World of Dungeons by John Harper is a tiny pdf, 3 double-spread pages, a third of which is the stained character sheet printed twice. In that space you get enough rules to get started with the idea that as you go, you and your friends will be creating new moves as needed.
Northlands, Imperium, Regency, Xanathar & Islands, Uru & the Great Desert, Akhyra & Cythonis, with a list of evocative names under each. That right there is a setting. That is all anyone needs to get started. Daydream on that, write some names on a map, scrawl out a few rivers, some mountains, jot some symbol that means, “demon-haunted hole filled with treasure,” a few times and you are good to go.
Dangitall, there is even cosmology about True Names in there that I didn’t even remember until I pasted the page into my blog.
I think what I’ve learned in the process of writing this is I like my settings with more questions than answers.
What is the Regency? Is there a child-king ruled by a council of oligarchs? Will the oligarchs hand over power when the child comes of age?
The border where the Northlands meets the Imperium – is it open war? Feuding? Have the Northlands Jarls sworn oaths to the Empire?
Xanathar and Islands – why is the Imperium navy having trouble keeping its hold on the forts here?
Uru and the Great Desert – what remnants of a once worlds spanning government has its ancient ruins buried in these sands? What are the people like who call the Uru home and why has the Imperium kept its armies clear of them?
Ankhyra and Cythonis – what is the cultural link between these lands and the Imperium? What relationship did they have with the ancient people of Uru? What political conflict is causing civil war there now?
And I want those questions answered through play – if they are answered at all.
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Thinking about the steps I want to take when I make a delve inspired by a Dyson Logos map for our World of Dungeons game.
When you make a dungeon, daydream, meditate, and/or ponder the following:
What did the Sorcerer-Kings build/use this for?
Does it have to make sense? I’m not sure it does but even if the sense is just inhuman Sorcerer-King monster-logic, that is fine. Because I needed a place to store this awesome sword and so I had my subjects build this death-cathedral is reason enough.
What became of it once the S-K’s stopped maintaining it?
Thinking about words to use here…evolution, mutation, degradation, flourishing, pining, imitating, waiting, sleeping, dreaming – what do the Sorcerer-King’s fell creations, abused subjects and abandoned pets do while they wait for an alien overlord who will never return?
Who is in it now? What do they want? What conflicts are brewing because of the neglect?
Is there a situation in there now? There doesn’t have to be. The Red Vampire Queens were just sleeping – one had woken up but there was no warring factions, just crab-beasts wandering around looking for food. Something to keep in mind, the balance has been messed up.
How does the site’s decrepitude effect the community in Jaquays around the portals into these delve sites?
This is something I’ve forgotten. The community could be having anything from bad dreams to experiencing terrible smells. It doesn’t have to be a causing the community to be in crisis, though maybe it is. What happens if the site has become a part of the community’s status quo? Hm. I need to remember to always be linking the delve back to the fair city of Jaquays.
After that I grab a map from Dyson Logos’ site or one of their map-books and start jotting down thoughts and notes – this is more concrete info that I’ll want on-hand when we play (like moments in Trophy Gold), things I’ll describe, monsters, sensory stuff, etc.
Other bits to write about: The Shift Clock, Exiting the Dungeon and after our last session, I’d like to write down some thoughts on the city of Jaquays. I took a step I regret in our last session and made our fair city too dark. We’ve got one Doskvol already and don’t need another. I want Jaquays to be about cleaning up messes in the community, improvement for everyone and hope. We’ll get back to those touchstones at the start of our next sessions. More about that and more in a future blog post.
P.S. I messaged Jennell Jaquays and let her know that we named our fantasy city after her out of respect for her legacy in our hobby. She was lovely, said that she was honored and only asked that we pronounce it correctly, JAKE-WAYS.
