All posts by craddoke

Jungle River, by i_netgrafx

Jungle River, by i_netgrafx

[This is the seventh 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.]

Island Hopping: Adventure Locales

The last section of the campaign ‘bible’ detailing the physical aspects of the Curabel setting consists of a collection of minor islands that were intended to provide several different adventure locales for my players. However, I have not done much with any of the setting’s locations outside of Curmidden (the central island) since it has provided more than enough room for adventure through seventy-six sessions. This means that, with the exception of Lonely Isle, there is not much to say about these locations other than in terms of my original intentions in creating them.


This island is where Imperials first landed. Now called Watcher’s Island, though no permanent settlement has existed here is more than a century.

My campaign has featured some intrigue involving the human empire located across the ocean to the east (albeit not as much recently), but the Watchers mentioned in this brief description have not been a presence at all. It was my thought that, if this semi-secret cabal dedicated to protecting the islands from Imperials had interacted with the party more, the existence of an unsettled island that this group intermittently occupies and located at the eastern end of the archipelago might prove an interesting adventure locale.

Serpent’s Tooth

This island is one of the most inhospitable of the islands, although ancient ruins still draw adventurers. There is one permanent settlement on the island’s western coast called “Poison Spit” that serves as the launching point for most expeditions into the interior. Most residents of this town are native humans who have been fishing the waters here since the ancient dwarven empire, although each failed expedition tends to add a few survivors to the local population.

Conceived as an area for higher-level adventure in a truly wild jungle setting, it hasn’t been necessary to flesh this island out any more than the above blurb. The dwarven ruins, imperial forts, and jungles of Curmidden have been sufficient to occupy the players to date. A secondary campaign that I run for middle school students (my wife is their teacher) will be headed here soon, though, so I will have a chance to fill in some of the blanks.

Crescent Isle

This is the breadbasket of the islands and home to the second-largest human city-state, Feldmark. Compared to Midmark on Curmidden, Feldmark is a small town with a modest harbor. There is not the same strict division between districts and modest residences can be found side-by-side with industrial and civic buildings.

The Feldmark city-state was intended to serve as a foil to the larger metropolis of Midmark — an agrarian society with stronger democratic (as opposed to aristocratic) traditions. However, neither of my campaigns have delved much into the tensions between the various human city-states. It is possible that this will change in my primary campaign, though, when the United Council of the Marks (mentioned later in the campaign bible) has their annual meeting in two months in-game time.

Agmar’s Folly

This island was a thriving rival to Midland and Crescent Isle until all the settlers disappeared under mysterious circumstances several decades ago. It is now avoided by all but the most desperate scavengers and pirates.

Somewhat of an homage to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, this locale was created as a straightforward adventure hook — a mystery for the players to solve, whether they sought it out on purpose or found themselves there while interacting with “scavengers and pirates.” I strongly suspect, though, that my players feel they have more than enough mystery on their plate right now between imperial spies, ancient dwarven gods that are less dead than previously thought, and slavery rings tied to corrupt guild, companies, and politicians on Curmidden.

Lonely Isle

This is a blasted and desolate island is often subject to geological instability.

It figures that this blank slate of an island, which just has a vague hint of adventure related to its “geological instability,” has become the one location on this list that figures prominently in my primary campaign. Part of this was anticipated during the initial design of the setting when I decided this island was an important location for the ancient dwarven empire that my players have been doggedly investigating. However, there was also a bit of serendipity owing to collaboration with one player who wanted to play a monk. Originally, this class was not part of my conception for the setting, but, since it was never explicitly banned from the campaign, I let this player help integrate it into the world. During that process, we decided together that this island would be the original headquarters of the Order of the Celestial Dragon, a fierce anti-imperial counter-espionage force. This Order recently abandoned their headquarters, though, in a diaspora intended to be an opportunity to find a more appropriate home after the island was overrun by a company interested in mining its resources. This company is the same one involved with the slavery ring and other shady business and its very likely that the campaign will eventually make its way to this location.

One last note on this collaborative world-building: typically, I am not a fan of letting the players contribute to the design of a campaign setting. The world and how it works is part of the mystery that players uncover as they play and that mystery is impossible to have if the eventual investigators design it. In this case, however, I was able to give the player the ability to make certain choices — like the name of the order and its headquarters — without telling him the significance of those choices or how they fit into the world (i.e., that the location was an important site already and that the order was a ‘reformed’ offshoot of the dervishes who served the human empire). In essence, the player chose some facts but I gave them the significance. This has happened a few more times in the campaign since then and I will definitely be experimenting with this approach more in the future.

Detailing the Heavens Above: Basic Cosmology

  1. Meidia has a single sun that travels east to west. Curabel’s days and nights are roughly equal year-round given its proximity to the equator.
  2. Meidia has two moons:
    1. Imperial: Cinthal, Cinmar (Shadow-son and Shadow-daughter)
    2. Dwarven: Fathil, Fatha (Dark hunter and Dark huntress)
    3. Elven: Mithilun, Cithilun (Silver-lady and Dark-lady)
  3. Currents and winds run east to west; since Midland straddles the equator, currents break to the north on islands north of that island and south to the south (on the eastward side) and flow around the top and then back either south or north (on the westward side)
  4. Storms are frequent but generally mild in this equatorial region
Suraya Bay at Night

Suraya Bay at Night

There is not too much to say about this bit of the campaign bible. With the exception of the double moons, most of these details reflect with information taken from the Wilderness Survival Guide or my own research into the tropical islands/climes. Looking back on the names of those moons, though, I am reminded of a linguistic connection intended between the imperial and Elven nomenclature — specifically the purposeful similarity between the “Cin” element in one and “Cith” in the other. This builds on the bit of historical lore I drafted about how the empire’s home in the east originally belonged to the elves before that latter groups conquest and exile to Curabel.

