Hey team, Notebook GM here with a sneak peek at the hook for a long module that I’m hoping to release later this year. It also serves as kind of the origin story for Murrad itself. Hope you enjoy it, let me know what you think in the comments or on twitter @TheNotebookGM
– – – – – – – – – –
The bard leaned forward onto the back of the chair and the old wood creaked slightly. The golden cloak that marked him as a true Bard of the Northern Pass seemed to catch the firelight and hold it a moment before relinquishing it to the dark corners of the small tavern, “Ye downslope folk and yer small gods, ye forget the old stories. The times when Humans walked Murrad, and magic filled the air. The times before the Small Gods and their small wars. Once there was but five gods- Nue was firs… nah, hark here, and I will speak it proper.” As he put aside his pipe and drew himself to sit straight his cloak seemed to become more greedy with the firelight.
“In the beginning there was Thing and Nothing. Movement and Stillness. Positive and Negative. The interaction of these two gave rise to the Field- which grew slowly as they continued to effervesce. After eons the Field grew too vast for the cosmos that contained it and the cup runneth over.
From the spillage Nue was born, first of the Gods. Nue wandered the cosmos learning to weave from the Field- creating the stars. It was an inevitability that another would be born and eventually Nue found a companion.
Curious Vyr was next, and the two of them experimented with the limits of the Field, feeling the weft and wane as it moved to their wishes.
Playful Eche then arrived and the first family was formed- the three of them galloped through the universe filling it with wonders.
Ta’am came next and brought order to the cosmos: organized the haphazard creations of the other three, and created the Sun and the Three Moons for them to live on around a planet that Eche had grown fond of.
They named it Murrad.
In their creativity and harmony, they had forgotten to expect another, and so when Sim came they moved to make room. Nue created the seas, and with them an empire of coral and sand. Sim accepted the aquatic kingdom, but never forgave the other gods the slight.
Sim wove of kelp and created the Merrow, the first of the sentient races, as company and servants in self-exile. Nue saw the Merrow and, applauding Sim on a brilliant idea, created the Humans with a breath of magic.
Vyr took to the northern forests, and from wood carved the Dwarves. Vyr swathed the Dwarves in furs and taught them of craft and the hunt.
Eche wandered the dunes of the Yael and from glass and sunlight created the Orcs. Eche gave them laughter and poetry and a love of simple pleasures.
Ta’am walked among the grasslands and mountains of Erevor and from silver smelted the elves. Ta’am wrote of discipline, civility, and the value of a strong community.
The gods agreed to step back and allow these creatures the freedoms and shackles of sentience, without direct intervention. As even Gods are vulnerable to sibling rivalry, each wanted to see their creation best that of their peers.
The Magocracy of Nuera arose overnight- to the mind of a god- and in the shadow of its splendor the ire of Sim grew. Gathering the sages and warlocks of the Merrowfolk, Sim began to outline a plan to curb the power of the rival Humans.
As time wore on, the Magocracy of Nuera cast many in its shadow, and the 9 Sages of Nuera decreed that, in order to maintain their dominance, teaching the secrets of the Arcane outside of Nuera must expressly forbidden. The other sentient races objected, but lacked the power to stop the Sages from withholding their lore. For centuries the Magocracy ruled Murrad by hoarding magic, sure of their superiority.
The actions of the Magocracy further angered the sea god. Sim released the Horror, a great creature rose from the sea, and began to pull Nuera and her cities into the deep. So vast, so powerful, was this creature that even the collected Arcana of Nuera could not fell it. What Nuerans could escape did so, either by ship or spell, but the vast majority of the Human population fell. Hundreds of thousands died, pulled below by the great sweeping tentacles as the destroyed the continent.
Once the other gods saw what Sim had done they rushed to overcome the power of the titanic beast Sim had created and save what Nuerans they could. After a battle that lasted 100 years the Gods were able to imprison the Horror at the bottom of an ocean trench. Those Merrow who had helped Sim create the creature were given an edict: guard the Horror of Sim for eternity.
As for the survivors, the elves of Erevor took in the human refugees, and over time the bloodlines mixed to form the Gray Elves but Nue was devastated at the loss of the beloved Humans. Grief took Nue to the glaciers north of Hooftrod Pass where the god’s tears froze as they touched the frigid ground. From ice Nue formed the Satyr and bade them wander the northernmost mountain passes and look to the stars.
Sim, for this terrible treachery, was killed by the three remaining siblings and the creatures of the sea were left to feed on his sunken corpse. They grew to be the titanic beasts that still inhabit the seas today, further ensuring the safety of the Sunken Horror of Sim….”
The room had grown darker, quiet. The fire popped- somehow somberly.
“But somewhere out there, among the storms, it is said a small group of islands exists. Some say the islands are deserted- just the mountaintops of a sunken continent, others say that it is a shard of the lost landmass- possibly teeming with lost magic. Stories tiny human-like creatures and turtles larger than towns are told by the seekers what return. However the great fauna have claimed almost all who have sought to explore the Southern Seas…”
The cozy room was silent now and as the Bard trailed off the cloak seemed to release the firelight it had been stockpiling, leaving the room a little brighter.
“Anyway, so the lot of ye’re set to take a trip skirting the Seas… I’m sure ye’ll have a grand time… just don’t forget to leave a watchman, best ye have warning before the great creatures pull ye into the depths.”
These words seem to echo through your minds as the ship you had chartered sails through the air- and crashes into the hard, choppy seas.
Hey Nerds- I know that updates have been spotty recently; the holidays always complicate things and I’ve been developing some other stuff for your entertainment pleasures that hopefully will be coming down the pipeline in the near future. For now, we will be returning to our regular twice a week posts, with Murrad on Mondays and other gaming fun on Thursdays. We may go down to one post a week in the future, depending on how much writing I am doing for DMSupportGroup.com and what comes of the project I’ve been working on. In the meantime, by way of apologizing for my tardiness I have a quick re-write of a d12 system I’ve been working on for a while. This is a pretty stripped down version, the original version didn’t uh… work. As in, it wasn’t fun and it was kind of confusing. What we have here is something I wanted to have in my back pocket because sometimes the Nat One Productions guys and I are just sitting around and I want to RP a scene to work through a plot idea and also I needed something that I could apply to several different layers of play (party, faction, city, nation) with just a few cosmetic changes. Sometimes I like to use mechanics like this to resolve conflicts between different entities in the world. Like so many light RPG systems this game really depends on the idea that everyone at the table is committed to making a cool story together which isn’t every table. Anyhow enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments!
