Bathtub Review: What We Give To Alien Gods

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

I have backed a lot of Mothership modules on Kickstarter. The system is neat, easy to learn and to play, and attracts a lot of talent. I wish I played more Mothership, and I’m excited to see a lot of the various expansions to it into campaign play. Lone Archivist wrote What We Give To Alien Gods, a 72 page module, with additional art by Chris Cold and Vil, which I have to say I was attracted to by it’s strong cosmic horror vibes, something somewhat unique among takes on Mothership horror.

Cover art for What We Give For Alien Gods

Main negative out of the way out the gate: the information design leaves a lot to be desired. It doesn’t open with a summary or where to start, but rather opens with a safety, loot, special rules and xenolinguistics, a lot of which might be best in an appendix. On the first page of the adventure itself, it centres a derelict ship, which is plot-central but whose story is located in an appendix. I found it hard to intuit what would be where, I found myself expending energy on unimportant information before important information, and in a 72 page document this all could have been a lot more usable and digestible for me.

The “How to use this module” section is, I think, a bit excessive, but the safety section is fantastic, as is the section entitled lore as loot. Then we have another section on rules regarding relating to gods and xenolinguistics, which provides two frameworks for interesting, unique puzzles. For me, I prefer modules having a bit more of a kick off the bat, and I don’t love spending fifteen pages before it’s clear what the module is about. The “At A Glance” section should have been up front for me.

Act 1 is an unnecessary and incomplete two page hex crawl; this references the derelict ship that is featured throughout the module, but has no page reference and whose information is all the way on page 52 (there’s a page reference in Act 2 though).

Act 2 through 4 are the temple itself, an encounter with a trapped god, and the escape from the aftermath. Major character Dr Grahm is introduced through a random location generator with no page reference. The keyed locations are unmapped. The doors are mainly teleportation portals, but the lack of maps becomes a usability problem for me when hallways appear between rooms, or they start floating in relation to each other but it isn’t marked out in the text. The use of codes for me is a solution to a usability problem that isn’t there: I’d forget them during play and I wouldn’t were it spelled out. The entries are quite long, consistently longer than I’d prefer – two thirds of an A5 page for the most part. I can’t say having an extra sentence or two would effect the amount of text on the page by much. The final twenty or so pages of the module are what I’ll call appendixes – major NPCs, items, randomisers and some lore handouts.

Most of the content here though, is eerie, weird, puzzling and eventually very unsettling or outright horrifying, as you progress through the four “levels” available (sequence breaking is possible, particularly if the players solve the linguistics puzzles quickly). The linguistic puzzles and the gradual and directed exposition makes for a very slow and deliberate kind of play which is very unique. Good horror content here, and successful at a kind of cosmic horror that Mothership doesn’t usually excel at. Really, really good stuff, and I’d love to run this adventure.

Ok, there was a lot of criticism there, and I need to be up front, What We Give To Alien Gods is in an unenviable position: It’s much better designed than a lot of published modules, especially much better than most anything by the bigger publishers. But it’s also a Mothership module, and Mothership and it’s core modules have set very high standards for information design and usability. Some lessons here on information design could have been learnt from some of the better Mothership modules, in my opinion, but the content is exceptional if you’re looking for what’s on the box: Cosmic horror.

My main design takeaways from all the criticism is that a module needs to display information in the order it is read and used at the table, excepting only when it’s clearly referenced. You need to leverage your random tables so that they do double or triple duty of reducing the size of your keys. And most importantly here, the inclusion of a lot of very interesting puzzle content served to stodge the text up. Perhaps the puzzles could have been relegated to an appendix altogether, making them more optional (they’re a huge part of this adventure if you’re not good at or interested in linguistics) and also pulling them out of the main text.

An excellent, unique adventure, marred by poor information design and excessive keying. If you’re happy to put a bit of work into preparing it, I’d recommend it if you want slow-paced cosmic horror in your Mothership game.

29th March, 2023

Idle Cartulary


Bathtub Review: The Thawing Kingdom

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

The Thawing Kingdom is a setting zine by Rowan Algoet (aka Bottomless Sarcophagus) I think I backed it for a zinequest one year? I have quite specific desires in something that calls itself a setting: It needs enough dynamite that if I drop PCs into it, things will start happening immediately. I’m not really someone who cares to read a lot of lore or background history unless it impacts the actions of the PCs and the world in the here-and-now.

