HillTown Studio Longform Content

According to my log of scheduled events, I began running Secret of the Black Crag on 9 September 2023. We had our final session on 15 June 2024, which is about 9 months of play. We played weekly via Foundry and Discord, for 3 hours per session, missing only a handful of sessions. When I set out to run it, I could not have anticipated that it would run this long, but everyone in the TTRPG hobby knows very well how unpredictable players can be, especially in a sandbox.

We started the game with 6 players. As sometimes happens, a player or two ends up feeling overcommitted, so we lost two of those players over time, but picked up another later. By the end, 4 players always showed up, and the fifth usually did, even if they said they might not. The character roster shifted over time as well, not just from the inclusion of new players or the absence of players who could no longer make it, but also because there was character death. I'll go over some of these situations below, but suffice it to say we lost some characters, but mostly NPCs.

Before I delve into spoiler territory, let me just offer my high level review of the module. Overall, the module is well structured, with plenty of clear and concise locations, situations, and people. While I can always wish there had been a little more of this or a little less of that (and I will outline those wants in detail below), these are fairly minor quibbles that should in no way dissuade anyone from running the module. Now, I ran this most weeks with zero preparation. It was just a matter of remembering where the party was and what they were doing. While I probably could have done a little more reading and synthesis to connect situational narratives, the module worked quite well even without that. That meant I could sit down each week, fire up the Foundry server, open the book, grab my timekeeping notes, and go. Minimizing between-session prep is crucial to keeping DM burnout at bay, especially as I also have been running a second campaign that requires more work.

Black Crag is tonally consistent and oozes gameable flavor. It's generally light-hearted, occasionally silly, and suitably weird in places. There's a lot of treasure, and a lot going on, which is how we got 9 months of play out of it. I had a great group of players who leaned into the humorous and absurd and helped shape this into something I doubt anyone would even accidentally replicate in their own playthrough. Additionally, things like weather and the various kinds of encounters felt suitable for the location. Many of the random and placed encounters offered fun surprises and made for good longer term situations for the players to interact with. Interaction overall was good in the dungeons and on some specific islands, and there was a lot to keep the players busy.

Now, on to the spoiler territory. Stop reading here if you don't want spoilers.

The party decided to retire with some 40,000 gold pieces worth of treasure and possession of the Scimitar, Captain Janzoon’s ship, after having freed Gyara and earned the gratitude of Morgawra. Their ultimate retirement plan was to build a settlement on Skeleton Cove, Nereus’s island, since they had won him over through lots of interaction. They did not go back into the Black Crag, so it’s left to future adventurers to see what other secrets lie below. The simmering war between the slageela and the nephroids was left unresolved, though freeing Gyara dealt a mighty blow to the slageela, who were planning to summon their Nameless Avatar to annihilate the nephroids.

I would have loved to see more detail in the situational rivalries between the various factions. There was ultimately enough there for me to work with, but between the merfolk, the slageela, the nephroids, the sea dragon, Nereus, and Red Roger Rathbone, I would have liked details on what these factions wanted with each other, and why they had such enmity. I still don’t quite understand what the neprhoids were up to, which may stand as the ultimate secret!

Some stuff that was unique to our game: One PC, having been possessed by the spirit of Black Tom, ended up in a weird situation. The party had purchased a “poison cure” from Mama Fortuna early on, which I had decided would work as a monkey's paw. A chance encounter with some pit vipers while searching for sheep on Nereus's island (they wanted milk for a dish they wanted to cook for the cyclops) resulted in the “death” of the possessed character. A quick administration of the “cure” then resulted in the transformation of that character into an undead body with the original soul attached (thanks Journey Quest for that idea). He slowly decomposed, losing and reattaching limbs until his charisma fell below 4, at which point he became a mindless zombie and turned on the rest of the party. I also decided that the presence of Janzoon's ship in the Crag was the animating magic for all the coral skeletons, and the waters in that chamber were healing in a way that made dead people into coral skeletons. At some point the party had two undead PCs (the aforementioned fighter, previously possessed, and the cleric, which really impacted the party's healing capacity), one undead NPC, and one undead parrot. Out of these, only the undead cleric and the parrot survived.

