Category: hobbies (Page 2 of 16)

Day 90: My Game Design Theory of Fun

It’s my birthday!  Happy birthday to me!

Also, I have blogged something every day for 90 days through this crazy pandemic.  I’m not certain I’ll be able to keep up that performance for the next 90 days.  I’ll likely keep blogging regularly since I’ve now spiffed the place up, fixed the popped nails, and cleaned up the detritus around here.  But it may go to either weekdays (M-F) since I have little to say on the weekends or a three day a week schedule (M-W-F) so I will have more to talk about.  We’ll see.

Back in the day when we were working on Elder Scrolls Online, we had Friday afternoon playtests.  The entire studio would stop and everyone would patch up to that week’s build and play the current weekly build on the internal prod server (which was not, in fact, prod) for several hours.  Then, we were required to give feedback.

This entire process made me squirrelly and it was because, at the time, the game was not fun.  It was a game, and it played, and you could cast spells and swing a sword and hit things and do damage but as a whole, it was not fun. And that led me to run around talking with game people about “what is fun?”  The result of those conversations led to conversations when making SotS with me saying, “Always do the fun thing and make the fun choice.”

One thing I believe in strongly when designing a game is that it must be fun and, fun is the #1 priority when making design considerations.  Creating fun is a selfless act — it’s the act of making design choices, based on listening to feedback, that might not be in your wheelhouse but will bring joy to N other people.  Your job is to make N other people happy.

What do I mean by fun?  When I’m talking about fun in RPGs, I’m thinking about:

  1. Is the game easy to understand and written in a clear, concise manner?  Do I have to expend a ton of effort to work through your rules?  Clarity helps get to fun.
  2. Are the game rules confusing? I call the time between reading rules, understanding rules, and applying rules friction.  The more friction the game has, the less fun it is.  By the way, that doesn’t mean that game cannot be complex or loaded with content.  Take D&D5, a low-friction system.  It has a zillion rules but it’s core mechanic of “roll a d20 and add to it for skill, attack, and saving throws” is shockingly simple to understand.  Friction is the killer.
  3. Are the rules engaging? What I mean here are they appealing and interesting enough that they make you want to learn more.
  4. Are the game rules flexible enough to apply to fun and creative situations?  Can the players bend, break, abuse, or misuse rules in creative ways and the game rules respond well?  We did horrible things to Blades in the Dark, but the roll your d6s and let’s see what happens worked well. The Dungeon World “succeed, succeed with consequences, or fail hilariously” mechanic also lent itself well to player abuse.
  5. Do the rules inspire storytelling or support storytelling?
  6. Do the rules support each other?  This one is not obvious.  The magic system must work with the combat system and must work with the skill system.  Back in Shadowrun 2nd Ed days — published gloriously in 1992 — the only thing the decking system had in common with everyone else is that it used d6s and use the power of 6 rule.  Decking might as well been its own game.
  7. Are the rules overly jargon?  Having actually written on White Wolf titles, I still can’t tell you those damn rules.
  8. Is the setting cool?  Is it engaging?  Does it even need a setting/ You cannot have Shadowrun without its goofy cyberpunk setting.  You can do Blades without Duskvol, but you’d need to run it in, say, Eversink.  Most games that are not a generic toolkit like FATE have some sort of setting or at least bring in an overlay on the real world.  Trails of Cthulhu is setting (real world) with Cthulhu overlay, while Nights Black Agents is setting (real world, future) with Vampires.
  9. Does the setting support the rules and vice versa?  Do they resonate with one another?
  10. And, the most important rule, do the playtesters enjoy playing the game and engage with the game during the playtest?  Are they having actual fun? Because, at the end of the day, the game is written by you, the game designer, but the only way to make it fun is through collecting as much feedback as possible and iterating your way to fun.

I’m going to give you an example which Kevin has mentioned in public a few times: the rewrite of the trap rules in Swords of the Serpentine right at the end.  I, myself, tripped over the original version of the trap rules.  You know what is rarely exercised in running a playtest?  Trap rules.  You know what you run over backward with a car, repeatedly, when trying to figure out how to make a dungeon encounter dangerous?  Trap rules.

The trap rules were really stodgy.  I’m not a super big fan of D&D5’s trap rules, either, because they reflect a 70s mentality and have to carry some ancient assumptions, and these were even less flexible.  Basically poison traps, magic, things that explode, that sort of thing.  I sort of wanted something, like, someone to touch a lock and then a ghost trapped in the lock oozed out and started chewing on someone’s face, but I could not figure out how to make that work.  And I had made an offhand, not particularly useful, playtest comment of:

“The trap rules are garbage.”

Because I am a terrible playtester and despite have a ton of playtest credits I’m really no help sometimes. If you ever playtest someone’s rules, don’t just write “X rule is garbage” because it’s not actionable.

The trap rules broke several of my rules above: Not engaging, not flexible, didn’t support storytelling.  My only clarification was: “Here we should do the fun thing.”  Luckily, Kevin had better playtester than me, and right before the manuscript was shipped, the rules were fixed and the traps are much better now.

I have read and do have a copy of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun.  It’s a large essay in bound form.  I recommend people buy it and read it.  He wrote it way back in the day and it got spiffed a few years ago.  It’s useful to read.  But really, the way to understand fun is to design something, put it in front of people, and try to gauge their confusion.  You’re looking for:

  • Low confusion (friction)
  • High engagement
  • Flexibility
  • Supports storytelling

This doesn’t matter if the game is story-heavy, rules-heavy, rules-free.  It makes no difference.  It’s on you, the game designer, to hit those high notes and bring joy to someone else’s life.

Go make fun.


  • 21,933,301 completed tests.
  • 2,046,806 tested positive.
  • 115,104 confirmed dead.
  • 60,826 positive cases and  2,940 dead in MD.  (Looks like we’re finding them)
  • 1 out of every 140 people have it in Howard County shows the virus spreading in 15 states.  Stay safe out there.

Day 88: Food, Setting Design, and You


“I know, I know,” I say. “I’m trying to shake it up a little here.”

To honor the Swords of the Serpentine Thread on, I am going to write about… food.

Annoyingly, I kept writing about food when writing Eversink.  I expended fountains of precious words on meat-onna-stick.  Why?  Was I hungry?  Well yes, but…

  1. Food defines a people, an environment, and a biodome.  People living on mountains eat a diet rich in goat, while people living on the coasts eat a diet rich in oysters.
  2. Food helps define a people.  People who farm and herd cattle are a very different people than those who primarily fish, or hunter-gatherers.  Are people sedentary with huge feudal plantations?  Do they live on lashed together boats?  Do they farm smoky terraces of rice paddies?
  3. Food defines status.  People with a higher status eat much differently than people of a lower status.  Rich people can indulge in delicacies while the poor eat, well, meat-onna-stick.
  4. Food defines a sense of place.  Food markets, food carts, farm plots, grazing plots, fishing ponds, oceans, seas… These are the sounds and sights of a city come to life.  A city with no food is just archeology.
  5. And because of A Better Tomorrow II.

If you haven’t seen A Better Tomorrow II, first, you need to go get educated in classic Gun Fu and the Heroic Bloodshed genre of movies.  Go away and watch it.  I’ll wait.

Here’s the scene I really care about:

This scene has everything.  Chow Yun Fat.  Hong Kong Restaurant Wok Cooking.  Violence. Guns. White guys getting their comeuppance.  And, most importantly, a dissertation on man’s relationship to rice.

It’s the deepest shallow thing ever.

I have this image in my head of PCs parkouring down through Eversink underbasements pursued by some nasty summoned by a Sorcerer and then bursting up through a bathroom and stumbling out, all covered in gore, into a huge, ridiculous, ritzy gala and there, in the center of the gala, is this spread of oysters.   And me, being a curious sort who is in love with travel food shows, goes “ooh? where do the oysters come from?”  Nevermind the underbasements, the nasty, the Sorcerer, or even the benefit gala for poor Tangle Orphans.  What do I care about?  “Where’s the fish market?”

This unspools in a creative weave into building a fish market, and fisheries, and the smell of the docks, and the Tangle itself because the fishermen need to live somewhere and they do not live next to ritzy galas that serve oysters.

I can unweave anything if I start with food.  If, for some reason, the restaurant in Ironcross serves, of all the strange things, steak, and Eversink is on series of islands connected by bridges, where the hell does the steak come from?  And how fresh could it possibly be in a world without refrigeration?  Is there a Sorcerer who specializes in cold enslaved to some horrific Demonic Master and forced to freeze warehouses full of meat sides until the Sorcerer implodes in a giant bloody poof of Corruption?  Or does the Corruption go in the meat?!  How does the Demon smuggle the meat to the warehouse?  Does he also run a Thieves Guild?  Holy jumping jacks, that restaurant is a front for Smuggled in Illegal Demon Meat Loaded with Sorcerous Corruption.  And what happens if you, I dunno, eat it?

Dear God, do not get the special!

Things like this are why my friends think I need help.

I’m fascinated by man’s relationship with food and how it defines their place, their cities, their governments, and their entire ways of life.  Everything about man, space, life, and man’s relationship with food.

I once read this book, a Taste of Conquest.  It’s honestly not the greatest book of all time but I found the section on Venice deeply amusing.  Not for the food!  The food is abhorrent in that book — except these, Venetian Peverini, they look pretty good.

The book inspired me for two reasons:

  1. It lays out the machinations and machinery of how, in the 16th and 17th centuries, various spices start on one side of the world and traveled to the other side of the world, often in musty holds.
  2. The early mania for printing cookbooks.

When the printing press first spread through Europe, one of its first stops was Venice.  While at first, the bookbinders cranked out Bibles, they quickly churned out a more popular seller: cookbooks. (Then after that, you know, porn.)  Bibles people bought once.  Cookbooks people bought every time a new one was released.  Oh rapturous joy, early 16th-century cookbooks.   There are few things more bizarre, confusing, and glorious than a 16th-century cookbook.  They rarely have the ingredients, let alone full recipes!  And mostly they said: “Take a rabbit and roll it in pepper and cinnamon and roast and eat and don’t die.”

It’s glory because it talks about people, and things, and people eating things.  And it is a story of a city, and how the city worked.  And how it wrapped itself around that spice trade so people could eat rabbit rolled in pepper.

Eversink is loaded with food carts because I have a passionate love for street food.  And it’s loaded with food because it’s a place of people, and culture, and where people come together to share in culture.  And also, where the meat might be, just slightly, haunted.


  • 21,467,820 tested
  • 2,003,107 positive cases.  Yikes!  2M cases!
  • 113,349 dead.  I note we are back up to 1K dead/day.
  • 59,550 cases in MD, 2,885 dead
  • 1 in 147 people have it in Howard County

A Guide to Food, Farming, and Conflict in Worldbuilding


This is another worldbuilding guide.  We’re going to talk about what looks like from the outside the most boring subject in world-building: food.

Food is exciting! People eat. Even the Gods eat. Maybe, like elves, they less than humans. Or, like Vampires, they live on humans. Or they eat more than humans.

We don’t think much about food, food production, calories, and eating when we create worlds. However, for intelligent creatures who eat, ensuring a constant stream of meals is a motivating factor in everything from inventing new technologies to state formation.

This article treats food and food production, as underlying core mechanics in world-building. We can ask ourselves interesting questions:

  • What do the local people eat?
  • Where do they get their food?
  • How does food get to where the people are?
  • How is food grown and harvested?
  • What happens when the population grows and consumes all the food?
  • How many non-food-makers can society support?
  • How does the availability of food impact conflict and war?
  • How does the availability of food help organize the state?

Food production is an incredibly dense subject. A copy of “History of Food” on my shelf is 1000 pages long. Consider this blog post a very light introduction to the subject, and we’re assuming our “standard person template” is human.

The easiest way to teach concepts is in using an example. We’re going to explore a standard, low-level (1st-3rd) D&D adventure through this lens:

The village of Redwick needs adventurers immediately. Goblins moved into the nearby hills. They’ve eaten the livestock and started on the local fields. 50gp reward for the removal of these goblins!

Food and Calories

Imagine a peasant.

Suppose a peasant works his or her fields for 10 hours a day, every day. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that peasant requires 2500 calories/day with the heavy labor. That comes to about 912K calories/year. There are 1538 calories in a modern lb of whole-grain wheat flour. Assuming all things equal, a peasant must produce 600lbs of wheat flour to feed only himself per year — if the peasant only lives on bread.

Wheat produces (today) about 6.4 million calories/acre with all modern equipment, gear, technology, genetic modifications, and soil amendments. Let’s assume that peasants have access to 12th-century technology (horseshoes, the iron plow, irrigation, basic crop rotation, etc.) to lift yields. We’ll also assume a peaceful peasant produces 1/5th (20%) of a modern yield. With a horse, acre supports 3/4ths of a peasant. A family of four peasants must work about 3 acres to eat bread reliably without fear of starvation in good, non-drought weather.

Lots of things going on here: technology levels, food consumption, calorie intake, and the rest. Consider this the floor for world-building: the lowest requirements for a farmer in a fantasy world.

A peasant cannot subsist on only wheat. Wheat lacks the proteins and amino acids the human body needs. So, a peasant adds a much more calorie-dense source of food: meat.

Meat is a trade-off. Cows, sheep, and goats are worth more alive than digesting in a human’s belly. They produce valuable goods (wool, cheese, butter). They do work. Eating a cow now may mean starving next week. And cows, sheep, and goats are all ruminants: they eat grass. They don’t compete with human sources of food.

Since the cows are inedible, peasants keep chickens. Chickens are highly useful sources of protein: produce eggs, reproduce fast, eat grain. They’re small and economical.

Pigs, though, are the best of the best. Pigs are the best source of meat per food consumed of any domesticated animal (20lbs meat/100lbs food consumed). And they have a job! Pigs are scavengers! Garbage cans of the domesticated animal world.

Except, pigs eat human food. They compete with humans in the food chain when pigs don’t have access to the delicious truffles of a forest or a swamp. No forest, no swamp, no pigs. So — pigs are cheap when pigs can feed themselves. Pigs are expensive where they cannot.

We’ve Established: At a base level, with manual labor and ancient-to-medieval technology, organized people can feed themselves from the land if they have agriculture and animal husbandry. The peasant needs a combination of plant food product and protein to fulfill his or her calorie requirements. The peasant subsists on chickens, eggs, wheat, and whatever vegetables they grow in their local gardens. With plenty of land, good weather, a water supply, and no population pressures, they eat well, and they can feed non-food producers.

The goblins moved caves under Nordbury Hills south of Redwick Village several months ago. It’s a warband of four dozen individual goblins. A hunter-gatherer goblin is half human-sized. We can assume ~50 goblins eat about the equivalent of 25 humans. They’ve added 25 human-sized calorie requirements to the local ecology overnight.