Quick Note About Upcoming Installments in this Series:

The next section of the campaign bible is about the setting’s various races. This is information I have covered already in my discussion of the individual islands in Curabel (see the posts on humans, elves, and dwarves). Rather than skip this section, though, I will be revisiting the peoples of Curabel and posting some tables of random backgrounds for new player characters that take into account both race and island of origin.

Dwarven Overseer (just ignore the skull part)

Dwarven Overseer (just ignore the skull part)

[This is the second post in a series of session summaries (i.e., a play report) for the first campaign I have run in the Curabel setting. Each summary was written by one of the players, but I am adding my own ‘DM Annotations’ on these write-ups before uploading them here. These annotations will mostly call attention to bits of the summaries that will be significant later in the campaign (with links to relevant summaries to follow as they are posted) or else explain my rational for my game-mastering choices.

Please note that the summary will be displayed as regular text and my annotations as block quotes throughout.]

Session Two

This summary was written by James, who played the dwarven thief named Sthorm. James lives in Australia and was a great player while we had him. He left the campaign somewhere around session ten due to scheduling issues.

We continued from where we left off with Thorfus wounded and unconscious and Galron in possession of a restrained simian automaton. Sthorm noticed another of the monkey automatons perched on the catwalk near the ladder leading upwards but this one made no move to attack, content to merely observe us.

The creepy monkey construct’s staring and the bit mentioned in the next paragraph about a “sound from below” did a nice job of ratcheting up the tension. The party already knew that the automata could hurt them, so hinting at an imminent attack but holding off on pulling the trigger was fun. It also cemented in the players’ minds that these enemies were not mindless obstacles, but crafty foes working on their own agenda. I have actually returned to this tactic a few times in the sessions since whenever the party seems to be getting a little too confident and it always seems to unsettle them.

Thorfus was attended to and back on his feet when we heard a sound from below. Galron went to the open hatch leading downwards to look but saw nothing aside from crates. He then threw a heavy chunk of scrap down the opening and the resulting noise caused the other sound to halt but otherwise had no known effect. We decided to head down.

In this new room there were numerous crates with markings indicating that they came from the Silver Throne, the largest Dwarven trade company. Some of these crates were open and we saw they were filled with automaton parts. Galron placed the monkey automaton on a crate facing a wall before we advanced cautiously through one of the doors.

The incidental detail about the Silver Throne Company represented the party’s first real contact with the work of a major NPC faction that the party is still tangling with after 75 sessions of play. It would be 30+ sessions before the party identified them as a possible threat, though.

This led us to a hall with yet more doors on either side. Galron pushed at the closest one with his pole and felt a force pressing against it. He tentatively pressed it open just enough to look in and found that a cabinet had been pushed up against the door but there was nothing else of note in the room.

This barricaded room is where poor Osric, Talessin’s missing student, tried to hide before meeting his grisly end (see below for details).

This was the not the case with the next room as upon opening it we immediately spotted yet another monkey automaton though this one was cruder and more simple in make than the others. It spotted us also and began to throw itself at Galron who swiftly slammed the door shut and beckoned to Thorfus, the key holder, to lock it. He did so and the simian was now safely locked away however it continued to make a tremendous racket from within its cell.

Further exploration of the lower level revealed nothing so the group decided to head upwards. The lone monkey automaton was still in the same spot guarding the ladder and watching us intently. Galron decided to restrain the monkey as he had done with the previous one but it was not to be. Sthorm and Axel stood well back on the catwalk with their missile weapons ready, assuming this would be an easy task which would likely not require their efforts. Galron and Thorfus moved up to capture it with Ir’alle behind.

The following episode encapsulates what I find most endearing about low-level play with early edition D&D. Everything goes wrong in such delightful ways – the collapsing catwalk, the friendly-fire, the absolute chaos — before the last-minute lucky strike to avoid a TPK. Please enjoy.

What followed was an embarrassing and lengthy attempt to grab perhaps the most dexterous monkey construct ever created. It easily avoided all attempts to grab it and at one point even managed to overpower Galron causing the Paladin to bang his head on the ladder’s edge and leaving him stunned. Worse still the monkey had access to a number of flasks filled with acid and the clever little automaton repeatedly threw these flasks at the catwalk supports. His first attempt missed but otherwise he threw with precision and eventually that section of catwalk collapsed sending Galron, Thorfus and Ir’alle careening to the lower level. Sadly, the fall knocked out Ir’alle.

Galron being stunned during an attempt to grab the monkey represents a successful use of the house rules for grappling (which involve rolling d6s for each hit dice/level). These rules specify that if the defender wins, the attacker is stunned for a number of rounds equal to the margin of victory.

Axel and Sthorm, suddenly realizing that this was by no means a simple battle and being the only ones still on the catwalk with the monkey, decided to fire their weapons. Sthorm struck it well with his sling, but this only attracted its attention and the monkey leapt upon his head and raked at the Dwarf’s face. This hurt him badly. Sthorm dropped his sling and grabbed for his long sword, but, with the blood in his eyes, was unable to strike the monkey. Satisfied with the hurt that it had inflicted upon Sthorm, the Automaton then focused on Axel and struck him down easily.

Meanwhile Galron and Thorfus were on their feet and headed straight back up the catwalk. Galron fearlessly waded back into the fight, but Thorfus didn’t want to engage the creature in melee again. He drew out his bow, but was unable to find a good shot on the small creature with his allies in the way. Hurt as he was, Sthorm decided to disengage from the fight and left Galron standing against it alone. This gave Thorfus a better shot and Galron called out for him to take it.

Thorfus fired, but the arrow struck Galron in the back and he went down. The situation was dire with three men down and the remaining two heavily wounded. The monkey launched itself at Sthorm who swung at it with his longsword. Miraculously the blow struck, parting the automaton’s head from its body. Thorfus and Sthorm immediately went to check on their comrades and performed some basic first aid to stop their bleeding.

