A World of High Adventure

Author: Nils

Weirder Is Better: Revising The Basic Design Of Enderra

You know that feeling you get when you’re looking for a specific word, but can’t think of it? It’s at the tip of your tongue, and you know it’s a very simple word, one you’ve used a million times before. And yet it escapes you. It drives you nuts, but you just can’t remember. You settle for a different word or phrase to move the conversation forward. And then, a minute later, Eureka! The word pops into your mind! Duh, no idea why this was so difficult for you, but there it is, the right word, like a good friend who never left you.

That’s basically the feeling I had about “New Enderra”. I liked some of the basic ideas in my Core Assumptions, but the whole thing was bothering me. I finally realized that I still clung to Enderra as Yet Another Fantasy Kitchen Sink. That’s what it started out as, that’s what it was for the longest time. And that’s why I decided to remake it.

I do not like Fantasy Kitchen Sinks. They are boring. And nobody needs another Middle Earth clone, especially now that Middle Earth is cloning itself.

Game System vs Game World

I think part of the problem is the decision to make it a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition world. I have now played dozens of D&D 5th Edition sessions. Mechanically, it is solid, but other than that it’s uninspired. And it does not give me the tools that I, as a player, need to create cool characters. (That’ll have to be a different post, but try to create a fun Necromancer and you’ll see what I mean.)

I’ll still likely use D&D 5th Edition for any game mechanics, but the game system must conform to the world, not the other way around. What does this mean? It means I’ll heavily house-rule Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and add actual game content as I go along. (Spells are at the top of the list.)

Most importantly, this allows me to change the tone of the game.

Sense of Wonder

Another thing I really miss when it comes to Fantasy Kitchen Sinks is sense of wonder. I still remember my days with the old color-coded BECMI boxes. Everything in those boxes was new and exciting. I need Enderra to be that “new and exciting” for myself. Not for you, or for anybody else – if it is, that’s a nice bonus – but it needs to excite me. Writing about Ye Olde Fantasy Towne isn’t going to cut it.

Looking back, the last time I felt any sense of wonder about a D&D setting was 4th Edition. The Nentir Vale was a great setting, especially since it just… crept in, spread over all the different D&D books, magazine articles, and so on. D&D 4th Edition codified the “Points of Light” campaign setup – not a new invention, but a new term for something that always existed: Civilization is limited to a few, spread-out places, separated by an unknown wilderness full of adventure stuff.

For all its modernistic, simulationist, almost video-game-like approach to game design, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition had returned to the roots of the game in the one way that truly matters to me: An unknown world, full of random, weird, and awesome things to explore. The original Forgotten Realms Graybox felt like that, as did the “Known World” setting in the days of the BECMI-boxes.

Strange Places

I already tore Enderra down to rebuild it, time to finish that job “in universe”. I had the right idea when I decided that the Empire had recently fallen. Instead of a bunch of civilized successor kingdoms, we’re going to keep a few towns and city-states around. Everything else is, once again, wilderness, ready to be rediscovered (and looted) by our heroes.

Enderra is a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting.

The “Fall of Civilization” was caused by the War of the Wizards, and that is why the survivors shun magic-users, sometimes to the point that they hunt them down.

The War of the Wizards – and other supernatural events, further in the past – also changed the landscape, made it weirder, more extreme, twisted. I mentioned this in the Empire section, but the effect is more global.

And the further away from civilization, the weirder the world gets. The enchanted Grimwood Forest isn’t too far from human settlements, as are the twisted forests and corrupted fields of the old empire, while the Desert of Howling Sands (where the storms are said to grind the skin off of unwary travelers) lies far to the south. Further afield yet are the Prismatic Jungle, the Living Lands, and exotic Xilan. Treasure hunters still travel to the utterly alien Black City, but very few dare to traverse the Land of Hellfire.

You get the idea.

Modular Design

One added benefit of turning the world into a, well, post-apocalyptic wilderness, is that the world design is mostly location-based and modular. I don’t need to write a big encyclopedia of the known world. I don’t even need a very detailed map for anything other than the most civilized areas.

After I nail down some basics, I can just add things as I go along. Not only is this easier, it also helps me discover this new world. Remember that sense of wonder I am looking for? Well, if I know everything in advance, that’s never going to happen. I want Enderra to surprise me, and this is the way to do that.

Fantasy Races, Now With Slightly Less Kitchen Sink

When I first started to work on New Enderra, I was very tempted to make it a humans-only setting. After talking to a couple people, I reconsidered and decided to include Orcs, Dwarfs, and Elves. We’ll still have them, but we’re changing them a little bit. The expectation is that all player characters will be human.