More specifically, I have the following quibbles.

What would I have liked to see done better? Or, what might you want to do to supplement this if you plan to run it? This is pretty subjective, but here’s a list:

  1. Some new classes would have been welcome. A pirate, for instance. Or reskins of existing classes. (Or see #2)
  2. Some ways to help DMs and players integrate the tonally different OSE classes into a pirate game would have also been very welcome.
  3. The starting assumption of PCs as outsiders required some choices about how to arrive and what kind of vessel the party might have already had access to. Some priming here would have gone a long way.
  4. The navigation procedures are thin in OSE and could have used a more robust subsystem. I made one that works for me, and will look to refine it.
  5. Additional wilderness procedures would also have been good. I pulled fishing, foraging, and hunting procedures from Dolmenwood, but it clashed in some ways. I'd recommend some system agnostic fishing and foraging and hunting tables.
  6. The seas felt a little empty, and maybe could have used additional chances and types of encounters, though what was there was often quite engaging.
  7. Land navigation on the island relied entirely on the OSE encounter procedures, and were fairly generalized. Most of the islands weren’t very interactive outside the main points of interest.
  8. I would have LOVED a table for “What’s Nereus Doing Now?” The players really liked Nereus and spent a lot of time with him, cooking food for him and otherwise befriending him. Having a range of different habitual activities would have been fun.
  9. Similarly, they spent a lot of time in Tatunca Village. A table to generate random villagers would have been more useful in the long run than the pirate generator table.
  10. Which also is to say that the pirates themselves felt a little sidelined. They just rarely came up as an issue or presence outside of Port Fortune.
  11. The Black Fish / Ancient Vessel doesn’t seem to work well with the sailing mechanics on offer, and while not impervious to weather, far less left to its mercy (especially wind speed, since the vessel has no sails). We had to make some guesses as to how the thing operated and under what conditions.

None of this is insurmountable, but if you're going to run it, perhaps you want to take this list into account.

Anyway: Good adventure, players had a lot of fun with it.

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I was originally going to write about how the existence of gold-hauling, tomb-spelunking, monster clearing adventurers spoke to a world that was fundamentally broken. I think this is mostly true, but it's only part of the story. Worlds that support semi-independent adventurers are usually broken at the interstices, like fault lines building pressure ready to rupture. Mountains are made and destroyed in such places, and likewise many of our most storied mythical heroes are forged in them. What we rarely have in the real world is unoccupied space, a place that is livable now, but where nobody has ever lived, though at times in various places we might have arrived to where nobody currently lived. Such pristine wilderness is the stuff of pure myth. So we're left with the interstices, the places where civilizations meet, amicably and otherwise.

But what are heroes, then? There are always those among us who are, by nature or nurture, ready to walk into dangerous places to do dangerous things. But the point is they are among us, as members of society. Historically, did such people, having survived their earliest adventures, arrive at a place leading some army, prepared to build minarets from the skulls of their enemies? Fine, but in that case are they not the heroes of another social order? Did our ancestors lead such armies? Then are they not our heroes as well? The heroic in such cases has nothing to do with right, good, or just. We assign those terms when they fit our purposes.

The point about this is that under ideal conditions, we often are able to channel our monsters into something that is somewhere between neutral and helpful, to transform those who would do violence from monsters to heroes, or, in other parlance, to beat our swords into plowshares. But the transformation to heroes does not make them not monsters, nor does defanging them render them inert. The moment their adventurous impulse exceeds the opportunity to pursue it, they turn on society. And the moment society provides gaps in its social conditioning, monsters begin to fill the crevices. We possess many archetypal stories of heroes forced into lives of thievery to survive. We are bad at predicting the contours and crevices born of unintended consequences, and therefore all manner of social ill persists within them. These are the internal interstices, the places where a society's internal conflicts meet.