This is not good.

Producers vs. Non-Food Producers

We’ve thought about growing the food. What about eating food?

There are two classes of eaters: food producers and non-food producers.

Peasants working the land are food producers. Everyone else is a non-food producer.

To support non-food producers, peasants must produce enough food to feed themselves plus additional mouths. Scribes, priests, nobles, military, artisans, local townies, the guy who runs the Inn — these are all non-food producing specialists who survive on the success of food producers.

Every non-food producer is a burden on the producers. They are an additional mouth peasants must feed through the product of their labor. Except for the military, non-food producers eat say, a standard 2000 calories/day. They cost about 750K calories a year. The village must produce ~450lbs of wheat — or equivalent calories in meat, eggs, milk, butter, oil, orchard-grown fruits, vegetables, and cheese — for each non-food producer it supports.

The feudalism pyramid works on food.

If the peasants want a priest, a local wizard, a blacksmith, or a cash-producing local industry, it must also produce enough calories/year to support these non-food producers. The higher the yield, the more specialists the community supports. The more specialists, the more goods and services.

Nobility is extremely expensive. Nobles pay their way by trading something of global community value: redistribution of global resources across their demesne. Those resources could be religious, trade, food, or military goods. The nobles also pay for the establishment of towns and cities. Nobles then encourage towns and villages to flourish because trade in a finished good makes much more money than trade in sacks of flour.

Peasants cannot redistribute wheat themselves. They are local and land-bound. Nobles are more global. They extract taxes from the peasants (in the form of food), sell it, and use money to pay for the non-food producers the nobles find valuable.

If there’s no food, nobles will extract from peasants anyway to pay for non-food producers. In a noble’s mind, non-food producers are more valuable to noble aims.

In good times, feudalism works. In bad times, peasants live on the bottom of the pyramid and subsist on the edge of malnourishment and death.

Adventurers are non-food producers. They’re an expensive luxury on a society that invests heavily in producing food, and they take their prize in gold and magic items. When society needs adventurers, peasants starve. When peasants starve, society needs adventurers.

We’ve established: Peasants must exceed their yields in product to feed those who don’t farm. The number of specialists a society supports comfortably is equal to the overage in calories from the food producers. Lower the yields, fewer specialists society can maintain. This fact is as true in an Early Medieval society as it is in, say, a Post-Apocalyptic one.

_The people of Redwick village are almost food producers: peasants living a peaceful peasant lifestyle. They also have a village priest, a village headman, and a village blacksmith. They have a local inn for visitors at the crossroads. The village supports a handful of crafts: tanning, weaving, and shoemaking.

Above the village rules a Baron and his three soldiers who “protect” the town, collect taxes, and enforce the King’s laws.

_The local peasants must produce enough calories in agriculture and protein for themselves + about 20 non-food producers. But wait: they also pay taxes in wheat-form up to the Baron. No one has coin money. Peasants pay their taxes in grain.

The peasants also pay taxes regardless of the harvest’s bounties. In a bad year, peasants don’t eat. The local pyramid is the Baron, the Baron’s men, the local non-food producers, and finally, the peasants.

The Baron give the taxes to the Baron’s boss, the Duke. The Duke takes enough from all aggregated villages to pay for himself, his household, invest heavily in his holdings, including cities, towns, colleges, monasteries, and other developments, and pay the King. The peasants must produce enough for themselves + many.

Population Density and Ecology

As the population rises, the village needs more calories to sustain itself. The more calories, the more land, and animals. The more land cultivated for food, the more humans cut down and rearrange the ecology to fit their needs. Humans dam rivers. They divert water for irrigation. They cut down forests, drain swamps, and turn grazing land into plowed land. This activity causes erosion, long term soil damage, and drainage issues. It depopulates the land of wild animals, causes overfishing, etc.

Once humans — or anything eating food — over-populates, they put pressure on the amount of land available to cultivate for calories. Once people run out of land, they starve. Once they die, populations either shrink to fit the size of the ecological niche (as in most populations worldwide until ~13th century) or the population overgrows and overruns niches.

Without population stability, the end result is massive ecological damage. If the population is stable and land use is stable, humans hold the damage to a minimum. If another group moves into the niche, or the population undergoes an explosion, people will exert ecological pressure on the system.

Ecological damage means people do not eat.

For example, slash and burn will produce fruitful harvests for a short period. Over a long period of time, as the plants grow back slower and slower, the harvests get smaller. Eventually, the land is ruined and produces no harvest.

Another example. Ancient Sumerians dammed up the Tigris to irrigate their fields of wheat. Except, the Tigris’s water contains silt. Salt doesn’t bother the plants but, over time, salt sank into the water table. The land was destroyed. Ur was abandoned. The entire Sumerian Empire collapsed. Today, the land around Ur is still uninhabitable.

We’ve established: In good times, the population grows. A growing population means cultivating more land aggressively. Cultivating too much land leads to ecological damage. Ecological damage leads to lower yields.

The four dozen goblins moved in and directly competed with the peasants. They stripped the local forests for the edible game. Then they were hungry and went after the readiest source of protein around — the cows.

A single cow is more valuable than the life of a peasant. The cows pull plows, gives milk, makes more cows, and provides protein. Losing a cow is anger making.

Worse, the peasants live on the edge of a knife to fulfill their own food and tax responsibilities. The loss of a few cows and a field is devastating to their yearly tax bills. The peasants — and the Baron — are frantic to stop the goblins from eating their crops.

Conflict and War

When two groups move into the same ecological niche in the same proximity, the second group impacts the population of the first. Once impacted, people’s ability to produce food decreases. Then, people cannot pay their taxes.

This is a quick way to a hot conflict. If no one can persuade the impacting group to leave the ecological niche, then everyone is going to fight over it. Tax collectors are going to get their due. Rent extractors will pay for adventurers.

Conflicts over ecological niches are constant throughout history. You enter my niche, my friends and I are going to kill you for it. You compete with my land and my food, and we’re going to kill you and your family. Don’t move here.

No man’s zones are common in pre-industrial societies of all sorts. Even if the land in the no man’s zone is habitable and farmable, entering the zone means death. The fallow land between one society and another helped mitigate conflict.

Here’s an example:

Your people are living on a bad, unfarmable finger of land. They’re starving and need food. You decide the hell with it and gamble. Maybe you’ll win, or maybe you’ll die.

You arm everyone. You send your warbands to annex land from your neighbors. You get lucky. You’re stronger. You slaughter your neighbors. You enslave survivors to work your brand new farms. You produce extra non-food producers who can raid the next land over.

Rinse, repeat. You build yourself a small kingdom. Then you, too, can be a non-food tax collecting extractor as you force all your people back to lands — now with bonus slave labor! Until you run into a Kingdom pulling the same trick.

What are the goblin’s motivations?

We’ve established: People moving into each other’s lands and consuming resources raises the chances of violent conflict.

The peasants fight back against the goblins, but they’re not permitted by King’s Law to own weapons. After several deaths and the yearly taxes at risk, the Baron makes the economic calculation to rid himself of these goblins. He sends in his soldiers and loses one to the hill-infesting menace. After this, the Baron appeals to the Duke.

Only the Duke has resources to pay non-food producing and expensive adventurers. Paying in money instead of food is a fabulous show of largesse. Typically, the Duke would ignore this goblin menace, but the Baron lost a man. Military men are expensive to train. The Duke ponies up.

Later on, during the adventure, the adventurers learn that the goblins were infesting the hills because they, too, were pushed out of their ecological niche. Something nasty has moved in and eaten all their food. The goblins couldn’t kill it, whatever it is.

No where to hunt or grow == fleeing to this village == eating the cows. The adventurers can kill these goblins today, but if the root cause isn’t lanced, more goblins will arrive tomorrow. Unless the adventurers hunt the goblins to extinction, always an option at a handful of XP a pop.

Is this adventure worth 50gp? And the goodwill of the powerful Duke?

Magic, Technology and Escape from Subsistence Farming

There are three escape hatches from subsistence farming. You can combine them in a world-building exercise to explain why people live in cities, hang out, and do cool things:

  • A massive die-off that decimates populations and resets equilibriums. (See: the Black Death)
  • Technology
  • Magic

In the 14th century, the Black Death was an effective solution to an overpopulated Europe. However, the Black Death led to a full century of political and economic instability. Working a massive “dying off” it into the background of a world could mark a turning point for any civilization. Huge ecological niches + upgraded farm capacity + freed capacity == movement forward.

Technology is a way out, but technology requires the freed up capacity of non-food producing specialists to research, create, and mass produce. Non-food producing specialists need either highly extractive taxes to support them or a leap forward in technology to increase yields. At first, few non-producers can spend time on research. Should some invent something that increases yields or reduces dependencies on humans, non-food producers can spend more time researching. So it goes. The trick is to raise the number of calories produced/acre while decreasing the number of people required to farm those calories and making even more non-producing specialists.

Magic’s limits are the realm of imagination. Someone can magic up food. Get a wizard, and no one needs to farm except the poor dude doing the magicking-up. The whole town is free to do non-food-producing things. Everyone can specialize or research without worrying about their next meal. The single omnipotent, all-powerful wizard solution feels fragile: dependent on humans or singular specialized devices and difficult to mass-produce.

The trick is to establish magic that works like technology. Magic that doesn’t require a caster to maintain, or magic that works autonomously. Magic that is distributable, easy for anyone to use, and reproducible.

We’ve established: Worlds can escape the producer/non-producer trap with technology or suitable magic that works like technology. The more we crank up the automation, to fewer people need to grow calories, and more people can do more things.

A single wizard with the right weather spells could conceivably raise the density of the calories produced/acre and free up peasants to specialize into non-food manufacturing roles. Specialization will both increase the quality of life and bring a much more valuable trade good into the village. This creates a dependency on calories on the wizard.

The problem with wizards, though, is that spell-casting is still human labor. Either the peasants must pay the wizard enormous sacks of cash, imprison the wizard, strap him to a pole, and force him to cast his weather spells daily forever in some hellish torment, or the wizard must automate himself out of the picture.

Escape is through machines: reliable magical contraptions that vastly increase the calories produced per single laborer. This frees people up to specialize. The most fabulous magic item an adventurer can find in a dragon’s horde is an orb the conjures constant beautiful summer rainstorms on-demand or casts Mass Mage Hand. Or, a single, magical, fully autonomous combine harvester.

Goblin Aftermath

In the end, the adventures kill the goblins in the hills. They return to the Duke and receive their 50gp reward. Then, they are off to the next adventure. Eventually, either that strain of goblins starves completely, or other adventurers come along and hunt them to extinction.

Then, whatever nastiness pushed the goblins out of their ecological niche appears, and it’s hungry. It decides the villagers of Redwick are an acceptable source of protein. 100gp reward?

Why use all this stuff?

As we’ll see in the Wandering City example, not even highly magic-advanced or technologically-advanced societies escape the need to eat. Food governs how a society organizes itself. Societies are fragile, and disruptions bring about adventure, mayhem, or even the end.

It’s not necessary to build food production and calorie consumption into a world (although some RPGs like Blades in the Dark make it pretty explicit), but understanding food helps to understand some deeper motivations of people, trade and the state.

An Example: Wandering Cities:

Let’s answer these same questions for a more abstract example. Here’s the slug from the previous post on the Wandering Cities:

RPG Summary: Cities of pure magic float at cloud height miles in the air. A thousand years ago, wizards discovered how to harness magic into grand engineering civil works. Along with damming the great rivers, shifting forests, and clearing deserts, the wizards lifted the cities from the trappings of geography and climate and allowed them to wander. Since the Great Lifting, people have prospered. However, nothing in this world is free: the great magical engines powering the cities requires a continuous source of Xadril, a rare metal found under mountains.

From a geographical disposition, the Cities exist on floating discs. The discos are about 10 miles wide in diameter. Technologically, the world feels like the first two decades of the 20th century. The world has ubiquitous magic (pervasive ubiquity.)

Let’s make these presumptions about the world:

With a low population, ten miles in diameter is enough to feed the entire population of a small, rural, floating town built around the local wizard shop. The disc has plenty of farming and grazing land. It gets plenty of rain and sun. With magic combines and high-yield feed, humans can subsist on the discs for decades if not centuries.

Over time, these settlements blossomed from tiny villages into metropolises. Towns grew and multiplied. They transformed into cities. For economic reasons, living on the discs offered more opportunity than living on the ground (TBD — placeholder as to why here).

With the growth of populations comes building. Over time, buildings encroach on the farming and pasture land. Today, the grazing pastures are gone. The sweeping farms disappeared. Real estate on the discs is worth vastly more than real estate on the ground.

On the discs, hardly anything grows that isn’t a weed or carefully manicured city-trees. People keep neither chickens nor cows. No one cultivates vast tracts of cloud corn. Except for private vegetable and community gardens, food must come either from farming-dedicated floating discos or from the ground.

As we’re thinking only in the context of food, let’s add some random color to this magic world:

  • Magic-assisted mass farming and harvesting. Perhaps a kind of golem-like magic/robotic harvesters.
  • Since the vibe is early 20th century we lean into the Grapes of Wrath. Barns full of broken robot junk. Farmers in weatherbeaten overalls fixing the combine golem with a wrench and sweat. Shotguns.
  • Assume people in the floating cities eat typical Midwestern human food.
  • Cities must get their food from the ground or client discs, as city real estate consumed all land.
  • Airlift moves food from the ground to the sky on regularly scheduled shipments.
  • The cities have massive food warehouses and food distribution centers to shift food from delivery to hungry mouths.
  • The cities have a centralized market and distribution network to smaller markets in various city locales.
  • The city is reliant on their system of food delivery never breaking down because if it does, people will starve.
  • Cities could go to war over possession of the land on the ground or distribution networks in the sky.
  • Are the airlifts planes? Blimps? Balloons?

We’ve now established:

  • High population density in the city.
  • Residential neighborhoods and industrial neighborhoods.
  • A societal split between disc-people and ground-people.
  • Competition for on-land resources between multiple cities.
  • City is 100% dependent on their ground-based possessions.

We haven’t established:

  • Castes between the ground and the air;
  • Why people live on discs;
  • The magic that propels the discs and the machines;
  • What mode of transport lifts food into the sky.

If we wanted to, we could start coloring in the lines. We could say that the cities all have their possessions and they fight each other over the best land. We already know the magic to keep cities aloft are from rare resources. We could add in blimps and balloons as the “trucks of the sky.” And make the warehouse districts the “bad” neighborhoods.