Relieved but exhausted, the two discussed what to do next and they decided a tactical retreat was the smartest option. Thorfus first gathered up the monkey’s head and body and then they carried their fallen friends with the help of Uthrak, who had been surprisingly useless so far, to the tower’s entrance where they momentarily set the bodies down. Thorfus went to unlock the door and, whilst he was doing so, Sthorm snatched up the lockbox that Galron had prevented him from taking earlier and stowed it in his backpack. The door was now open and the men once again gathered up their allies and headed back to the Lucky Gam tavern.

I took it as a very good sign that these players were smart enough (and humble enough!) to know that retreat is sometimes the best option. That’s not always the case, especially now that many players’ expectations for RPGs are shaped by video games. Also, as mentioned in my last session summary post, Uthruk’s player left the group after the first session due to scheduling conflicts and didn’t return for almost an entire year. The aside about his uselessness references this fact. He did, however, end up acting as nurse to the injured characters and, when we retired him from the party after this session, I decided he would pursue his new passion for tending the sick and injured. When he rejoined the group this led to him having some minor healing abilities.

Talessin and two of his students were in the Gam’s common room. They saw the group arrive immediately and their looks of disappointment were obvious. Thorfus told Talessin to wait whilst he saw to getting the wounded accommodations and then generously paid for two private rooms. Axel, Galron and Ir’alle were sent to bed with Uthrak watching over them whilst Thorfus and Sthorm went to talk to Talessin.

When appropriate, the disappointment of NPCs can be a powerful tool for motivation – much more so than ridicule.  Talessin and his students don’t belittle the party or call their skill into question, but still let the group know that they have failed to meet the expectations people have for heroes. Those other possibilities allow the players to respond aggressively to the NPCs questioning their abilities; that’s not as much an option when there’s no direct insult.

Thorfus explained the situation and showed Talessin the automaton they had destroyed. Talessin was interested in the intelligence the monkey had displayed but was disappointed that it and the Dwarven automaton had been destroyed. Sthorm suggested that they could still complete the job if Talessin would give them time to wait and rest, but this idea was received coldly. Thorfus then suggested that healing could be purchased so that we could get to work sooner, but that our funds were limited. Talessin offered an advance payment of 150 gold pieces for the one automaton we had left undamaged and Thorfus gratefully took this and asked for directions to the nearest Ark temple. It was very close so Thorfus set off with the money whilst Sthorm stayed behind in his room and smashed open the plundered lockbox. He was delighted to see that it contained 300 gold pieces which he stashed in his pack before kicking the broken container under his bed.

Much like the free healing the party earned last session for their merciful treatment of the street thugs, this bit of negotiation (and Sthorm’s thievery) rewarded the players for using smart tactics while avoiding the unrealistic notion of everyone waiting around an entire week to heal while the automata were left to their own devices.

Thorfus went to the temple and got a priest to come back with him, though the price was left unclear until the priest had seen how much healing would be required. He examined the wounded and noticed that one of them was a Paladin of his faith. He declared that the cost would be 75 gold each and that the price had been discounted for having a champion of the faith amongst our number. Talessin’s payment was nowhere near enough for all five men, so Thorfus took all the gold he could find on the unconscious members and pooled it with his own gold and Talessin’s. However, we still we came up short. Sthorm finally volunteered 100 gold pieces out of the 300 he had recently accrued and we had the money. Ir’alle was brought to consciousness, but the other two after healing were still out of it. Ir’alle shared some kind words with the priest and Thorfus thanked him and sent him on his way.

Typically, I assume the cost for having spells cast is 100GP * Spell Level + component costs under ideal circumstances (with further premiums depending on the spell). Knocking an extra 25GP off because the party’s paladin shared the cleric’s faith seemed reasonable and not too much of a giveaway. It’s also my experience that being a paladin often means forgoing the monetary rewards available to other adventurers, so this kind of “payment in service” arrangement helps offset that a bit.

We rested the night and, in the morning, Ir’alle prayed for healing powers which he then used on the wounded. He brought them to consciousness, though they were still exhausted. Galron was feeling melancholic after our humiliating defeat and tried to drink the pain away, but even after 4 drinks he felt no different and went back to bed. Thorfus spoke with both Talessin and one of his students, asking for any knowledge or advice that could aid us, but learned little of use. We slept another night and woke feeling refreshed and healthy enough to go back to the tower.

I believe the paladin’s attempt to get drunk was handled with a constitution ability score check that increased in difficulty with each drink (3d6 vs. con, 4d6 vs. con, etc.). His inability to become inebriated was one of those funny things that happens when you leave this kind of stuff to chance – the humor of this, much like the comical attempts to grapple the monkeys, helped the player group bond a bit more — especially since Galron’s player was a good sport about it.

The group went back to the tower and made our way to the double doors leading into the catwalk room. Thorfus and Sthorm listened at the door and heard some distant banging that sounded very much like the banging they had heard previously when the monkey automaton was at the table constructing its fellows. Thorfus opened the doors and we headed through into the catwalk room but fortunately nothing appeared to be different and aside from the destroyed Dwarven automaton there was no others we could see. Galron sensed an evil presence above and immediately made for the ladder leading upwards with the group following behind.

I had decided when the party left the tower that what they found upon their return would depend on the amount of time that had passed. Since it was only the morning of the second day after their last foray, no new enemies were in the lower levels of the tower. If they had needed another few days to recover, that would not have been true.

Galron made his way up the ladder and saw at the top that there a trapdoor with no discernible lock. Holding onto the ladder with one hand he grabbed his trident in the other and used it to lightly press up on the trapdoor. The door began to lift but then Galron felt a sudden force push down upon it so heavily that it knocked the trident from his hand and sent it crashing down to the floor. Galron took out his long sword and pushed back at the trapdoor but this time with as much force as he could muster so that the trapdoor swung up and open. Galron climbed up the rest of the way and found himself in what looked to be Talessin’s personal quarters, with shelves stacked with many thick books, a bed, and a desk. More importantly, in front of Galron was a sort of pedestal upon which was a clear dome topped with a circlet and what appeared to be a brain suspended in liquid within. Behind Galron was another Dwarven automaton and a human boy, but Galron ignored them and charged straight at the pedestal.