To reinforce this point, let us turn to a useful term which, in its original apparent (cited) uses, probably did not contain the dichotomy articulated here, and in fact is a source of debate among scholars. In Old English, the two possible definitions of aglæca are 1) ferocious fighter or formidable opponent, and 2) a miserable being, wretch, or monster. The seeds of heroism lie in the first, which is a poetic origin of the term, but the true poetry here is that the term can be at all tied to the second, that these might be two sides of the same coin.

Now, hero-building is indistinguishable from other socio-political projects, including myth-building, state-building, and nationalism. If it were, historical leaders would not have spent so much time tying their own sense of heroism to the heroes that came before them. We cannot ignore or dismiss as inconvenient the fact that that leaders throughout history invent entire genealogies to turn their claims to power from mere might to successional legitimacy. They are not, they claim, mere monsters, villains sacking cities for their riches, but instead legitimate successors to the heroes of old, carrying on their legacy. But of course they are both.

And finally, we cannot elevate such heroes without the conditions that produce them in the first place, and that is where our humble adventurers thrive. Most will never bear the title, but their ends and means are all the same. They are the sick souls of a sick world, and if they are tools or weapons to be wielded, we would do well to remember that they cut whichever way they swing.

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Yet another stab at exploration procedures.

The problem with procedures in TTRPGs that are on the lighter side of the rules divide (generally in the OS[R] space) is that they are sparse and leave much to DM ruling. “But,” you say, “isn't one of the core principles of the OSR (if not the old-school games themselves) 'rulings over rules'?” And sure, that's a principle. And what this write-up represents is probably nothing more than some fancy house rules. But the procedures here help me answer some key questions that I'd rather generate than improvise.

The questions:

  1. What does it mean to get lost?
  2. Why did the party get lost?
  3. When in the adventuring day/march does the party veer off course?
  4. Where do they go instead?
  5. What are the consequences?
  6. What do they meet on the way?
  7. If they meet anything or anyone, when does the encounter occur?

What does it mean to get lost?

Under optimal circumstances, the party knows where they are now, where their objective is, and which direction will get them there. Getting lost means losing track of one or more of these aspects, so the procedures here supplement the question of what it means to be lost. For practical purposes, we focus on deviating from an established course, but there are also interesting matters contained in the question of why the party got lost. I feel this requires a more holistic treatment than the chain of simple procedures that are common.

Before I proceed, I should note: getting lost does not automatically denote lack of skill. Rather, the point of these procedures is to help explain why competent characters get turned around and find themselves somewhere they didn't expect.

For reference, the most basic procedure is: conduct a navigation or exploration check of some sort at the beginning of the day; on a failure determine (usually randomly) which direction the party goes instead of the direction they wanted to go. Repeat for each day.

Not contained in this procedure is a sense of why the party got lost, or when the course deviation occurred. So let's add those considerations.

Why did the party get lost?

This is the additional procedure that creates the most potential work for the DM, but that's because it both demands foreknowledge of the terrain and promotes creativity with respect to terrain and weather, among other things. But if you're running a sufficiently detailed point or hex crawl, one where terrain matters, you already have some idea what the terrain constraints are. Let's take a look at a few natural consequences of terrain that could result in getting lost.

Terrain: Mountainous

In the mountains, a party might get lost because there are mountains in the way, and the guide couldn't find a way from point A to point B without deviating. They might also get lost because the mountains or vegetation around them and above them obscure the sun and make it difficult to keep a directional bearing. They might veer off course because they can't cross a river. And finally, they may encounter some kind of hazard, such as a rock slide, a flash flood, an avalanche, or other event that forces them off the path they were on. (Hazards and disasters will be a recurring feature in this discussion, and this is an invitation to consider the effects of such events on both course and progress.)

Terrain: Rolling hills

With gentler terrain, one might veer off course only slightly, rather than getting turned around entirely. Nevertheless, lack of landmarks, presence of uncrossable rivers and streams, marshy lowlands, and the presence of thick vegetation (forests, jungles, etc.) make wayfinding a lot more difficult than it could be. And weather will affect the visibility of landmarks that do exist. Additionally, there are still possible hazards here: flash flooding can wash a party out of a gully, wildfires can force the party in a less optimal direction, and storms can force them to take cover somewhere to wait it out.

