Friday, September 10, 2010

Languages in Fantasy Worlds, Part 1

Languages add detail and richness to fantasy settings. They make the difference between a setting that feels artificial and one that seems organic and evolving. The grandaddy of all fantasy worlds, Tolkien's Middle-Earth, has at its heart the author's constructed languages. The carefully constructed place and personal names lend a subtext of depth and a verisimilitude that a selection of randomly derived names simply wouldn't. Whether the reader consciously realizes it or not, the setting is granted a sense of life and history by a systematic approach to language.

The trouble is that none of us are Tolkien, and very, very few of us are professional linguists or philologists. The only setting designed for gaming that boasts fully-developed artificial languages is M. A. R. Barker's T├ękumel. The world builder can and should think deeply about the languages used in his or her milieu, but both knowledge and a general aesthetic sense about languages are needed to create them in full, from scratch, and the only way to get that is to study them at or near the professional level.

What we really mean by "language" as it applies to world-building is names. We develop the languages so that the named things, places and people in the world seem like they fit together in a natural way, and so that the names themselves carry the associations that we want to convey, perhaps subliminally, to the reader or player. Developing a constructed language to the level of detail that real-world languages have is a monumental task requiring a large amount of education and very possibly a lifetime of work. Fortunately, there are shortcuts that can be used to create a credible facsimile of a fully-developed constructed language. Using them will give your setting an organic feel. You may not tell a player that Akhbar is from an Arabian-like culture, but hearing the name, they'll fill in that particular blank in their own imagination. Sterotyping, used in a constructive way.

This series of articles is about creating languages for fantasy worlds, not about educating even armchair linguists. It may be that the reader, having used the techniques presented here, will be intrigued by languages and want to know more, but aside from making some suggestions for further reading, that's beyond the scope of this article.

If you do want to explore linguistics further, be aware that the subject is one of the potential traps of the world-builder; it's possible to pay too much attention to it, and get trapped in linguistic minutiae. I have fallen into this trap myself - it's a fascinating subject that's worth study on its own merits, but if your goal is to construct a fantasy setting rather than to devise artificial languages, get the basics hammered out globally first. When your world is ready you can always go back and flesh the languages out to your heart's desire, in much the same way that Tolkien himself did. Meanwhile, you should be treating languages strictly as tools for developing pleasing and consistent names for your setting.

And the trap is actually two-fold; it's possible to take constructed languages too far, from the world-builder's perspective, renaming even common things. This hinders accessibility (just ask Barker,) and the world-builder should be leery of the tendency. As a general rule, if you have Kings in your world, just call them Kings - there's no need to make up an in-setting name for this kind of hereditary monarch when you have a perfectly serviceable and universally understood term ready to use in good old English.

Our approach here will mirror that in the world-building series; we'll start by answering some big questions, determine a good level of detail to work down to, and then do the actual dirty work of building the language and assembling names. Just as importantly, we'll keep things managable, by limiting ourselves in the amount of work we do on any particular language. A good limit that I apply myself is that everything about a language, from phonetics to grammar to the useful lexicon that we use to actually build names, has to fit on both sides of a 5x7 index card.

Be aware that I'll be using grammatical terms and concepts in this series of articles. I'll try to do this to the least extent possible, but there's no way to leave it out altogether. I will link to a helpful Wikipedia article where I feel it's warranted. Meanwhile, I'll hand out our first piece of recommended reading, English Grammar For Dummies. This will provide you with everything you need to know about grammar, and then some - and we'll be playing with those rules as we learned to apply them in English, to create natural-sounding fantasy languages.

Stay tuned for Part 2: What You Need To Know.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fantasy World Building, Part 1

This will be the first in a series of articles on top-down fantasy setting design. We're going to begin with a few assumptions.

Let us call the setting non-system specific, at least for now. With that in mind, we'd like the place to be useful in at least a somewhat broad selection of rules systems, specifically including D&D and its various clones. We might also add Rolemaster and RuneQuest (3rd edition) to the list as well. This will have ramifications down the line, as it will keep us from delving too deeply into certain things, like the physical mechanism behind magic.