My model for these “overseer” enemies were the Daleks from Doctor Who and the Brain from DC Comics (especially as illustrated in the original Teen Titans cartoon). I really wanted something creepy and alien to foreshadow some of the other science-fantasy elements that would eventual arise in the campaign.

Thorfus came up behind Galron and to his horror got a proper look at the boy. The top half of his head had been removed and the brain scooped out. The boy’s cranium was filled with wires and bits of metal and his stare was empty and soulless. The boy punched at Galron and hit him lightly, but he seemed to have no awareness of what of he was doing. Axel came up the ladder and went for the Pedestal with Galron whilst Ir’alle and Sthorm ascended and moved east towards the bed where it seemed safest.

This cyborg-like reimagining of the zombie allowed me to introduce a bit of body horror into the game and foreshadow the way the Ancient Dwarven empire treated the other races who were their servants and slaves. It also let me know that this kind of violation of the individual would be a powerful motivator for my player group — something I would see again when they became aware of a slave-trading ring.

Galron arrived at the pedestal and grabbed for the circlet, remembering Talessin telling them that without it the overseer would be unable to control the automatons, but somehow he missed it completely. The Dwarven automaton behind him did not miss, however, and Galron was knocked unconscious to the ground. Axel then attempted to grab the circlet and managed to put his hands around it. As he lifted it, though, a surge of energy struck him and knocked him out cold. The circlet settled back into place on the dome.

Sthorm attempted to trip the slow and clumsy automaton by wrapping his rope around the construct’s legs and pulling its feet out from under it, but the rope failed him and snapped in the attempt. Having seen
his allies go down and having no fear of magic, Thorfus approached the pedestal and grabbed the circlet. He ripped it off, and, since the pedestal had not been able to recharge, there was no energy outburst. With the circlet removed, both the Dwarven automaton and the boy collapsed lifelessly to the ground.

Ir’alle used his divine powers to restore Galron and Axel to consciousness. Galron got up and for the first time saw the boy and what had been done to him. This filled him with outrage. He felt certain that the brain in the overseer’s orb belonged to the boy and that the automatons could not have performed an operation as delicate as brain removal. He therefore presumed that Talessin must be responsible.

A nice example of paranoia and righteous indignation, another set of useful emotions for motivating players to act.

Galron went to the lone door in the room and beckoned Thorfus to open it with the key. Thorfus did so and Galron threw the door open revealing that it led out onto the balcony. Thorfus looked down into the street and saw Ethan, one of Talessin’s students, watching over the tower as he had been ordered to do. Thorfus called out and beckoned for Ethan to come up. Ethan seemed hesitant, but eventually made his way up.

Ethan arrived and was shocked to see what had happened to his fellow student. Galron and Thorfus questioned Ethan about Talessin’s involvement, but Ethan knew nothing. He could only say that no one had been allowed into Talessin’s room and that the students had no idea about what had been happening up here.

Galron angrily left the room to confront Talessin with everyone except Sthorm following. Sthorm took the opportunity to search the nearby desk and found a locked drawer. He opened thiss with his lock picking skills. Inside the drawer was a book with a silver clasp, a wand, and a pouch full of coins all of which he placed into his backpack. He also searched the bookshelves, but found nothing except some very thick tomes of no interest in him.

The coins stolen by Sthorm were specified in the session as platinum coins; this was significant because the players’ guide clearly stated that platinum currency was not used on the islands’ governments but rather by the human empire. This had already come up during character creation and while the players shopped for equipment, but they failed to catch the significance of this detail. Talessin may not have been a murderer (yet), but he had some unsavory ties that would become significant later. When that happened, it was nice to point back at this moment and show the players one of the clues they missed.

Meanwhile, Galron marched into the Lucky Gam and straight up to Talessin’s room, banging on it with his fist. Talessin opened the door and Galron could see behind him on a table was the destroyed monkey. Galron questioned Talessin about the boy and the brain, but Talessin denied having removed the boy’s brain. However, he did admit that the brain in the overseer was put there by him, but he preferred to not reveal where that brain came from. Galron was uncertain, but calmed down somewhat.

It’s interesting that no one thought to follow-up on where the brain inside the overseer originated. It was never revealed in-game, but Talessin had acquired the brain from one of the City Watch morgues where he sometimes volunteered his magical services to help investigate crimes (and spy for the empire). This connection to the City Watch, though, would become significant.

Talessin was pleased that the situation had been resolved and seemed unconcerned about his student’s horrific end. Galron asked why he should not just go to the authorities and tell them everything, to which Talessin replied that, not only did they have an arrangement, but if the guards were to take the student’s body then he would be unable to investigate the true cause behind all that had happened. Galron still felt uneasy, but suggested he would feel better about keeping quiet if they could find the boy’s brain. The group agreed to go back and look.

Back at the tower the group scoured for the brain, with the exception of Sthorm who said that he felt it was a waste of time. In reality, though, he was just avoiding Talessin. The group’s search took them down to the lower level where they had locked in the monkey (which was now silent). They opened the door and found the monkey on the floor, totally inert without the overseer to control it. A search of this room revealed a second brain, which eased Galron’s suspicions. Finally, with everyone satisfied, it was time to collect payment.

Talessin went to collect the money from his desk, but found the drawer unlocked and the contents missing. He questioned the group about this, but none of them knew anything about it. He seemed troubled by it, but believed them and asked them to wait outside whilst he got the money from his hiding place. Talessin returned and doled out the payment, a total of 400 gold pieces including the bonus 100 for the overseer and 300 for two preserved automatons (but not for the third, for which he had already given money to Thorfus). Talessin also noted that it would be a bad idea to disappoint Desric and so he would give them some — but not all — of his schematics. This would allow them to complete the job for the dwarf, which would serve as a bonus payment for a job well done and also protect their reputation.