Working Title RPG-
The Basic Mechanic
Two relevant attribute scores (ranging from 0-5) are combined and modifiers added (most often +1 or +2) to generate the Roll Under (RU) score for a given activity; a twelve-sided die is rolled and if the number shown is equal to or under the Roll Under (RU) score than the action is successful. A roll of 1 on the d12 is always a success and grants 1 Narrative Point. A roll of 12 on the d12 is always a failure and results in either a lost Narrative Point or an additional failure in the encounter.
Each encounter, depending on difficulty, requires a certain number of successful turns on behalf of the party in order to achieve victory. The Narrator, during prep or at the beginning of a scene must determine the difficulty of the encounter and decide how many successes the players must achieve in order to consider the encounter a success. The Narrator also determines how many failed rolls would result in a failed encounter. On the antagonists turn successful rolls reduce the party’s successes by one and a failed roll reduces their failures by one. Encounters should be sub-divided into groups (perhaps depending on the number of players in the scene, obstacles presented in the encounter, etc) to give characters small milestones. Once a milestone is reached enemy successes and failure can’t bring the party past that milestone, this will prevent an evenly-matched battle from dragging. The Narrator should feel free to award to additional successes or failures as narratively appropriate.
In character creation start each ability at 0 and distribute 14 points among the six attributes with no attribute going above 5. Skills should be worded as phrases to enhance their utility in novel situations. “Trained with Bo-Master Flicc (Physicality, Finesse)” is far more useful than “Good With A Quarterstaff (Physicality, Finesse)”. The Bo-Master might have taught the protagonist things such as wall-running, high jumps, acrobatics, and meditation in addition to sweet staff skills.
Health: Stamina, immune system, and endurance
Verve: Vigor, spirit, and enthusiasm
Reason: Ability to recognize and synthesize information
Senses: Sense acuity, intuition, and alertness
Physicality: Actual muscular strength
Finesse: Ability at fine motor skill
Skill [Attributes Used]
Skill [Attributes Used]
Skill [Attributes Used]
Inventory (Brief description of what you look like carrying your gear and what all you have. Encumbrance works the same way, at any time the Narrator can ask you to describe what you look like carrying everything you have in your inventory and make a ruling on encumbrance)
Armor and Special Items:
Armor and magical items both work in the same way. Each has either an assigned RU or else an associated pair of attributes (like a skill). Some items (see below) will use one skill and a static RU score imparted by the item itself. Rolls made with these attribute sets are subject to the +1/+2 bonus related to familiarity at Narrator discretion.
Dragonscale Breastplate (RU 8)
Awesome Dueling Sword of Awesomeness (Finesse, +3)
For any scene where failure would have an interesting consequence the Narrator sets up a “Success Threshold” and a “Failure Threshold”. This marks how many of each possible outcome the party must have before the encounter is considered completed and consequences triggered. Failure does not always mean death or injury, consequences are determined by the Narrator based on the context of the scene.
At the beginning of each encounter the players should determine their overall goal for the scene, allowing the Narrator to adjust the difficulty as needed (running away should require fewer successes than fighting, etc.). Each character must then roll a d12, adding their Sense and Finesse scores to the number shown in order to determine turn order.
On their turn each player states their goals for the round and rolls the appropriate combination of attributes to determine success or failure, narrating the consequences once they determine the outcome.
During an encounter a roll of a 1 on the d12 grants the character a Narrative Point. This point, which should be represented with a physical object such as a poker chip, allows the player to change the circumstances of the encounter in some significant way. Perhaps the noble they are arguing with begins to choke on a chicken bone, perhaps beheading that particular alien spooks his allies allowing the players a chance to seize the advantage, perhaps the officer realizes her gun is out of bullets. These points can result in the Narrator changing the difficulty of the encounter but should not result in instantaneous victory or failure unless there party only has one or two additional successes before the encounter would end anyway.
There is no official system of gaining “levels” in Working Title RPG. Games at different scales require different reward systems and progressions. However, in order to reward players some Narrators may decide to implement a system similar to the one that follows.
Arc Points: Upon completion of a story arc, dungeon or other goal the Narrator may decide to reward the players with Arc Points- these points, representing accumulated experience and new tricks can be used as follows.
7 AP: Raise an attribute by 1 (No attribute can go above 6 and a roll of 12 is always a failure)
5 AP: New Skill
Characters should be encourage to roleplay their gradual improvement as their characters as they work towards their AP expenditure goals, in order to avoid the classic RPG “Mario red mushroom sound” level up experience.
Narrators are encouraged to create systems that suit both their style and their players’ but to avoid prioritizing the mechanical bonuses over narrative bonuses, interesting items with ancient histories, the favor of the gods, the latest in warp technology, a serendipitous encounter with an eyewitness to the crime, a particularly helpful NPC, amulets blessed by a voodoo priest to protect you from negative spirits, or a signed letter by the President are all far more engaging rewards than “2 Arc Points”.
Hey all- Notebook GM here. This week we will be covering our first magic item in Murrad. The gods can grant magic to their followers in return for fealty, worship, or favors; however the lore of wizards and the creation of magic items has long been lost to the world. As we saw earlier whilst discussing the political structure of Old Erevor this has lent magic artifacts a special place in the various cultures around the world. To the Gray Elves they represent a means of ascension in society; for Orcs they are curiosities to be examined, clues in their quest to re-establish the ways of the Nueran Magocracy and recreate the magic items forged there; for the Dwarves, however, magic items are valued much less, their value, like most things in dwarven society, hinge on their usefulness. Magic is as any other tool, powerful when used correctly and otherwise either trivial or destructive. This dismissal comes with one exception, The Scepter of One Voice….