I, for one, welcome our new Elven overlords. At home in the wilderness, and better equipped to deal with magical strangeness, the Elves quickly expanded to take over territories once held by man. Few in number, their control of that territory is that of the nomad, but they are determined to hold what was once their ancestral land – before humans built their great cities.

Deep Below the Earth, the Dwarves Hide in their Mountain Homes. Dwarves, once wealthy merchants, live as isolationists, hiding in fortified mountain warrens, doubly besieged by the horrors of the outside world and by terrors that lurk underground.

Orcs be Orcs. Still the murderous bastards they have always been. When the great empires fell, the orcs moved in on now defenseless villages, and killed and ate the inhabitants. Everybody fears orcs, and for good reason.

Vale of Lost Warriors – My First Map Made Using Inkarnate

In order to speed up my map-making process, I decided to start using Inkarnate. I had kept an eye on it for years, before I signed up last week. After some basic practice maps, I decided to turn my old “Vale of Lost Warriors” map into an Inkarnate map. I have to say I am rather pleased with the results.

Comparison: Left – Map from 2012, created in Inkscape. Right: Map from 2022, created in Inkarnate.

I do think there are a few things to improve on the newer version of the map. For example, the “Old Road” is missing. And I am not convinced the use of isometric objects for the towns, camps, and ruins is the best choice. In some cases it works – the “frozen ruins” on the glacier, for example. But in others, it doesn’t.

Still, for my first “real” map created with Inkarnate, I am quite happy.

And it does cut down considerably on the time needed to create maps. That’s really the main attraction of Inkarnate. I do love making my own maps, but I tend to get bogged down and spend weeks, months, or sometimes even years on a map. All time I could work on world-building or writing.

Inkarnate First Impressions

It’s incredibly easy to make decent looking maps in Inkarnate. Of course, it doesn’t replace skill completely – you have to know what you are doing. Not only when it comes to the tool itself, but you also have to have a general understanding of geography et cetera to make naturalistic-looking maps.

The biggest weaknesses of Inkarnate I can see so far is that the icon set is a bit limited, especially when it comes to locations for regional and world maps. I’d like more settlement and fortress types, and “point of interest” markers. But then, there’s really never such a thing as “too many symbols”.

The other one is that line styles are fairly limited. For example, I’d like to make lines with an outline, or which consist of one solid and one dotted line, and so on. I’d also like to continue – append to – a line I drew at a later point. Maybe these things are possible and I haven’t found them, yet.

But frankly, even with the limitations, Inkarnate is great. It really speeds up mapping, especially prototyping, and it’s especially capable to creating battlemaps for virtual tabletop software. I will definitely continue using it, and I’ll absolutely share my creations down the line.

First Glance at the Known World of Enderra

You’ll have to forgive me for not having proper names for any of these locations just yet, but this is the general situation in the “Known World”, as far as any reasonably-well informed citizen understands it. Some of this will sound familiar to you if you read my post about Core Assumptions.

Let’s start with a very basic draft for a map. This is meant to illustrate relative geographic positions and will change. (Probably a lot.)

Draft Map of Enderra.

A Note on Technology…

Technology is roughly at an Early Modern level, about 15th to 16th Century. I specifically have the early to mid colonial era in mind, with a dash of the Salem Witch Trials. Most notably, flintlock weapons and especially cannons are in common use. The printing press has been invented and has helped spread knowledge. More modern technologies – like the steam engine – may crop up over time, but they’ve not been invented yet.

Enderra does not suffer from medieval stasis.

…and on Religion

There was one main organized religion in the Empire and its vassal realms. For now, we’ll call it “The Church”. It was largely monotheistic, but grew out of a polytheistic religion. Beings that were formerly regarded as deities were relegated to the status of powerful angels or saints. When the Empire was destroyed, this religion’s power structure was also shattered. As a result, it has split into many regional branches that often pay only lip service to a common, central, authority. The church runs the powerful inquisition, tasked with hunting down unsanctioned spellcasters in the wake of the War of the Wizards.

There’s a heathen “Old Faith”, which is very druidic and in some ways quite brutal in its customs. It was actively suppressed by the Imperial government, but survived to the present day, mostly in the form of cults, and chiefly in rural areas. It has also become somewhat of a fad among certain wealthy or noble groups.

The Elves venerate an ancient pantheon of nature deities, and the Dwarven pantheon is a sort of divine craftsman’s guild.

The Desert Kingdom worships elemental-based deities that are part spirits, part ancestors, and part gods.