The first page of this, the introduction, is a short story. It’s good, I just really don’t think stories have a place in settings. I think the important parts of this story could have been encapsulated in a sentence or three, or perhaps even in description elsewhere. I can see some very cool stuff here, if they were to appear as entries in tables later: A maze made of the bodies of frozen queens; A shrivelled heart that traps a monster from outside of time.

The next section covers folk who live here. There’s a good table of 20 backgrounds, and a lot of interesting world building buried in prose. After that, a section on the nature of the ice that is thawing and beasts and places associated with it; again, excellent world-building buried in prose. Another section on the very cool, god-slaying tech-bro kingdom to the south (more on this place than on the titular kingdom, actually). This whole section – the first 16 pages of the zine.

Then it gets good, dense with ideas: Lists. The major locations really deserves to be detailed further; the minor locations all have probabilities associated with them and I wish these had been substantiated a bit. Mysterious treasures couldn’t be more perfect.

I have very mixed feelings on Thawing Kingdoms, because it is very idea-dense, but half of it is presented in a way that makes it very challenging for me to use without a lot of work converting half of it to something more practicable. There are three main things I’m taking away from it: Firstly, the history and world-building is best buried in tables and lists. Putting it in prose encourages wordiness, but most of this cool stuff could be reduced to a d10 list and that could be distributed throughout the setting so that things could be gradually learnt through play. Secondly, it’s pretty important for me to have some more detailed locations, because while the paragraph-long locations are excellent, I’d prefer those, and a few page-long ones, instead of those, plus sentence-long ones. Finally, I can’t process longer prose well in the context of role-playing games. Shorter prose, broken up, works well. Page-long isn’t processable – I’d have to write a lot of notes, or more likely, I’d have to rewrite the first half of this to make it work for me, and that would be better some by the author and worked into the rest of the book.

The concept here: Of a kingdom recovering from a cursed sleep, full of the evil and dangerous remnants of that curse, is so incredibly good, and the content here is so incredibly good, but for me it’s marred by format, and diluted by the very cool adjacent kingdom, which detracted from the focus on the primary subject (although it deserves its own zine, in my opinion).

Anyway, this setting zine is full of amazing ideas and you could do far worse than using the content in your campaign. The formatting doesn’t work for me, but I couldn’t rate the content highly enough.

27th March, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Bathtub Review: A Night at the Tavern

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this for my own edification: Whether I’d choose to play them, if I’d need to modify them significantly to run them, and whether I’d adopt some of the modules approaches when writing myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

A Night at the Tavern is a four page system-agnostic module by Sandy Pug Games, with art by Beowulf and Raul Volpato. I backed it on Kickstarter. Each page details an hour of a night at Zar’s tavern, The Soggy Dog, using a “mood” summary, NPC summaries (there are 12, some with different descriptions in different hours), and an isometric map of the tavern showing where each character is and who they’re with.

The pixel art maps and character art are excellent, and leverage the simplicity of the character designs to make it fairly clear who is in what room and what they’re doing. Pages 2 and 3 are darker and have some particle effects on them, and a broader range of character designs and colour choices might have made it easier to use. On the other hand, the maps are a very clever way of utilising art to facilitate running a social location, and they work most of the time.

All of the characters appear to be monsters in Zar’s tavern, and the first hour is getting to know these monsters, despite the fact that a party of adventurers is coming to ransack the place. The character descriptions on page one do an great job of world-building the fantasy world from the perspective of work-a-day monsters without exposition, and don’t fall into the Name/Look/Agenda trap of feeling similar and blurring together. Tension builds in the second hour, with the arrival of some thugs pretending to be adventurers, an assassin, and a cultist, all arriving to complicate matters. In the third act, these new arrivals act on their intentions (it is implied, at least, by the missing sprites and descriptions that something happened in the interim). The fourth page implies the arrival of the adventurers and the summoning of a world-destroying demon.

This is excellently written, the concept is very interesting, and I don’t think I could bring it to my table, except perhaps as a one-shot. The world is too specific and different from most fantasy worlds to be a drop-in module (although it’s fun and interesting and something more comprehensive that explored A Night At The Tavern’s world would be cool). It’s not intuitive to me who the players in this scenario would be, as the entire tavern is self-sustaining and the agendas of the NPCs are entirely internal and secret. As a one-shot, I could probably run this as a free-form, mystery module where each player takes one of the characters already in the tavern? Frustratingly, some of the major events are elided by the time skips between hours, resulting in my having to figure out who the ‘collateral damage’ was by flipping back and forth through pages two and three. These elisions happen throughout the document – for example, the tavern’s name is the Soggy Dog, but I only know that from the summary, not from the module itself.