– – – – – – – – – – – – –
The old Satyr held the copper scepter in his hand. Despite its great age it was without the green patina most copper would hold. He turned it over and examined the sigil at the head, the three marks of the great townships of the dwarves brought together onto one sign. This was the Scepter of One Voice, the famed artifact used at the Great Meeting Hall in Genjuenū . The dwarves had an interesting take on democracy, each town, no matter its size, functioned on a system of true democracy. Any citizen could come to the local meeting hall and make their voice heard. The Great Meeting Hall was no exception except that it held thousands, each voice louder than the next representing the interests of her kin.
“IT IS MAGNIFICENT,” he went to mumble, but the words came out as thunder, loud and deep.
The Copper Keeper, the dwarf charged with the storage and administration of the powerful scepter, beamed as Falkur gave a start. “Ay sir, Mr. Bard, sir. ‘Tis ensorcelled to keep the marks of age from it, and to give the dwarf what has the floor the ability to be heard. As I’m suren ye know, the Hall can hold quite a din as we get to our cups.”
Falkur, too, smiled. “I haven’t yet had the pleasure, but I would be delighted to see the famed Hall in all of its glory.” Falkur had spent decades studying argument, debate, rhetoric, and political ideology. He’d sat in on meetings of the Grand Senate in Abronia, witnessed the coronation of the Marchion of Zennithraille, and even taken part in a meeting of Gnomish elders on the largest of the Western Fringe Islands; but never had he held the Scepter itself. Sure, every dwarven township had a Meeting Hall, but only in Genjuenū did dwarves from all of the major townships in The Northern Trunks meet to discuss issues concerning the realm as a whole and only here did the talking stick hold such powerful dweomers.
“Oh I’ll be taking yerself there this evening, Voice Rinelle had sent word preceding ye that ye were to be taken on your arrival, luck would have it they are meeting this very night.”
It was only a couple of hours hence that the elderly dwarf shuffled a few paces ahead of Falkur, across a rope bridge and around one of the great trunks that hold Genjuenū aloft. The Satyr never grew tired of the canopy city, relishing the simple logic of a race of people that rarely grew over five foot and had a persistent problem with the giants to the west of them. Even as they walked the Satyr could see the traps set for their neighbors, large trunks suspended by woven vines, loaded crossbows set along rope bridges, flasks of oil set with rags kept near lit torches. It had been decades since the giants had struck at the city, but dwarves always preferred to be prepared.
He heard the hall before he saw it, a dull roar of dwarven voices ebbing and flowing around the dense canopy, surely this is how the Giants would find the city if they did decide to strike again. The large circular chamber was built between three of the oldest trees in this part of the forest, the largest of which had been carved out and now housed the lectern where the dwarf that held the Scepter would stand and address the collected citizens. A loud, deep voice broke above the din, “The Collected Voices of The Northern Trunks recognize Falkur Surefoot, Bard of the Northern Pass, Scholar of Discourse at the Grand Academy of Letters in Vosta-Sil-Vorreros, and wandering sage of political rhetoric. He is here to witness the way the Dwarves of The Northern Trunks administer our home, and all of the voices gathered expect that he be treated with civility.” The clunk of wooden chalices and the gentle splatter of spilled berrymeade resounded as Falkur was led into the warm chamber. The dwarf that had introduced him moved from the lectern and was quickly replaced by another. This dwarf, a female by the looks of her “beard” of braided hair worn tied under her chin, took the scepter and held it aloft, her voice magically enhanced as she brought the meeting to “order”. Order, as was so often the case in dwarven politics, actually represented only a slightly duller roar than had filled the room previously.
The meeting progressed slowly, as any interaction involving thousands of people shouting will, and Falkur sat in rapt attention. As different subjects were broached the holder of the scepter struggled to keep hold of the crowd, always with differing results. After several hours the Copper Keeper shuffled to the stage and relieved the speaker of the heavy copper staff. The citizens stumbled out, several hours of drinking and arguing having sapped most of their energy. Falkur stayed after and asked the Copper Keeper about this history of the scepter. As he watched to precedings the bard noticed that the holder of the scepter seemed to sober up instantly, even the most inebriated of citizens spoke eloquently (by dwarven standards) when brought before the collected dwarves.
“It has always been that the dwarves settled their disagreements in this way, we’ve never seen the use of the gilded ways of the other races, a waste of valuable gold if yer askin’ meself, but some questions need the input of all in the Trunks. The first Great Stag War needed every beard available here, holding off the encroaching giants, but the libertarian nature of my people made actual unity difficult. Ausein Settun had the answer- he’d been traveling among the humans, attempting to find one that might teach him the ways of enchantment.” The dwarf paused as he took a deep draft of an overly sweet blueberry berrymeade. “Mind, this was before the Magocracy cracked down on non-humans creating magic items,” he continued. “Anyhow, Ausein wanted to preserve the ways dwarves had always kept but needed a way to be heard above the collected shouting that he might lead the defense of the city. He set to work, smelting a bar of the purest copper he had won in a game of dice during his travels and setting it with what few incantations the enchanters would teach him. He had a natural gift for magic and something he did set to the scepter but the effort killed him. His creation did save the Trunks in the end, though. Prettor Vale, his best friend and adventuring partner, marshalled the disparate clans of dwarves and they were able to hold back the Giants. That was the first time they tried to move out of the Great Stag Forest and into our own. Since then, in his honor, the Great Meeting Hall has always recognized, in its own way, the primacy of whomever holds the scepter.”
Falkur leaned back in his chair, taking a deep pull from his own berrymeade, a tart raspberry concoction given to him by a very patient and likely deaf dwarven page. “That,” he said, “is a terrible, terrible way to run a country.”
The Copper Keeper guffawed and took another swig from his mug. “Aye, it is indeed.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – –
Fresh Homebrew I (Unearthed Arcana Circle of the Shephard fix)
Hey all- Notebook GM here. So this week the talented Jacqueline (contributor to this very site) joined us at the Murrad Test Table – A.K.A. The Tuesday Game. She wanted to be a caster, and had settled on Druid. When I broke down the possible circles for her she loved the idea of the spirit animals in the Circle of the Shephard from Unearthed Arcana (Google it, I don’t know how to hyperlink yet) but when I looked it over it seemed lacking. I hopped over to Tribality.com and read Brandes Stoddard’s review of the release. Him and I agreed it was devoid of both proper flavor and a fitting name.