Everything in this world is a little fragile — and purposefully so. If everything worked perfectly all the time, there’d be no need for adventurers.

How to Model Magical Reality – a Worldbuilding Guide

I wanted a cohesive system for building arbitrary fantasy worlds.  While cool games exist to solve this problem, I wanted to make something for myself to build on over a few months.

I come at problems from the dark underbelly of systems theory instead of straight forward paths.  To grow a bean, first I must create the universe.  I started on core research, read papers and books, and started building a core model.  Except, these models I worked from base themselves in the actual world.  Fantasy worlds have one component they lack: magic.

Being handy with a notepad, I scratched out a generic descriptive model for magic systems I found I liked and worked with other cultural systems  – economics, geography, state, military, religion. It had tunable knobs without needing math or specific RPG systems or to open a book on urban planning.

In this post, I offer a generic method for modeling fantasy magic from a societal and cultural perspective that you can bolt on to any world-building exercise.  This isn’t a game system per se, and it is not for any specific, popular RPG system. If you wish to use this, you can plug in the engine from your favorite RPG and use these abstractions in your model.

This model also works to simulate science in a non-scientific culture or high  in a low technology culture.  Remember Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

What is a Model?

What the heck is a model?  Encyclopedia Brittanica gives this as the definition of a scientific model:

Scientific modeling, the generation of a physical, conceptual, or mathematical representation of a real phenomenon that is difficult to observe directly. Scientific models are used to explain and predict the behaviour of real objects or systems and are used in a variety of scientific disciplines, ranging from physics and chemistry to ecology and the Earth sciences. Although modeling is a central component of modern science, scientific models at best are approximations of the objects and systems that they represent—they are not exact replicas.

You can think of an RPG, any interactive constructed world including an online world, or a fictional world as a simulation model describing a theoretical world and the rules that govern that world.  Good or bad — that depends on how well we build up the model and what fidelity.  Sometimes we don’t need that much fidelity.  Broad strokes are fine.  The long sets of sourcebooks and expansions on my shelf are a testament that we like fidelity, though.

In game design parlance, we build up models using established systems. Those systems have agreed-upon internal mechanics with boundaries and failure conditions — i.e., we roll a d20 in D&D5th Ed to model an action like swinging an axe or a bit of parkour.  We tune those worlds so that they’re not wildly out of balance and don’t drop into uncanny valleys. We want our model to work and not allow a die roll to knock the whole thing out of whack.

We have some popular models:

  • Want a modeled world inspired by Tolkein’s Middle Earth but with hella more stuff?  Play D&D5th Ed.
  • Want to tinker with and inhabit a model of a decaying world taken over by cool criminal gangs?  Play Blades in the Dark.
  • Want to model a world where secret government societies hunt down and destroy horrible hidden vampire societies? Play Night’s Black Agents.

What is a Good Model for Magic?

Almost all RPGs have a system to simulate magic in their constructed world.  Magic, it turns out, is so thematically potent in RPGs — much more so than a system of economics or a system of government — that magic with unclear aims tends to muddle the setting.  Magic with active aims with clear thematic roles brings the entire setting up to a higher level. The trick is to keep magic both thematic and balanced so that it doesn’t overpower the world but also act in concert with the rest of the game’s internal themes.

This model for magic doesn’t provide tools to scale magic up or down from a pure systems simulation perspective but helps to set it in context so that it functions thematically and is internally consistent with the rest of the worldbuilding exercise.  It also informs the rest of the world.

Triangle of Magic

A majority of magic systems (not all, but most) can be assessed on three aspects (variables): UbiquityImpact, and Cost.

  • Ubiquity Is a measurement of how rare magic is in the model and how aware common people are that magic exists.  If magic powers the airships that glide overhead or the steam engines that power the 12:40 pm train, magic is ubiquitous.  If magic only manifests in the minds of mad thinkers who pray to dark Gods while dwelling in farmhouses on the shores of 1920s Maine seaside farmhouses, then magic is not ubiquitous.   The underlying aspects to ubiquity are usability and social acceptance.
  • Impact is a measurement of both the impact of magic’s existence on the overall world.  A magic spell that can destroy the world or a galaxy or the universe has an immense impact.  Magic that works on a personal level has a small impact on the world.  It may be potent, but the impact is small.  The underlying aspects here are effect and magnitude.
  • Cost is the measurement of the cost of using magic on the environment.  Sometimes magic is virtually free — or magic costs 100gp pearls.  Alternatively, magic costs sanity, sacrifice, or huge piles of natural resources harvested from the ground.  The underlying aspects are resources and humanity.

We can assign to each of these attributes an intensity of 0-100 with 0 as a minimum and 100 as a maximum. This is a standard triangle graph:

The triangle has a forcing function to enforce a balancing effect on the world.  Big cost — big impact.  Ubiquitous, cheap, common, and weak.  Balance between forcing a costing function and an impact and how many people have access.  Hanging in the middle is all three aspects at work.

Let’s look at a quick and simple example.  In the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, magicians practice magic through bending via martial arts stances.  Magic is highly ubiquitous: even if only a percentage of the population are benders, everyone knows it exists, and magic users are everywhere.  Unless you’re the Avatar or Fire Lord Ozai during a flaming comet, the impact is mainly local and personal — flying, healing, throwing rocks.  The cost is non-existent.  There’s some handwaving at the cost, but benders never seem to run out of bending unless they exhaust themselves from their martial arts moves.

Expanding the Triangle — Extracting Further Aspects

We can solicit much more detail out of our model by defining sub-aspects within ubiquityimpact, and cost.

Aspects of Ubiquity

Ubiquity is how common magic is in society.  Beneath ubiquity, we have acceptance and usability.

Usability: How easy is magic to learn, wield, and use for a common, everyday person?  Is magic a simple tool, or does it require an elaborate ritual, gear, or tooling?  Can magic only be wielded through a special bloodline or class?  Alternatively, Is it like electricity and magic runs through everything?

  • Literacy: Can the magically proficient transmit information about the instruction and performance of magic through the written word, so anyone without the writer’s direct instruction learn, understand, and practice it at any random later date in time?
  • Education: Does the practice of magic require special schooling, apprenticeships, and tutoring?  Is the use of magic innate, and wielders can use it from birth?

Acceptance:  How accepted is magic by society? Is magic a dark secret, or is it persecuted by the Church? Is magic forbidden by law? The Gods?  Is it like electricity, so accepted it’s part of the furniture?  It is possible for Social/Legal/Religious acceptance not to be in harmony.  The Church may disapprove and excommunicate you out if you cast magic, but the state won’t punish you for usage.  Alternatively, the people see magic as an underground resistance to an oppressive state.

  • Social Acceptance: Does society at large accept the use of magic?  Do the common people applaud its use or at least ignore or accept it or find it helpful?
  • Legal Acceptance: Are there state consequences for the use of magic?  Does the state have public or secret laws governing the use, pursuit, and punishment of magic in society?  Does the state see it as part of the fabric of broader state power?
  • Religious/God Acceptance: Does the Church approve of the use of magic?  Do they have their own magicians? Is magic expressly and clearly forbidden with the Church’s own laws and systems for meting out punishment?  This also covers the personal opinion of an actual God should one be involved.  If a God doesn’t care for magic, or is pursuing an enemy God’s magic, or using magic for the state, then the God has an opinion.

Features of Impact

Impact is the physical and psychological effects magic use extracts on society and the ecology around the society.

  • Effect: Effect is what it says on the tin.  Does casting magic cause a positive effect? Neutral? Is it like engineering and science where the effect is to build tooling for humans? Is it all geared toward infinite bunnies (bad) or releasing Nyarlathotep (equally bad)?  What does the magic do on people and the world around it?
  • Magnitude: What is the maximum cast radius for a spell?  Most magic is localized, but maybe it levels mountains, calls down the rain in a drought or swallows up entire cities.  Is magic small or big?

Features of Cost

Cost is simply that: what does it cost a person, a society, and a state to use this magic?

  • Resource Utilization: What resources does casting magic consume?  Are these cheap resources or expensive?  Plastic straws or human souls? For example, most D&D5th Ed is extremely cheap cost with some notable exceptions but calling down Quetzalcoatl through human sacrifice is expensive in people and after-ritual cleaning costs.  High resource utilization magic leads to resource exhaustion (and magic exhaustion).  This is a convenient hook into state and military considerations.
  • Humanity: Does magic consume sanity?  The caster’s body?  The caster’s very soul?  All of these are limited resources.  This means the caster, and magic, have a limited time supply until reaching resource exhaustion.

That’s it.  Figuring out where a magic system sits on the triangle and then exploding out the various variables underneath the three main factors and applying some constraints generates a decent model.


Let’s pass a few well-known systems from fiction into this model and see what kicks out.  These aren’t RPG per se, but they’ve been converted into variations of them.  I chose these examples for their general familiarity and for their breadth. They’re useful expressions of random fictional magic systems with analogs in games. Each is different in tone.

I have also mocked up:

  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Shadowrun
  • Mage: the Ascension
  • Blades in the Dark

After examples, let’s build two of our own.

Example #1: Forbidden Realms

Extremely high ubiquity, low to gargantuan impact, moderate cost

D&D.  It’s a great version of an aggressively magic-rich environment.

A world where portals to the Elemental Planes open on street corners, scrolls hang around in dingy boxes in dungeons, and even the thieves can cast a good spell or two.  Magic schools are correspondence courses, sometimes people wake up in the morning with new magical powers, and  Tiefling Sorcerers order visit from the best restaurants.  Magic isn’t just ubiquitous.  It’s a required survival skill to get down to the corner store.  The state loves magic.  The Church is into it.

Earlier versions of the game had magic slightly less ubiquitous.  Now all the classes have some sort of magic.  We can assume magic starts in kindergarten and works up from there.

As for impact — it depends!  A vast majority of introductory available spells are localized effects or single point to point spells.  Then we get into the 5th level of spells and there’s cloudkill and delayed blast fireballs and it goes downhill from there.  On average most spell usages are things like identify and barkskin and healing spells.  At the high end of the bell curve, it’s blasty time.

And on to cost.  Honestly, costs for most spells simply aren’t that much out of the average adventurer budget.  A few extremely evil plot spells cost a bit of humanity here and there. Resurrection sure isn’t cheap.  For the most part, though, while casting isn’t free, it doesn’t break the bank either.

Cost becomes more interesting when we consider personal resource cost.  A mage can only cast X spells per day.  A sorcerer and a warlock have a limited list but easier access.  The other classes have an even more limited range than that.  Magic is more of a personal resource management game than a worldly one.  There’s choice, but there’s so much choice.

UsabilityCantrips and Level 1 spells are gateway spells.
LiteracyScrolls are everywhere: in stores, dungeons, storerooms, libraries.
EducationWizard schools are ubiquitous enough to kick out wizards who get eaten in dungeons.
AcceptanceNo overarching social repercussions while used in an acceptable manner.
SocialSociety generally doesn’t like magic used for evil.  Beyond that, cantrips for everyone.
LegalThe law assumes everyone has magic.  Laws more tuned to the effects (murder, theft, etc.) then magic use.
ReligiousEntire Gods and religions are dedicated to magic.
EffectTiny to enormous.
MagnitudeTiny to enormous.
ResourcesSurprising cheap!
HumanityAs long as you don’t become a lich, magic is light on the humanity.

Example #2: Harry Potter

Extremely high ubiquity, low impact, very low cost.

The world of Harry Potter is broken into two — the world of magic (magical) and the world of muggles (normies).  Even if only 10% of the population is capable of magic, and it sure seems that way, it’s still a vast world population who are either magic sensitive or magic aware.  Even if it’s only 0.01% of the world, that’s still 60 million magic users. That’s a viable secret online social network.

Everyone in the magical world is aware of magic and its everyday presence.

The magical world conforms to magic.  Spells are written in books and books are commonly available in libraries and bookstores.  Children are sent to (free, state-supported) schools where teachers perform instruction with clear goals and objectives to integrate wizards into society.  Also children, on an appointed day, receive wands to channel their magic — apparently for free. Society not only accepts magic but it is written into institutions of the state.  There is no comment whatsoever from the Church, should there be one.

One might even say that magic is the state in Harry Potter.  Most conflict in Harry Potter is not magical at all but political.

The magic in Harry Potter’s world, removing the magical beasts, is small stuff.  Magic opens doors, grows plants, scries mirrors.  Even big, adult-sized combat magic is all confusion spells and air shoves.  Very rarely someone casts a spell with much effort and cost to significant impact, but this is rare enough to make newspapers and appear in history books. In general, Harry Potter magic is utilitarian. Wizards drive (flying) cars and ride on magic trains and still need to work to earn a paycheck.

Harry Potter magic has no material cost on the world.  Occasional ritual spells use essential and rare components but, for the most part, it’s a word and a wave of a wand.

The Harry Potter world is familiar, utility, wide-spectrum, low-impact magic punctuated by the rare and notable big impact stuff.

UsabilityRequires innate talent. Once a wizard has his or her wand, magic requires pronunciation of a few syllables.
LiteracyBooks of magic fill bookstores and libraries.
EducationSystems of lower and higher education trains future wizards.
AcceptanceWithin the wizarding world, everyone casts magic.
SocialSocial repercussions are political.  Magic is politically neutral.
LegalLaw focuses on the more political ramifications of magic instead of magic itself.
ReligiousWorld has no comment on religion vs magic.
EffectSmall — opening doors, finding lost objects, flying cars.
MagnitudeSmall — personal level, localized casting.

Example #3: X-Men

Medium ubiquity, medium-to-high impact, low cost. Depends on the storyline and author.

In the X-Men, children born with the X-Gene evolve into mutants.  These are essentially superpowers (although Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run had some interesting takes on non-useful expressions of the X-Gene).  We assume that the X-Gene generates a superpower of some utility from Shadowcat and (sigh) Dazzler and everything in between and treat these superpowers as magic.

This magic is somewhat ubiquitous.  Common people know it exists.  It shows up in the news all the time.  The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants had their own country for a while.  However, governments frown on it and systems of laws exist to suppress and punish it. Normal people are generally racist toward mutants and treat them with open hostility.

Magic is generally also innate and requires no instruction (for the common case).  Either the X-Gene does a thing, or it doesn’t.  Can turn to diamond?  Great.  Focus and turn to diamond.

As magic is an expression of genetics, magic is passed down through bloodlines, making it exclusive.  This limits the ubiquity of magic.

The impact of magic runs from shifting through walls to literally blowing up suns.  If we look at the core X-Men (Iceman, Cyclops, Storm, Jean Gray, Wolverine, Beast, etc.) X-Men magic can tear up the place.  Storm alone is a high impact and high magnitude and high effect.  All she needs to do is summon a tornado.

