All posts for the month April, 2015

[This is the fifth post in a series dissecting the campaign ‘bible’ document I drafted while planning my AD&D 1e campaign. See here for an introduction to this series of posts. Technically, this installment should have dealt with the dwarven settlements on the island of Curasaur, but that is a more involved post given how the campaign has panned out so far and needs more time to draft.]

The First Problem with Elves, or “How Elrond Destroys History”


High Elf Warriors, by Adrian Smith

High Elf Warriors, by Adrian Smith

As described in the first edition core books, elves are problematic for any campaign setting intended to have a historical background that is meaningful yet not overly deterministic. The core of this issue is made clear on page 13 of the DMG: a venerable high elf — the presumed standard elf as per page 16 of the PHB — with a bit of luck and healthy living can hope to see their 1500 (if not 1600) birthday. In other words, the default AD&D setting has NPCs running around who in our world could have been personal friends with King Hygelac of the Geats (d. 516 C.E.) long before his story was co-opted into Beowulf. Consider for just a moment how different our conception of history would be if eye-witnesses to fifteen or sixteen centuries were wandering around and able to answer our questions. Yes, yes … I know that elves are supposed to be aloof and insular with no concerns about the world outside their society because Tolkien said so, but aloof is not the same as ignorant. That’s not even getting into the question of why a race that must put up with the world for longer than anyone else would think it’s a good idea to sit back and let the chips fall where they may rather than actively seek to shape their environment.

In any event, it all boils down to the fact that by-the-book elves undermine our standard view of historical knowledge in which its possible to have competing narratives of events that only happened a couple hundred years ago and to be completely ignorant of basic information about life a thousand years ago. You want an ancient civilization that no one knows much about in your standard setting? It’s going to have to be many thousands of years since its fall or else your average elderly elf may have visited that civilization’s capital city in its heyday. For reasons that will become clearer as this series and the play reports to follow progress, this was not a satisfactory solution for me. Instead, I decided to peg the lifespan of high elves to the standard given for mountain dwarves, effectively chopping off a thousand years. That made it possible to have ancient history that was mysterious and yet not so ancient as to be meaningless. Now it was time to tackle the other Tolkien-inspired clichés.

The Second Problem with Elves, or “Can You Have Non-Apathetic Elves that Don’t Rule the World?”

Example of an elf less apathetic about the world

Example of an elf less apathetic about the world

AD&D elves have a lot in common with Tolkien elves and Tolkien elves are worn out from their endless struggles against evil. In the original context of The Silmarillion or Lord of the Rings, that makes perfect sense. Outside of that context, though, it is hard to justify the kind of apathy among elves that would lead to the human-centric world that is also an assumption of the AD&D rules. This is not really a great insight on my part — others have wrestled with this same issue and one common solution has been to depict elves as victims of the human race’s expansionist tendencies who now hang on the edges of society as a marginalized people (e.g., Dragon Age, The Witcher series). That’s not bad, but that solution is becoming a bit of a cliché in its own right and my solution was to assume that act of marginalization was in the Curabel setting’s past and to consider what a elven society that has come back from the brink of extinction at the hands of mankind would look like once the counter-revolution is over. In other words, what kind of society would those Bolshevik elves create once freed from the Tsarist oppression of a human empire.

The Northern Island: Elves as Political Exiles

The description of the elven homeland in Curabel is a succinct two paragaphs, but there my intention was to pack a lot of implied background into these lines:

The “North Island,” originally designated a penal colony for elves, has now been adopted as the elven homeland in Curabel and rechristened Valhal (Wood home).[1] These elves are friendly with humans – especially descendants of the imperial colonists – but human forgetfulness of history sometimes strains that relationship. This isle supplies the great trees for ship masts throughout Curabel.

Vallande is the only city-state on Curanost – indeed, it is the only city of any size at all on the island. The city is notable for its lumber yards, sizable harbor, and plentiful parks.

[1] Note: Curanost technically refers to several of the northernmost islands (hence the plural construction used). However, in common usage, the name refers to the largest of the north islands.

Ostensibly, these paragraphs just tell players that the elves have taken the northernmost islands as their homeland and that they are generally friendly with humans. For the purposes of the campaign as played to date, that has been sufficient because my players seem much more partial to dwarves and their society/history. However, here are some of the hooks built into this description:

  • Elves are political exiles and Curabel is their penal colony. The unstated assumption here is that they were designated enemies of the human empire, hence their special closeness to the descendants of the imperial colonists who led the rebellion against that empire. This has come up in the ongoing campaign in the person of an Elven sage named Aldus Runnelbrook. Aldus, who now runs a bookstore, was a leader in the rebellion and responsible for organizing the underground presses turning out anti-imperial propaganda.
  • The Elves have a strained relationship at times with humans because that other race is forgetful. In other words, elves remember the revolutionary struggle vividly and oscillate between pitying and resenting the ability of their human allies to forget the danger posed by the bourgeoisie — sorry, I mean empire. Aldus, for instance, tends to be more understanding and councils his human descendants (from a second marriage to a human) to be watchful but merciful; his oldest son (from a first marriage to another elf) still feels the loss of his mother shortly after the rebellion strongly and is more warlike, recommending a policy of preemptive violence.
  • Their island is heavily forested, inspiring their renaming of the island and explaining the ongoing trade relationship with the sea-faring human city-states. This fits with the typical view of elves as a people more in touch with nature (even if the existence of massive lumber yards indicates a slightly more utilitarian ethos). However …
  • Note the mention of “plentiful parks” in the description of the only city-state on the island of Curanost. It seems like a throwaway fact, but my intention was to imply a underlying uneasiness among the elves in their new homeland — a place of wild tropical forests very different from the more temperate (and orderly) forests they lived in prior to exile. They are still closer to nature than humans, but they keep it at arm’s length because it is in some sense an alien environment. Their parks and gardens are a way to keep their past alive artificially amidst new surroundings much like many of them keep the past conflict with the imperials alive when others have begun to forget.

What this all adds up to is an elven race that is significantly shorter lived than the AD&D standard, deeply involved in the post-colonial era of the Curabel islands but ignorant of their history before that time, and somewhat preoccupied with both old grievances that other races don’t recall as vividly and memories of a former homeland to which they can never return. This answers my desire in the Curabel setting to have the history of the islands be important (i.e., not too ancient) but somewhat mysterious (or at least open to competing interpretations) while explaining how the elven race can be both deeply concerned about the course of history and active in shaping it without dominating the current society of the islands. It’s also convenient that the changes are subtle enough that most of your average player’s expectations for the race are still fulfilled despite these tweaks and that no special background information would need to be provided because the more significant ramifications of the changes would only impact older, NPC elves — the player could discover the small changes in the campaign setting’s conception of elves during play rather than through an info-dump during character creation.

[This is the (somewhat delayed) next post in a series dissecting the campaign ‘bible’ document I drafted while planning my AD&D 1e campaign. See here for an introduction to this series of posts.]

In Media Insulae


“View on Harbour Rotterdam Sun” by Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891)

After the introductory remarks on the Curabel’s geography, my campaign bible zooms in to consider each of the three largest islands in the archipelago. First among these locations is the central island of Midland, home of the most powerful human-dominated city-state and my eventual choice for kicking off the first campaign in the setting. Given that this would seem to be the most mundane and ‘realistic’ of the Curabel population centers, I actually spent a good bit of time considering how to subvert player expectations without losing grip of verisimilitude completely. The key to achieving this was imagining what a failed colony of an imperialistic and mercantile nation would look like — in other words, a thought experiment about it would have been like if a major outpost of something like the Dutch East India Company decided to declare its independence*:

The “Middle Island” was the administrative seat of the colonial government. After the rebellion, it became the seat of power for the strongest human city-state (Midmark – founded by the disaffected naval commander who led the rebel forces against the imperial armada). Called Midland now, this island still has the largest port and naval base in the isles. Elves call this island Valmor (Tree Grave; Val = tree, mor = death) in reference to the many ship masts swarming the harbors, while the dwarves call it Xen’Khel (Far Fortress) since it was once their northernmost settlement. This isle is home to a fleet of merchant ships that facilitate trade throughout Curabel.

Several facts that could be translated into adventure hooks are established here: first, this location will be a prime spot for players interested in embarking upon ship-based and other aquatic endeavors; second, ruins and other locations associated with the imperial occupation should be easily accessible from this location; third, ruins from the ancient dwarven empire would exist nearby but would be from that civilization’s frontier. At the same time, I once again managed to work in some pseudo-linguistics that both extend the logic of one language (the dwarven use of Germanic compounds somewhat like Old English kennings) and indirectly characterize another culture (the specific metaphor used by the elves invoking the old tree-hugging clichés of the fantasy genre that I will soon be complicating).

Looking back now, it was probably a foregone conclusion that Midland would become the jumping off point for my first campaign set in Curabel. The clearest evidence of this is the very next paragraph, the only instance in this high-level overview of the islands’ geography in which I start to sketch out the specifics of a settlement — the city-state of Midmark, City of Gulls and natural powder-keg for simmering animosities between descendants of the colonial rebels and their erstwhile native islander allies:

Midmark proper is a large city, often called the City of Gulls, on the island’s main bay. While it may be mid-sized in comparison to some mainland imperial harbors, it is by far the largest urban center in Curabel and boasts a plethora of shops and other adventurer amenities. The city is divided into several districts, although businesses related to sea-faring can be found in all but the most upscale areas.