Terrain: Flat plain

The biggest impediment to navigation over flat plains will be lack of clear landmarks. A party can presumably navigate by the sun and stars with some degree of competence, so unless thick vegetation (forests or tall grasses) obscures the celestial bodies, keeping a straight course should be feasible. Weather can also affect the visibility of both landmarks and celestial bodies, making navigation more difficult even on flat, open ground. And finally, there are still potential hazards at play, including wildfires and storms.

Terrain: On the water

Generally we mean open sea, but sizable lakes can also qualify. Landmarks at sea may be few and far between, and obscured by weather. Additionally, weather may affect how fast the party can sail or if they should (assuming they can) row. Rough seas and unexpected currents, as well as difficulty catching the wind to propel in the right direction can cause course errors, and of course storms can threaten the boat and move the party off course.

What this section adds up to is the possibility of populating some quick tables to help explain why the PCs got lost in the first place. I find that such randomness helps me to fill in blanks in my own reasoning, or provide natural stepping stones to complete my explanations. But whereas we now have some idea of why a party might get lost, we still need to know when it occurs.

When did the party get lost?

This section and the next require thinking not just about time, but also distance, and are really only separated for practical reasons.

Various systems provide a sense of what an adventuring day looks like. I prefer a day divided into six or eight parts, half of which are part of the movement portion of the day, and the other half of which are spent not moving. In this scheme, movement takes 12 hours of the day. The remaining 12 hours are spent either resting or preparing or breaking camp. I prefer a breakdown like this because a 12 hour stretch of movement, whether you want to further break it down or not, maps to a d12. This allows a quick d12 roll to determine at what hour the course deviation occurs. It also allows you to figure out when an encounter occurs, in case you're checking “day” vs “night” encounters, for instance (see “When did the party encounter something?” below).

Why do you want this information? Well, if you are sizing your hexes in a manner such that the party can travel through one per hour, or you can easily determine how many hexes they've covered in one hour, you can more easily plot any course deviations that result from getting lost. Same for points, distance between, and directions they go to get there, or the time it ultimately takes to get there.

Where did they go instead?

Once a course deviation occurs, and once you know when it started, you can plot out the arc to its conclusion. Again, sizing your hexes or spacing your points in a way that allows for easy single hour travel calculations will make this procedure a lot smoother. Fortunately, hex sizes (I can't speak as easily for point distances) tend to come in some easy to calculate flavors:

  1. The 1 mile hex is amenable to x miles per hour travel speed (usually about 3 walking and 6 sailing).
  2. The 3 mile hex is amenable to x hexes per hour (1 hex walking, 2 hexes sailing).
  3. The 6 mile hex is amenable to x hexes per day (2 hexes walking, 6 hexes sailing).

And so on.

Now, armed with time and some basic distances, it's time to articulate the procedure. If you're using a hex, roll a d6. Compare the result with the intended direction for the day.

  1. Fail forward. The party still goes in the intended direction, but progress forward stops at the appointed hour. This means it could be possible to spend 1 hour marching forward and the remaining 11 hours of the day looking for a viable path forward.
  2. Veer 45 degrees to the right.
  3. Circle back in a direction clockwise from the intended direction. If course error occurs early enough, the party may walk in a clockwise circle.
  4. Fail backward. The party doubles back on its original path.
  5. Circle back in a direction counterclockwise from the intended direction.
  6. Veer 45 degrees to the left.

Start the course error after the party has traveled in the intended direction for the time you rolled on your When? d12, then either continue true or in the clockwise or counterclockwise circling directions until you run out of hours to travel. Make random encounter checks at appropriate intervals (often when entering a new hex, but it depends on terrain and overall encounter density).

In cases where the party circles around or backtracks, you can provide some hints, which could allow them to course correct. Otherwise, only a change in navigational circumstances will help them get back on course.