With this in mind, the world (yet un-named) will be a classic or traditional fantasy world. At least some of the traditional fantasy races will be present. The most traditional of these are Elves and Dwarves, probably also including Orcs and Halflings. This implies to me a somewhat Tolkienesque setup, so let's play with that.

The structure of Tolkien's Middle-Earth is both epic and mythic. Let's keep the epic but aim for a historical feel rather than a mythological one. So we're going with a Tolkienesque feel but emphasizing the synthetic history of the work.

Let's pillage liberally from history. But direct, one-to-one analogues of historical cultures is something to be avoided, in my opinion - this is a trap that, say, 7th Sea fell into. However, there are certain historical/fantasy tropes that I simply can't resist borrowing. Vikings, for example. So that's where we're going to be starting.

This being traditional fantasy with its need for Clerics and other servants of the divine, let's assume that the Gods are in fact real. Having one set of gods for the whole world, even if they're known by different names in different places, feels kind of synthetic to me, and it makes a metaphysical statement that I'm not terrible comfortable with. Therefore, let us posit multiple competing pantheons of Gods, who are powerful but nothing like omnipotent. This matches up reasonably closely with how Gods were viewed in pre-Christian times.

I have a hankering to explore a semi-monotheism as well. So while some of the pantheons will contain a bunch of Gods of more or less similar power, one pantheon is dominated by a single Over-God and an array of empowered, semi-divine servants, more along the lines of angels than saints.

We'll be sticking to the traditional fantasy sphere, for now, so we're going to stay away from Asian analogues like a fantasy Japan or China. We can assume that something like those places exist, if the campaign warrants it, but we'll leave them off the table for now. This also means that we don't need to work out the whole planet.

Now I will sketch a map.

I'm not an artist, and don't have access to fancy artist's gear. So we're keeping this simple, and just using pencil and quarter-inch graph paper. I'm doing this with an eye towards a digital treatment later on, so I want to keep it manageable; specifically, I want to be able to scan the maps. So I divide my world into regions 5 squares high and 8 squares wide, and I make the coastlines and continental shapes more or less fit into the grid. This is tricky to do while keeping things looking somewhat natural.

The world map is just a rough sketch; I'll be taking each of these regions and blowing them up into full-page maps, which I will then scan into the PC. The sketch itself is never going to be seen again, so things don't have to match up perfectly; only the general flow needs to be preserved. I'll add lots of details, like islands, bays, lakes, rivers and such on the individual maps.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I'll tackle regional mapping.

Monday, August 30, 2010

It's Been a Bit...

But I'm still around. I'm in the process of kicking off a new campaign of Ars Magica (5th Edition,) an ambitious monster I'll be sure to talk more about as we go on.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Odds and Ends

In this week's miscellany, I had a crack at D&D4e last night as part of the D&D Encounters program, which I decided to attend literally at the last minute. The point was to get a better handle on how the game runs at the table, but as luck would have it, this week's encounter was a skill challenge. I think this rule has a great eal of potential (compare it to, for example, the rules for extended contests in HeroQuest, or the Duel of Wits system in Burning Wheel,) but I'd rather have sat in on a fightier game.

Overall, it was a positive experience system-wise.

The Silverlands project is still underway - right now I am busy dividing up the gamable area into sub-regions, which due to an artifact of my mapping method is taking quite a while. I hope to have a new map and some more info posted some time in the next week or two - and after that, we get into the low-level work of finding interesting things to place on the map.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Defending AD&D Second Edition

I was no defender of AD&D 2nd Edition back in the day; indeed, my period of near-complete absence from D&D mostly coincides with its time in the sun. Had you asked me a year or two ago, I would readily have said that 2e was the weakest of the game's principal editions, and given a variety of reasons that this was so: failing to address any of AD&D 1e's many major mechanical issues, stripping material from the game in a cowardly kowtow to fanatical nutjobs, and a sprawling product line that included a great deal of material that was of less than stellar quality.