As stated previously, the gods of Enderra are distant, inactive, hard to read. They may not even exist, or be all dead. This does not stop religion from having a huge influence in the world. Indeed, the lack of divine intervention means that anybody, anywhere, can claim to speak for the gods. Some clerics are able to cast magic spells, and the Church is quick to point at these “miracles” to support their claim to power. Heretics scoff at that, after all, magic is hardly exclusive to the church.

The Lands and Nations of Enderra

The Great Empire has fallen. For many centuries, a great empire kept peace and provided stability and wealth for its citizens. However, underneath the gleam of a golden age, Imperial society rotted and eventually cracked. A great conflict known as the War of the Wizards shattered the Empire a few decades ago. The conflict was quick and vicious, and the warring parties used all kinds of new and terrible weapons.

After the war ended, and the stream of refugees ceased, nearby kingdoms tried to investigate, or make a quick grab for Imperial lands. They sent armies in; a trickle of soldiers returned. They told of blighted fields, twisted, dark forests, and cities that were turned to rubble. Rivers had changed their courses, and monsters roamed the lands.

The lands of the Empire are now known as The Badlands, or The Devastation. Some people still enter, seeking knowledge or treasure. Most are never heard from again, but a few have returned with great riches. With all the wealth of the empire left to loot, more treasure hunters will surely risk their lives.

Not the entire Empire is gone, however. The Eastern Empire is the largest remnant and survives in a more or less (many say less) organized state. A former Imperial province, it is mostly concerned with fending off raids from Elves and Orcs. It is the nominal seat of the church, and technically inherits all Imperial lands, titles, and claims, but is in no position to enforce any of them.

The neighboring Lesser Kingdoms have by and large escaped the apocalypse. Once Imperial vassals, they are prevented from taking the former Imperial lands by beasts and magical and natural dangers. Instead, they have resorted to squabbling among themselves, and waging petty wars. None of them is strong enough to best the others, and alliances are constantly shifting. With the destruction of the Empire, and the frequent wars since, the Lesser Kingdoms are mostly impoverished. Their principal cities had to cope with an influx of refugees, who generally live in poverty and desperation. In some places, talk of revolution is brewing.

They are all united by three things: By the centuries-long conflict with the Elven Kingdom, the ever-encroaching Orcs, and by their fear and hatred of magic-users, whom they see as vile and dangerous, mainly due to the recent war. Some spell-casters are sanctioned by church or the state, but most are outlaws who hide their abilities for fear of the Inquisition.

Slightly better off are the Merchant Kingdoms. Mainly city-states, they are focused more outward, and overseas, and do not desire any of the Imperial territory.

One region worth noting, located near or within the Lesser Kingdoms is a temperate Forgotten Forest. This wooded area has a reputation for being cursed, and a hotbed for Druidic activity. It is said that those who enter the Forgotten Forest can never find their way out again. All kinds of magical and cursed creatures inhabit the forest, from talking animals to hags, from goat-men to wild elves and cruel faeries.

Non-Human Realms

The Elven Kingdom (really a loose alliance of many kingdoms that are organized in a very complex political hierarchy that makes most humans’ heads hurt) had, for centuries, slowly but surely lost territory to the humans. Their numbers are far fewer now than many generations ago, because of constant warfare against the Empire. With the Empire gone, the Elves have started to reclaim some of their territory. They suffer from frequent Orc incursions, however.

The Orc Tribes are brutish barbarians, whose culture centers around the survival of the fittest, and a strict hierarchy based on physical violence. The mere rumors of an approaching Orc warband can cause people to panic and flee their homes, so unspeakable are the horrors the orcs inflict on the people they attack.

Orcs do not engage in diplomacy, beyond a strict day-to-day level, do not have large-scale organization, and they do not plan their attacks or conquests at all. This is fortuitous for the Humans, Elves, and Dwarves, all of whom have suffered Orc raids and atrocities.

The Dwarven Clans stay in their mountain-homes. Accomplished crafters and blacksmiths, they happily sell weapons and armor to whoever will pay. Seen as a necessary supplier, no nation has much love for the “opportunistic” Dwarves.

Distant Lands

The Empire had a number of Overseas Colonies, which are now cut off and left to their own devices. They lack in most things – manpower, manufactured goods, and they are but tiny outposts in a vast wilderness. This includes a number of Tropical Islands, where many of the locals have taken on piracy. Others still explore the lost ruins of a once-mighty empire of Lizardmen, remnants from when their home continent sank beneath the waves a thousand years ago. There is also the infamous and utterly alien Black City, which still attracts scores of treasure hunters.