What are the consequences?

The first and most obvious consequence to this procedure is that a lost party ends its adventuring day in a place other than where it intended to go. The second consequence is that getting where they want to go will take longer than they anticipated. The third consequence is that they will consume more resources than they anticipated, potentially having to delay further by stopping to hunt or forage. And the fourth consequence is that they increase their chance of random encounters, including additional weather hazards, disaster conditions, and wandering monsters, which means more danger overall.

What do they meet along the way?

This is where you develop your random encounter tables. If you've been paying attention, you should now have an idea that the random encounter tables a) should be tailored to the locale, and b) should not be limited to wandering monsters. If you like, divide up a set of encounters into two categories: monsters and hazards. Monsters, of course, are probably already on your tables. You can find plenty of resources to populate wandering monster tables. Additionally, you might want encounters that aren't intended to be dangerous or provide avenues for combat (though never rule those out completely), but instead just serve to reinforce the flavor of the world by offering tailored points of interaction. Hazards, on the other hand, may not yet be on your tables, so let's talk about hazards.

Generally, hazards should be one of a few types: sudden disasters; significant and especially dangerous obstacles; or mishaps. In all cases, hazards should threaten some aspect of continued travel (even to retreat). The main threats are to mission, course, speed, provisions (both consumable items and gear), and the life/health of the party members (including retainers). Some will vary by locale, and others are generalized across many terrain types, though terrain will play a part in how easy such hazards are to survive.

[Side thought: It occurs to me that the threat hierarchy looks somewhat like the old saving throw setup, where you go down the list and choose which saving throw applies by ruling out the previous ones. In that case, the order should be life/health, provisions, speed, course, and mission.]

Sudden disasters include earthquakes, (flash) floods, avalanches, rock slides, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc.; basically anything that can have a quick enough onset that the party can only react by taking shelter (stalling progress) or taking another route (losing course). In some cases, the party may be in the path of these disasters, in which case you can determine what threats they pose. For instance, getting caught in a flash flood while walking through a canyon is an obvious threat to life, but also to provisions, which can be swept away. Riding those sudden rapids represents a course change as well, so is a threat to course, assuming survival.

Dangerous obstacles are things that are risky or impossible to overcome without threatening the lives of the party members. Deep, swift rivers are a usual example, and historically the only way across one without a boat or bridge was to either find a ford or tie ropes and try to swim across (though this doesn't eliminate the threat to provisions).

Mishaps are any minor obstacles, missteps, or events that pose a threat, usually to speed, course, or provisions. Thick undergrowth, for instance may serve to slow the party or turn them off course, while insects or animals may rummage through the party's food supplies.

I'm not going to detail a host of hazards here, but this is a topic I've been thinking about for years, and this post has reignited my interest in developing more hazard procedures for my games.

When did the party encounter something?

If you've rolled up a monster or hazard (or any other kind of encounter you've primed for your location), and your encounter tables aren't on a per-hex basis (i.e., rolling an encounter check when entering a new hex), you will want to know when the encounter occurs. Again, use a d12 to determine the hour of the adventuring day. Similarly, you can figure the same thing out for resting encounters. But this part of the procedure isn't strictly necessary, especially if you have a different encounter pace in mind.

Putting it all together

Have your populated tables at hand: 1. A weather table, with some idea of how the weather affects the terrain the party is crossing. 2. Random encounter tables, some regional, some hex-based, tailored as much as you need. 3. Hazard tables that provide interesting and meaningful threats to life, provisions, speed, course, and/or mission.

An entire procedure for a day of traveling looks like this:

  1. Determine weather and its effects in the terrain the party intends to cross.
  2. Have the navigator or guide make a relevant check (x-in-6, skill vs DC, whatever your system has).
  3. If the roll is a course error of some sort, determine when it happened (1d12 hours after starting out)
  4. Then determine what direction the party went instead (1d6).
  5. And then attempt to explain the course error based on the weather, terrain, and directions. Consider when it might be appropriate to let the party know of the course error and correct it.
  6. [Throughout] Whether a course error occurred or not, make appropriate random encounter checks at established intervals (time or distance), including for hazards to help explain course errors.