So, instead of saying “You could do this but it’s bad and you shouldn’t.” I decided to make it (hopefully) good.
Here it is, (hopefully) good.
Circle of the Spirit (UA Circle of The Shephard fix) by The Notebook GM
Shaking an intricately carved stick tied with feathers and leather the Circle of the Spirit Druid moves in a complicated series of steps around a roaring fire. Far from there another converses with the astral forms of ancestral animals, gleaning insights about the movements of distant herds. A devout hermit tends her flock, calling on the spirits of the wild to fend off predators. Druids that follow the Circle of the Spirit call on the astral forms of animals to aid them in battle and bestow strength in them and their allies. It is said that Druids walking the Circle of the Spirit are always surrounded by unseen spirits, and that the most closely connected are even shielded from death.
Spirit Bond (2nd level)
You are the conduit through which the basic pneuma of the archetypal animal moves. You gain a pool of “Spirit Points” equal to your druid level per day. At second level, as a bonus action, you may call upon the astral form of an animal to aid you or your allies, expending up to one third of these points (rounded up) at once in order to grant one of the following benefits to the recipient. Only allies that you can see and that are within 30ft of you can be affected by your spirit bond power.
Predator Spirit- You call upon the spirit of the Predator to aid an ally in battle, the next time they take the attack action and deal damage they deal an additional 1d6 damage per Spirit Point spent.
Mother Spirit- You call upon the spirit of the Mother to nurture an ally, healing 1d6+1 for each point spent.
Herd Spirit- For each point spent the target gains a +1 bonus to AC versus attacks of opportunity and increases their speed by 5 for 1 minute.
Tongue of the Totem (2nd level)
Your experience with their astral counterparts has left you uncommonly in tune with the communication patterns of animals. Although most are not intelligent enough to communicate complex ideas, with the proper coaxing you can communicate basic ideas and thoughts with animals. Animals that are already friendly to you, as well as those bribed with food or other treats, will be more willing to assist the druid.
Empower Attributes (6th level)
Starting at sixth level the Circle of the Spirit Druid can use Spirit Points in order to bolster certain attributes. As a bonus action (thank you Mr. Stoddard) you may choose an attribute, for each Spirit Point spent you may grant one target advantage on their next skill check or saving throw using that attribute. This bonus must be used within 10 minutes or it is lost.
Guardian Spirit (10th level)
Through your interactions with the spirits they have become attuned to your life-force, constantly they swirl around you, protecting you in the most harrowing moments. At the end of a long rest you gain the benefit of a Death Ward spell.
Astral Overload (14th level)
The spirits surrounding you explode outwards, disrupting arcane energies in all directions. Once a day you may expend 6 Spirit Points to cast Dispel Magic as an area effect spell targeting all creatures, objects, and zones in a 30ft radius of the Druid. For every 2 points spent over 6 you may regard the spell as having been cast from a spell slot one level higher. Only one effect per target can be removed this way but one character or creature may carry several possible targets.
The following is an excerpt from the travel diaries of one BoMork Rinelle, a renowned dwarven hunter and writer who was pinned as a Voice of the Northern Trunks (an ambassadorial title bestowed by the “government” of the great Townships of the Northern Trunks)
The city herself is beautiful sight, ‘specially after a coupl’a tenday in the mud, naught but trunks for miles. City’s got walls on three sides, a lake on the last. The Marchion and Viscouncil have laws what keep the city from becoming too crowded so the streets are wide and clean. The market is the second largest in the March, smell of meats and fresh clothing. The poor live in crowded hamlets outside the walls, closely together in areas not already owned by farmers. I arrived and the Briarcloaks at the city gate reminded me they requires a peace-knot, so I yanked me firing pin from me crossbow and packed away me bolts and hatchet. Easier to just stow the things, no nambly-pambly elf could match me a fist-fight besides.
I head straight for the Viscount’s Hold whenever I get to Broadleef, as Jervon Zentri is a friend. The lad can right fire a crossbow and I ran with The Foxhounds- scouts of the Liseran Legion- a coupla seasons before I got me pin. Zentri was known then as a right commander and remains a good ruler. We strapped on, drank, and carried tales late into the dark. I was no hound with the Silent Tread the next morn, twas a bottle of wine and half the sun before I found me eye.
Tell ye, ye wouldn’t hear those rangers if they was dancing on yer ears. During training ye go a month without speaking, to show dedication to silence. I move right quiet but the lads simply blow away as the breeze. Providing food for the Marches and skins to the tanners keeps them in wine and new leather year round. Their leader, Brevvil Mauer, is a firm old elf, didn’t take to me humor on the road so much but was at least respectful enough of me position to take me along. Glad was I that I managed to fell something for our plates and earn me place.
I had no business with the Marchion here so I didn’t call on her but Mella Juniper is known as a right leader herself. Elves live by station and blood and the Juniper family is ancient by even their measure. Bah, those elves would marry names if they could. Or they do. Depends on how ye look at it is me guess. The Junipers have long ruled these parts- trading at names, taking power when their kids outshine the other old names. Yer Ryeburns, Agavners, yer Huskrells and Berlees. I met Marchion Mella Juniper while passing through on me way to Merschelmerre on me first assignment after receiving me Voice. The Marchion moves slowly in her years but holds her honor well. The Marchion maintains a chamber for the royal family at The Court of the Briar Throne still, common in the Northern Marches where they still want for a King. Right host, them Junipers though; know how to stock a larder. Mella is ancient, nearing twenty six decades, if I’m correct. Still sharp though she’s one of the oldest people yet living. Never would ye see a dwarf live that long, too much drink and falling out of trees. I brought her a cloak what was made from a mountaincat I’d shot whilst going the Hoofway. Doubtful something a woman of her stature wears but if she goes for a day of riding it’ll suit her. Anyhow she treated me well and put me up in the Court for the night as I was passin’ through those years ago and I’d never forgotten it.
Worldbuildering: Click Here To Receive The Best Terrible Advice You’ve Ever Gotten About Worldbuilding
The following, by all conventional world-building wisdom, is terrible advice. Especially for GMs- this is really quite awful, terrible advice. That’s how we do it here at The Notebook GM, our first “advice for GMs and Worldbuilders” segment we are starting right off with this terrible advice.
