooded) reactor core.

I’ve already detailed the Cursed Mountains of Crystal above as the massive, steadily encroaching glaciers. People disappear there regularly, mostly adventuring bands, and the machine hives have carved tunnels throughout.

Likewise, the Spire of Metal is the inspiration for the citadels, which do not look like ancient forts or castles, but enclosed, jagged spires reaching high up above the plains.

I just don’t know what to do with the Insane Mountains of Automatons yet, and it may simply become a piece I throw away entirely. It seems to double-up too much on existing themes, and the idea of robots or machines and so forth that the name suggests detracts from the existing mountains and their central place in the setting and its conflict. I could also make it a place haunted by legends of machines, and peppered with old-world, pre-apocalypse ruins, but again that takes attention away from the Crystal Mountains and lessens their impact and their unique nature. So I’m not liking it right now, and since trying too hard is a bad thing, and because less-is-more, it’s gone (unless some wild inspiration strikes).

As for the Marsh of Burning Spirits, I’m thinking not so much a swamp here as a vast field of melting snow and dangerous sinkholes and chasms thinly covered by ice, all made so by the sudden eruptions of massive jets of immolating flame that explode from the ground and reach high into the heavens. A dangerous and unstable region. Part of me wants to say this was the nuclear option: the planet was (and still is) being forced outwards from its sun: the Long-winter is the result of a destabilized orbit caused by the huge engines underground, but they’re no longer under any control, and now occasionally fire in short, random bursts.

The Metal Catacombs of Ancestral Terror are the trapped and twisting tunnels deep inside and perhaps underneath the citadels. They are full of secrets and long-hidden dangers, trapped demons, ancient ghosts who whisper terrible secrets and threats in forgotten languages, and other monsters. There are many ancient bodies here, and bones and skulls litter the corridors. Sometimes they even rise up and attempt to devour or kill you for disturbing them (zombies and skeletons); some people say things–people-that-aren’t-people–live back in those catacombs and have been alive since before the Long-winter (vampires); sometimes people go crazy and start trying to eat other people, they’re banished to the catacombs (ghouls). Catacombs = lots of undead themes. I’m thinking naga and other things like that, too. Spiders and rats (BIG ones, constantly preying on each other)…maybe.

As a separate thought nudged into being by this, I’m thinking many of the monsters are ancient experiments or biologically-crafted war-machines that bred true out in the wilds. I’d like to limit the number of non-machine monsters there are in the world, so I would probably pick about two-dozen monster creatures (rocs, bullettes, remorhaz, dire saberteeth, are some of my go-tos here) to be threats to the citadels and travelers, and maybe a few more that exist in myth and legend (an aboleth), but are ultimately unique rather than a proper species.

Thinking more about it, I like the idea that these monsters are still “programmed” to attack the machines. It was their designed purpose during the wars and in their descendants it remains as instinct. So whenever the monsters encounter machines, they attack them. The same thing with the citadels: they’re huge and metal and machine-like (and full of food), so monsters will attack them and need to be driven off regularly. This may also explain part of why the machines aren’t more successful at simply overrunning mankind, or aren’t focusing constant assaults on the citadels, because their hives are regularly attacked by monsters and need to be repaired.

I also began wondering if there were any people who lived outside the citadels, and think it might be fun to have tribes of barbarians who raid the citadels or travelers, and worship various monsters as tribal totems (though none of them are foolish enough to walk up to the things or think they have some New Age-y idea of a “connection” to them). Perhaps there’s a unique situation at one point where the player characters discover a tribe of barbarians and a machine hive working together, attacking the citadels, and are asked to put an end to it (or gather intel under the guise of making peace, or etc)?

I really have enough named enemy-stronghold places for the characters to deal with by now, so what do I do with the Steel Manse of Agony? A manse is a sacred building inhabited by a priest, so I’m not sure how to use this right now, not with the “agony” keyword at least. I was thinking perhaps wizards have a chapterhouse in every (or most) citadel in which they learn their craft, and the process is painful, or there is a horrible test you must undergo, or something along those lines. Not sure. Or it is a prison for priests or heretics from the other cults. But this is just pure background color, and making it matter detracts from the real conflict. I may have to toss this out.

But then we have the Shadowy Tunnels of Sacred Agony. So again with the “agony” keyword tied to religion. Perhaps these two places are linked? The tunnels are underneath the Manse? I’m just not sure how to use this particular color to support the setting I’ve already described. Again, this might be tossed given I’m not coming up with anything right off, and forcing things leads to bad design…and this feels forced and overly complex now. I even considered that maybe these were part of the worship places the bastards I mentioned earlier used (Sparta-ish, where their citadel, in which even the living areas are full of dangers, is their manse, and their people are dropped into these horrible tunnels to fight and survive and only the scarred and brutal winners emerge), but again, that is feeling forced and ultimately is not really germane.

Yes, it’s cool, it’s neat, it’s a really colorful idea. And it has absolutely no place here. Writing is all about killing your darlings, so there we are are. Maybe I could use it later as part of my next conflict arc in this setting: once the machines are destroyed or whatever the new equilibrium is, this horrible citadel and the nature of their terrible rites could play a part.

So, throw it all out. Go back to the beginning…it’s this whole “sacredness” equating with “agony” thing that’s really throwing me, and unless I wanted to write about some screwed-up thing like sadomasochism (and I don’t), I’m not figuring out an easy connection. “Agony” is the name of one of the ancient machines, it is insane, it thinks itself a god, and it is buried in the dark tunnels beneath a large steel building currently being used by a barbarian tribe as a place to worship the machines? Hrm, I like that quite a bit, I think. Perhaps they even kidnap citadel-folk and drag them there for sacrifice?

I can tie that into the setting and the big conflict without detracting from the big conflict or making the setting concept too wobbly (I don’t have to give up the “actual history doesn’t matter” bit…as long as Agony thinks it’s a god, and the barbarians worship it like one, it doesn’t matter if it is or was or not). Mainly, I think I’m looking at the manse being a lot of technology surrounded and decorated with primitive, crude accoutrements of religion: there are furs and animal skulls and feathers.

I’m almost out of time to post this for the month, so I’m afraid I’ll have to leave things there. There are other pieces I could flesh out and things I could clean up better and match to the rules better (especially rule #3) (and would, given time), but I think that suffices for now. And, yes, this is more than one location. I’d definitely spend much more time fleshing out each area on its own, but I hope they are together reasonably fantastic, and separately have the potential to be.

Thanks for reading!

One Response to “RPG Blog Carnival — Fantastic Locations”

  1. RPG Blog Carnival: Fantastic Locations, Final Roundup | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play. says:

    […] RPG Blog Carnival — Fantastic Locations is a small campaign setting my friend Raven threw together in the last couple of days (and got in just under the wire — it’s now 9:00 PM January 31 and I’m going to bed in a few minutes…).  He hit Seventh Sanctum up for some location names, culled them, and put together something that looks different from the norm and that I’d like to learn more about. RPG Blog Carnival Related content: Fantastic Locations: January 26, 2012 Roundup […]

Leave a Reply