And that's it!

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Like most esoteric pursuits, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) attract weird terms that serve as shorthand for bigger concepts. In the TTRPG space we have our Quantum Ogres and False Hydras, among many others. Permit me, perhaps, to add one more.

Sauron's Dog is what I am terming the illusion of planning. Whereas the Quantum Ogre is an evocative shorthand for illusion of (player) choice, I haven't yet come across a similar term for when the roiling chaos at a dungeon master's (DM's) fingertips begins to look like a real plan. There is long held recognition in DMing circles that amounts to “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, where “the enemy” is another way of referring to the player character party. The reality at the table is that players throw curve balls more or less continuously, and the resulting emergent narrative is one of the several wonders of this hobby.

More specifically, I am thinking of several scenarios. 1. Those times when the players' ideas are better than the DM's ideas for something. More minds are better than fewer minds, etc. 2. Those times when what emerges from incoherent and random events becomes a coherent narrative (sometimes with work). 3. Those times when something inconsequential thrown in via improvisation becomes integral to the emergent narrative.

#3 is the dog, but the concept covers the other two as well. It's the dog the player characters (PCs) encounter on the road between adventure sites, the one that ends up captivating them for no reason than that it's a dog. And because it captivates them, it achieves narrative heft that was completely unintended. It is therefore not just any dog, but Sauron's dog, because by being consequential, it must in some way connect to the larger narrative. The end of that road is the big bad evil guy (BBEG), who in classic fantasy literature is Sauron.

The illusion is preserved as long as the players are willing to believe it, and as long as the DM can sustain it. “Of course this is all planned this way,” the players might say, and who is the DM to disabuse them of the notion? Paradoxically, DMs have less chance of creating and sustaining this if they plan for it from the beginning. Or maybe that's a whole other debate.

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In conversation with someone in DMAcademy, I was spitballing a monster concept that was the personification of paranoia, and then it occurred to me: the best monster for instilling paranoia is no monster at all.

That's not to say there was no monster to begin with, only that there is no monster now. What happened to it? It was probably defeated. Or it fled. But what it left behind was doubt. As long as that doubt persists, the monster still lives, in a way. It can generate sightings, clues, rumors, etc., indicating its continued presence. Those indicators all have non-monster explanations, but a monster remains a plausible explanation as well, so the doubt and paranoia linger.

Now, if you were to introduce this monster into a TTRPG, you might wonder how to run such a thing, as well as whether it can be done again. As for the second question, the fun thing about doubt is that you can instill this over and over again in your players. Think, for instance, about how many players instinctively have their characters reach for 10' poles.

But running the absence of a monster will take some work. It's not enough to come up with a monster stat block and run it according to the monster's tactics. There is no monster, remember, though because there WAS one, you can use its modus operandi as an inspiration for the various acts of malfeasance that will be attributed to it in absentia. These acts of malfeasance do not need to perfectly correlate with whatever the original monster did, would have done, or is even capable of doing, since the monster itself is not the point. That said, there are still some concrete things to consider:

  1. The original monster should be something that is strong or vile enough to instill fear, especially in the public mind, if not the PCs' minds. Things that are known to hide well and wreak malicious mischief are good candidates. Think along the lines of gremlins, grindylows, etc., but less joyous in their mischief, perhaps. Vampires and werewolves make sense for this as well.
  2. You'll need a table of acts of malfeasance that can be attributed ambiguously, but with a monster always a plausible explanation. Mysteriously dead animals? Monster. Missing person(s)? Monster. Something prowling the woods at night? Monster. Food, tools, or something else goes missing? Monster.
  3. But it's not enough to have the acts themselves. They all have to be interpreted and reported with the idea of the monster already in mind. So for each act of malfeasance, you will need not only the true cause, but also the monster-based interpretation, what gets reported to PCs who go looking around for clues.
  4. Which also means that the clues themselves should be reported to PCs rather than directly observed by them whenever possible. This limits the tools PCs can bring to bear on the clues, tools which, depending on the TTRPG system in question, may unmask those clues quite easily. You can do this by making sure the evidence itself is always contaminated in some way, reported through hearsay, or in other ways passed through unreliable (and biased) people.