The cost is meager.  Using X-Men powers doesn’t cost anything in material resources at all.  One might say it wears away at their humanity and they pay a cost in social acceptance, psychological stability, and long term happiness (see cost modifier).  On the other hand, they hang out at a massive mansion in Upstate New York with their friends all day, so it’s not all bad.

Interestingly, for various superhero variants, we can tweak the knobs a bit.  Superpowers can come at personal cost (eating away at humanity and vitality) only to be restored by some mystical foozle. We can make supers more demonized (less ubiquitous, rarer) by raising the cost of powers and having them pull vitality from bystanders and imposing a higher social cost.  Now we have a White Wolf game.

UsabilityEase varies wildly with expression of the X-Gene.  Requires X-Gene to wield.
LiteracyWhile training exists to help control the X-Gene, it expresses itself around puberty.
SocialPeople who are not mutants do not care for mutants.
LegalThe state persecutes mutants for mutations sake and built laws to criminalize the X-Gene.
ReligiousThe church is silent on the X-Gene.
EffectSmall to destroying worlds.
MagnitudePersonal localization to encompassing solar systems.
HumanityMutations are rough on the soul and sense of self.

Example #4: What We Do in the Shadows?

I love Taiki Waititi’s “What We Do in the Shadows?”  It’s far more Dracula than White Wolf.

Almost zero ubiquity, medium impact, big cost.

The main reason no one has come to stake the Vampires living in the house on Staten Island is that no one even knows they are there.  Ok, they’re supposed to take over the New World, but they don’t even have their block locked down yet.  Maybe next year?

Yes, in the world of “What We Do in the Shadows,” some vampires hang out, and they have the occasional party, and there’s a secret society or two. There’s maybe 0.1 Vampire/square mile of Vampire Inhabitance.  Vampirism really isn’t accepted by society at all, but there’s so few of them the state doesn’t craft specific Vampire laws. They prosecute and punish the cost vampirism extolls.  The Church is not a fan of creatures of darkness (see poor Nandor sitting in the Church during a funeral of one of his living descendants) but God just kind of cooks them, so that works out.

Power is innate.  Training takes about a day, maybe two, then off you go — no Vampire schools.

Impact dramatically varies based on Vampire age and some random factor of Vampireness.  Mostly, power is localized to the self — turning into a bat, flying, hypnotizing people, that sort of thing. It’s possible Vampire magic is much more potent than depicted at in the show — it’s hinted at — but our Vampires are lazy and hapless.  Except for the daywalking energy vampires — they’re ridiculously, almost stupidly, powerful.

The cost is high.  Not only does it cost the vampires their humanity, but they eat people regularly.  People are a pretty big resource, but if the vampires start depleting the local supply in no time, they’ll be no humans and many cops.

UsabilityEasy.  Think hard and become a bat! Requires blood transmission to become a vampire.
LiteracyVampires are obsessive about their own histories but do not transmit Vampire “secrets” in written form.
EducationLittle to none.  A small tutorial period and you’re good to go.
AcceptanceHumans do not care for the undead.
SocialWithin undead societies, things are great.  Among humans, things are not so great.
LegalThroughout history, the state has persecuted the undead because the undead eat people to power themselves.
ReligiousThe Church believes the undead are bad.  Vampires burn to ash when exposed to holiness or purity.
EffectVampire magic is pretty potent.  Living forever, flying, teleportation — all good stuff.
MagnitudeVampire magic is localized to the self and localized victims.
ResourcesThey eat people.
HumanityBeing a vampire is hard on the body and the soul.

Construction #1: Darkest Souls

RPG Summary: Dark gods from before time lie sleeping.  An ancient cult, more ancient than writing or cities, worships them and siphons godlike power for its own dark purposes.  The cult has burrowed into every corner of the state worldwide.  Every major historical event leads back to the cult.  Soon, they will wake the dark gods.  You will either destroy their agents or be co-opted.  (System – Gumshoe? FATE?  Action Priests with Guns.)

Ubiquity: Very low.

Only the cult and those who belong to the church agency who hunts the cult and extracts them know it exists.  Transmission about the cult is through ancient and near-modern documents found in arcane corners of the world.  The only way to learn actual magic is by caving in, joining the cult, and having magic beamed into one’s head via sleeping, horrible gods.  Revealing the existence of the cult will get you outed, excommunicated, framed for crimes you did not commit and turned over to the state.

Impact: Very high

The cult is potent.  They use magic stolen from their dark gods to deceive, lie, co-opt, control, and worm their way into the highest levels of money and power.  The effect is high, but the sheer magnitude of their reach is breathtaking.  Should they win and wake their dark gods, the world will fall into slavery.

Cost: High

The cult sacrifices the bodies of victims and when victims are scarce, their own bodies to cast spells.  Since the dark gods demand a human sacrifice to power true magic, the cult tends to operate in more lawless corners of the world where law enforcement won’t find them, and victims are plentiful.  If the cultists use themselves, eventually they’re used up, and they die, so their body is a carefully husbanded resource.  Operating out in the open is just a non-starter.

The cult’s magic is focused mainly on manipulation with a good dollop of shape-changing, infiltration, and any magic dealing with shadows.  You have the church, the internet, modern technology, and guns.  Lots of guns.

UsabilityUnless you’re a member of the cult or stole magic from the cult, highly difficult to wield.
LiteracySome information in Middle Eastern and Asian archeological fragments.
AcceptanceUnless you’re a member of the cult, you’re not a fan of the cult.
SocialMost people are unaware of the existence of dark gods.
LegalThe state considers magic a mortal threat and mobilizes against it.
ReligiousThe church considers magic a mortal threat and mobilizes against it.
EffectPretty powerful — mind wiping, shape-changing, infiltration, perhaps hacking technocracy magic.
ResourcesSacrifices animals, people, things, their own bodies, everything living.
HumanityConsumes the cult or anyone who stole magic from the cult from the inside out.

Construction #2: Wandering Cities

RPG Summary: Cities of pure magic float at cloud height miles in the air.  A thousand years ago, wizards discovered how to harness magic into grand engineering civil works. Along with damming the great rivers, shifting forests, and clearing deserts, the wizards lifted the cities from the trappings of geography and climate and allowed them to wander.  Since the Great Lifting, people have prospered. However, nothing in this world is free: the great magical engines powering the cities requires a continuous source of Xadril, a rare metal found under mountains.

More than one city floats in the clouds.  The reserves of Xadril are running out.  And, the ground dwellers, those Left Behind, have developed their own technology in the past thousand years.

Ubiquity: Pervasive

Look up and on a clear day, standing on the ground, you’ll spot a Floating City.  If you live in the Floating Cities, magic is everywhere.  It runs like electricity and powers an early 20th-century technological world of magic streetcars, magic phonographs, and magically lit city streets.  Not everyone in this world is a wizard, but magic is more like physics and engineering than the exclusive world of wizards and magical schools.  Wizard engineering is a standard part of the University curriculum.  Magic Engineering books are found in bookstores and libraries.  It’s a well-paid profession and a major tool of the state.

Impact: Huge

When cities are floating in the air, and magical engineering can terraform the world, magic has both a massive effect and a massive magnitude.  Magic is essentially the inner workings for civil engineering and electrical engineering.  Think Hoover Dam.

Cost: High

While magic has zero humanity cost and is 100% safe for humans to work, use and cast, strip-mining mountains for Xadril has a clear ecological cost to the planet. When it runs out, do the wizards turn their eyes to space?  Do they strip mine their solar system?  Do the cities go to war with each other over Xadril supplies?

UsabilityMagical engineering requires training but otherwise no barriers to use.  Requires Xadril.
LiteracyBooks found in libraries and bookstores.
EducationMagic Engineering Universities established and open to qualifying students.
AcceptanceMagic makes life much simpler for everyone.
SocialPeople use magic without thinking hard about it.
LegalLegal system accepts magic and promotes laws to enable the expansion of magic further and magic research.
ReligiousReligious systems accept magic.
EffectCan float a city!
MagnitudeCan float a city!
ResourcesRequires Xadril, a rare resource that is rapidly depleting.

Next Up…

Some extra time and cleverness could turn this blog post into a highly useful FATE-based toolkit for describing magic systems with Aspects.

This is a tool to start building up some bigger fantasy cities.  The next shot is likely to see how this magic model interacts with a governmental/state model and start building some moving parts.  Establish the full model that covers building cities and then, using the model, build a few cities and see how it works.

Review: Don’t Turn Your Back Boardgame

We offered to Playtest the new Evil Hat Kickstarted Board Game, “Don’t Turn Your Back”. The version we played is functionally complete: all the cards, the board, and the accessories contain final art exercising the final ruleset. The game board came printed on test backing but that made no perceptible difference to game play. What does make a major difference is our third player, age 10.

Is Don’t Turn Your Back easy and fun enough for a 10-year-old to play? If it is, than anyone can learn to play and enjoy the game. If not, then the game is too fiddly with too many over-complicated rules.

Opening the Box

Our box is actually a manila envelope, so we cannot make any comments at this time on the unboxing experience. The overall game art is consistent with the art direction and themes from Evil Hat’s Don’t Rest Your Head RPG — that sort of dark, dreamy, gothic horror found in this genre of Horror RPG games. Note: as the game wore on, I felt it looked and felt less like Don’t Rest Your Head and more like Fallen London with manipulated photograph art.

The game has a board, four decks of cards for up to four players, four card organizer/tableaus, and a score counter sheet. The game board is bright with clear iconographic queues on what happens on the board while backed with the same photo-manipulated art from the cards. The Victorian Gothic art direction of the game drew in the 10-year-old, a bit of a proto-goth.

We laid out the board, the organizers, the decks, and the score card. Our copy did not come with score counters for the score card so we improvised.

Setting Up the Game

setting up the game

Don’t Turn Your Back is a combination deck-building game (Ascension, Star Realms, Legendary, Dominion) and Worker Placement (Lords of Waterdeep, Agricola) except with a twist – the workers are the cards in the player’s hand. During game play, players place workers from their hand in one of five possible depot: the Bazaar, District 13, the High School, the Wax King, and the City Slumbering, each with a different effect. Game rules restrict cards to depots based on identifiers on the left side of the card. For example, a player can place a card with the pink “HS” tab in the High School.

The depots have different effects:

  • The Bazaar activates on-card effects. Some effects help (draw more cards, add more buy) while some attack (force others to discard, remove a card from another depot).
  • The High School gives players end game “candle” points.
  • District 13 allows a card to exercise the “law” of the turn.
  • Wax King eats characters like tossing a card into the Void in Ascension – except cards fed to the Wax King add up to big end of game benefits.
  • City Slumbering allows for card buy from the tableau at the end of each round.

To start, each player sorts their deck. Several of the cards have the word “START” in the upper right hand corner — these are the player’s starting (FAVOR) deck. The other work as a private (ACQUISITION) tableau. Much like any other deckbuilding game, players start with a small deck and purchase into that deck from a tableau (private, not shared) by generating buy costs. Purchased cards migrate from the tableau deck to the player’s in-play deck starting in discarded and shuffled into their main play deck.

Players play DTUB in rounds. At the start of every round, players draw up four cards from their FAVOR deck. They then play in turns, going around the table clockwise, until every player has exhausted all the cards in their hand — ie, placed cards as workers. Then effects take place (buy, score, etc.) Then played cards go to the discard and players deal four more cards.

Games are 9 or 8 rounds depending on the number of players. Each round, a new “Law” comes into play which has a special end of the round effect. When the law runs out, so does the game.

We are hyper familiar with both the deck building genre and the worker placement genre (even the 10-year-old, both a Waterdeep and Ascension fiend), so once we had decks, the board, and scoring tokens, we were ready to play.


playing a round

First Round

We found Don’t Turn Your Back a bit confusing in the first turn. We understood the card buy mechanic but we weren’t certain what to do with all these depots on the board and why we cared. It’s a little less intuitive at first blush than other games with similar mechanics. We also spent a bunch of time explaining the game to the 10-year-old. We also did some hand waving to figure out how to resolve all the workers at the end of every round.

However, after getting past the initial round of “Why would I ever buy into District 13” or “Why would I ever sacrifice a card to the Wax King,” the game went quicker and much smoother.

Rest of the Game

Like all games, we found positives and negatives about the game play. Overall, we played 9 rounds with a game lasting approximately 45 minutes. The positives strongly outweight the negatives.


Combining deck building and worker placement feels fresh. Interesting, but once we got the hang of game play, not confusing.

The rounds go markedly faster as the game progresses and players get used to the game style. By the end of the game the rounds flowed quickly.

Every round, the “law” changes and the strategy of the turn changes with it. This makes the game feel a little strange — it’s not 100% possible to plan turn to turn. But the wacky feeling made the rounds feel fresh.

The game feels well-balanced between the different cards, the five depots, and the card actions. No card felt outsized for its cost. Nothing felt ridiculously overpowered or a sudden “winning strategy.” The game felt extensively playtested.

Flexibility – where a card can go based on where a player can place it – is a major piece of strategy going into buy, placement, and deck building. Cards don’t feel haphazard — they all work into some sort of overarching play style.

To build on that, Don’t Turn Your Back does lend itself to the Enlightenment-Only Draw Your Whole Deck strategy from Ascension. Buying more cards means buying more workers, and workers lent itself to flexibility on the board. And because everyone has their own private tableaus, everyone can run this scheme leading to “land rushes” on the board when something that turn popular.


We were occasionally confused between pain number (card strength) and cost number on the cards. We went maybe 3 rounds before realizing the pain costs != cost. Pain is on the left, cost is on the right. One runs up buy with pain, and then uses pain to buy cost. It’s a mildly confusing mechanic.

One of our players bought up nearly his whole Acquisition deck during play. Don’t Turn Your Back is a little light on cards (and variety) per deck. The game needs a little more variety — or simply a few more Acquisition cards.

Depth of strategy was a little less than I wanted because of the dearth of variety of cards to buy — although, I, personally, want games with insane depth, so your mileage may vary.

We also lapped the points board. The points board goes to 50 and the winning player had a score in the mid-80s.

The art is dark and at times the characters on the card are hard to make out. However, the graphic design picks out game play cues on the cards in bright colors so the art doesn’t get in the way of playability. It does mean spending a bit of time staring at cards going “Wha?”

end game madness

Should You Kickstart This Game?

Katie’s opinion after playing the game: “I loved it.” We bought the game.

That’s really the question, isn’t it? If you’re a fan of deck-building games or worker-placement games, it’s a worthwhile addition to your collection. If you’re a big fan of horror based board games, especially if you enjoy the Victorian Goth art style, it’s also a worthwhile addition to your collection.