But you’re probably going to follow it anyway, because it is really genius great advice.
Start with your world map.
“But Notebook,” you’ll say, “doesn’t everyone on the planet with half of a brain agree that you should start in the small microcosm of your adventure and build out so that your brain doesn’t collapse from the collected weight of an entire world when you’re really just trying to tell a story about a small-town elf who finds a cache of magic items and makes it big?”
And to that I say: “No my darling little crumpet, but that’s a great story idea, please promptly forget it so I can steal it; but also yes, that is what everyone says will happen and they are probably correct but hear me out.”
Once you agree to hear me out, which you’ve basically already done by clicking on an article called “Click Here To Receive The Best Terrible Advice You’ve Ever Gotten About Worldbuilding”, this is what you will hear (with your eyeballs):
It’s not about naming every hamlet in the backwater fiefdom of some town on the western border of the most desolate part of a mountain range’s backside; It’s about providing the “big picture” details that will make your scenes during the game a little more believable. I come from an improvisation background and a fair amount of what I say during gameplay is completely off-the-cuff because players will always always always diverge away from all of your carefully outlined NPCs and fixate on the halfling shopkeep that gave compliment to the paladin’s armor that one time. I, instead, run my games off of a couple of charts and writing down the names of things as I create them, but I do this against a background of general information about the world. Here is an example from a recent play session with my tuesday 5e group.
That is it, that and a table on page 274 of the DMG that helps you create stats for NPCS based on CR. It definitely isn’t the most exact system, but I tend to run a pretty loosey-goosey game in general and this allows me to stay nimble (especially as I have a particularly adept yet unpredictable group). That, I realize is not going to be a strategy that works for every GM, much as my strategy of drinking wine out of the bottle during the game is not a great fit for every table. But, by having a small list of “world atlas” facts about different places in your world you can make consistent references to “the big picture” without ever actually drawing it all out.
Except the world map. That you should draw out, and I’ll tell you why: A world map will, in and of itself, create story. Just look at the story of civilizations, conflicts, cultures and more in our own world. If it wasn’t so bloody cold in Russia they’d probably speak German right now. Except, if it was warmer in Russia they probably would have had an entirely different country and culture and stake in the war because they’d have access to different resources and a lot more of them would be food. Or it would be a desert, I don’t really know, I’m still not a climate scientist. The point is: these things really matter in a big way when it comes to setting up your culture and deciding what you do for resources, how you play with others, what you believe, what you eat, and all sorts of other really important stuff.
Recently I was tasked with helping @NatOneJustin create the world map for his upcoming 4e world of Dela (natoneproductions.com and Nat One Productions on youtube). Dela is a particularly special case because the story of the world itself was pretty malleable- what history we had was actually created by the group via a couple of sessions of Microscope (a game you should definitely check out by Lame Mage Productions). As I explained to Justin in our initial meeting about the map: topography and the placement of different political and physical boundaries are incredibly important.
One of the story elements of Dela that I created, pursuant to my lifelong love-affair with gnomes (yeah you heard me), was that the Gnomish people were the central banking and trading power in the Dela economy (they eventually became a kind of ice cold Vulcan/Gnome society because Justin couldn’t stand the idea of another quirky gnome trope). Since Dela has airship travel as canon it was important that the Gnomes control important airspace, or, in this case, a continuous strip of airspace that is crucial for trading and allows those who deal with the gnomes to bypass the hassle of passing through several different jurisdictions by another route. This way though the Gnomes control little in the way of actual landmass they can use the tariff savings inherent in staying within their airspace as a way to hold a firm grip on the trading economy.
Similarly, the nomadic elves needed, to be in conflict with the Fjaerbjorn (a race of sentient owlbears) due to some dispute over the elves yearly passage through Fjaerbjorn land. The bottleneck provided by the mountains encasing desert on the southern continent (more on that later) made a convenient point of conflict between the two races, since the mountains prevented the elves from taking a route that evaded Fjaerbjorn lands. By placing major capitals and cultural zones on a map you are better able to suss out who would most likely be in conflict, what ways trading caravans might take, what ports of call might hold the most power, and so on and so forth. Now, instead of having to write any of this stuff yourself you can use a relatively simple drawing (Impact Books has a great book about drawing fantasy maps that you absolutely need) to generate quite a lot of story on its own.
When making a world map the oceans and continents are born together. It’s a kind of Tao thing if you think about it, one creates oceans by forming continents, I don’t know- ask your guru. Anyhow, if one were to look at a map of our earth you’d notice that pretty much all of the best places are near the ocean. That is because it takes much less labor to transport something heavy across water than it does across land, fish are tasty when you hold them over fire and sometimes even when you don’t, and sunsets are pretty when you are sitting on the beach enjoying a fine pipe weed or Dwarven berrymead. Nearly all rivers that are worth anything lead to something closely resembling an ocean; this makes it incredibly easy (due to the labor concerns outlined above) to get things from where the things are (mountains for metal and stone, woods for wood, plains for grains) to where the people are (eating fish and staring at the sunset near the oceans). As is the entire point of this article, where people live has a huge effect on their culture and social mores. Warm coasts breed easy-going folk who prefer a life of leisure and comfort over one of strict industry and success. Northern coasts are known for salty fishing villages and saltier people, life is hard there and the water harshly punishes mistakes. Storms ravage coasts, and weather is often unpredictable. As such, these people talk about the weather a lot, much more than those who live in more static environs.
Mountains, next to oceans, are the main currency of the topographical world map. The barrier provided by a dense mountain range makes commercial travel difficult if not impossible and personal travel a matter of serious discomfort. Especially if the mountains also serve as a national barrier there is little impetus to maintain an easily passable road for invading armies to march in on. Because of the horrible things lurking in the oceans traveling long distances over water isn’t really your best bet in most cases, which has both stifled inter-species interaction to a certain extent and given enormous power to the Satyr of Hooftrod Pass. The trip takes a long time and is nearly impossible without a Satyr to guide you. Guiding merchants, travelers and adventurers, combined with the long reach of the Satyr-run Bards of the Northern Pass and their ethos of adventure and storymaking, give the relatively small Satyr population enormous clout in the world. Mountains breed giants, are littered with caves, and almost certainly have a couple of lost cities kicking around. They hold ancient vaults and the silence of long bygone battles. They breed hale folk who often have truck with birds of prey. Difficult terrain, steep drops, climb checks, and questionable rope bridges are all key to the mountain oeuvre.