However, I almost certainly think they design is really useful for party scenes in RPGs. Using a small map with multiple rooms, easily identifiable sprites that move between rooms according to time or event, to help to run something like this, and changing moods and timed events, are all very cool approaches to writing a locked party scene for any adventure. It’s well written and attempts valiantly to incorporate its lore and worldbuilding into as few words as possible, unfortunately not achieving its goals. I’d certainly recommend checking it out if you’re interested in innovative approaches to module design, even if I don’t think the execution lives up to the potential of the concept. I could totally see these methods and approaches utilised again, they just need refining.

24th March, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Curse of Who Now? Update

So, amongst some speedbumps and #dungeon23, my Curse of Who Now project fell by the wayside. Myself, Alex, Marcia, Zedeck, Leno and Mat played Trophy Gold the other day, and the incursion structure reminded me of the project, so I re-read it. It’s pretty good!

But it’s not a Trophy Gold incursion, because Trophy Gold has a very limited view on what a module is. My interest rekindled, though, I’ve gone through in the last few days and done memory summaries of the entire book, which leaves only writing those sections anew and drawing maps for dungeons. Gosh the original keys everything as a dungeon it’s the worst! I’ve written an additional 3000 words in this process; I suspect it will grow as the new sections are just my memories of the module and not anything I could run. There are two actual dungeons, one a magical nuclear storage facility and one the prison of a tortured dragon once used to grant knights superpowers. The rest are really just locations, including the main castle, which remains a party, although now will likely be a heist location for added reason to be there.

Interesting proceedings: Simplifying tarot draws to two simple draws; splitting the map into three “modules” with their own flux spaces around them; leaving a road-based point crawl there if you choose. Randomised tarot loot and relics that may be corrupt or may assist you in defeating the BBEG. Clearer themes of corrupting environments and generational trauma.

It’s fun, and I’m glad I restarted the project. Bringing more gothic horror into my life.

16th March 2023,

Idle Cartulary

The Tension Jar

I don’t remember where I got this idea from, but when I ran dungeons, before the overloaded encounter die, I used the tension jar. This overloaded overloaded encounter die made me think of this.

The original version of the tension die was this: When the company did something loud, risky or stupid I’d add a d6 to a jar. Every real time or game time ten minutes I’d roll all the dice and on a six there was an encounter.

I think it’d be fun to run this, but with a hazard dice:

Every the company did something loud, risky or stupid add a d6 to a jar. Every real time or game time ten minutes roll all the dice and look at the highest result.

  1. Nothing
  2. Omen
  3. Rest or exhaustion
  4. Deplete Resource
  5. Environmental effect
  6. Encounter

The chance of an encounter starts at 17% D increases by about 10% each additional dice in the jar. It doesn’t approach 100% for a long time, (~20 dice) however I suspect cumulative probabilities would make that moot.

The reason I like this is that it is theatre, more than that this is any better probabilistically. It’s not. It’s a little meaner. But hearing them jump when you signal the end of a turn with a shaking jar, or wince when they shove open a jar or begin to discuss their plans too loudly. That’s juicy, and dungeons are supposed to be never-wracking danger puzzles.

17th February, 2023

Idle Cartulary

I Can’t Sleep and Am Thinking of Dungeons

I can’t sleep and am thinking of senses in which dungeons have stories

A dungeon has a story in the same sense that a mall has a story, one I do not know and consisting the experience of its inhabitants, visitors, and it’s changing physicality

A dungeon has a story in the sense that when we enter one we generate memories which will often unintentionally become stories

A dungeon has a story in the sense that it suggests a story, even if it’s nature is not narrative

A dungeon has a story if it progress through it is linear, if this is to me a failure of the dungeon to find it’s potential

A dungeon has a story in the same sense that a narrative videogame has a story; you are floating through an algorithm based on your choices, but the places those algorithms go are often preordained, if not your responses to them

A given dungeon probably has a story in many or all of these senses simultaneously, depending on who is entering it, how safe they feel, and how the dungeon is described

A dungeon has a story in the sense that each time it is played the experience of it changes and that is in and of itself a story I’m interested in hearing

16th February, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Internal conflicts in OSR play

A few years ago I ran the AD&D DL series of modules, the Dragonlance Chronicles. They are a perfect example of the worst inclinations of the Weiss-Hickman plot-driven rail-roading modules that began with Ravenloft and continue to this day. I decided to pick it apart and place it into a sandbox. It worked.