Keep in mind, this is a deck building game with worker placement strategies, not goth Agricola. It lacks the competitiveness of the fight over the cards in the tableau and exchanges that same fight with worker placement combat on the game board. It’s an interesting twist and breathes some new life into a mouldering genre.

Kickstarters are a risk. If you’re worried the game will not materialize because the game is not complete, the game is complete. You’re dealing with professionals and mostly paying for printing. You will receive your game.

If you’re convinced, go and kickstart “Don’t Turn Your Back”.


Not quite a Waterdeep or a Sentinels of the Multiverse and little light on game depth. I wanted more out of the cards and the strategy. I want expansion decks. But Don’t Turn Your Back looks professionally polished, it was fun to play, and it was accessible to our most easily bored member of our board game group. We will likely play it again and foist it upon unsuspecting board gamers.

The Murder Hobo Investment Bubble

The Murder Hobos sit across the table from the Old Man in the darkened, road side Inn. The Old Man proposes a mission to the group: goblins infest the hills outside town. And goblins, as we know, are horrific fiends who steal babies and chew on children’s heads. Real nasty characters. They also gum up the place with goblin smell.

The Murder Hobos must travel to a nearby mountain, breach the Goblin Stronghold, kill all the goblins they see, and defeat the Goblin King. Roet Mudtwister. That King is a nasty bit of work with a bad reputation for foul language and a snaggle tooth. Then, the party must return to the Inn with proof of the deed. No time cap on this but make it quick, please. The goblins destroyed our fields. Think of the children. There is a reward.

In victory, the Murder Hobos will receive:

  • all the magic loot they find;
  • all the money they roll from goblin bodies
  • and a payday of 4000 gold pieces, cash.

The Murder Hobos weigh the risks of this mission against the worth of the payday. On one side of the risk equation, they face possible death at the hands of furiously angry goblins (less risk with a Cleric who can cast Raise Dead although if the Cleric dies, risk rises). Goblins are noxious characters and Goblin Kings doubly so. On the other side of the equation they bag:

  • Cash payout;
  • Possible magic upgrades;
  • Experience;
  • Heroism! Save the village and win the day!

This is a pretty sweet deal for the Murder Hobo party of the exact right level. Too low-level and the goblins will obliterate the Murder Hobos. Too high level and the side quest provides neither enough payout nor reward enticement for the Murder Hobos. The Old Man prices the Side Quest to a party of a precise level band.

For this particular group, the rewards vastly outweigh the risk. They have a deal.

The Old Man puts up no money up front. The Murder Hobos buy their supplies with their own cash, suit up, and follow the road to the mountain. A week later, they return with the head of King Roet Mudtwister, snaggle tooth and all. They’ve paid themselves back on their pre-adventure loan to themselves and made a bit more. High risk paid off with high reward. Murder Hoboing is lucrative business.

The Old Man hands over the coin purse with 4000 gold pieces. The village is, theoretically, saved.

But what’s in it for the Old Man?

Let’s assume for a moment the Old Man is not an altruistic lover of villagers and hater of all goblinkind. Nor is he sitting in the same Inn with the same offer of 4000 gold pieces waiting for the level-correct Murder Hobos to wander in for his health. What’s in the side quest business for the Old Man?

This particular Old Man has a story.

The goblins moved in under the mountain a century ago. Then, they established their village and Goblin King. The goblins quietly toiled away in their underground community while human and demi-human farming villages popped up around them. Separate but at peace.

A few years ago, while mining, the goblins discovered their mountain sat on a highly valuable hot salt vein and spring. Applying a little goblin ingenuity and goblin Rube Goldberg-like mechanical engineering, they extracted the salt slurry into a high-grade and highly valuable salt production line. Even goblins need salt to preserve food. They had a handful of magic spells and items keeping food preserved but, much like people, goblins pack fish and game into giant barrels of salt. No longer did goblins venture out to deal with humans to purchase salt or scoop up salty sand from far-flung beaches. Salt was here, under their mountain.

The salt production was so efficient, salt overflowed goblin storerooms. So, the goblins started selling salt in the nearby village markets for low prices. They undercut local human-based salt production and into the local Salt Merchant Guild’s profits. Goblin salt was clearer. Goblin salt was better. And Goblin salt was cheaper.

Sensing a possible business deal in the International Side Quest Industry, the Old Man traveled to the Goblin’s Mountain with a party of his favorite and most trusted Dwarven surveyors to perform a property assessment. “10,000 gold pieces,” the Dwarf told the Old Man. “That’s how much this mountain is worth considering the roads and the layout of the tunnels — and not including the salt business. Just the land. 10,000 gold pieces. Need to get rid of those goblins, though. Nasty business, goblins.”

The Old Man met with the Transmuter Bankers who turn anything, including Goblin Mountains currently full of Goblins, into gold. And they gave the Old Man a loan on this security — an investment on a future, essentially. They fronted the Old Man cash on his possible land investment. The Old Man found a buyer for his contract on the mountain at the assessed price: the local Salt Merchant’s Guild. They exchanged their margins on the futures contract on the land through the bankers.

All the Old Man needed to maturate were some Murder Hobos. The Old Man took a gamble. His risks were:

  • in the land deal between him, the Bankers who hold his loan, and the Salt Merchant’s Guild who will buy the Goblin Mountain;
  • that the right Murder Hobos would come along and take him up on the deal.

This worked out. The Salt Merchant Guild paid the Old Man 10,000 gold for the contract to get the salt mines plus the goblins exited their business. The Old Man paid off the Bankers the 4000 gold plus interest. The Old Man walked off with nearly a 60% profit which he shared a percentage with the Dwarves. Everyone (except the goblins) won.

Isn’t Murder Hoboing profitable?

Once this deal wound up, the Old Man moved on to the next land speculation deal.

Speculative Investment in Murder Hobos

The Murder Hobos are the agent of change in Side Quests land swap deals. The giant in the cave? He’s blocking further silver mining. That evil temple over there? Send some Murder Hobos to clean it out and renovate it as an excellent open air mall and dining experience. And that castle owned by one of the Lich Kings? Kill the Lich King, take the castle, and invest in a valuable hotel and resort destination!

But getting Murder Hobos off the ground is expensive. That starting equipment isn’t free. They economy requires Murder Hobo patrons.

Murder Hobos are highly speculative investments; if one of the Patron’s teams happens to cash out on taking out a high value and annoying monster while the Patron is holding the contract for that land, the bet pays out big. The monster is gone, the land is his, the Patron pays out to the Old Man on his contract, uses whatever he will with the land deal (hint: nothing good), and makes more money to invest in more Murder Hobos. The Patron only needs a handful to pay out to finance his entire enterprise.

The chain starts with speculative investment in Murder Hobos in a hodge podge corporation known as “Adventuring Guilds.” Patrons pay up front to clothe, lodge, train, and arm potential Murder Hobos. Trainers group the potential adventurers together into teams who work reasonably well together. This is a non-trivial investment in energy, money and time.

Then, the Patron sends the 1st level characters out into the world while promptly investing in the next set of Murder Hobos. He hopes his teams see the advertisements of the various Old Men with side quests — the typical rumors, roadside signs, and the people bribed to point Murder Hobos to the local Inn.

And of course, in the example above, the Salt Merchant’s Guild has monetary investment and receives dividends on success from the local Adventuring Guild. Not only do they cut a competitor in the goblins, they pick up land, they acquire the already pre-built goblin facilities for harvesting salt, and they receive a payout on guild dues from the Side Questing Murder Hobos. Not bad for their money.

The Murder Hobo Bubble

Once people get hold of this highly unregulated, largely under ground, and puppeted by Bankers financial system, it’s a matter of time before anyone with a bit of money invests in the local Adventuring Guilds hoping to cash out on land deals from Side Quests. More Murder Hobos means more shots at completing the quest means reaping more land back from Evil while receiving a payout. And the Old Man doesn’t pay out to Murder Hobos unless they succeed in their Quest. It’s win-win.

Like all highly speculative markets with no regulation and no sanity, this is bubbly market. Bubbly markets leads to investment mania. And in investment mania, everyone eventually has a good time then loses their pants.

And this example goes something like this…

More people invest in creating more Murder Hobos teams through Adventuring Guilds hoping for more Side Quest payouts from possible futures land contracts while they simultaneously buy into Goblin Land Contract Market. Investors realize they can make money at both sides of the Murder Hobo economic system. And it’s not hard to get gullible people to sign up to an Adventuring Guild to feed the investment maw. Being a Murder Hobo is more lucrative than, say, farming or tanning. More deadly, but certainly more lucrative.

Because suddenly it’s an Old Man sellers market from the spike in Murder Hobo buyers, payout prices for successful Side Quest completion crash. Hey, it’s an elastic price! Instead of 4000 gold pieces, maybe the Old Man can offer 400 gold pieces to passing Murder Hobos and get takers. High Level Murder Hobos pass on these Side Quests (risk to reward is too low; see above on Murder Hobo Risk) but low-level Murder Hobos try for it. Most 1st level Murder Hobos die in their great short-lived 1st level glory but some do level up in time and survive. Land deals cash out at an increasingly frantic pace. The investment cycle lives on.

Meanwhile, the payout price crash means plots for land acquisition under the humanoids balloon – the Old Man will see 90% profit if he can get some 1st leveled Murder Hobos to take his quest and survive. That’s too much reward for the risk. More Old Men (where do they come from?) get in on the contracting and selling of currently-owned land business to get a piece of the action.

More Old Men handing out Side Quests means a space crunch in the Inns. They cannot sit next to each other like Side-Quest-giver kiosks. That would be weird. And a space crunch means more Inns which needs more land. No doubt that land is being held by some nice family of Kobolds. It will look fine as an Inn. More quests! More Murder Hobos!

Dwarves running land assessment and appraisal businesses see business boom.

Everyone is in on the game trying to either become a Murder Hobo (easy but quick way to die), get in on shares on Adventuring Guilds (less easy and expensive), taking up space in an Inn as an Official Old Man (few by now actually old or, in fact, men), or speculating on all the ancestral land of the various humanoid and otherwise so-called “evil” species. Inns turn into the Starbucks of the Adventuring world — Inns are across the street from Inns in towns made entirely of services catering to Murder Hobos and Inns. It is Inns all the way down.

Eventually this happens.

  1. People realize Murder Hoboing is a good way to die and quit trying for easy and quick loot, drying up the Murder Hobo supply;
  2. Side Quests disappear as the hordes of 1st level Murder Hobos destroy the “evil” races;
  3. Old Men run out of money paying interest on loans on land they do not own as real Murder Hobos become scarce;
  4. Inns take up all the land in villages;
  5. Investors no longer seeing big and fast payouts for land contracts exit the market.

Not enough land or murder hobos or speculators are left in the market to support it. People bail out of the market in a panic. Overbuilt Inns go out of business. Old Men go back to retirement. Farmers stop trying to learn how to use a Bec de Corbin. Adventuring Guilds close. Salt Merchant Guilds must contend themselves with selling regular salt. The Goblin Land Contract Market slinks back into obscurity. Professional Murder Hobos are enormously annoyed.

And the Murder Hobo/Side Questing economy crashes. Decades pass before anyone receives any new Side Quests. Murder Hobos are stuck doing the main quest only. Many die on final bosses from being under-leveled in this sad and trying time.

Transmuter Bankers make one hell of a pile of money.

But what of the Old Man?

He’s still in his corner of the dark gloomy Inn, shilling out Side Quests for which he can no longer pay.

Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company and Reality’s End

“We have been seeing a big uptick in these lately,” the Diviner at his kiosk says as he pushes the scroll over the tiny desk to the Paladin.

The Paladin feels confused. The little Wizard is alone. There are no other Wizards in sight.  Perhaps the Diviner refers to himself in the Royal We.  He is a Wizard and Wizards are weird.

“This scroll casts Leomund’s Tiny Hut.  If you cast it, you get about eight hours of protection.  Useful, because it’s portable, but it doesn’t manifest any particular creature comforts.  See this mark here?”  The Diviner points to a small scrawl and a happy little printed cartoon mage on the base of the scroll.  “Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company produced this scroll.  We’ve been tracking these scrolls with great interest.”

The Paladin thanks the Diviner, pays for the identify spell and leaves.  The Paladin doesn’t share that he has eight more identical Tiny Hut scrolls in his pack.

The Party found Leomund’s Tiny Hut scrolls everywhere: in dungeons, on suddenly dead orks, in raider’s backpacks, and one inside a particularly nasty gelatinous cube.  No one thought much about this except, perhaps, they simply had reached the level in which Tiny Hut scrolls became pervasive. And those scrolls weren’t without their use. The party could stand up a small protected zone wherever they went.  It didn’t provide them the comforts of an Inn but it gave them the on-demand protection of one.  The magic huts were at least comfortable and dry. 

Whoever left these scrolls all over did the Party a real solid.  And free, too. These were third level spell scrolls, not some mere cantrip or Light spell.   These were worth something. And that one weird dungeon had a barrel full of Tiny Hut scrolls graced with a hastily written sign sporting the scrawled letters: “Free!  Take one!”

While Inns provided food and, more importantly, booze, the Party no longer spent much gold on Inns.  Sure, Inns were the purveyors of suspicious old men with quests and bar fights, but the adventure was on the road.  As long as the Party had a *Cleric who could whip off the Create Food and Drink spell, and someone was smart enough to pack a bag of salt**, the party rarely returned to town.  The Fighter could pack his own flasks of whiskey – he had the carrying capacity for it, and he could resupply his precious booze supply from rolling bands of evil humans (those guys are always loaded). 

Happily and not thinking too deeply about it (although the Wizard did make mention that this was all very weird), the Party took free hospitality from the mysterious Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company.  Thank you, Ozmo, you crazy magical nut, wherever you are.  We raise a toast of magically summoned but cosmically bland bacon to you from within our toasty Tiny Huts.

Until finally, months later, the Party returns to town.  Downtown, in the main square, stood the magical equivalent of a food truck – right next to the Inn.  The big, colorfully decked wagon sold all sorts of useful scrolls courtesy of Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company at a marked down discount: the not appearing in this edition Leomund’s Secure Shelter, the also not appearing in this edition Leomund’s Hidden Shelter, and the grand daddy of them all, the rarest and best, Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion. Buy five and get 10% off!  Buy 10 and get 25% off!  It’s a fantastic deal! 

“For gold you, the rich adventurer with a party loaded with spell casters, can sleep every night in an enormous mansion with enough food (and booze) to feed 100! Perfectly secure from roaming monsters and hordes of orks!”  comes the sales pitch.  “No longer must you sleep in uncomfortable Inns with variable heating, bad beer, mysterious old men and smelly common rooms!  Instead, use this scroll and sleep like the grand Lords you are!  Also Ozmo’s Hospitality Magic Company is available for lucrative franchises.  Inquire inside!”