Mountains, by diverting moisture and weather patterns, are responsible for the creation of deserts in many/most/all cases. I don’t know, ask a climate scientist, but I know it happens and it is helpful when making maps. Deserts landscapes are rife with tropes, some more acceptable than others, and provide for an excellent excuse to play with exhaustion and starvation mechanics in your game. These mechanics are often seen as a life-saver in desert scenes because “yup, you come over the dune and you see… more sand” is hardly gripping prose and once can really only describe the way the sun oppressively beats down on you in so many ways. Deserts, however, are often much more lively than they appear, especially considering most everything wants to kill you here and the uneasy terrain can make for some great navigation challenges. Those that live in deserts are often used to surviving on little to nothing. These are people that waste nothing, and rarely trust outsiders. An invited guest, however, is fawned upon and granted every hospitality. To share resources is seen as a great gift in a land with little and bartering and gift giving customs are common in desert cultures.
Forests are the next most obvious thing on a map, especially when the cartographer draws them out as tiny individual trees.
While most fantasy gamers see forests and think “That’s where the elves go” there are many elements to forests to consider. The three primary types of forest: jungles, seasonal forests, and taiga- while they all may look similar on your map- imply vastly different ecologies and thereby vastly different cultures and concerns. Bugs are not nearly the scourge in the often frozen taiga that they are in rainforested areas, depending on what you consider a remorhaz taxonomically speaking. Similarly, while a rainforest is in bloom pretty much year-round and fruit is ubiquitous, the denizens of a large deciduous forest may have an autumnal festival devoted to the harvesting and pressing of fruits for wine and mead. The Dwarves of the Northern Trunks, especially near the giant flora and fauna of the Great Stag Forest have taken to riding giant gliding squirrels found there. In addition to being a tremendous amount of fun the nimble creatures are extremely helpful in their clashes with the Storm Giants of the Bigstep Islands. Mango-wranglers in Azodomena sneak through the valleys and into the dense jungles of Terrodomena in order to gather the large sweet fruits growing there. In Obleeq the rainforest was a psychedelic affair, dense with vines and the sounds of hidden birds and bugs, strange plants and fungi abounded and this vast store of resources made the elves that lived there world renowned for their alchemists and apothecaries.
Swamps are everywhere in the fantasy genre. The hedge witch, the “introductory crypt of introduction to how this game works”, and the “kill 8 crocodiles because I have a golden exclamation point over my head” quest all take place in swamps. Swamps are thick, wet, smelly. Hard to pass and rife with threats swamps are often home to very colorful folk, the kind of folk who don’t get visitors much on account of taking a boat is both faster and more comfortable. The mystical herb that you need to complete the poultice that will finally cure the horrible poison that has been coursing through the veins of The Protagonist will probably be here. Some horrible monster that uses the murky water as cover as it harries you towards its den or mates is probably here. There is definitely a hilarious scene where your bard loses his favorite boots to a failed dexterity save here.
The subject of subterranean RPG adventures has been so thoroughly canvassed that I shan’t canvass it further other than to say this: if you draw a couple of dark holes in mountains and hills on your map players WILL go to them and assume that there is treasure or dragons or something.
These features also, of course, tie into the economies envisioned as each region will have its own set of resources depending on what kind of environment they live in, obviously orcs living in the desert aren’t going to have a shipwright in every village just as dwarves living in the cold, dense forests of the Northern Trunks probably don’t know much about big game fishing.
Keep in mind, not every map has to be a work of high art. I’m going to open myself up a bit here and actually show you the map I made of Obleeq when we were first starting Nat One. This is the map I ran the entire game off of, with a couple zoomed in maps of individual islands in order to help plan sessions. These maps were not meant to be admired by the masses, only to help generate some consistency of backstory and to decide who had what resources.
The halfling island had trees that sprouted up scores of feet in minutes, making one craggy cliff-face the only safe area to have a city and making their relationship with the orcs all the more important as the more muscular race helped them harvest the nearly unlimited lumber and craft the finest wooden ships in the world. The Dragonborn, living on the edge of a desert and in the shadow of a volcano, were known for their city of glass, melted and molded from the desert itself.
The little story details peppered throughout this article are meant to show the little ways that geography can be used to drive story and help you make the world feel consistent and lived in without spending 12 hours deciding exactly how the ascension of nobles in the Elven kingdom 2,000 miles to the south works. If you want to do that, more power to you, scroll back a couple of entries and read about the class structure of Old Erevor.
Slice of Murrad: “Conversations with Cloudherders”
For this week’s Slice of Murrad we have our first short piece by Jacqueline, she has taken control of building culture of the fey, mystical elves of Southern Renser, where the influence of the Nueran Magocracy was strongest after the Fall.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
“Conversations with Cloudherders,” is part of an ongoing series of letters by Greivik Garmarche, alchemist, explorer and court tutor to the Viscount Harvold of Merschelmerre. The Viscount has recently embraced an interest in anthropological data from across the continent. Greivik Garmarche is more than happy to oblige, as he believes he can continue to unlock the secrets of reviving magick without use of artifacts.
16th of Vehrdawn
A herder fresh back from the Southern Droll can be sensed sooner by smell than by sight in the crowded markets of old sim-Cthal; crones whisper to children that the jade hue on a herder’s head comes not from the moss clinging tight to his strands, but from the dank musk hanging heavy around him.
Baud’s History of Inlet Migrations, First Edition
As is often the case in cautionary rumors, Baud’s account of the stigma surrounding the Cloudherders of Inlet-sim-Cthal is perpetuated to steer children away from the Southern Cloud Sea, or ‘drolls’ in local dialect. Long have the drolls, thick with rolling clouds and the holy storms of the Mother, Pthalodenai, served as both a shadow of fear and breath of life since the Great Rising brought the sea to sim-Chtal. Without the bounty of the great Cloud Sea, the mercy of Pthalodenai and the wrath of her storms, sim-Cthal would have been lost to merchants and foreigners, ignorant to the service of the Mother. It is the Cloudherders, who practice the Rite of the Dreigonflye, appeasing the Mother, sparing the Inlet from her cleansing breath, to whom the residents of Inlet-sim-Cthal owe their sanctuary.