In the Wake of the Sorcerer-Kings has been in my head without much detail for a while. I can find notes about the setting from years ago, notebooks from my NYC commuter days. The Sorcerer-Kings strip mined something from the earth and left, leaving their labs, weapons and experiments all over the city. Municipal delvers, who have their own labor union, go into these otherworldly portals and vaults, making them safe for the people who live in the area.
The delves have maps, either from the archives of the Sorcerer-Kings or mapping constructs sent into the delve site. I wanted an in-game excuse to hand Sean the pretty Dyson Logos maps.
We’re taking dungeons and sticking them directly into people’s homes, making a community of supportive workers around the delving trade, and looking into the ruins of an inhuman colonial menace that has picked up and left its mess behind. I can’t wait, haven’t been, this excited to game in a long time.
World of Dungeons leaves lots of room for the people playing it to make their own moves. I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, want to see how the game plays before writing up too many moves. The main things I’ve written down are details about delve sites, thoughts on various Sorcerer-Kings and those who served them, so as he discovers more about them, there is a feeling of alien depth.
Made a few things to show to Sean, something to get the first delve started with some flavor and another so we can make the setting together.
Making the city details, I couldn’t use the Apocalypse World playbooks as a guidepost (like I did in Moons of Leviathan’s Ithaca Station). This isn’t a game about a lack of resources or trying to rule over chaos. I wanted a city that felt lived in, so I made some details, hoping that they were enough for Sean to grab onto and run with. I think we’re going to be okay.
Sean’s character is a lycanthrope who lost an arm during a past delve. Had to make a lycanthropy move. I knew I wanted a situation where the character might lose control to The Beast and black out but I wanted the player to have control over when that occurred.
Rather than thinking about, How can these 2d6+something emulate what I want out of a game about delving into dangerous places that are causing problems for the community I want to think more about How can we frame this conversation to get what we want out of this game?
The move I love most in Apocalypse World is the Workspace on the old Savvyhead sheet (in the latest iteration of AW, Burned Over 2021, it is called Tinkering and is listed among the Standard Moves that go with a Workspace).
It gives the conversation structure. I ripped it off here, using it as a way to make magic items in D&D and blend it in to Traveller’s Little Black Box to reframe training here.
There isn’t much there but it is given with a wink and a nod and lots of old school D&D inspiration. The text above is the most flavorless text in the whole document. There rest is classes, equipment, names and places. Powered by the Apocalypse games (all role-playing games, really) demand rich context.
That is why I started with the Union Checklist at the start of the blog post and then moved into a list of fantasy city stuff. I wanted that feeling of a fantasy firefighter about to walk into a hot mess, participating in a labor union full of plucky adventurers trying to do right by the community in a city that was left strip-mined by inhuman monsters but life goes on. There’s work to be done.
I can’t imagine where I’m getting inspiration from that.
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For some groups this process is easy but once you get a table full of opiniated game designers it can get difficult. And here’s the thing, if you paly these games long enough, you’ll likely become an opiniated game designer – like staring into the abyss too long and the abyss staring back.
If the game has a situation baked in, no need to make one. For Band of Blades, I don’t get creative, I just say, “Want to play Band of Blades? It is a fantasy military RPG inspired by Black Company.”
If the game doesn’t have a pitch, I’ll bake something in. I’m not going to just say, “Want to play a D&D game in the Forgotten Realms.” I’d rather say, “How about a game about searching for the Ring of Winter up and down the Sword Coast?” or “How about a game about hunting down Zhentarim spies in the Dalelands?”
Honestly, one my favorite kinds of game pitches is, “Hey, I’m running X game on Y time. If you can make it, please do. If not – that is totally cool; we’ll let you know when we’re playing a different game or at a different time. My other favorite kind of game is a group of friends in a house together on a rainy day, just making up characters based on a loose idea and going. In these pandemic days, friends all together on a rainy dayfeels like even more like a fantasy.
One last pitch thought – be loose with it. The initial pitch might change from what you thought it would be through the process of creating characters. As long as everyone remains excited and their characters are still relevant that is great.