And really, who wouldn’t turn down 10 Magnificent Mansion scrolls for 25% off?  It’s just gold and they can find more on adventure.  While the party’s Wizard protested that this much trans-planar magic is potentially bad and he should start a study, the party’s Sorceress forked over the cash for the scrolls. If unseen servants could serve her and she could sleep on a feather bed while on Adventure instead of sleeping on the hard ground and eating whatever the Cleric summoned, she’s all for this.

She’s not the only one.

Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company, purveyors of the World’s Finest Hospitality-based Spells, Scrolls and Items, provided a great service to the world’s adventurers, travelers, and murder hobos.  It’s the Wizards, sick of being poked and prodded on adventures led by over zealous Fighters and vengeance-driven Paladins while sleeping on the cold ground, who take up the call of the franchise. Why have space-filling and noisy Inns taking up valuable downtown real estate when a Wizard could read off a cheap scroll (which he sells) and pop up a full service, safe, and hyper comfortable Inn (a service he provides with the scroll) down the nearest blind alley?  Hell, it’s not merely Wizards – anyone with some Arcane got into the act. And rogues might have a 17 check to open up their own instant pop-up Inns, but that doesn’t stop them from selling Ozmo’s Hospitality Magic Company scrolls out the back of shady run down lean-tos on the seedier side of town (or at least knock-offs which may or may not work roll d20 to find out.)

Welcome to chaos in the heretofore stable hospitality economy.  Inns, forced with sudden competition from without by Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company, raise their offerings, too: bar fight free Inns, Inns with better beds, meals by celebrity chefs.  The Inns must advertise the stability of their location over convenience.  They adjust their prices to a new competitive low. 

And when a certain percentage of Inns go out of business – Inns run on profit margins and a little mass-market competition puts them in a bind – what happens to the old men hovering in dark corners giving out Quests?  Has anyone thought about them?  The Inns helped subsidize the living costs of the Old Man Quest Givers Guild.  Systemic Inn closures forced old men to set up kiosks in the street with signs saying “QUEST GIVEN HERE 10 gp” next to the Diviner Kiosk and the guys selling the Ozmo scrolls.

The Diviner had some opinions about this development but for now he quietly feds his data back home

Someone, the Party’s Wizard pointed out every time he saw one of these new trendy Ozmo-based businesses pop up, figured out the core production problem with shelter spell scrolls. 7th level spell scrolls are not trivial to produce.  Look at the economic chaos.   What about the silver that went into that dozen Magnificent Mansion scrolls we just bought?  What about the ivory?  All those hunted and dead elephants to feed the unquenchable maw of the market?  What about them?

“Don’t worry about it,” says the Rogue (who now sells Tiny Hut and Magnificent Mansion scrolls on the side at a reasonable mark up). “You worry too much.  It’s all good.”

It’s not good.  The Party’s Wizard discovered, through careful observations and experimentation, that abuse of Planer spells lead to a weakening in the walls of Reality.  “Continued use of Ozmo’s spell scrolls,” the Wizard says, “will cause a slow but certain degradation of reality until it all collapses into a single, final, Big Bloop.”

“But when?” asks the Sorceress.

The Wizard does not know. Letters passed back and forth with his Guild back home confirmed his worries. His home Wizard Guild (those left not making a killing selling insta-Inns) issued a warning.  Continued use of products from Ozmo’s Magic Hospital Company will cause reality to degrade.  While the tears  in reality are tiny at first, the rips will expand until the entire world unravels.   It may be next month, next year, in the next ten years, a hundred years, a thousand years from now… the Wizards cannot tell since measuring the effects of spell scrolls on reality is fraught with math.  They need more funding for further studies – which they can raise by selling Inns.

“How will this be any different from those of Evil who open portals to other world to bring forth fiends we must fight in battle?” asks the Paladin.  “How do we tell between an extra-Planar fiend summoned here by an evil Wizard and one who entered through a rift in a weakening of reality caused by millions of Tiny Huts?”

The Wizard conceded.  The fiends will be the same fiends.  The fights will be the same fights.  The evil wizards summoning hordes from beyond the same evil wizards summoning hordes from beyond.

The Rogue pointed out the Inns of old already disappeared.  It’s too late to think about the end of reality now.  Someone should have thought of that before everyone bought into the Ozmo franchise. Besides, if the rifts in reality will not consume the world for another thousand years in a “Big Bloop” does it matter if the Party uses the scrolls today?  Who much cares about a thousand years in the future other than a handful of Elven Wizards who always have their panties in a wad?

Isn’t a thousand years long enough to figure out a fix to this problem?  Why do we care today? 

The party doesn’t care today.  Or tomorrow.  Or once they reach level 20 and retire and their children become the next great adventurers.  Except for a few, Inns go out of business.  Ozmo’s becomes a Corporation of amazing wealth, reach and power.  Adventurers adventure.

Sometime later, a great expose published by a group of bards uncovered Ozmo as a deeply Chaotic Evil Wizard dedicated to destroying the realm’s hospitality industry. Far in Ozmo’s deep past, he visited an Inn and had bad shrimp.  After days of incredibly uncomfortable difficulties no Chaotic Evil Wizard should ever endure, he swore eternal vengeance on all Inns, Resorts, Lodges, and Hotelry.   Driven by hatred, enslaving planar demons by the hundreds to his bidding to craft spell scrolls, he concocted a plan. He decided to destroy all Inns everywhere.  His method of destruction? Freebies.

Buying from Ozmo’s put money into the pocket of Corporate Evil designed to destroy the hospitality industry!  These revelations divided the populace.  Some pointed to the body of growing Wizard research about the End of Reality and cried for corporate regulation from the King.  The government must reign in Ozmo to save the world. Others claimed they had a right to use and cast whatever spells they wanted. Who cares what a handful of Wizards say? Just because Ozmo is evil doesn’t mean his spell scrolls cannot be for the greater good. Look at the amazing lift to the adventuring economy since Ozmo’s began!  So many fewer orks!  Sure, there’s been this eruption in extra-planar creatures lately, but we have all these adventurers to keep it under control!

A political rift opened.  The two sides yelled each other.  One side called their opponents government-abetting control freaks who would not let adventurers adventure without the burden of regulation.  The other side called their opponents “Bloop Deniers.” In marketplaces they came to actual blows. No one noticed when the entire Diviner Guild simply left the Realm entirely.

And it was a shame when all of Reality came to a sudden and unannounced end sometime during lunch two weeks later.  

Roll new characters!  Time to adventure on the Planes!

* Theoretically we could measure the economical worth of a Cleric by the number of Create Food and Drink spells she can whip off in a day against the amount of money spent on actual food.  Where does the food come from?  Is she lowering the price of food everywhere by being able to create food from thin air?  Is magically created food Vegan?

** Magically created bland food requires salt.

Murder Hobos and the Supply Curve of Evil

A party of more or less good-aligned murder hobos gets wind of some organized slavery going on in a far off land – something vague about fish people, industrialized farming and pearls.  The slavery operation aims are relatively immaterial to the party. Slavers are over there and smashing them in the face is a generally good-alignment thing to do.  The party hops on the first boat to guaranteed adventure and loot.  Zoom!

For this adventure, the GM (who is also an economist and is, therefore, unbelievably sadistic and evil) assumes the demand for the pearls remains a relative constant – it does not suddenly dip or climb.  Whoever is buying pearls will continue to buy pearls at the same pace. Those farming pearls will have a constant demand for slaves to farm and fill that constant supply of pearl buyers.  She also assumes the price for fish people slaves into the industrialized pearl farming operation is elastic.   Either a sudden change in supply or an increase in demand will see a rapid delta upward in slave prices.

She writes these facts on a convenient 3×5 note card.

Once landed in the far off land after an exciting encounter with pirates (required by law), the party debates how to deal with the massive slavery operation going on. They come up with three options: kill slavers, slave redemption, or kill master slave dealers. They try the first one since it is the most straight forward and level comparable.

Killing the slavers, who are largely hobgoblins to reflect parity with the party’s level, is, for a while, a satisfying experience with party-level XP and treasure.  The party jumps slavers with advantage, they have exciting fights, slavers die, and the murder hobos roll the bodies for loot. A couple of fish people slaves go running off into the waste – free-ish for now.  Total victory, right?

These slavers are only feeding slaves into the greater system of slave-run farm ownership a handful at a time. These guys are small fries. And, whenever the party kills one slaver it gives another entrepreneurial hobgoblin a new day job. The party back of the napkin calculates they need to exhaust the entire hobgoblin race before killing slavers one at a time is an economical slave-ending practice in this corner of the world.  This activity is too small and localized to have impact on supply or demand. It does, however, line the party’s pockets with some small magical trinkets and a magic pair of boots they will somehow unload.

Several levels later, the bard gets a better idea.   The party will find the slave dealers and exchange some of their hard earned loot from rolling slavers and set slaves free. What is better than directly freeing slaves from the penury of pearl farming slavery?  And with minimal combat?  Guys, the bard says, this plan is awesome

The party exercises their now established contacts and has some interesting adventures with the local underground and Thieves’ Guild (hope the party Thief isn’t operating without a local license or they’re going to have words…). They fight some interesting monsters in some sewers because why wouldn’t the exotic city in the far off land have sewers, and finally discovers a hidden slave market.  The party bids on as many slaves as they can afford, buys them, and then releases them into the fish people slave Underground Railroad. 

Look! A great heroic deed!  Slaves freed!  Slavery solved!  Someone buy the bard a drink!  They’ll just roll slavers, buy back any other slaves, and drain the supply from the farmers!

Except now the party has introduced a new strong thread of demand into a system with an otherwise constant and predictable slave demand.  Slave prices are inherently elastic (says the GM) and until the system reaches a new murder hobo induced equilibrium, slave prices shoot up and up and up.  Incentivized by the climbing worth of their kidnapped victims, more hobgoblins become slavers to fill demand at a nearly 2-to-1 rate.  Entire fish people villages are torched and their populations forced into captivity.  The problem becomes immeasurably worse.

Good news, though – it might be possible to kill the whole hobgoblin race! 

Slave dealers send happy fliers for slave auctions direct to their murder hobo inn!  The more the murder hobos buy slaves to set them free, the more the lower echelon of the economy blows out trying to meet that demand.  And those original pearl farmers still need their replacement slaves at the same rates as before so they buy their replacements at the higher prices and then adjust their prices upward. The entire economy of this small country reacts to more money washing around by hiking prices on staples. Behold, the murder hobos are living agents of inflation!

(This causes a knock-on effect of passing this price down to the pearls which angers the traders who pass the price hikes to their customers but screw those guys. They’re just wizards. Right? Angry wizards don’t have any future bad political effects, right?)

Now slavery is more lucrative than ever before.  More evil humans and humanoids are participating in the wider economy.  Everyone is charging a bit more for everything.  Good going there, bard.  Why do we even listen to this guy?  All his plans are bad.

While waiting for the slavery economy to level out, the murder hobos go to work on their third, and best plan: killing the slave dealers and choke off supply.  If the pearl farmers cannot buy their slaves from slave markets then surely this whole land will come to its senses, right?

These slave dealer guys, the murder hobos discover in the course of the adventure, are like taking down Mafia bosses – they have enough scratch to hire themselves some serious protection and they’re not afraid to use it.  They’ve built themselves little empires on the backs of slaves and their clients, the farmers. As prices shoot up, the percentage of take the dealers extract from the sales is going up.  The slave dealers are making serious bank on the murder hobos.

The GM runs the party through a pretty thrilling adventure. Suddenly, the party has a mysterious benefactor who sends them directions to a slave dealer stronghold – a big, heavily armed manor house. The party makes plans.  They ready spells.  They break into the house in the dead of night and they take down a slave dealer in a serious boss fight with tons of cinematics.  And that guy, he has major loot in his basement.  Magic scrolls up to here

It’s when the murder hobos leave with their arms full of slave dealer loot they discover their mysterious benefactor was another slave dealer wanting to consolidate his position*.  The slave market is now making so much money the dealers are incentivized to gank each other through their favorite weapon of choice – the ANSI standard good aligned, heroic wandering murder hobo.   Now the mysterious benefactor picks up all the dead dealer’s clients and slave supply. Maybe he’ll hire all these new slaver Hobgoblins to fill out his ranks, too. 

Better yet, because supply will take a momentary hit while the slave dealers adjust to the new reality on the ground, slaves will now become even more expensive until the economy, once again, hits equilibrium.  

Murder hobos are agents of economic chaos. 

The supply curve and the base elasticity of the price of slave fish people screws everyone equally. Looking at the tally, the murder hobos have:

  • Killed some slavers and taken their stuff (good)
  • Killed a slave dealer who was totally evil (super good)
  • Set some slaves free (good)
  • Incentivized more slavers to re-capture all those slaves set free (bad)
  • Pushed up the value of slaves (pretty bad)
  • Helped to consolidate possibly warring slave dealers (really bad)
  • And walked off with armloads of loot (the best part!)

Remember the note about the GM being evil, above?  The GM is evil. Someone give her a cookie.

What’s actually the solution here?  Killing the low level slavers is fun but long-term ineffective.  Buying slaves and setting them free makes things worse. Killing slave dealers feels effective but makes the remaining slave dealers even stronger. 

Clearly, the rot is at the top.  The problem is the local government who allows all this evil to flourish with its tacit and ineffectual approval.  We need an armed military solution says the Paladin of Vengeance.   Only applied force at the top and a strong hand of wise guidance will free the fish people from their chains of slavery. 

And the murder hobos return to this blighted inflation-riddled land 10 levels later with their army and their enormous magic items. The local government never has a chance. Vengeance is meted out with a black armored fist. Those government officials not executed by the good murder hobo party are torn apart by the citizens in the streets.  The party declares themselves the Just and Wise Rulers of this Blighted Land.  Now, dammit, there will be freedom.

The murder hobos outlaw slavery.  They free the fish people.   The murder hobo’s army and police force round up the slave dealers, throws some into horrible dungeons and chase others out of the country.  The pearl farmers must now provide the fish people a wage of some sort or face the same fate.  They tax the pearls to pay for their righteousness.  Freedom is imposed.  You, people, will be free.

The price for pearls shoots up astronomically.

Sure, now, the murder hobos have to contend with an angry enemy navy made of pearl buyers on their coast, pearl price wars from other neighboring countries who allow slavery, and internal uprising from both the farmers and the private armies of the ex-slave dealers operating under ground.  Oh yes, and remember those pissed off wizards?  Well, here they are.  Pissed off. The bill came due.