DL1: Dragons of Despair

However, I think the design I did wasn’t successful because of the methods I used to sandboxify a linear, plot-driven series of modules. I think that the success of the campaign was largely due to a minor introduction I made in order to simply communicate what the important aspects of the characterisations from the novel were: I gave each character a one-line internal conflict. This was both challenging and potentially dramatically dangerous, because it pitted a lot of PCS against each other, but also set up fruitful relationships with NPCS, again in ways that seeded drama into moments later in the campaign.

There was no relationship mechanic here, and no procedure for generating them. For this campaign, I went bespoke. But I think that these could be semi-randomly generated, and that’s what this post is about.

Why internal conflict and not external conflict?

The primary goal of the internal conflict is to complicate decision-making, not to provide opportunities for drama. The big dramatic moments will come when the internal conflict is resolved; in my experience, this occurred organically, and created interesting play opportunities when it did. An example of this is that a slow-burning pair of PCs with a troublesome marriage resulted in one of the pair turning coat on the heroes, which turned the tide in a major battle.

Creating an internal conflict

So here’s my basic working definition: An internal conflict refers to a struggle between two opposing values. Our list of values (this isn’t the right word, quite, but I’m not sure exactly what the right one is):

  • Desire, such as your desire for power over others through magic.
  • Need, such as the need to keep your vampirism secret or face doom.
  • Duty, such as your duty to protect your sworn lady irregardless fo risk to yourself.
  • Fear, such as your fear that your brother will not thrive without your protection.
  • Obligation, such as your obligation to obey your Lord Father in his commands.

We need to take these values and combine them to create our conflict:

  • I desire to be a powerful wizard more than anything, but to do so I would have to abandon my brother.
  • I desire the love of my fiancé, but my duty to my Goddess will always come first.
  • I will be executed if I return home, but I fear being captured by the villains that pursue me.

So, let’s randomise this process. You’ll need to repeat this process twice, once for each value. Roll 1d10 for your value. On 1-2. Desire; 3-4. Need; 5-6. Duty; 7-8. Fear and 9-10. Obligation. Roll 1d10 for what in the world the value relates to: 1. Home; 2. God; 3. Family; 4. Friend 5. Enemy faction; 6. Friendly faction; 7. Sibling; 8. Magic 9. Riches; 10. Body. Roll 1d10 if you need assistance in determining the relationship between the value and the world is 1. Devoted; 2. Antagonistic; 3. Dependent; 4; Unaware; 5. Treacherous; 6. Protective; 7. Authoritative; 8. Dedicated; 9. Coercive; 10. Aggressive.

If your table is using world anchors (you may have noticed that the third of those lists is adapted from world anchors), it might be beneficial to tie one or more of your values to your world anchors.

Finally, be sure that there is some intrinsic tension between your two values if necessary, by adding an extra clause to your sentence:

  • I desire to be a powerful wizard by studying with the great wizard Grabimoru (Desire/Magic/Dependent), but to do so I would have to abandon my brother who lives to protect me (Obligation/Family/Protective).
  • I desire the love of my fiancé who wishes only to keep me safe (Desire/Family/Protective), but my duty to my Goddess will always come first, and she wishes me to bring her healing back to the world (Duty/Goddess/Dedicated).
  • I will be executed for treason if I return home (Need/Home/Antagonistic), but I have a duty to keep the tumpkins safe from the murderous grolgs (Duty/Friendly faction/Aggressive).

Linking internal to external conflicts

A secondary goal of the internal conflict is to provide the GM with opportunities for temptation. Cursed magic items, grey-aligned gods and wizards, bribery and corruption: Internal conflicts provide chances for PCs to lean into these things without simply being characters who make poor choices (most players don’t like to make suboptimal decisions). This is where the GM has the opportunity to create external conflicts from the seeds these internal conflicts grow.

Resolving internal conflicts

You can definitely do this by discussing it with a player; they can say “No, I think it’s time that my character makes the decision to no longer put his brothers needs before his.” It may involve discussion with more than one player if necessary. It’s up to the player whether or not the resolution of the conflict is the end of the story for the character, or whether they develop a new conflict for them.