What did we decide on?
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Starless elves, deep underground, demonic spider-queen, glittering cities, stalactite and stalagmite towers, daggers, feuding Houses, under-panthers…you get the idea.
NOTE: Why did I start with hair as a way to show social status? I have no idea. NONE.
Bald, as befits a thrall whose House was cast into the pits when you were young
What have you done recently to gain the Matron’s attention?
What do you remember of your dead House?
Equipment: All you have are you clothes and one secret belonging that you have somehow hid since you were a child, something from your doomed House.
Statue of a shoulder-spider or under-panther that will turn into a pet for a time
A dagger made of volcanic glass with a white-gold hilt
A signet ring with your family’s sigil
A cloak that allows you to walk from one mirror to another as if they are all connected.
NOTE: Wait, is the mirror cloak just WAY cooler than anything else by a longshot?
Affiliations: When you choose a city, choose which Affiliation still owes your dead House a favor, another that despises you as appropriate and a third that has a family spy hidden within it who still holds your family in esteem.
Braided rows or short in the front, long in the back, as befits one of the Matron’s trained knives
The Matron has entrusted you with a dangerous errand. What scares you about it?
Who within your House hopes that you fail?
Equipment: You have the finest weapons and spider-silk armor made in the Underdeeps. Describe what you carry with you and what you have in your spartan quarters.
You have something you stole from someone you assassinated, something you never reported to your superiors. What is it?
Affiliation: When you choose a city, choose which Affiliation helped train you, another that you fear and a third that despises you for what you have done in the name of your Matron.
Veiled with one long braid, as befits a Matron of a minor house to show her bond with the Demonweb Pits
What have you done to prepare for the Mournstar Fête?
What failure within your House do you need to address before it grows like a fungus?
Equipment: You have all of the bodyguards, counselors and body doubles appropriate for a House Minor Matron – also the finest courtly fashion for your social engagements and an heirloom left to you from your Mother. Is it a bound demon, an indentured Githyanki Psion or a captured vampire assassin?
Note: The GM might make a cool checklist to decide details, strengths and weaknesses of your House. If so, cool If not you’ll figure it out in play (possible follow-up post in the spirit of Ithaca Station).
Affiliation: When you choose a city, choose which Affiliation where a trusted sibling holds power, another where a rival holds power and a third whose relationship with your House balances on the edge of a knife.
Unbound, as befits a traveler, delver and guide
Will you look for work as a caravan leader for a scrappy House Minor, find some civic adventurer’s guild to delve with or take a job as one of the rangers in a House Major’s entourage?
What secret did you leave in the tunnels during your last journey?
Equipment: A steed that is either a Spider or a Dinosaur. Choose one – name and describe it.
A well worn crossbow, a pair of named axes (name them!) and a dagger for your boot.
Affiliation: When you choose a city, choose which Affiliation knows of your fine work and respects it, which one is the vocation of an estranged but still loved sibling and a third who want revenge for your actions.
What city do you come from? Choose one and we will begin the game there after you choose your affiliations:
Kitji-Naal: Two cities divided by an underground river and ruled by twin matriarchs who rarely meet, but communicate via magical mirrors. The city is the largest and most populated city in the underdark; its politics are a convoluted mess of ancient feuds, assassin’s knives and inter-House warfare.
Eämbar: A newly founded city that is a port, connected to the ocean by a series of complicated crystal locks that link Eämbar to the ocean’s crushing depths. All manner of undersea sentients can been seen on the city streets, sometimes in specially made tanks of water pushed by servants.
The matriarch is the youngest to ever hold the title and the most renowned sword in the underdeeps.
Endë-Osto: The deepest city of the Starless Elves and is considered by many to be the capital, is ruled by the eldest matriarch whose throne is said to float weightless in the center of the earth. Her queensguard is made of the most cunning of the Starless Elf sword-maidens, who ride dinosaur steeds bred for battle. The city is in a hollow-earth with a bruise-purple sun, said to have been created at the height of the Illithid Empire.