If you ask me today... well, all of those things are still true. But I've softened a lot on 2e. While it doesn't really fix anything that was wrong with 1e, it did clean up the presentation a great deal, and it's frankly a lot easier to learn out of the books. It's still mostly the same game as 1e, and 1e was a pretty good game on its own terms. Yeah, it took out devils and assassins and half-orcs, but all of those eventually made it back in in some form or another, and it's not like much of it would have been hard to adapt from earlier materials. And it did fix some stuff as well, the Bard being the obvious example, and while some of its efforts may not have been wholly successful... say, psionics, they at least represented an improvement over the incomprehensible babble that 1e boasted in that department.

The huge, incoherent range of products is the most interesting point. It was a lot of stuff, and the seemingly-immutable Sturgeon's Law held true, in that about 80% of it was crap. But that very volume meant that a lot of good stuff snuck in as well. The 2e era was, in many ways, the golden age of D&D, much as I loathe that term - at least from a publishing standpoint. There was a vast array of materials to pick from and a wagonload of different settings to run in. This may not have made any business sense at all, and I may not have liked all of it, but I did like some of it, settings and adventures both. Even the most virulent AD&D haters of the day probably would have admitted the excellence of a handful of products, even if they would have groused about the suitability of the AD&D engine for running them - a legitimate concern in some cases. Even if I grew to dislike the 2e Forgotten Realms for its excess and overdevelopment, I still liked and admired some of the products, like the outstanding Faiths and Avatars.

In retrospect, it's hard to say that AD&D 1e maintains the D&D tradition, follows the D&D paradigm or successfully executes the D&D playstyle while claiming that 2e doesn't, even if one might quibble over minutiae; and thus it becomes very difficult to credibly lambaste 2e as any kind of aberration in the history of D&D. And its advantages in presentation and in the breadth of options available, rivaled only by 3.x, actually make it pretty attractive. If you take the whole of 2e and apply to it a sensible gamemastering methodology, namely that you should use what you like, adapt what you need and discard the rest, the weaknesses of that edition suddenly become far less important.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Brief History of the Silverlands

I think a campaign world needs a historical framework in which to set events and stories of the DM's choosing. This needn't (indeed, possibly shouldn't,) be overly detailed, but it will provide the structure for what's to come. What follows is an outline of the history of the world of the Silverlands.

  1. Before Good or Evil, before the Gods, there was the Dawn, in which the world arose from the co-mingling of Law and Chaos.
  2. Powerful beings of Law, the Sun Princes of Qan, and of Chaos, the Thousand Cold Lords, arose in time, and their long struggles shaped and shattered the world. Few survived of either faction, but those that did ruled as the first Gods.
  3. Unto this broken world came the Elves, from where none know, to heal it. After came the Dwarves, and though there was often rivalry and mistrust between them, a long, Bright Age passed.
  4. Chaos, long-weakened, rose again and spawned the Orcs, against whom millennia-long wars were fought. A fragment of the Elves, sworn to Chaos, swung the balance in its favor, and they created a Long Dark Empire. During its reign Good and Evil arose or were recognized, causing strife within the Empire. Its fall broke the Old Races.
  5. Among the ashes arose the younger races: Gnomes (possibly an offshoot of the Dwarves,) Men, and Halflings.
  6. The Empire of Attalos, with the friendship of the Elves, rose to rule the world of Men. But hubris proved its undoing, and it was felled by darkest sorcery.
  7. In Inutheyn arose the Dark Kingdom of Thol astride the ashes. The Thirteen Kingdoms were forged against it, and vanquished it.
  8. The Present, in which many of the Thirteen still endure, while newer nations have arisen among the ruins of olden empires.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

First Venture Into the Silverlands

Last year, Rob Conley over at Bat in the Attic put up a terrific post outlining a method for how to set up a fantasy sandbox. Take a look at that before reading further, because I'm going to be following his steps, probably fairly closely.