Well, I was hoping I could have a simpler list, roll d66 for an internal conflict, and maybe that’s possible too. I suspect if I spent enough time analysing literature I’d find that there is a limited number of internal conflicts that we could compress to a table, but I don’t have energy or time to do that analysis. I’d love to see someone who did!

There are a number of ways we can use this! Firstly, we can get players to generate them for their characters, discuss them with each other, and decide whether any of the people involved are PCs. But perhaps a better solution would be for the GM to use the spark tables to generate a d10 or d66 table of campaign-specific internal conflicts, that each character can be randomly assigned. If I were to do this, I’d ask that the relationships be evenly split between PCs and NPCs if possible. I feel like a list of internal conflicts would be a more fruitful approach than the typical d10 hooks that we get more often in campaigns and modules.

10th February 2023,

Idle Cartulary

Time bubbling

Timekeeping is important when you’re running multiple groups simultaneously in the same world. Doing this means you get to do half the preparation, and might get to re-use preparation on a second group. It’s pretty good GMing practice for people like me, who want to play a lot, but can’t find easy ways to play a lot. Most of the advice I’ve been given about timekeeping in D&D-likes is pretty unsustainable practice for me. It’s typically this: Write down everything your PCs do every day, so that their actions impact the world that the other groups are adventuring in. It often comes bundled with the advice between sessions, game-time progresses at the same speed as real-time, because that’s the way the Gary did it and he’d run for up to 50 players!

Marcia’s Fantasy Medieval Campaigns has the best version of this (which, to be frank, is probably the intended version, those early rules can be vague): Don’t track days, track weeks. However, it’s still more tracking than I want, so instead, for my next open table campaign, I’m going to try something new: Time bubbling. If you recall my previous post on apocalypses, it’s always more fun if you tie an apocalypse into a mechanic, so here it is:

The Apocalypse

Nobody knows what caused it, but sixty-odd years ago time broke. The dead began to rise from their graves – some still rotted corpses or skeletons held together by time itself, some strangely renewed and with cruel powers. Those that lived or walked in solitude became disconnected from time. And when time disagrees with itself, entire communities can be trapped behind impenetrable walls of time itself.

The Mechanic

Whenever an individual or small group leave a larger group (such as a town or city), they enter their own timeline – a time bubble. Everything that happens when they are travelling exists on its own timeline until they return to that same town, and which point it is placed into history at that point in time, as if it all had occurred at once. If contradictory or simultaneous events occur, there is a time paradox in that location from now on (a unique quest is required to resolve a time paradox!) And there are unpredictable impacts on the ability of items or spells to function that originated in the paradox (you both have the sword of knowledge? It only knows half of its knowledge in each timeline!).

An Example

So, in this example, the Tigers of Red Larch set off on the 1st, the Band of the Silver Bridle on the 3rd, and the Party of Five on the 10th. However, The Band arrives back first, and so their adventure becomes history on the 9th. This doesn’t impact the Tigers at all until they return on the 13th, however the Party leaves after they return, and so their adventure exists in the past for them, where the Tigers does not. The Tigers get home on the 13th, impacting the Party’s adventures only 16th, and when the Tigers and the Band resume play later in the month, all three groups adventures will impact the group.


Because I can now run things only in game time, without any real-time impact, which is something I appreciate. Real-time play doesn’t work for me and my friends, who can’t play regularly, and don’t want to wait a year for their downtime magical item to be finished. Timelines don’t interact until adventures are complete.

Tricks and tips! This can also run week-by-week if you wish. I think it’s actually messier weekly, because usually sessions happen on a weekly basis, so everyone’s timelines sync up and it results in more, rather than less paradoxes. Paradoxes don’t occur very often except in the case of specific groups competing for things, and they’re a fun consequence as well, and clever groups might come up with methods to avoid them.

6th February 2023,

Idle Cartulary

Not ancestries, factions with food preferences

I started writing this at one time, and then realised it dovetailed with a conversation that Sandro and I were having on discord about food. So I mushed them together.

Ancestries are boring. Don’t use them. Instead, develop factions with each other, because they come with built-in red barrels. To do so, pull from the work of Chaos Grenade and Dungeonfruit.