Exports: vegetables, dinosaur steeds and ranger-guides
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Dear Prime Newb Whose Home is still Digesting in Dis’ Guts,
Welcome to Dis.
You have what you could carry from your home and need to find some scratch so that you don’t have to sleep out under the alien stars.
Sure, this isn’t your first rodeo and you had plenty of adventures back at home but now you are in Dis. The trappings are familiar but the context is entirely new. Now you are all small fish in an ever-expanding pond that is constantly devouring other ponds.
Someone among you took the lead in getting you to Dis alive. Have that one roll +Int.
On a 10+, you either got out with a really amazing artifact or know someone in Dis who can help you settle in a bit.
On a 7-9, you have some remnant of your old world that isn’t immediately useful but you could sell it for 3d6 silver if you don’t mind it becoming a curio in a local parish’s shop window.
On a miss, trouble from the old world has followed you here.
There is a place for rent here in the Vecna Parish that has something that reminds you of the City of Splendors. Sure, all of the architecture seems to be littered with eyes and hands but something about this joint feels like home, dammit. Explain to the GM why you want to rent that place so badly. The owner, a one-eyed recovering wizard (recovering?), likes the idea of renting to new refugees, as it reminds him of when he first got here, fresh from Greyhawk City.
Chunks of your world are still floating on the top of the stew that is Dis. When your GM rolls on the job table, he will insert an element of the Forgotten Realms as either the Patron, Target or Job Type. The GM could describe a job and ask you what about that job is actually a piece of the Realms and how your character recognizes it.
The one-eyed former death cult wizard will hold the space for you for a few days while you do some honest or dishonest freebooting.
After spending the past two years looking for a job (I start the new gig on Monday!) it is no surprise that the Planarch Codex job table spoke to me. It is fun and like any good random table gives you just enough detail to give your imagination an inspiring kick to the nethers.
Below are some results I rolled up on a lonely night when I still lived upstate with some GM’s notes below.
Bloody business for those with the stomach for such things. Need highly skilled operators to get into an arcane library tower that is never in the same place two nights in a row and destroy an infernal item. Begin negotiations for employment at the Malsheemi Merchants’ Guild, where an array of eclectic arcane and mundane payment options are offered.
DM’s Notes: Malsheemi is a city in hell. These merchants are devils.
Holy work being offered, a delivery to a demi-god’s distant holy shrine on a distant plane so that my tithe might be delivered. Time sensitive. Pay can be in gold, gems, secrets, maps and more.
DM’s Notes: Players in a play-by-post game took this gig, it turned out to be a gang leader wanting to send his tithe to a shrine to Prometheus, god of stealing from the high and mighty. Turned out his home was being torn apart by a war betweeh Ghoul King and the Demon-Prince of the Gnolls
Professional adventuring party needed for bodyguard work for guild wizard. Please apply in person to the Wizard’s Guild Tower with list of appropriate references.
DM’s Notes: I’d ask questions about the players’ thoughts on wizards and riff off of that.
Guards needed for pilgrims walking the Kas Road. Food and pack animals provided. Payment in full upon reaching the City of a Thousand Swords.
DM’s Notes: Kas was the greastest swordsman who ever lived and is looked on as a saint to dedicated butchers who favor a sword. His pilgrimage is taken by swordsman on the verge of becoming legends but in order to take up this holy walk, they must put down all weapons and wear no armor. Here’s hoping their enemies don’t show up looking for vengeance.
Who squats in our harbor within those alien ships? Why are they here? I will pay you to find out! Inquire in the Manticore Tower and be prepared to discuss pay and begin immediately. How long can we afford to wait?
DM’s Notes: The players will be hired by a xenophobic shit-heel of a wizard very much inspired by Dying Earth books. The ships are woven, floating nests of giant spider refugees because I love giant spiders. I’d want to ask the players questions about how they feel about newcomers to Dis and/or how they felt when they first arrived.