This will work itself out with a little heavy handed dictatorship, military occupation, unlawful price controls, and a ruthless smothering of discontent.  This is nothing a Paladin as the new head of Government cannot handle.  Paladin’s are Good. This is for the good of this terrible land. Someone get that bard out of here.

And the fish people?  They live forever in horrible apartheid poverty. But at least they have their freedom.

The party totally prevails over the tyranny of the Supply Curve of Evil.   Level up!

* Because the GM also watches tons of HKAT.  Time for some Triad action!

The Lich Kings of Avalon – A Campaign Seed for D&D 5e

D&D5 Campaign Seed

This is a campaign seed for a fantasy campaign loosely named “the Lich Kings of Avalon.”

At the height of the King’s power, basking in the glow of victorious battles, wise in years but still spry in body, and a Kingdom at peace, the Necromancer came to Court.  The Necromancer offered the King a simple bargain: he would grant the King and Queen eternal life in return for the Necromancer and his ilk to live openly… plus a nominal fee.  He had arranged financing with the Transmuter Bankers, the Necromancer said, for the magic over several years with reasonable terms – not an issue for a King with infinite time.

The King’s advisors were aghast.   The Clerics of Good railed.  Sire, they said, this is Black Magic. Your soul is in jeopardy!  The Gods oppose working with the Necromancers!  Your ancestor banished them for a reason!  Do not accept this bargain!

The King looked at his second son – his eldest and first Heir dead from disease contracted in battle these ten years past – a boy of ten years who may not live to see fifteen.  His other two living sons were young.  He thought of his forebears who had the good fortune live long and to die slowly of strokes and dementia. Ten years, the King thought, barring his luck holds, until the inevitable downslide.  His beloved Wife and Queen, his wisest councilor, she too would soon fade and pass away.  What would become of his Kingdom?  His great victories?  His lands and treasure?   Would these boys rule and grow his Empire or would they, like all other boys fortunate to inherit peace, squander it all foolishly?

The King banished the Clerics of Good from his Court to go minister to the smallfolk in the Shires. He signed the papers of the damned Transmuter Bankers (so much more evil and terrible than Necromancy with their usury and compound interest and their promises of turning Flesh to Stone for non-payment).  He revoked the law set by his ancestor against establishing a Necromancy Guild in the Capital City.  And he gave the money to the Necromancer.

Afterward, a group of High Lords and Clerics who opposed the King’s choice of entering Undeath planned a coup.  They meant to destroy the thing that was their King and replace him with his ten year old son.  They struck the Palace through the sewers in the blackest night but the King anticipated their actions.  The Diviners had tipped off the Crown and those fortunate plotters who escaped scattered into the countryside. 

Those plotters discovered and identified by the smallfolk of the Shires fell upon them and took it upon themselves to mete out the King’s Justice.  They loved the King and Queen and those who struck against them found a bad end hanging from a gallows in some unmarked barley field.

The Kingdom carried on much like it always had in the reign of the King.  Some feasting moved from the brightness of day to after the night and Government in the Capital began operations later in the day.  The King required more tenting to watch the Jousts and Tournaments.  But the Camelot the King built glittered on its Hill, a beacon of Might and a source of capital.  The small people carried on as they always had, doing business, making money, plowing land, having families and living lives.  The Kingdom found new stability and predictability.  May the King live forever! 

The King elevated the Clerics of Gods of Kingdom and Law to the places in his Court vacated by those of Good and Peace.  He had no interest in nattering priests concerned with his immortal soul when he now had an immortal body.  Freed from the concerns of primogeniture succession, he then settled in to rule for a thousand years just as foretold in legends.  He was now the Once and Future King.

Quietly, the Necromancers opened a chapter house in the Capital City for business.

The first ten years of the Risen King’s reign saw unprecedented expansion and War.  A King with no fear of Death has no fear of battle. And a King with an infinite lifespan has no fear of paying down his war debts. For the Good of Kingdom and Crown, the King reopened War with his neighbors, lead his troops into battle and began a merciless war of conquest.

This could not stand.  The other prosperous Kings (or at least those with a tax base they could squeeze) would not watch idly as this obvious military advantage graced their mortal enemy. While the Risen King raided lands and burned villages, other Kings used their own networks of Diviners and Spies to bore into the Risen King’s Court.  Once the other Kings, too, understood what they needed to do to compete, they reached out to the Necromancer Guild.

These were the salad days for the Necromancers.  Celebrated in Courts and rich with other men’s financed debt, they traveled from Kingdom to Kingdom and Duchy to Duchy to offer the gift to military supremacy through eternal life.  Everywhere the Gods of Good opposed them, but the Necromancers and returning spies pointed out the Kings could supplant the Gods of Good with the Gods of Law and Right and their Kingdoms would be even stronger.  Take the Undeath, finance it through the Transmuter Bankers (always ready with the paperwork), give up one mundane life for a life befit of true Royal Blood, and break your Kingdom from the stranglehold of succession and failure.

Those who could mortgage their Kingdoms did.  But those who could not swiftly became vassal states of Empires.

The Risen King continued to reign a hundred years more with his Queen at his side.  Powerful beyond measure, he ushered in a new Golden Age. His sons grew up, married, grew old, founded Ducal Houses in the Kingdom, and died.  His grandsons grew to adulthood and stepped into the roles once held by his sons.  Soon they too married, grew old, and died.  Great-grandsons did not know a time without the Risen King on the Throne.  Great-great-grandsons were not sure their role in the Crown should the Crown ever fall.  Were they even of Royal Blood any more? What was Royal Blood? 

The Kingdom was always externally at War but always internally at peace.  The threat of Civil War by succession was gone.  There were the other Lich Kings of Avalon to fight, to take their towns, to raid their Empires, for the good of the Kingdom.  Where there was no War, trade and industry flourished.  Where there was War, it was merciless and brutal. 

We are always at War but we are always Winning.  The Gods save the Mighty Risen King!

The Lawful Gods of Might, Stability, and Kingdom supplanted the Gods of Good.  The Necromancers openly spread through every country and Empire. They became wealthy beyond imagining offering legal Turnings to those of High Nobility but never the greatness of the Turnings offered to Kings.  Social class dictated undeath.  Vampires lounged in the Great Courts and convinced the Risen King to pass laws allowing their legal and noble right to feast upon the peasantry and bathe in their blood (the Kingdom has so many we will never miss a few!)  Revenants, once great Generals and now Ever-living, haunted their black suits of armor on the fields of battle.  Undeath became fashionable.

Did Undeath corrupt the minds of the Lich Kings?  They ruled, for good or for ill, as they always did among their Undead Courts.  External to Court politics, the Kingdoms and Empires were much the same.  Was this the king or his succession of advisors, some undead and some the grandsons of his original advisors, maintaining eternal stability and peace within?  Or a blessing of Undeath? 

And did it matter?

The Once and Future King had returned to all the Great Courts of the World.  May the Lich Kings of Avalon rule forever!

The Murder Hobos of Avalon  

It is not entirely obvious from the outset that the undead run the Kingdom.  Much of the truth of the dealings with Kings and necromancers never became popular knowledge outside a few Government officials, High Nobles and highly ranked Clerics. The Crown’s propagandists long persuaded the populace the King’s unnaturally and bizarrely long life is a blessing to the Kingdom.  Sure no one sees the Queen much any more in public.  The King rides through towns in the countryside in an enclosed carriage.  He sits under his special tenting at his tournaments. In armor, the King appears with his visor closed and that dark visage around him is simply his God-given powers over Men and Dwarf and Gnome and Half-elf manifesting.

Besides, the doings of Kings, Dukes and Earls are so far removed from the lives of the villages they might as well be on another planet. For most people, as long as the Kingdom carries on and doesn’t bother them, they support their King.  Only through slowly peeling back the onion skins of lies and deceit surrounding the King and his Court does the horrible Truth finally emerge.

The War against the Risen King is a Shadow War.  The Risen King is too powerful to fight in the fields army to army in great cavalry charges.  Freedom from eternal peace and stability and life given back to the Living requires plots, spies, plans, assassinations, and murder.  It needs dubious Murder Hobos.

Who Fights the Risen King?

The Risen King enjoys broad based support throughout his entire realm. Few will publicly raise their fist against him lest they be dragged off and properly lynched.  But some would like the Kingdom – and all Kingdoms ruled by the Undead – returned to the hands of the true Living, even if it means enduring the chaos of succession.

* The Vassalized Kingdoms subjugated mercilessly by the Risen King as part of his Eternal Empire are not ruled by undead. They are not great and glittering Kingdoms on a hill. Their Courts are not filled with overdressed Vampires and the occasional Wraith.  These are the tax base for the Risen King’s eternal war, kept poor and forced to the soil so the King can squeeze pennies from their blood. They remember a time before the Risen King and the other Kingdoms of the World.  They remember when Necromancers were evil and not celebrated wizards and advisors to great Courts.  They remember when the Gods of Good were not hunted to the edges of the World.

However, representatives of the Vassalized Court who may or may not harbor their own dreams of attaining eternal life of a sort for themselves. Outwardly their motives are noble – freedom from oppression for their people – but inwardly they want what the Risen King has: power.  If they destroy enough of the undead Lords and seize their lands, they, too, could treat with the Necromancers.

*  Underground Clerics of the Gods of Neutral and Chaotic Good.  While some of the Gods of Peace, Hearth, and Home are unequipped to fight Courts of Undead, many Good Clerics follow Gods of Light and Nature.  Gods of Light may provide warmth and light when all around is dark but they can also burn the Undead with focused laser fire.  Nature has horns and teeth. The King’s Agents may have pursued these Clerics to the edges of the Kingdom and forced then underground but these Clerics still hold their sermons in homes in the Shires of those who hold to the Old Ways.  

* Great-grandsons of the Risen King who want their Blood Right as King.  Via primogeniture they claim the right of the Throne and Kingship but a long dead King occupies their Throne.  They have money and their have their Ducal Lands but they want the Throne and are willing to open a bloody war to get it.  Problem is there is now more than one of their little group who also can claim the Throne. Backing one Great-Grandson may mean opening Civil War with another.

* Agents of other Lich Kings of Avalon pretending to be employed with the Vassalized Kingdoms or the Gods of Light.  The Wars have long stagnated between Kingdoms and the only way for one Kingdom to gain an upper hand over another is for a Lich King to find a quick True Death at the hands of enterprising Murder Hobos. That way, the other Kingdom’s hands are clean, a Kingdom falls into complete Chaos, and the War shifts from equilibrium and into another Lich King’s Court. 

In the hundred years of stability, stagnation and growth, Kingdoms have had plenty of time to work out the kinks in their elaborate spy and Divination networks. All they need is to make a move.  In the name of Good and Freedom.  

* Enemies of the Necromancers who want their little Guild closed down, them removed from world Courts, and cast back into the Shadows.  While they rarely dabble in undeath themselves, they are the peddlers of the high fashion of the nobility.  They bring eternal life to the Courts and guarantee endless War and Empire. Destroying the purveyors of undeath will begin to free the world from their pernicious presence.  But they are rich and powerful and have high up friends and will not go down without a fight.

* Relatives of those murdered and fed to the Undead Courts for their blood feasts to maintain their eternal lives.  One of those vicious Earl Vampires ate a wife, a son, a family in wartime – legally.  The endless cruelty and evil must come to an end and the lives of the dead revenged in Holy, Purifying Light.

* Demons of Chaos and Hell who want their souls brought to them in payment for services rendered.  Eventually that bill for eternal life comes due and the demons want their flesh. The Necromancers may or may not have mentioned this part. Sometimes they forget.

* Transmuter Bankers who want their debts paid in full and are willing to have eternal life forcefully removed from a client and liquidate those estates to get it.

* Disciples of Chaos who simply want to watch it all burn for their own glorious financial gain.

The fight against the Risen King is a long slog.   One cannot merely walk into the Court and kill a century old King.  Besides, many have tried. One needs to get through his layers of protection, chip away at his support, and murder his most powerful vassals before coming face to face with the King.  And, in the mayhem aftermath, there are 10 more Kings out there just like him. 

Law vs. Good

This is a story designed to turn the normal fantasy Good-Evil axis on its side and ride along the Law-Chaos axis. If you want to turn this campaign seed into an actual campaign, the recommendation for constructing the first few sessions is:

1. Start the players off in an oppressed vassalized Kingdom saving villages from standard orcs and trolls and leveling;

2. Encountering clerics of Good and Light to spin out their tale of being banished to the edges of oblivion;

3. Come to the attention of Agents – either of the Vassalized Kingdom or an enemy Kingdom – and employ the Murder Hobos to destroy an undead lesser Noble Lord and let them figure out how to accomplish that task; 

4. Leave clues that the undead conspiracy goes all the way down.

After this, it is more about PC choice than unspooling a complex plot. Preference is to making all the “Good Guys” appear Good with loads of dark Neutral Evil motives.  The Undead Courts and the King are, without a doubt, undead, but only some of them are evil.  But this is only a suggestion – don’t run campaigns on rails.   

The Risen King entered this contract with the best of intentions; these Kings and High Lords are the disciples and Saints of the Gods of Law.   Do the Neutral Gods care if their most powerful agents in the Realms are dead as long as their power extends down to the smallest freeloader and feeblest villein?  Law is a powerful construct.  It crafts Governments, it holds together Kingdoms,and it pumps life into sprawling Empires.  The Risen King has provided stability for his people and might against his enemies. If a Lawful Good God must face outcomes that expands his Domain in spite of embracing some Evil, does he send in the Murder Hobo death squads anyway?  

Yes, those filthy fashionable Vampires of the Risen King’s Court are ridiculously evil but they were ridiculously evil when they were alive. If the PC choice is to go after the Risen King and kill his Undead Court in the name of Good, remember this is also in the service of Chaos.  The Vassalized and oppressed home Kingdom will definitely be freed in the aftermath of disturbing a century of expansion and stability.  And maybe that is a victory condition for the PCs.   They will leave a Civil War in their wake.

Lay out the philosophical dilemma, provide the choices to the PCs and see what happens.

Writer’s Note: Big thanks to Beth McCoy and family for providing me with this idea!  It’s a good one.  Also I listened to tons of White Zombie while writing this.

I started constructing this as a D&D5e campaign and now I wonder if it isn’t better as a weird sort of Night’s Black Agents Fantasy game or a Dungeon World game.  Running this with Gumshoe would take some interesting rejiggering of the system to make it work but it’s loose enough to fit into most molds.  And of course Dungeon World would allow the players to “fail up.”