The vast Desert Kingdom has been left unaffected by the war and subsequent strife. It is a highly developed nation where magic is venerated. With the destruction of the Empire, the Desert Kingdom has become Enderra’s most powerful nation, but the current ruling dynasty has no interest in military adventures in far-off lands. Instead they dedicate themselves to magical and scientific research, the arts, and peaceful exploration. Their cities are true melting pots, and, as whispered rumors say, are home to creatures from beyond this world.

Historic Equivalents and Inspirations

  • The Old Empire is essentially a version of the Roman or Frankish Empire. The War of the Wizards is a fantasy equivalent to the World Wars.
  • The Lesser and Merchant Kingdoms are a fragmented Renaissance-ish Europe. Think the Holy Roman Empire, without a central authority. The Merchant Kingdoms will be similar to Genoa or Venice. There is a lot of minor warfare going on, but also a lot of espionage and intrigue.
  • The Church and its mage-hunting Inquisition is rooted in the dark ages Christianity and its relentless pursuit of heretics.
  • The Forgotten Forest is a fairy-tale like enchanted forest. If you read it in the brothers Grimm, this is where it might happen – and you’ll have to remember that many of the tales the Grimms wrote down in their books were tame, “family friendly” version of the actual stories..
  • Elves and Dwarves have no real historic equivalent. I am imagining Elves as being somewhat akin to the more whimsical European kings and queens.
  • It may be interesting to add a French Revolution type of situation in either the “Lesser Kingdoms” or maybe the Elven Kingdoms.
  • The Orcs are Ghengis Khan’s Mongols and every kind of brutal invader the world has ever seen thrown into one pot, melted, mixed, and turned up to 11. Luckily for the rest of Enderra, orcs lack a central authority and are very disorganized. They also fight among themselves almost as much as they fight others. Still, the possible rise of a Great Orc Chieftain is something that keeps many royal advisers awake at night.
  • The Overseas Colonies are 15th to 17th Century Century-ish North and Central America, up to the time of the puritans and the Salem Witch trials. Their expansion has slowed, due to the fall of the Empire, but there is an entire continent to explore and claim.
  • The Island Chain is the Caribbean during the golden age of pirates; the destruction of the Empire has lessened sea travel and trade considerably, however, and many of the colonial towns are now run-down.
  • The Lizard Man Empire is loosely based on Atlantis and other “lost lands” myths (and the real Doggerland) and mixed with Mesoamerican influences.
  • The Desert Kingdom is loosely a “Thousand and One Nights” style pseudo-Middle East with maybe a touch of India.

And what else is there?

There is at least one Arctic (or Antarctic) continent, and there’s one “jungle continent”, which combined qualities of Africa and South America. I may have more than one such tropical region, if I can make them distinct enough. I do definitely like the idea of a very Mesoamerican region. Mesoamerica is really, really cool, and it’s mostly ignored in fantasy fiction.

Everywhere one looks on Enderra there are ruins of earlier human, and non-human, civilizations. Some are so ancient and alien that nobody knows who has erected them. The mysterious Black City is just one such site; many others exist.

There are many tales of heroes venturing into the Underworld, and of a world inhabited by wild elves and fairies. Likewise, some monsters lurk in the shadows, and use shadows to travel between their own gloomy realm and Enderra. Many other worlds exist, from the City of the Gods to the Nine Hells.

There are airships and some say that the most legendary ship captains can sail the space between the stars! Likewise, some adventurers – and sometimes hapless men and women – stumble across doorways that connect Enderra with weird, alien worlds. Such travel to other worlds is most common in the Desert Kingdom. (And “common” here means “it does happen every now and then”.)

The Problem of the Darkvision Inflation

I’ve been playing quite a bit Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition lately, and one of the many things I noticed is that Darkvision has become a standard feature of pretty much every player character.

To be fair, I am not sure just how common Darkvision was in previous editions. I think almost all my players in 3rd Edition were humans, and I never actually played 4th Edition (even though I do love those books).

However, there is no doubt that Darkvision has a firm places in D&D 5th Edition race design. In the Player’s Handbook, there are six races that feature Darkvision: Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Tiefling. Meanwhile, Halfling, Human, and Dragonborn do not have Darkvision.

If we expand this to all sources, there are 101 races and subraces with Darkvision. Only 59 races and subraces do not have Darkvision. I couldn’t be bothered to separate subraces out, but the picture is clear: Two thirds of all player races in Dungeons & Dragons have Darkvision.

This is a problem.

It’s especially a problem when two things happen:

One, the campaign features a menagerie of more or less silly proportions. There are cat people, and turtle people, and rabbit people, and elephant people, and so on. The more races are allowed, the more likely it is that the players will find something that has Darkvision. And since Darkvision is so useful, they’ll opt for a race with Darkvision, everything else being equal.