Most likely I was only resistant to the idea of committing to Midmark as the first adventure location because conventional wisdom claims that the ideal is to start players in a small settlement with equally small problems so that they can gradually discover the larger world and its more serious problems as they advance in level and become better able to deal with the greater danger. Keep on the Borderlands and Village of Hommlet certainly suggest that pattern implicitly, and later editions of D&D turn that implicit endorsement into explicit advice. The City of Gulls, on the other hand, is the political center of the islands with its superior naval force and “plethora of shops.” The logic of the conventional wisdom would suggest that starting PCs would be overwhelmed by the dangers and intrigues of a large city or relegated to bit-part players in a location that must (logically) have far more powerful NPCs. Of course, that kind of worry about artificial balance and careful DM shepherding seems anathema to general OSR ethos — after all, why wouldn’t prospective adventurers head to the biggest urban center available to them? Also, wouldn’t these adventurers be more likely to find employment opportunities commensurate to their skill level in a place where the forces of civilization have already eliminated the most hazardous dangers (if we exclude for a moment those more subtle dangers made possible by the mechanisms of civilization)? In fact, the next paragraph lays out a rationale for why a starting location near the center of civilization can make sense for low-level PCs:

In addition to Midmark, the dwarven fortress of Xenilum’Khel (“Second Farthest Fortress”) is located in a mountain called Ramithil on the western side of the large bay. It is new and relatively small relative to the great dwarven khels of Curasur; it is also very friendly with Midmark and travel/trade between the settlements is brisk. Further inland there is an older, abandoned dwarven fortress called Xen’Khel (“Far Fortress”) that has been picked over extensively by adventurous humans from Midmark and inquisitive dwarves from Xenilum’Khel. It is widely believed that the dwarves built their new fortress for more convenient access to the water and trade, but some voices whisper of dark secrets locked in ancient halls beneath Xen’Khel that have never been penetrated by post-imperial explorers.

Leaving aside for a moment the active dwarven settlement, a mega-dungeon in close proximity to a large city that has been picked over by previous adventurers seems no less appropriate for low-level PCs than a compact but pristine adventure site within walking distance from some backwater hamlet. In truth, though, I didn’t even need to go as far afield as Xen’Khel to provide adventure sites for my players and at this point in the campaign (50+ sessions) they will most likely be skipping those previously looted ruins for the “dark secrets locked in ancient halls.”

* One of the big inspirations for Midmark was the Neil Stephenson’s depiction of Amsterdam in his novel Quicksilver — in fact, many of my notes for the campaign’s first session borrowed imagery and language from that book (I especially liked the floating shipyard he describes). Amsterdam, of course, is the exact opposite of a company outpost but I would like to think it’s reasonable that if a Dutch East India Company settlement on the other side of the world did declare independence and slowly built up their own naval-centric city-state over a couple of centuries they would almost certainly end up mimicking their one-time home.

[Next in the series: Why AD&D’s standard, Tolkien-inspired elves undermine attempts to make a setting’s history meaningful yet mysterious and how I solved that problem while turning the race into Bolshevik-like political exiles]

[A short digression on my preference for custom sandbox settings suggested by the previous post on the Curabel campaign design. My apologies on the lack of updates since the initial flurry of posts. My hope is to get back on at least a weekly posting schedule starting with the next installment of my campaign design series this weekend.]


Thematically appropriate and usefully annotated.

I’ve always run sandbox campaigns, even back in the 80’s in school when I wouldn’t have known what that meant. This wasn’t a conscious choice, though, just an accident dependent on my interests and limitations as a DM:

1. I have never been able to run someone else’s campaign or module — they’re the projections of someone else’s imagination and always feel foreign to me. I can borrow a general theme, minor detail, or random table and rework it so that it becomes mine, but that’s about it. For instance, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading through Zak S.’s Red & Pleasant Land and David McGrogan’s Yoon-Suin settings recently and could see myself playing in them or even stealing individual ideas for my own use, but those are not my worlds and I don’t have that gut feeling for their ‘reality’ that I get with my own creations.
2. I have always loved creating campaign milieus and explaining how everything got the way it is before the players start breaking/interacting with it. I do this for myself, though, so never feel compelled to ram it down the players’ throats — it’s a largely invisible (from the players’ perspective) web of causes and effects.
3. Determining the why and wherefores of a campaign world has always highlighted for me the underlying concepts that are firing my imagination. Knowing that makes riffing on player choices off-the-cuff much easier. They can yank on any adventure string they want, but I know the thematic ball of yarn to which they ultimately connect.

So, to run through the process backwards: I’ve always had a knack for improvisation based on player choice (the bedrock of sandbox play) because I have a good sense of my campaign worlds’ themes and history. I have a good sense of those themes and history because I only use my own material and spend a good bit of time rationalizing the components of that material. I only use my own material because I delight in creating it for its own sake and suck at empathizing with or ingesting the finished ideas of others.