Talessin totally didn’t believe the party, but was shaken up by their accusations earlier and threat to inform the authorities about his experiments (which might, in turn, reveal his connections to imperial forces). He was trying to placate them with generosity – the same motivation for handing over some schematics.

With the money and the papers, the group then went back to Desric and gave him the schematics. He was clearly suspicious at how few there were and questioned the party about it. Galron admitted that Talessin had given the schematics to them as a bonus reward, to which Desric asked if they had found any others whilst in the tower. The group honestly replied that they had not because they were more preoccupied with the automatons than searching for notes. Desric seemed displeased with this, as he had sent them specifically to search for the notes, but ultimately he paid the agreed price of 50 gold each which came out to 300 gold.

The interaction with Desric illustrates the drawback of having a paladin with you when trying to play both sides of a deal. Still, they did complete the task for which he hired them.

That concluded the introductory adventure, setting things up for the party to take on a more involved job for Desric beginning in session three. For two sessions of play, I felt it did a pretty good job of establishing player expectations, detailing the world and how it works, showcasing the rules (both standard and house), and allowing the party to coalesce into a more cohesive unit. Overall, I was pretty happy with the outcome and felt the foundation that had been laid for further adventuring was solid.

At this point the session ended.

I have just posted a new script that produces random encounter tables using the information contained in the appendices of the AD&D Monster Manual II. The actual program, written in Perl, can be accessed here on its own page (also linked in the blog header).

D&D Demotivator by Greenish

D&D Demotivator by Greenish

Feature Highlights and Explanations

  • Each table contains nineteen semi-random entries numbered two through twenty. The DM should role 1d12 and 1d8 to get a result when a random encounter is indicated.
  • Two dice are used in order to produce a bell curve, with the entries towards the middle of the table being the statistically more likely results. The tables take advantage of this fact by placing monsters marked in the MMII as common in the middle of the table, uncommon to either side, and rare/very rare monsters on the outer limits of the table (i.e., those least likely to be rolled). The exact distribution is:
    • 5 common monsters numbered 9-13
    • 4 uncommon numbered 7-8 and 14-15
    • 6 rare numbered 4-6 and 16-18
    • 4 very rare numbered 2-3 and 19-20.
  • Users of the script choose the type of area for which the table is being generated and the presence and prevalence of the monsters that can populate the tables changes based on these choices. Here are the available selection criteria (all based on the lists on pages 139 to 155 of the MMII):
    • Dungeon (specifying a level between 1 and 10)
    • Outdoors (specifying Civilized or Wilderness and geographic region: Mountains, Hills, Forests, Swamps, Plains, or Deserts)
    • Water (specifying freshwater or saltwater and whether the encounter is on the surface or in the depths)
    • Astral and Ethereal Plane Encounters
  • Similar monsters (minimal animals, dragons, giants) that appeared in the MMII as part of a single list have been combined into one line. This was done to prevent monsters with several variations from being over-represented in the random encounter tables. DMs should roll appropriate dice to pick from the sub-types when one of these entries is indicated.

Caveats, Limitations, and Areas Needing Improvement

  • The drop-down menus on the interface page are not conditional since this is not standard functionality on WordPress. Please pay attention to the selections you make since it is possible to choose nonsensical combinations!
  • There are typographic errors in some of the entries. These are artifacts of the optical character recognition process used to extract the text of the charts from a PDF of the MMII. I have corrected those noticed during the coding process, but there are no doubt more.
  • Unfortunately, the frequency lists used to populate this script are separate from the index in the MMII. This means that book and page number information are not available on the entries. This information can be found, though, on pages 156 to 160 of the MMII. If time and inclination allow, I will try to insert page numbers into this script — it is likely to be a slow and laborious process, though.
Temple Ruins (Ta Prohm in Cambodia was built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university)

Temple Ruins (Ta Prohm in Cambodia was built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university)

[This is the first post in a series of session summaries (i.e., play reports) for the first campaign I have run in the Curabel setting. Each summary was written by one of the players, but I am adding my own ‘DM Annotations’ on these write-ups before uploading them here. These annotations will mostly call attention to bits of the summaries that will be significant later in the campaign (with links to relevant summaries to follow as they are posted) or else explain my rational for my game-mastering choices.

Please note that the summary will be displayed as regular text and my annotations as block quotes throughout.]

Session 1:

This summary was written by Larry, who plays the dwarf Thorfus. This was fortuitous because his detailed notes set a high standard for subsequent summaries and (I think) inspired the other players to be more observant. He has a blog on old school role-playing at

Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

With the exception of a couple of vacations and one or two weeks when there were not enough players for a quorum, we have played every Wednesday for four hours since the campaign’s inception over a year ago. I don’t like cancelling sessions because I want the expectation on the part of players to be that the game is happening regularly and that nothing less than an extraordinary circumstance will keep me from being there. Since I’m not one to harangue players about attendance, this is my way of making the point by example.


  • James: Sthorm (thief) dwarf

Australian who stayed with the campaign for the first dozen or so sessions. He had some role-playing experience, if I remember correctly, although not necessarily with AD&D 1e.

  • Brian: Ir’Alle (cleric) Human

U.S. player with a good bit of RPG experience, although not necessarily old school AD&D. He stayed with the campaign for at least the first twenty sessions and returned for another five or so later on.

  • Riese: Galron (paladin) Human

Youngest player who had tried various RPGs, but also had some bad experiences. He is still officially part of the campaign 70+ sessions in, although he hasn’t attended recently since starting college.

  • Larry: Thorfus (fighter) dwarf

U.S. player with quite a bit of experience with 1e AD&D (the most in the group). He is still playing and quickly became the closest thing to the party’s leader/caller.

  • Antony: Axel (fighter) dwarf

U.K. player with no tabletop RPG experience that is still playing. He quickly picked up good habits, though, and I often forget that he hasn’t been playing for decades.