So with all this in mind, let's create a scenario in which the absence of a creature is the animating force.

The monster archetype: A werewolf. Werewolves are good for this exercise because the lore surrounding them is often contradictory, they may or may not be aware of their nature, and while they're not in their animal form, they live among regular people. Additionally, according to many traditions, lycanthropy is a transmissible curse, so you can rely on this to infuse the community with a fertile doubt.

The acts of malfeasance/clues, and the truth in parentheses:

  1. Local livestock has been found mauled and partially eaten. Farmers have dispensed with the carcasses already by the time the PCs arrive. (Truth: there are wild animals who sometimes raid farms).
  2. Villagers report having heard sniffing and growling, or having smelled the musky scent of some predator, then seeing tracks the next morning “too big to be a wolf”. The PCs may catch hints of the remaining tracks, but should not have any conclusive proof that the tracks are too big/small or even wolf-like. (Truth: more wild animals, and/or a prankster or two.)
  3. Local children have reported seeing a furry creature walking upright in the woods on their way home in the evening. They ran away before they could get a closer look ... or be eaten. The creature left prints, but they're a confusing mishmash of shod feet and paws, and it's difficult to know when each was made. The tracks lead off toward the village but disappear on the cobbled roadway. (Truth: A villager was out hunting and ran down a bear or dire wolf; the children saw that and conflated the two, which also explains the tracks.)
  4. Several village teenagers have been reported as “missing for a good part of the night” for some nights, and are either cagey about their whereabouts or convincing in their assertion that they don't remember. When they return, they are dirty, scuffed up, and reek of animal. (Truth: the teenagers have found the cub of a predator and are taking turns caring for it in secret. It's caged up in a nearby cave, but getting to and from the cave in the dark is difficult.)
  5. The family who recently moved to town? At least one of them appears to be quite hairy, causing people to gossip, especially since in the villagers' minds their coming is correlated with the rise in “werewolf” activities. The family is standoffish and a bit dour. (Truth: they're regular people who are being unfairly maligned, and their standoffishness is a result of the whispers that started the moment they set foot in town.)
  6. Villagers are reporting that some animal appears to have dug up a grave or two in the cemetery. The digging was not done with shovels, that much is apparent, though there aren't any identifiable tracks around. (Truth: there's a grave robber in the area, and they dig with a pickaxe. By the time the PCs get involved the grave robber is probably moving on.)

Feel free to repeat these in variations, especially while the players have yet to uncover the truth behind the clues. Add some atmospheric details like howling at the moon, dogs and horses acting skittish, odd musky smells, etc., and let the players run with them. You'll be able to maintain doubt for a while, but players may eventually give up and just accept the hauntedness of the situation rather than trying to resolve it. That's okay too.

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One of the chief concerns of a fantasy-adjacent TTRPG is magic. In Weardcynn, I am aiming for a magic that is grounded in several senses. One is the pagan/animist sense, in which the magic user (generally termed in my game as Wyrdwyrhtas, or literally Fate Workers) persuades and manipulates the spirits that inhabit all things into performing tasks. They do this by using Wyrdwegas (literally Fate Ways). There are limits to what can be achieved, and all magic costs, but the ultimate source of it is the vast well of animating spirits that comprise the world. These spirits are often mercurial and uncooperative, so must be tricked or captured in various ways, but they are ubiquitous, representing the divisions within divisions that reflect and refract through all creation.


The setting for Weardcynn is implied within the main rules text. That doesn't mean there isn't a more coherent setting present. I am building this new earth in the image of William Blake's already fallen/always falling Albion with his Zoas and Emanations. In this telling, the fourfold giant that comes to know itself as Albion stirs from within a great deep, void, or unknowing. This is perhaps akin to a Big Bang moment, from which all things proceed, representing the division of all things from the singularity that birthed them.