Silverlands is going to be a very traditional D&D setting; this means that all of the various D&D races and classes will be built in. I have little intention of stepping outside of the rules to devise custom stuff (but there will be exceptions to this, as we'll see later on.) At the same time, traditional or not, I have no desire to go back to the dark ages of mapping by hand along with late-night trips to the 24 hour copy place. So I'll be using modern tools, starting with Fractal Terrains Pro and Campaign Cartographer 2 Pro.

With that in mind, I present the world of Melantea:

The world map was designed using Fractal Terrains Pro from a random base and tweaked significantly, then exported to CC2Pro and thence to JPEG. All fairly easy thus far. The developed campaign area (the Silverlands themselves) are obviously going to be much smaller than the whole world.

The region pictured above is called the Attalosean Reach, so named for the great seafaring empire of Attalos which once held sway there. The continent of Inutheyn lies entirely within the region, as well as portions of the landmasses of Ghulan and Larnet. Much of eastern Inutheyn is civilized or nearly so; most of the west is wilderness or occupied by inimical tribes of humanoids... and possibly worse. It is in these savage expanses that the Silverlands lie.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why D&D4 Doesn't Suck

The first thing that must be understood is that the essence of D&D is found in what I call the "dungeon experience," using "dungeon" in the broader sense to include any kind of locale in which it's possible to have a fairly structured series of encounters; dungeons proper, as well as castles, manors, labyrinths and even wilderness areas.

But the real heart of D&D lies in the encounters themselves, rather than in the dungeon experience itself. Structurally, the game has always been about encounters. This is one of the things that contrasts D&D with many other roleplaying games. This has always been the case, in every version of D&D, when people actually sit down at the table to play it. In traditional D&D campaigns DMs structure adventures around encounters, and form the plot to fit them, rather than the reverse. Players manage their resources around encounters as well.

One of the things that D&D3.0 did that was a radical departure from previous editions of D&D was to enable more easily the structuring of campaigns which don't use the traditional encounter-driven adventure design philosophy, primarily by including a full-fledged skill system (replacing clumsy non-weapon proficiencies,) which allowed a much greater degree of mechanical support for games which had, for example, political intrigue as an important element. It was possible to do this before D&D3.0, of course, but prior versions of the game didn't specifically enable it, and groups who wanted it had to put it in by hand. Witness the utter lack of dialogue "scenes" with any narrative function in any AD&D1e module, even in adventures in which, in retrospect, such scenes would have been very appropriate. I point out I6 Ravenloft as the obvious example. L2 The Assassin's Knot was another. Both adventures have been denounced as the "beginning of the end" by the 'old-school' bunch, but neither departed even slightly from the traditional adventure format.

This facet of D&D3.0 might be perceived as a positive thing; indeed, anecdotal evidence suggest that it is seen as such by many. But scene-based adventure design and a play structure outside of a series of encounters is incidental to D&D play, even though some groups employed (and continue to employ,) such methods in their games. In enabling play outside of the classic D&D paradigm, 3.x represents a more powerful game system, in some respects, but it's also a game system that's less D&D than those which preceded it. This too might be seen as an asset by some, but to those who actually desire play within that traditional paradigm, it shouldn't be.

The paradigm itself transcends the game system employed; indeed, the case can be made that the choice of game system is largely irrelevant. Thus the long history of games such as Rolemaster which differ mechanically from D&D but which lend themselves to play in the same style.

But remember: rules matter. They are not the only thing that matters, but they do. All other things being equal, it's better to be using a game system that supports your group's playstyle than one that doesn't - it can make the difference between an ordinary campaign and an exceptional one. D&D3.x has all of the tools to enable the traditional playstyle, but also has other tools which enable play outside of it - a function, I suspect, of being designed by designers pulled from games other than D&D. I've come to believe that this dilutes the D&D experience for many.