  • Scott/tzx: Uthruk (fighter) half-orc

U.S. player with a good deal of RPG experience who disappeared after the first session. He came back a year later, though, and rejoined with the same character for another dozen or so sessions.


The hearty adventurers met on a ship going to the island of Midland and its capital and largest city, Midmark.

The hearty adventurers met on a ship: A useful introductory gambit: no one is from the starting location or has unique background knowledge immediately relevant to the campaign (everyone is a greenhorn); not quite the cliché that the tavern meeting is but still provides a logical reason for the party to form – they’re trapped for at least a couple of days on the ship and so talked about their plans in the big city.

We were awakened to what we thought were sailors making ready to dock, but it was actually the crew rescuing the 4 survivors of a wrecked and burning ship. The wrecked ship was attacked by a devil fish not more than an hour before our ship came upon them.

The wrecked ship was attacked by a devil fish: A couple of things here: first, this signals that the world is alive and that things happen even when the party isn’t there to do anything about it. By the time the group arrives, there’s nobody to fight, just miserable people who were victims of some monstrous evil. Second, this foreshadows likely events in the campaign (assuming the party bites on the “starter” dungeon I’ve created) and provides some context for a decision they will need to make there.

After a few more hours we entered the great harbor of the biggest city we had ever seen. The harbor was a forest of masts and rigging and ships of all sizes. The first thing we noticed about the harbor was the smell of tar, giving it the popular name of the Tar-Water.

In the middle of the harbor is an artificial island with foundries belching smoke and dry docks building the ships that make Midland the merchant power of the islands.

Medieval Port by Kurobo

Medieval Port by Kurobo

The docks were packed with people milling, walking and boarding and de-boarding ships. There are huge cranes for loading and offloading cargo. The docks are very high above the water, since with two moons there is a rare double high-tide.

the great harbor … for loading and offloading cargo: I actually wrote out the initial description of the city and its harbor long-hand – this was going to be the base of operations for the party for a while in all likelihood and this was my chance to introduce what was the equivalent of a key NPC. The description itself borrowed heavily from both historical and fictional accounts of Amsterdam during the eighteenth century – especially Neal Stephenson’s work in the novel Quicksilver. As the kind-of sort-of capital of colonial humans in Curabel, who can be described as being like former employees of the world’s Dutch East India Company who became revolutionaries, this seemed appropriate.

docks are very high … rare double high-tide: I did want a little bit of the fantastic to show in the description – although, keeping with my penchant for Gygaxian realism, this expresses itself in terms of how the forces of civilization normalize and assimilate the fantastic in order to function.

A sailor on our ship told us that people at the docks were all the time putting together expeditions to the other islands.

Before we docked, we were met by a boat with one of the customs agents of the Harbor Master, Baswick (something). He told us the rules of the city, which sum up to stay out of trouble, no murder (self-defense is OK), and find work or we will find it for you. We noticed lots of indentured servants on the docks. Baswick then recorded various facts about us, name, where we are from, etc.

He told us the rules … find work: Setting some expectations in game – first, there will be consequences for the characters’ actions; second, the party needs to find something to do (no hand-holding or pre-canned adventure paths here).

We debark to the docks and notice lots of dirty children looking for work.

We asked around and were directed to a grizzled dwarf at a desk by a ship and a tall man next to him. The dwarf, Mortimer, had a golden helm with a built-in eye patch for a missing eye. He was readying an expedition to (the dangerous island). We decided not to sign up and he told us he wouldn’t hire us anyway. We decide to stay local to the island.

The dwarf, Mortimer … wouldn’t hire us anyway: More expectation setting: not every adventure hook is appropriate at every level. If the party had tried to sign-up, they would have had to beat Mortimer’s 5th-level fighter associate in wrestling/grappling. Given the house rules, this is almost (but not quite) impossible. If they had won, I would have let them join the expedition – and they probably would have died very quickly on that “dangerous island”.

We hear of another dwarf, Desric, who sends adventurers locally for dwarven artifacts. There is a hint that he can’t be trusted.

Galron, our paladin, picked out the dirtiest child he could find, who we couldn’t tell if his skin was black or he was just that filthy. Galron gave Efram a gold piece to lead us to Desrick’s. He said it was about an hour into the city. Other boys argued with Efram that he didn’t know the way, etc. Galron made clear we were going with Efram.

Other boys argued with Efram that he didn’t know the way: They said this – they also said not to trust Efram (much like the hint that Desric could not be trusted provided by his business rival, Mortimer). My goal here was to highlight the fact that the party was making a choice and weighing options. I was also showing them that my job wasn’t to tell them what to do or who to trust; they needed to decide based on what their character could see. In this case, they gave the NPC the benefit of the doubt – although they were also on guard for betrayal (which helped them anticipate the ambush mentioned below). Their paranoia has only increased since the beginning of the campaign.

We journeyed N/NW and noticed to the east the town had hills, cathedrals, castles, government buildings, etc. The area where we were had numerous warehouses, narrow streets, and few people.

Unfortunately, Efram appeared to get lost. We soon learned that this was a ploy and that his older brother, Gartric, and some friends had him guide the unwary into a tight street. We did not go down the dead end alley, but met them in an intersection.

Five of them came up to us demanding gold, thinking we were rich. We refused and battle ensued. We dropped three of them and the last two surrendered, but fled at mention of the constable. We patched up the wounded thieves, Galron healed the leader who we soon learned was Efram’s brother.

We patched up the wounded thieves: This turned out to be a serendipitous opportunity to show the group how their actions would have consequences. They could have simply killed the bandits, but instead made sure they would live (even leaving them at a temple for care and healing). Later, when the group’s thief, Sthorm, needed training, the gang/guild these ruffians belonged to would know about the group and have a better opinion of them because of these actions. Instead of making an enemy of “Cutter’s Mad-dogs,” they had a potential ally and resource.

We learned that there was a great canal running through the city, and there are only a few bridges where it can be crossed.