Featured Image by Lorc under CC BY 3.0

The High Price of Fantasy Kingdom Wars or Your Lawful Good King is a Dick

Hordes of Orks mass on the border of a far-away kingdom. They rampage, causing horrors and havoc.  The tales of the Bards are full of terrors.

Your King is a man who styles himself after King Arthur: Good and Proud and Right and Just.  In peacetime, he rules over his self-styled Camelot, a place of feasts and jousts and general hugging.  The King’s Lawful and Neutral Good advisors council the right thing to do for a Good and Just King is to take the war to the Orks and save those distant people.  The religious authorities, representing Lawful and Neutral Good Gods, explain the Orks worship Gods of war, blood and death.  Righteousness dictates the King must defend peace and love from the horrors of the Other.

The King half-listens to his council drone on. Meanwhile, he envisions himself in future Bardic tales as an authentic Arthurian Upgrade.  No longer a myth, future Kings – no doubt descended from his blood line – will take inspiration from his great victories, War in his name, style their Courts after his Courts, and rule as he ruled.  They will tell tales of him, a better, more shining, and more awesome Monarch.  He can march his great armies out to the fields, do war on the Orks, and return home, covered in Glory.  As a bonus, he gets to murder some Orks.

The King tells his advisors he has decided to go to War.  Make it so.

Rule #1: Wars Cost Money

Wars are expensive.  They are really expensive.  They are mindboggling expensive.

The Crown must shell out for the following, at minimum:

  • Provisions for a large army;
  • Equipment for whatever part of the army belongs to the Crown;
  • Transportation for a large army, including ships;
  • Siege weaponry of various sizes;
  • Bribes to Noblemen to convince them going to War in some far off land is a good idea and they should pack up their armies;
  • Bribes to Highly Prized Murder Hobos (re: PCs) to convince them to fight with the Army instead of randomly attacking it;
  • Bribes to other Kingdoms to allow the King’s Army to pass through;
  • Bribes to Pirates just because;
  • General paying off anyone who happens to demand money for services, like re-provisioning armies in the field.

Medieval-based fantasy armies are not run solely by the King. Instead, he forms the the army from a loose confederation of private armies consisting of Lords, mercenaries, pirates, high level Murder Hobos, wizards, and the occasional group of hyper-powerful Good-aligned clerics.  The King must convince/cajole/bribe all these people – especially his feudal Lords – this War is a good idea, in their best interest, they should come along and bring 3000 of their closest, most heavily armed friends. 

“About five hundred thousand gold coins at the minimum,” the beleaguered Treasury Secretary says to the King right before the guards arrest him for uttering that number out loud.

Nevermind the real cost of running the Kingdom left in the hands of someone arguably competent – perhaps the Queen if the Kingdom is lucky, or the King’s highly ambitious second son if not – as the King and his first son go off to War.  Kingdoms even in peacetime are expensive.  Kingdoms built roads, ran government and judicial systems, maintained castles, kept military readiness, bribed churches and paid interest on the loans from the last war.

That last one is the fiddly bit.  If the Kingdom is flush, this War with the Orks is doable.  But the hard reality is Kingdoms, unless large and with a stable economic base, are rarely flush because Kings keep looting their economic base for cash to run their Wars.

Rule #2: The King must Fund His War

The money has to come from somewhere because it’s certainly not in the Treasury.  Luckily, the King and the Crown follows a convenient Kingdom Looting Script faithfully.

1. Squeeze the Peasants.  Always start with squeezing those who are the least equipped to fight back.  However, these are also the least equipped to have any money.  Also, the local Lord of the land gets ticked off when his peasants are over-squeezed because then they cannot buy food, they starve to death and they die. Dead peasants cannot harvest the local fields so the Lord cannot sell his produce and cannot make any money.  That money goes to paying for the Lord’s private army which he needs to go out into the field and follow the King for glory.  

“No can do,” says the Lord. “You already looted my peasants so I cannot afford my man-at-arms or pay for more Murder Hobos.  Good luck fighting those orks!”

Worse, if the King insists on squeezing the peasants and insists on forcing Lords to follow him to War without something in it for them, the Lords will find a bored King’s Brother they suddenly like more who taxes their peasants less. The Kingdom falls into Civil War.  Everyone gets distracted. 

Besides, the Churches of Goodness tend to object – something about their Gods not being so keen on kicking peasants in the name of Good.  So that strategy has limited effectiveness.

2. Squeeze the Local Minorities.  Squeezing the local conclaves for Elves or Gnomes for cash can result in some decent returns. (1) They rarely don’t have Lords protecting them and they worship weird Gods.  Sure their Gods might also be Lawful and Neutral Good but they have no God Representation in Court so they totally don’t count.  The King can squeeze them as much as he wants and no one will jump to their defense.

Problem here is there are so few of them.  Funny thing, every time the King wants to go to War, the Crown squeezes their communities for cash and, after a few cycles of this, they pack up and find somewhere a little less squeezy. Maybe those Orks out on the frontier… they heard about them.  Let’s try those guys.

3. Squeeze the Rich People.  Arguably, squeezing the towns has the best possible returns. They don’t contribute to the overall war effort. They are loaded. Guilds are nothing but little money fountains and, besides, how did these non-noble and non-royal jumped up peasants get so much money in the first place?

Except many of these guys are both smarter than the average government tax collector and wizards.  Funny, they get Bards to perform for them, too, (2) and they heard the tales.   By time the government tax collectors show up on their doorstep demanding extravagant tax hikes and payments to the Crown, the money has long been off-shored.  

“Sorry, man,” they say.  “Our money is allll tied up in banks in off-shore accounts and in the businesses.  Wizard bankers, you know. Maybe if we didn’t have to pay for our own personal Murder Hobos to protect our stuff when we transport it to market we’d have more money to give you.  Good luck with the Orks!”

The King also has a bit of it-goes-around-comes-around with taxing the rich people.  He squeezes them for cash and then turns around and pays them all the taxes back – with a markup to make a profit – when he then needs to purchase dried provisions in massive bulk to feed his armies in the field. 

4. Squeeze Religious Institutions.  The King cannot send the Crown after the Good and Neutral Good religions supporting his cause.  It wouldn’t be right and besides, he needs them to contribute clerics to his cause. 

But surely, his Kingdom is full of Neutral and even Evil Temples to Gods.  Aren’t there some out of work Murder Hobos around here?   How would they like to make some cash and magic items on the side while extracting some “taxation” from the local Temple of Complete Evil and its followers?   It’s Evil!  It says right on the side of the building!  Sure it’s not hurting anyone and it was named in a sense of great and hilarious irony but it has a treasury room and the King needs to pay his Lords and start buying provisions.

That works to help flush out the war budget but the Kingdom only has so many Temples of Complete Evil.  There’s a serious Evil per square mile crunch which keeps this tactic from being a major contributor to the financial war footing.  Once the War is over, the Crown will need to work with religious leaders to lure more Evil to his land, surreptitiously of course, so the Crown can send Murder Hobos to loot it for future wars. 

5. A Loan from Wizard Bankers.  Oh God. Wizards.

The Transmuter Bankers have the entire half million gold pieces up front and ready to loan to His Majesty with a nice 20% interest rate. Wizards have no time for talk from preachy Clerics about the evil of usury and the horrors placed upon Kingdoms by those who would charge interest rates.  Besides the terms state the loan is payable over an incredible time span.   HIgh-level wizards have nothing but time. Take your time. We will get our money.

And if the Kingdom misses a payment?  Why, the Wizards have Teleport and Disintegration.  And hell, maybe in some future upcoming Civil War they will happily give loans to the other side who will, of course, promise to pay.

In the end, the King has to go with the wizards.  He signs on the bottom line. 

Now the King has money.  He has pissed off Lords, angry peasants ready to revolt, uncooperative religious institutions, fleeing minority groups, rich merchants making a fast buck, and wizards.  But he has money!  He can go off to Glory!

Rule #3: The Local Glory is Faster and Cheaper than Heroic Glory Far Away

It takes nine months to muster the entire military, arrange any Naval support, secure passage with bribes, and procure enough rations to march in Glory in the Far Off Land of the Orks.  But march they do with the King at the head of the line, his shining son the White Prince next to him, banners fluttering in the air, Cleric tunics all nice and white, and accompanied by singers and drummers.

First, the food runs out.  It goes bad. It gets wet. The baggage train washes away in a river.  But this isn’t a problem.  Surely those villages along the route will throw the entire army a grand feast fit for a King!  And if they do not, they are evil and we must destroy and loot and add their grain stores to the baggage train.

If looting peasant villages along the way doesn’t keep the army fed, then looting peasant fields certainly will.  Those cows over there are now the King’s cows. Those peasant fields are now the King’s fields.   Nevermind that perhaps these are the lands of a different King. We are saving the world from Orks!   The Orks are Evil!  Loot those cows!  Bring the King a steak!  On the rare-side, please, with a nice merlot.

Second, the murder hobo and mercenaries wander off.  Murder Hobo and mercenary companies will stick around a long time as long as the King keeps them fed and housed and there’s something to fight. Looting, pillaging and burning the occasional peaceful peasant village is tons of fun and they make all kinds of money.  And they can justify it to their Lawful and Neutral Good employers – that village was housing a portal to the Underdark.   And that village over there secretly worshipped a Dark God.  The third had a dragon if you can believe that!  It was a tiny dragon with only a teeny horde but it was a dragon they swear.  It had killing coming to it. 

Eventually, the army begins to unravel and the mercenary companies find something better and more profitable to do with their time.  They leave in the night with not even a forwarding address.

Third, the local Kingdom is easier to invade than the far off Kingdom of Orks.  After all the King is passing through some foreign Kingdom with a large and well-manned army.  He needs money to pay off those damn Wizard Bankers.  And if he adds some territory to his Crown, he grows his Kingdom’s dominions and tax base.  Then he can pay for more Wars which brings him more glory and adds to his Arthurian mystique.  Then he can really take the war to those Orks.

Besides, those Orks aren’t going anywhere.  They will still be there in a few extra months, right?   This is only a small diversion.

The King comes up with some claim on the local Throne through his father’s sister’s husband’s cousin allowing him to press for legal Du Jure rights over the land.  He claims Kingship of the local environs for himself.

The King declares War.  The clerics get to some hard core proselytizing to the local devastated populace in the names of their Lawful and Neutral Good gods. Everyone believes the war will last four months.  This war lasts the next 40 years.  But that is a future problem for future people.

Naturally, the cities of the invaded Kingdom in question had plenty of warning and prepared for siege.  They are well provisioned.   The cities have Walls and the occasional Evoker Wizard with a single, well-placed fireball.  But hey, the mercenaries have stopped wandering off, the King’s Lords are gaining glory, and as cities fall, it adds to the war chest to pay back the pernicious loans.  Everything is coming up King.

It’s a super bummer when one of those well-placed fireballs kills the King.  Too bad the army burned all their diamonds of resurrection paying for food to keep up the siege.  Now the guy is toast.  Literally. 

The King is dead, long live the King, may his son, the White Prince, rule long and well!

Rule #4: The Orks are Done Rampaging

A large portion of the army stays behind to help hold the newly taken lands won in their war.  A few mercenaries get lucky and declare themselves Lords of castle they take giving themselves promotions.  Yet, some bedraggled portion of the King’s original army, lead by the White Price, with some mercenaries, murder hobos and clerics, after years of pillaging, adventures, sieges, war and mayhem, will stagger to the great Outer Kingdom where the Orks rampage just as the Bards told.  

Or were rampaging.  At the looks of the place, either the Orks are all rampaged out or the people of the local Kingdom put up one hell of a resistance.  Either way, it’s kind of quiet here now and the Orks settled back down.  Would have been nice if someone had, say, established an early outpost and sent messages back or something. 

Although there’s certainly other interesting local wars to get involved in. You know, with the Orks. They now have this little Kingdom of their own that can contribute land and glory to the Kingdom.  They have established treaties with some other local small kingdoms made of formerly oppressed minority groups. Other murder hobo-based trading companies are already here making some quick cash. And the wizards are offering the Orks war loans at great rates.

“But it’s sort of a shame to waste the last of this army and these loyal Lords,” the White Prince, now the White King, says to the last of his circle of advisors, now including a particular Murder Hobo group. “Besides, the Clerics still insist their Gods tell us Orks are evil.” With that, he follows out his original mission and declares War on the Orks.  In they charge for one last great battle!

The White King’s ransom is enough to firmly financially establish the Ork Kingdom.

The Glorious Conclusion to the Great War Against the Orks

It’s a shame about the King and his son the White Prince nee’ King but everyone comes out pretty well in the end in this story. 

History celebrates the King, who died in glorious battle, as a great and noble chivalric King who died a warrior’s death, just like Arthur.  His legend grows every year helped along by opportunistic bards who swear they don’t get kickbacks from the Crown. 

The White King finally staggers home after being ransomed and is also hailed as a great hero and King until he, too, gets killed in a particularly ironic way and opens civil war between his brother and the supporters of the White King’s son. 

The Kingdom fights to keep its not-entirely-legally-taken-lands for 40 years which presents young Lords many opportunities for glory cheaper and closer to home.  The people of these lands are not as thrilled.  Eventually the Kingdom loses those lands in a series of bungled sieges lead by the King’s great-grand-nephew.

The Kingdom never pays off its loans.  Instead it refinances the debt so many times it becomes the basis of their own major banking system.

Orks grow enough financially to expand their borders aggressively and spend hundreds of years in fun pitched battle with other Kingdoms willing to economically exhaust themselves.  They figured out not all evil comes from butchering the local populace.  

The expanding Ork Kingdom gives the Lawful and Neutral Good churches a tasty shibboleth to rail against which brings in the donations and the volunteers for their swelling ranks of clerics.

The Wizard Bankers make a mint off interest rates and all this economic activity.

The Merchants make enough to fill the banker’s coffers by war profiteering.

And our friends, the Murder Hobos, through all the years of adventures and wars and sieges and small dragons and Orks and pillaging, make 20th level.


Writer’s Note: This is all based on some very real fun the French had in the midst of the 100 Year War when they all got bored of losing to the English and went on Crusade against a burgeoning Ottoman Empire and completely collapsed at the Battle of Nicopolis.  The Turks found the Crusade of Nicopolis “hilarious.” There’s some callbacks to the Peruzzi’s who lost their shorts financing Kings.  If only they had disintegration spells…

(1) This is why Elven parents tell their children not to venture out into the human world.  Somewhere out there somewhere there’s some Good and Just King who will come along and take their stuff for better Good and Justness.   The Dark Elves don’t hide in the Underdark because they’re evil; they’re just tired of human taxation policy. 

(2) Bards will perform for anyone, especially if they are spies. Perhaps spies in the employ of a Kingdom of Orks.

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