Physics likewise infuses other aspects of this process. For each action, as we know, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and this remains so even in the stirring of Albion from the deep. Albion is the action that spawns the immediate reaction, and his equal and opposite, or his reflection or emanation, is known as Jerusalem. Here Blake is appropriating and reshaping Biblical concepts into something else, and I am preserving as much as makes sense for what I'm doing.

Now, the awakening of Albion and the casting of his reflection as Jerusalem represents the first Fall, because it results in immediate division of what was previously a unity. But Albion is not finished falling. In fact, he will continue to fragment into countless pieces, and some of those pieces claim dominion over the others or, in some cases, claim to have created them. The eight chief fragments of Albion are the four Zoas and their respective Emanations.

This continual falling or fragmentation is the ongoing Fall that is at the heart of what I call the Schismata (which is also the name for the set of mechanics that underlie this system). This is my own embellishment and has nothing directly to do with Blake. It represents the idea that everything is already fallen and always falling further from unity, and will continue to do so until the harvest after the Final Judgment reunites all of the fallen.

If this feels like a heady and abstract mythology (godlar), I agree. It is, however, the basis for what the Weardcynn believe about their own origins. In their godlar, the primary of which they call the Albiones Hweol (Albion Cycle), the Weardcynn believe that mankind (Manncynn) were the creation of the Zoa named Tharmas, and that they had been seduced away from (disunited) by the Zoa named Urizen. This culminated in the spoliation of the natural world, that aspect of Creation they inhabited, primarily through overuse and exploitation. In response, the Emanation named Vala beseeched her Zoa brethren to entrap Urizen and destroy his hold on the Manncynn. It was Luvah's fire and Urthona's hand that created the trap. Vala caused the earth to birth its own new champions, the Weardcynn, to hem in the Manncynn and watch over them until they could learn to aspire toward unity once more.

There is of course more than this, and I will work through how this looks in a concrete sense as I continue development and lay out the mechanical implications. For these, I will make use of Ed Buryn's William Blake Tarot of the Creative Imagination. In the same vein as Invisible Sun (which has had a profound influence on the mechanics of this game), player characters will be able to use aspects of these tarot cards as mechanical touchpoints, not always to their benefit. The precise nature of these effects, however, are still percolating in my head. At the very least, I will have a spread of cards that makes sense for this game and use the positions of the cards to interpret how they influence the world at the moment they are laid out. Whether this can be done without vastly overcomplicating the system is still unclear.

I will undoubtedly return to this topic from time to time as I think about new lore and mythology pieces to slot in, but in no sense do I expect that players and GMs use the result of this work if they aren't interested. It is and will be a supplement to enrich their understanding of the implied setting.

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I recognize that most readers won't be able to decipher the title. It uses the futhorc, Anglo-Saxon runes, and reads, roughly Weardcynn, or wuh-ARD-kin. It is the current culmination of my system and setting development efforts over the last several years.


Recently I purchased the flash cards from Exalted Funeral's Herbalist's Primer set. I did so in the wake of attempting (and not yet succeeding) to create my own set of cards for use in my games, but my perspective was for oracle use. The Herbalist's Primer flash cards are very useful, densely packed sources of information and inspiration that, among other things, can help flesh out the foraging options available in a campaign world. I intend to use them to offer real-world plants for my players to find while on my West Marches style islands. I believe this will add some appreciated realism to the islands without giving away overpowered treasure, etc.


In mid-2016, I and one other D&D player formed a group whose membership fluctuated in the intervening years, though I'm happy to say that at least the two of us have remained constant fixtures and maintain our group even today. We started with a campaign of indeterminate length, with the promise that I would take up the second campaign at some future date. That date turned out to be much closer than I anticipated, and from November 2016 to January 2017, I furiously scribbled out a 47 page campaign setting for a world based on a handful of ideas and expanded on with a handful more. That world became Yer Shar, and it served as the setting for an epic campaign lasting nearly 3 years.