We encountered another shrine of the Ark and a cleric was present. We were all healed for some of our damage. The note entitled us to free healing for a service to the Ark. Normally, there would have been an expected donation.

The note entitled us…: This was an even more immediate consequence for the group’s merciful actions – which also happened to get healing to a low-level group with limited resources.

We finally reach Desric’s. It looked like a junk yard, with ancient dwarven artifacts in various states. Across from it is the Cock & Bull inn & tavern. We banged on the door until Desric let us in, it was early, but other businesses were open. He place was fulls of bits and pieces and lots of books. He told us he got word of an emergency at Talisin’s place. He told us that he was too old and tired to go out in the middle of the night. Desric said that Talisin was doing dangerous things and shouldn’t be meddling with what he was. Desric offered us 50 gold to bring him papers that explained the ancient dwarven automata that he was working with.

Desric offered us 50 gold…: Here is the introductory adventure’s hook – some quick money for looking into some shady business across town. It also introduces the first hint of politics of the world (in this case within the Tinkerers’ Guild) and the fact that there is quite a bit of interest in recovering and messing around with ancient doodads.

Desric told us that Talisin would probably be found at the Lucky Gam, if he was not at his place. He gave us directions to the Lucky Gam.

We find the tavern, and Talisin and two of his three students were with him. The missing student, Osric, has not been seen since last night.

Talisin explained that he and Desric are member’s of the Tinkerer’s Guild and that Talisin is secretary and that Desric wants his office. Talisin has hopes of doing something wondrous with the automatons and becoming president of the guild. We get the impression that Talisin is more honorable and tell him what Descric wanted. Talisin offers us 150 gold (was that right?) for each automaton that is not destroyed.

Talisin explained …: The party is now coming to expect that the initial story isn’t always the whole story and that they need to make judgement calls (see the Efram bit above). They are completely wrong here, but they’re at least being thoughtful (and trying to play NPCs against one another to get a better deal – a fine and profitable art in itself).

What happened is that he built three monkey creatures and two dwarven warrior [automata] without issue. The automaton he was working on last night needed one final piece. Often he has custom pieces made. This one was a custom piece and when put in place the automaton took over the others, he called it an Overseer. He said that if we removed the circlet from its dome, it would cease to control the others. Talisin said that it was directing the others to build more automatons.

This one was a custom piece … to build more automatons: I thought this was suitably unconventional, obviously worth the party’s time, but not too overwhelming “quest”. It also further added to the foreshadowing and preparation for the “starter”’ dungeon and what they would encounter there.

He gave us the key to his place. We explored his shop front and the lower level of the tower, then made our way up the stairs. We encountered a monkey creature in one room and it threw acid at us. Thorfus was the only one hit, but water stopped the acid from doing more damage. The rooms had no ceiling, so the monkey came over the wall, but did not follow us when we went through double doors that took us in to a workshop.

The rooms had no ceiling: It’s not so clear in the summary, but I wanted to make the first “adventure” location tactically interesting. Therefore, I imagined a multi-room workshop with ten-foot walls but a 30’ ceiling above all those smaller spaces. Above the walls was a metal walkway that Talissen would have used to watch his apprentices while they worked below without needing to go into each workshop room. Now, though, this openness became a tactical challenge when fighting mechanical monkeys that could climb the walls and gangway and throw acid.

We heard noise on the other side of the door, but as soon as we entered the noise of work stopped and we were faced with a monkey creature and a dwarven automaton. We could tell the monkey had been trying to put some gears together.

dwarven automaton: In this context, a automaton shaped like a dwarven warrior but taller (just a bit more than man-sized).

We tried to run past the dwarven automaton, some of the party made it, but Thorfus was hit and went down. Others in the party attacked. I believe it was Sthorm that hit the dwarven machine for a little damage, but Uthruk jumped off the gangway above us and hit it for enough damage that it stopped attacking, Galron lept down and grappled with the monkey creature and others helped him tie it up with wire that was there. Ir’Alle came to Thorfus’s aid and cast cure light wounds.

Uthruk jumped off the gangway … Galron lept down and grappled: This was a fortuitous event, as well. The first player, Scott, described what he wanted to do even though there were no clear 1e rules for “jump down off a gangway to stab an enemy.” We talked about it, though, and decided this would be a kind-of charge except that Uthruk would face more dire circumstances (being prone, fall damage, etc.) if he failed to hit. It worked, showing the group that creative thinking would be rewarded and that we would negotiate resolution mechanics for situations the books didn’t cover rather than artificially limit choices. This immediately inspired Riese (playing Galron) to try the grapple maneuver described next and many similar events in subsequent sessions.

Play then ceased for the night just after midnight.

A glorious time was had by all and we can’t wait to continue the adventure next week.

Dwarven Miners, from the AD&D 1e Players Handbookk

Dwarven Miners, from the AD&D 1e Players Handbook

[This is the sixth 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. One thought I’ve had is that I should create some random tables for generating customized backgrounds depending on a PCs race and home island. Rather than append that to this post and revise the previous ones, I will post something on this after completing the geographic and racial survey of the setting.]

An examination of the dwarves and their homeland on the southern island of Curasur (“South Island” as per the pseudo-Latinate imperial convention used elsewhere in the setting) has proven very difficult to write. Mostly, this is due to the central role the race and its history has taken in my current campaign – the nature and eventual fate of the dwarven race’s ancient kingdom has not been fully pieced together by the players and I don’t feel like spoiling one of the game’s mysteries here. There are some things, though, which I can reveal about my initial conception of dwarves in the campaign setting by discussing some of my inspirations. Here is the description of the dwarven homeland from the campaign bible document:

The “South Island” is the stronghold of the dwarves.[1] Originally known as Zur’Khel (Home Fortress), this is the ancestral home of all dwarves in Curabel and the seat of an empire that had ruled most of the isles up until several centuries before the Imperials arrived (the collapse of that empire is a mystery). Slavery and ill-treatment have soured the dwarves on outsiders in general. Elves call this island Silverhome (Mithrihal). This isle supplies metals and precious stones throughout Curabel.