There's also an issue of complexity. Now, I seem comfortable with the crunch level in D&D 3.5, but I don't think that anyone would care to try to make a case for its simplicity with a straight face. It's also unquestionably a dreadful game for the new hobbyist; if you have people that can teach the rules to you gradually over the course of play (the traditional method for learning D&D,) you'll probably be okay because there'll be someone to catch your mistakes. But for a 14 year old who doesn't know anyone already playing and who wants to learn the game by reading the books and then get his friends into it... that's a really tall order.

And so we come to D&D4th edition, a system many have denounced as something alien to D&D. And there's reason to think this, given that the changes made to the underlying mechanics are far greater than the changes from AD&D2e to D&D3.0. But I submit that, whatever the mechanical changes, D&D4 captures the D&D experience very well - better, I think, than 3.x did. In many cases it does so my making explicit things likes character roles and encounter-based play, both of which have always been around, implied by the rules rather than stated outright.

D&D4e's great weakness is that it's nigh-impossible to clue in to this just by reading the Player's Handbook; it takes actually participating in a game (or at least watching one in play,) to see it without a close study of all three core books. It looks very different on the surface, but in practice it plays just the same.

There's also some truth to the concern that D&D4 is designed like Magic: The Gathering; fairly simple basic rules with powers (or cards) that break or modify those rules in various ways. This is the Cosmic Encounter school of game design, explicitly employed in the crafting of MtG, and obviously used to assemble D&D4. It is not the design philosophy used in the creation of previous editions of D&D - any of them. But it's probably a better approach when it comes to introducing new players to the game, because complexity can be added at the desired rate.

So, yes: D&D4e was designed using a very different methodology. But if the output of two programs is the same, what difference does it make that one is coded differently than the other? It might, if one is coded more efficiently than the other - allowing it to run faster on a given operating system. D&D4e is more efficient than either version of AD&D, or D&D3.x, or really any other version save perhaps the earliest and most primitive designs.

I'll get to why I don't think OD&D or many of the retro-clones out there are viable options in a future post, but my point today is this: don't dismiss D&D4e as something completely different than D&D; it's not. It's not Gary's D&D, and it may not be your D&D, but it's somebody's D&D.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Campaign Begins

This is finals week, so work on Silverlands, which right now amounts to posting what I've done so far on it, has stalled somewhat, and my gaming attention for the last few days has been taken up by prep for the game for my current group.

Which went off very successfully, I must say. I am at once attracted by D&D4e while being quite happy, so far, with 3.5. I would eventually like to migrate the group to a "living" system - meaning either 4e or Pathfinder, but I suppose I'm in no hurry.

My happiness with 3.5 is despite the fact that it is a heavy game system, even without the cruft added by the many, many supplements, use of which I am neither encouraging nor disallowing outright. Thus far I'm not finding it overly burdensome, although I need to keep abreast of monster abilities as they come up. Looking this stuff up cold at the table, even occasionally, really doesn't work at all.

Three of my players are experienced and up-to-speed hands at 3.5, while the (four) others are rusty. And I, the DM, am worse than rusty, having never run this game before, and having only played it a handful of times. Having a prepared campaign in hand is helping immensely with the learning curve, as I can concentrate on the rules and the story and encounters are taken care of.

The campaign, by the way, is Age of Worms, which ran in Dungeon 124-135. Expect a report from me in the next day or so about the beginning of the campaign.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

D&D Run Successfully

Yesterday I ran D&D3.5 in a one-shot for the local D&D group, which is a great little organization. The session ran to about 5 hours with relatively few distractions.

I elected to run the adventure that I'm prepping for the regular group, since... well, it was the adventure I was more or less prepared to run, and I'd volunteered to run at the last minute. To say that I am rusty with the 3.5 rules would not be accurate, since I have actually never been all that up on 3.x beyond the basics (which I remembered handily.) The whole affair was greatly instructive; I now know which parts of the module I need to execute better as a DM, and which rules elements I need to bone up on to actually run the thing correctly.

In addition, this thing needs to be run with a battlemat; not using one definitely subtracted some tactical elements that would otherwise have been there.