To perform this Rite, the initiate must surrender their spirit to Pthalodenai and offer the empty vessel of their flesh in her service. Heeding the call of its mistress, the Dreigonflye pour the cleansing breath of the Mother into the vessel of the initiate, freezing them from the inside like the bitter frost following Freijeksdei. The Dreigonflye then carries the initiate high above the rolling clouds to the sea, where the initiate is filled and thawed with the storming waters. It is then that the Dreigonflye and the initiate begin their journey back through the drolls, through the cleansing breath of the Mother, and are born anew as Daigonfrei, the dual vessels of a single breath of our Mother. As Daigonfrei, the Cloudherder communes with the Mother in foraging the Cloud Sea, and the Dreigonflye is bound to this servant as in the first days of Pthalodenai’s conception, when Gilthavoss birthed the winged warriors to protect the crystal egg from which the Mother first exhaled.
Many believe it is for this reason that the Cloudherder may never pillage the drolls in a way that the merchants and outlanders aspire. Hands stained with greed for the coveted Pthalodonium are too oft wrought with lungmoss or plum bloat, if not struck from the current to fall to the earth, and ships loaded with the Mother’s horde are swept back to the rocky cliffs obscured by her breath. And while yea, she is a bitter maiden to strangers, she is but generous to her children who seek to honor her gifts. For without the blessed Pthalodonium, indeed, her children would be at the mercy of the Northlanders. But for the chaste and pious labor of her Daigonfrei, her children need never want for weapon or window alike. Tis indeed a shame that crystal such as that in Inlet-sim-Cthal should never be exported by the local devout, though the breadth of the Pthalodonium supply has never been estimated.
The woven basket touched down lightly onto the ground. Duardh felt the tension start to drain out of his toes and onto the grass. He never imagined that his invention would work so well as it did but, after two days of experimentation, he was confident that he had proven his theory correct- heating air made it somehow “lighter” than other air and that difference could be harnessed in order to provide lift.
Granted, he thought, sustaining this effect would be almost impossible without Xirr’s everburning coals. The magic stones had been burning since before the Magocracy had fallen and in addition to their utility for balloon travel they were dead useful when thrown into the camp stove or buried under the ground to warm a campsite for sleeping.
Xirr tumbled out of the basket that dangled from the bottom of the large patchwork balloon. “That was absolutely incredible- this contraption of yours will do wonders for my research- few have had occasion to study the birds from such a vantage point. One question though… how do you steer the thing? It seems to be beholden to the winds.”
Duardh hated this about his friend- the gnome was just so simply genuine and without guile that he didn’t recognize the dampening effect that his statement had on the inventor’s moment of success. He makes a good point, the orc thought, the wind is going to be a big problem, especially given how unpredictable it can be at this… then he saw it- a spring-loaded stake attached to a sturdy cord- a small metal box full of gears- using the descent to wind for the ascent- he had to get to his study and send word to a certain elvish spring winder…
His arm almost jerked from its socket as the contraption sprang to life. Xirr’s feet flew from the ground as the whirring metal box shot back towards the basket, over 40 gnomes high. With a squeak of excitement he realized that this was the fastest he had ever been made airborne (although the time he let Duardh shoot him out of a trebuchet was a close second) and he suppressed an urge to clap his hands with glee. Instead he held on desperately as terror tempered his joy, thinking only now that he might suggest a harness to Duardh for future ascents. The orc looked on with anxiety plain on his face, they had agreed that it was probably best to test the “lift box” with the much lighter gnome first but Duardh was equal parts grateful and apprehensive for the decision. While it was the logical choice, dropping his best friend from that far up wasn’t his idea of a good time- Hm, maybe I should attach a harness, he thought as he watched his tiny friend rocket skyward. At the top of the sturdy rope the box began to slow, ending within reach of the rope ladder that hung off the side of the floating basket. High pitched peals of excited/nervous laughter fell from the balloon, signaling his friend had enjoyed/survived the trip. After a moment to catch his breath the gnome climbed back down the ladder, flipped the catch on the “lift box” and hung from it as it eased him back to the ground- the collection of gears and springs inside winding and slowing the descent to a comfortable level. As his friend touched down, small feet balancing him on the heavy terrium stake Duardh finally let his tension break and let loose a barking laugh.
“It works! I honestly can’t believe it!” He laughed, picking up his friend and spinning him around in the air.
Xirr’s face whitened slightly “Pardon, how unsure were you when you sent me up there?”
“We might have considered adding a harness… especially for the test run.” Was the orc’s only reply. “Or at least a cushion or something… nevermind. But you know what this means, we can start our trip to Broadleef, as promised. With this we can avoid the pirates, the frigid mountains, the sea monsters, all of it, just waft lightly to Renser, enjoying one another’s company, fishing on the open seas, basking in the sun.”
“Yeah,” replied the gnome, “what could possibly go wrong?”
A Slice of Murrad: Treatise on the Governments of the Grey Elves of Renser
An excerpt from Communities Governments: A Primer on the Many Ways Sentient Races Organize Themselves by famed historian, Arkko Vrunn, High Tomekeeper of Biirocrittis- Orcan God of Ministry and Government
On The Class Structure of Old Erevor
The feudal system of Old Erevor is still practiced in several of the Marches, most prevalently in the northern Marches where the incursion of Neuran technocratic magocracy has had less influence. In several of the southern Marches (especially the heavily Nueran-influenced Inlet-sim-Cthal, Merschelmerre, and Marque-sim-Monte) the barriers between these classes have blurred in various places.
It is interesting to note, however, that all of the Marches have kept some form of Marchion and Viscouncil as their governing bodies- although each body, over the course of time, has been allocated different amounts of power in March society.
Citizen- These are the common folk, they do not own land or a business and hold little political power in most areas. Some of the Marchions have implemented a more democratic system by which to grant political power to all citizens regardless of economic power.