[1] Note: Curasur technically refers to several of the southernmost islands (hence the plural construction). However, in common usage, the name refers to the largest of these islands.

Dwemer Cavern Concept Art (Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim)

Dwemer Cavern Concept Art (Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim)

A Symbiotic Relationship between Magic and Ancient Technology

The first big inspiration for the dwarves described above were the Dwemer elves in the Elder Scrolls series, both as something to borrow from and also react against. As the party in my campaign has discovered, the ancient dwarves once ruled the islands of Curabel and ruthlessly dominated and enslaved the native islanders using technology more advanced than anything the current civilizations of the islands possess. This clearly owes something to the Elder Scrolls series, as does the mysterious collapse of the dwarven empire two thousand years before the current campaign’s kickoff. However, unlike the Dwemer and most other dwarves, I didn’t like the idea of a major race being averse or indifferent to using magic – in fact, it just seems natural that the two would be combined by any powerful civilization that theoretically has access to both. The ancient dwarves of Curabel were therefore also the greatest mages known to the world because how could they not be if they were the undisputed rulers of the islands? In fact, while I have used some “steampunk” type contraptions and automata, the majority of the dwarven technical creations that have come up in the campaign have been magic-powered (or electrical, which amounts to the same thing).

Of course, I didn’t want to stray too far from any prospective players’ assumptions about the race (or those written into the rules as presented in the AD&D 1e core books). Therefore, I decided that whatever disaster had brought the dwarven empire to an end also soured the remnants on the techno-magic of their ancestors – making the “current” dwarves of the campaign world standard enough. Players could then have their “normal dwarves” (or perhaps “fallen dwarves”?) explore the more alien ancestors of their race if that interested them (and it certainly has).

A Clan of Fundamentalist Dwarves Confronting the Shortage of Females (Poor Dopey is Doomed to Be a "Lost Boy")

A Clan of Fundamentalist Dwarves Confronting the Shortage of Females (Poor Dopey is Doomed to Be a “Lost Boy”)

Patriarchal Fundamentalism as a Means to Create Adventurers

The other influence on the dwarves started with me considering the logical ramifications of the clichéd idea that dwarven women were rare. What would that mean for their society if we also assume it has the patriarchal clan structure often seen in standard fantasy settings? Musing on that subject led me to think of the so-called “lost boys” of fundamentalist Mormon sects (see Wikipedia for more information on this phenomenon). To terribly over-simplify things, a traditionalist society with an endemic surplus of men will often develop a system to excommunicate “extraneous” males so that the socially powerful have less competition for mates. In Curabel, that means the dwarves have a complex system of social expectations with often contradictory requirements so that punishments for violation can be enforced arbitrarily by the patriarchal leaders of the clans. Younger sons and dwarf boys from socially insignificant families can easily find themselves in violation of some of the arcane (in the non-magical sense) rules and therefore exiled  — which is, incidentally, a perfect way to create adventurers out of members of an otherwise insular society. While my current campaign in the setting hasn’t explored this idea in too much detail, the two dwarf player characters created backgrounds for themselves as an exiled heir to a clan leadership ousted by an uncle (think Hamlet) and the youngest son of an influential merchant. I imagine if they ever return to their homes, these “lost boy” issues might become more of an immediate concern.

So that’s the basic kernel of the idea behind the dwarves of Curabel: fundamentalist Mormons from Morrowind. More about the dwarves and their history has been revealed since the inception of the campaign, but I will discuss those as I post annotated session summaries (hopefully beginning next week).

A healthy haul

A Healthy Haul (Perhaps a Type A?)

It’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to get posting again, but today I have released a new random generator, the Treasure Package Generation Script (also linked above). This Perl script creates treasure packages using the system outlined in the back of the AD&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual. A few quick notes about that system and this tool:

  1. Each treasure package has percentage chances for different types of treasure appearing. It is possible to have a package generated with no treasure!
  2. I have also incorporated the gemstone descriptions from the DMG so you will know whether that topaz is translucent, transparent, or opaque! Seriously, though, this can be very useful when describing the treasure to PCs who don’t have a background as jewelers.
  3. This script produces a RTF document for download instead of a plain text file like my other random generators to date. You can change the file extension to TXT if that’s a concern, although you should then make sure to open the resulting file with a text editor that respects formatting/spacing (i.e., Wordpad, MS Word, or OpenOffice instead of Notepad).
  4. If you are running the script multiple times, be sure to clear your previous selections if you don’t intend to generate another set of the same treasure packages.

Future enhancements to the script will likely include the random generation of specific jewelry descriptions rather than just the terse indication of material given in the DMG. As usual, feedback and suggestions are most welcome and I will do my best to correct errors brought to my attention!

Colchester Castle under Construction

Colchester Castle under Construction

It’s been quite a spell since my last post, so I thought it might be a good idea to check-in to confirm that this blog is still a live project and to outline some plans for the next few months. There has been a logical reason for the prolonged delay since my last update, leaving aside general laziness and a busy summer schedule. This issue was that the next section of my commentary covers the Dwarven people and there were too many spoilers for my ongoing campaign to address that subject. While some of those secrets have yet to be discovered, my players have made significant progress in their investigation of Curabel’s Ancient Dwarven civilization and it will now be easier to cover that subject here without spoiling the campaign.

With this problem no longer holding things up, I will relaunch the campaign setting Bible annotation shortly. In addition, a number of additional random generation scripts written in Perl are almost ready for upload here — these will cover non-classed NPCs (compatible with just about any system) and treasure package generation (potentially useful in other games, but designed for AD&D 1E). Based on the site traffic, the random weather generator has been the most popular post on this blog, so I think these might also be of interest. Finally, I will also start posting annotated play reports from my ongoing campaign that has just reached its 66th session (covering 264 hours of weekly gaming).

Anyway, that’s enough planning — now it’s time to bring some of these ideas to fruition.

[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.