These don’t have to be major, and they can be ancient, but community-based biases and contradicting community goals have a deep place in fantasy literature and it appears to be overlooked in most modern fantasy D&D-likes. We recall Legolas and Gimli’s animosity, but also recall the animosity between the elves of Mirkwood and those of Rivendell, between Rangers and Bree-folk, or between Tooks and Bagginses. Most of these are petty and unfounded and based in distant history. I am reading City of Brass, and in it, there is a conflict map between Shafit, Deva, Nahid and Qahtani based on religious beliefs, current superstitions and wars that happened one thousand years ago, and all of these are simply different families of djinn.

Let’s start with a few basic building blocks: elves, dwarves, and orcs. There are never just one type of a group, so let’s say we have elves of Kalladros, elves of Ellumel, dwarves of Kalladros, dwarves of Xermahk, and orcs of Gheribour. Let’s use a 5 point conflict map to sketch this out. And don’t be afraid to be distant, superstitious, and petty.

I’ve literally drawn on the diagram from the blog linked to earlier on Chaos Grenade.

I’ll pick one, because I don’t need to write a bunch of communities to make an example. This map poses me questions. But, first, I have a few questions drawn from the Dungeonfruit article as well, and I’ll put them first

  • What is their aesthetic?
  • What is their hierarchy?
  • What is their (strange, proactive, selfish) goal?
  • What do the dwarves of Kalladros need from the elves of Kalladros and how are they exploited?
  • What do they have that Gheribour needs, and how do they exploit the orcs?
  • What inspired the rivalry between them and Xermahk?

The Dwarves of Kalladros

  • Slim, diminutive, elegantly bearded, intricate knotwork, graceful curves, stone and metal that appears to be woood.
  • A council and many committees that lie below it, open to all in theory, but not in practice.
  • Freedom from the tyranny of the elves of Kalladros.
  • The Dark Trees of Kalladros will drain the life-waters of the Earth-goddess. In their kindness, the elves brought their magic to restrain the Dark Trees. However, they strain their goodwill by requiring such great taxes on our stone and metalwork.
  • Gheribour need the waters of life, for their swamplands have been polluted in their war with the elves. In exchange, we smuggle them weaponry to weaken the elves of Kalladros
  • Xermahk abandoned the great city of Alladroshahk when the waters first began to dry, one thousand years ago. They are spineless and weak and do not deserve shelter or hospitality.

The important thing is that it’s not necessarily true that the Dark Trees will drain the waters, that Gheribour need them, or that Xermahk have become inferior in their absence, in fact this is all more interesting if the waters are not magical at all, and neither are the trees.

But I’m not finished, because now we have inter-community politics and we have needless discrimination, but we don’t really have a sense of what the community of the Dwarves of Kalladros are. Enter food.

So, ask yourself some questions about food or drink and it’s place in your factions community. Pick one or two of these!

  • What are one or two meals your community eat most days?
  • What food does your community replace “chicken” with in the phrase “tastes like chicken”?
  • What is a major event in your communities calendar, and what food do you eat only at this time?
  • What food do you always have in a pocket or hidden away?
  • What condiment do you always have and that you add to everything?
  • What is a small ritual your perform before or after every meal?
  • What food or drink can you only have after you’ve come of age?
  • When you eat as a community, where do you eat and what is it like?

Now, it doesn’t matter too much how much detail you go on here, it’s about bringing a sense of home to the community you’re a part of. So, maybe you eat steak and eggs for breakfast and steak and three veg for dinner and that says a lot about your community and its structure and even it’s climate; same if you’re having vegetarian madras or if you’re having barbacoa. This is about bringing flavour as well as explosiveness to your community. For the dwarves of Kalladros:

  • We have huge community feast-halls with roaring fires where the entire district brings food to cook on the communal fire or in pots to keep warm over it. This happens regularly, whenever a significant puck-ball or axeball match happens.
  • We always have spiced dried or friend fungus chips in a pocket or hidden away to snack on.

And our impression is suddenly not just of beautiful artisans, but of a sport-loving tailgating culture that love fried snacks.

And they’re just mountain dwarves, aren’t they?

4th February 2023,

Idle Cartulary

What’s your apocalypse?

I was writing a post about a timekeeping technique called Time Bubbling (coming soon!), and I realised that there was a worldbuilding technique that I think is essential to most fantasy worlds that we play treasure-hunting in: Apocalypsing. Don’t worry, this one will be a quick one.

Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts has one of my favourite apocalypses

Most D&D-likes are post-apocalyptic. When you’re world-building, the first thing you need to decide is: What was your apocalypse, and what were its consequences? Because this is a fun question to ask, and it says a lot about your world.