Tradesperson- A Tradesperson owns land or a business, sometimes purchased through savings, other times gifted by a noble. In some parts of Renser there is little distinction between Citizen and Tradesperson, in others the distinction imparts more political power to the elevated Tradesperson, offering them a say in local politics or increased access to government officials and services.
Knight/Baron- The lowest levels of noble Knight and Baron are equivalent classes distinguished by the nature of the noble’s service to the March. A Knight, obviously, is most often a military title while a Baron is a for civilian functionaries. Both titles confer the same level of nobility, although being a Knight is often seen as the more honorable moniker.
Warden- A Knight or Baron who can provide at least 3 Realmsworn [see below] to the defense of Renser gains the title of Warden and is eligible for Viscountcy. This restricts the number of Wardens, and the type of people who can ascend to this level of nobility as it is a person of unique ardor that can convince nobles to forfeit their titles, lands, and inheritances. Again, in the southern marches Wardens often have no additional political power assigned to them and are given the title as a matter of tradition.
Viscount- A Warden can be elected or appointed Viscount, depending on local custom, to obtain a seat in the Viscouncil and the Keep associated with the position. Viscounts, in addition to their seat on the Viscouncil of the March, are responsible for governing a region of their March, though most delegate this responsibility down to the lower noble classes.
Marchion- Once the title for the regional lord in the different Marches of Old Erevor, Marchions are now essentially kings in their own right. Marchions in the Northern Marches hold absolutel power, while the three former Rebel Marches treat their Marchion as more of a figurehead, meant to represent the people of the March in negotiations with other realms.
On The Realmsworn and the Oath of Old Erevor
After the fall of the Nueran Magocracy to the Horror of Simthal as the survivors and refugees poured onto the coast in droves, new coasts created by the sudden water rise- the result of an entire continent being dragged into the Southern Sea. Countless hamlets and fishing villages had been destroyed, two major cities lie in ruins, castles crumbling into memories far off the shoreline.
In the wake of this great tragedy Queen Elviir II called the 8 Marchions together to decide how they were to proceed. It was at this Great March Council that the Order of the Realmsworn was created. Donning the sky-colored tabard, adorned with a black gauntlet, Captain Grenwald Elviir (nephew of the Queen) was the first to take the Oath of Old Erevor:
Captain Elviir gathered the Houses with the largest stores of magical armaments and saw to outfitting the first Realmsworn regiment. It was decided shortly before the First March War, as internecine conflicts began to reach a boiling point, that each House should have their Realmsworn close at hand, a tradition that persists to this day in most places. This tradition, that each Realmsworn be pledged to a local Warden rather than to a centralized structure of officers, is seen by many to have set the conditions for the March Wars and the eventual dissolution of the Kingdom of Erevor and the beginning of individual March governance.
However, it is this author’s contention that (despite leading to a pair of brutal civil wars, irreparable infrastructural damage, and total political upheaval) the tradition of swearing Realmsworn to the Wardens that outfit them is a concept that has led to a net gain for Elvish culture of the last two thousand years. Since the Realmsworn must sacrifice their own inheritances and titles (even taking the last name Realmsworn) a sort of benevolent feudalism has emerged, as those who nakedly seek for their own gain and power seldom inspire loyal followers. In addition, the “buy-in” of magical items, though high when counted in terrium bars, is attainable for even the lowest commoner in any number of ways- from pure luck to arduous adventuring…
[The bottom of the page has begun to smudge slightly as the young bard-in-training begins to drool in his sleep, the light of a rising sun just beginning to catch his golden hair]
Greetings electronic people. My name is Nicholas, and I am The Notebook GM. Some of you might already know me from my work on Nat One Productions (both as a player and GM), as @NatOneNicholas on twitter, or because we’re friends in real life and I’ve hectored you enough that here you are. No matter your provenance, I welcome you.
The Notebook GM title stems from my obsession with notebooks and my complete ineptitude with technology. I’ve always preferred to hand-prep for games, usually even filling out character sheets by hand (except for 4e because… 4e). Much to The Iva’s chagrin I have dozens of notebooks languishing about our apartment filled with crazy ideas, schemes, projects that never happened, podcasts never recorded, theories I never got to test or refine.
I’m going to be honest here, it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to commit to doing this site. Between puppy, Nat One, a girlfriend, a full-time job, and a 5e campaign I wasn’t sure that I wanted to put myself out there in this way. Recent events, however, have convinced me that we all need a little more magic and adventure these days and so I’ve decided to take the plunge and move The Notebook GM from being only a twitter persona and into a full internet presence. Luckily for me, it is relatively easy to run a website from a cell phone once one of your old high school friends swoops in and does all of the hard work.
So here’s the plan:
~I have already begun work on a full fantasy world but I’ve decided it will be more fun if we do it together. So- every week I am going to bring you a little slice of that place, The World of Murrad.
Every Monday I will post A Slice of Murrad; these posts will be vignettes from the world, excepts from in-world texts, descriptions of characters and places, legends, information about monsters, and various other little pieces meant to help the reader get a glimpse into my creative process and hopefully to spark some of your own ideas.
~I’m also working on my own RPG system, an (hopefully) extremely easy d12 system meant to focus on character development and story over raw mechanics (yes, another one); the starter rules to which I will be posting as soon as I write them in terms someone that doesn’t live in the churning cauldron of confusion and inebriants that is my mind might be able to decipher. If anyone cares to playtest it and write me about the experience I’d be happy to post the letters and any response I might have.
~If you’ve been following @TheNotebookGM you may have seen references to Duardh and Xirr. My intention is to have a scene or two of their adventure be released every two weeks, but that may depend entirely on my ability to write interesting prose over a long period of time.
~I will also be contributing my own proverbial two cents to the vast repository of articles floating around about GMing, game prep, worldbuilding, game design, pacing, story structure, and all of the other dead horses prancing around the nerd wide web.
~In keeping with my oeuvre I will be doing a series titled “Notebook Porn” which will feature my incomprehensible handwriting shot provocatively on a cell-phone camera.
~Occasional Periscope broadcasts updating viewers about what I’m working on, how cute my dog is, how maps are coming, and what is going on with my 5e group. Thanks again for stopping by, I’m all out of spaghetti for this post, but I hope you decide to come through again and see what is coming out of the Notebooks.