According to the Laws of Dis we must inform any adventurers or freebooters who might consider the following job that it will put you in the midst of a holy war. When and if you inquire in person we will, by Dis Law, have to inform you one more time and then our lawful obligation will be met. The Holy Executioner, servant of Blind Justice is seeking the Trickster with 13 Faces for crimes perpetrated on several planes. Inquire about this work at the Gallows Temple.
DM’s Notes: Pretty self explanatory, a trickster deity known for disguise is hiding from a goddess of justice. I have no idea how I’d run this one.
Adventurers needed to aid a man possessed by an alien god. From what many of the best alienist summoners can tell us, the deity from another reality is seeking a pilgrim who ventured from this deep plane and is now in Dis. Inquire among the Nurse Warden’s Guildhouse.
DM’s Notes: I’d ask questions about the players’ past interactions with the nurse wardens and their brushes with alien gods.
Do a solid for the Captain of the Silver Axes and you will be paid well. Need freebooter scum who know the streets of Dis to find an obscure Temple.
DM’s Notes: I’d ask the players about their past tussles with the Captain before he asks them to find a roving temple that stiffed his merc company on a past bill.
The Silver Swords are named for the arcane weapons they carry into battle, forged from the astral chains that kept them in slavery for centuries. Since rebelling and gaining freedom from the psionic monsters who dared call themselves their masters the Silver Swords have founded a city in the Deep Astral built from the wreckage of a thousand cathedrals, the psychic detritus of dead faiths.
The Silver Swords put their faith in no deities but in the corpse of the young lady who liberated them. When she died, their warlock eunuchs set the body on their Dragon Throne and continued to rule in her name. If one of their own people should complete a great work, they are ritually sacrificed before her throne and their soul fuels the Corpse Queen, allowing her body and will to animate and rule. When she is in repose, the Silver Empire is run by the cruel warlock eunuchs.
When the queen is awake, the Silver Empire is ferocious, just and embraces change.
When the queen is dead the warlock eunuchs are in charge of the empire and the Silver Empire is then ferocious, myopic and fearful of anything or anyone who could upset the status quo.
The Silver Swords are not quite human. Maybe it was from the psychic torments under slavery’s cruel tentacles or from breeding with all manner of dragons and mythical creatures from a hundred different worlds along the astral deeps. They are humanoid in shape and most often bipedal but vary greatly in all other ways with only a single silver eye to unite them.
A Silver Sword is a monster with these moves:
Claim land for the Silver Empire’s Corpse Queen
Make a pact with a greater mythical beast (dragon, liche, etc.)
Free slaves from their bondage
P.S. There is a heretic off-shoot of Silver Empire, those who threw down their blades, refused to worship the queen after she died. They lead lives of contemplation in floating monasteries amidst the primordial chaos from which the ur-gods created everything.
The Chaos Monks are monsters with the following moves:
Release land from feudal bonds.
Give an enemy’s inner turmoil a physical incarnation.
Let others know how to destroy the economic realities that make slavery profitable.
Damage: d8 (roll two, take the higher)
Damage: Fists, 1d6, Psychic Blast 1d8+1
Other things to stat out: The Corpse Queen, Eunuch Warlock, Silver Sword Dragonrider
Maps: Silver Empire Colonial Outpost, Silver Navy Astral Corvette, Silver Captital in the Deep Astral, Monastery in the Chaos Waste, The Deep Astral, The Chaos Wastes
City of Fire and Coin with Drew and whoever is in arm’s reach.
Dust Devils with Samurai with my dad.
Marvel Heroic’s Civil War with Storn, Pete, Anthony, Andrew and Sarah.
But I won’t. I’m staying on target and keeping those flying monkeys in the sky. And ya know, as much as I want to game it feels good to put it aside and concentrate on what is important. It will make gaming that much more satisfying once it hits the table again.
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