The size of an apocalypse

The main decision you need to make about your apocalypse is whether is was a local apocalypse or a global one. A local apocalypse might look like this:

The kingdom of Magras was once a noble kingdom well-known for its Oogrish stonework and its advances in automation. It was destroyed in a war with the Moondark Queen, and now only remnants remain in a twisted wilderness peppered with the ruins of the old kingdom and cultists of the now-dead Moondark Queen.

Whereas a global apocalypse might look like this:

One thousand years ago the God-priestess of Som Nam used her secret and blasphemous arcane research to open a hole between the mundane and the eldest divinity, allowing the divine to engulf and infect the world. The portal was wedged closed by a consortium of long-dead knights, however not before the world was shattered by the destruction caused by Darkness of Possession, the Devouring Void, and the Ecstasy of Destruction. Were these three elder gods ever truly vanquished?

Choosing which sized apocalypse you want to write about is more important than the nature of that apocalypse, because it will often dictate the nature of your campaign and how much sense treasure-hunting makes in that context.

The nature of your apocalypse

The nature of your apocalypse helps dictate what kind of hazards might be encountered, what kind of treasure there might be, and what kind of community remains.

Our two earlier apocalypses were military and divine in nature respectively, but there are many opportunities for other apocalypses such as war, famine, climate change, the summoning death-gods, causing divine wrath, creating intelligences that turn upon you, accidentally merging your dimension with another dimension, mountains falling from the sky, or an army of sorcerers suddenly trying on each ther because their access to magic was tainted.

Choosing the nature of your apocalypse is less important than the consequence that that apocalypse has on the world now. The nature of the apocalypse is just lore. Don’t put too much thought into it.

Fun apocalypse consequences and tensions

Instead focus on the consequences of the apocalypse and the tensions it causes. Let’s take our two earlier apocalypses.

In the first, the war has left only a remnant: Let’s say there are the remnants of the militant nobles, now solitary but organised and patrolling the wilderness to protect the most sacred object of Magras, the remnants of the innocent civilians, reduced to subsistence in walled villages or living in caves, and the remnants of the cultists, in the desecrated temples of the past empire. In the ruins are automated technologies that only need to be activated or repaired to be implemented. Outside of Magras, there are likely places unaffected by the war who have an interest in the technology of Magras, and who are in opposition to the Rangers and may ally with the cultists or the remaining magrasians in exchange for passage or information.

In the second, a thousand years have passed, but there are wastelands that new communities and old have had to learn to avoid and overcome. There are zombie wastelands of the Possessed, there are whirlpools and black holes rendering swathes of land uninhabitable by the Void, and roving bands of the crazed devotees to the Ecstasy of Destruction roam the lands chaotically. There is a mystery here, too: Is this all still remaining, or are the elder gods still here and biding their time?

Consequences can also be mechanical: Time is broken, and now different groups travel in different timelines. Magical artefacts are rogue, and now they must be tamed. Violence was banished, and now combat can only occur in certain arenas. The benevolent gods fled, and now the only gods hide their curses behind blessings.

Note how tensions are harder to extract from a thousand-year-old apocalypse. Easier to extract treasure, or hazards, or enemies that have been trapped or held in stasis. But having elder gods hibernating beneath the land is cool! How do we bridge the two?

Layered apocalypses

Well, we layer apocalypses. We can have our thousand-year elder god apocalypse, our recent war with the Moondark-Queen, and the kingdom that stood on the same ground that was destroyed 500 years ago by its hubris in attempting to harness the power of prism-batteries.

There is a danger in layering apocalypses, however, because the more we layer apocalypses, the more we need to explain why the previous apocalypse hasn’t been demolished and looted. This can be fruitful, though: Stone is expensive to mine, so if there is stonework it’s likely to be repurposed. What does this look like in modern or pre-modern architecture? Did they respect the ancients and preserve it? Treasure is likely to be taken unless it’s dangerous. Most communities will mark danger with signs that are meant to be universal (see physical waste markers). What are these signs? How did subsequent communities use the treasure or the technology they found that was not dangerous? Why are there no dinosaur skeletons? Why are the ruins beneath the ground? Did they live in dungeons, or did the apocalypse bury them? Ask these questions, these are the fun questions to ask, that will bring weirdness to your world.

That’s it, really. Let me know your thoughts, and tell me about your apocalypses!

Addendum: Mechanical consequences was added to the consequence section.

2nd February 2023,

Idle Cartulary