And two, Darkvision tends to be played – in my limited experience – as “you can see just fine in the dark”. This went so far that my character, a human Warlock without Devil’s Sight, and one other character without Darkvision, could not see anything at night, whereas everybody else had no problems seeing anything and everything, at all distances.

Characters without Darkvision are simply a lot less effective than those with, even when the rules are played straight.

If the DM takes liberties as above, it gets even worse. I am not a min-maxer, but if my character can’t do anything in combat other than fumble around and hope someone brings a light source close to the monsters, then we have a problem. (And why would the Darkvision characters bring light?)

The solution is pretty simple.

Remove Darkvision from all races and all classes. The exception would be campaigns that are set, for example, in the Underdark – and in that case, all players (and their enemies) get Darkvision. For some classes, Darkvision might be a limited use ability.

I do think this is a valuable change, even ignoring any character diparity issues. One of the pillars of Dungeons & Dragons is exploration, and “dungeons” are literally in the game’s title. If you effectively take away gloomy, dark, shadowy environment, you take away one of the cool aspects of the game. You lessen the game’s sense of wonder and mystery. You reduce the game’s fun.

Let the players worry about their last torch sputtering and going out. Let them fear what lurks in the dark. Have them worry about providing enough light to fight in. Or let them use darkness to their advantage.

And if you do want to hand-wave darkness, at least you do it on a level playing field. And no player will sit around on their thumbs while everybody else gets to have fun.

The Problem of Keeping Secrets

I am a story-teller at heart. And part of that means I want to, even need to, keep secrets. This is something that’s true for any type of medium. A movie, a TV series, a book, video game, and a tabletop role-playing game are all way more interesting when the readers, viewers, and players are kept guessing.

And I love unreliable narrators.

This presents me with a little bit of a challenge.

World-Building is inherently an act of an omniscient being for an audience of omniscient beings. The designer of a world knows all secrets of that world by default. And the Game Master of a role-playing game ought to know all the secrets of the world they are using for their campaign, too.

Of course I am aware that this isn’t always exactly true. As designers, writers, and Game Masters, we often throw plot hooks and hints of mysteries in without yet knowing where they may lead. It’s one of the “dirty secrets” of our trade.

But it does mean that I should spill all secrets as I write this blog as I design them.

As I was beginning to actually work on Enderra, I realized that that’s not something I actually want to do. I want to keep my secrets. I want to keep people guessing. I want there to be speculation by my players, I want them to try and figure out what the hell is really going on. And I want them to feel really good about themselves when they eventually figure it out.

So, what’s the solution?

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, I started a little experiment called Gibson City. Gibson City is a human colony in the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, cut off from Earth. Basically, a sort of Cyberpunk-ish setting. For Gibson City, I wrote everything as “in universe” as possible. This was a lot of fun, actually.

I could do the same with Enderra, but then that makes the material less useful for others. It would move Enderra from “this is a D&D fantasy world for others to use” to “this is my fantasy world that I write stories about”. That’s not inherently bad, just not what I set out to do.

The only other idea I have is to simply omit all the actual, big, setting secrets. I am not sure how well that works, though.

Something I shall continue to ponder.

My Thoughts on Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

So, I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition for two months now. Both in an online West Marches style campaign, and the Solasta: Crown of the Magister video game, which is a pretty good implementation of the D&D 5th Edition SRD.

I have some very mixed feelings about D&D 5th Edition. On the one hand it looks like they really simplified it; on the other, they removed a ton of customization options and it’s really tough to build a variety of interesting characters. Feats, for example, are something you only take rarely, because you have to trade Ability Score Increases for them.

Paladin in a Tavern

And a lot of subclasses (the 5th Edition equivalent of 3rd Editions prestige classes) show that they were just thrown together without much care or love. Even classes that should ooze style and coolness are often half-hearted messes. I am playing a Warlock who is in a pact with a Great Old One, for example, and it gets a messy jumble of more or less useless, and very bland, options to play with.

This even extends to some classes. I can’t remember having ever seen a more disgraceful implementation of the Ranger. It’s so bad, Wizards of the Coast patched it up with the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.

When it comes to cool idea, flavor, and awesome themes and style, 4th Edition is probably still the go-to version of Dungeons & Dragons. I have this vision of someone going back, taking 4th Edition, and fixing it up to be more 5th Edition-like. Won’t happen, because it’s a copyright nightmare. But be that as it may, 5th Edition suffers from lazy, or rushed, writing, and a severe lack of editing.

D&D needs a capable line editor or product manager, or a better Q&A team. It’s a really bad sign when I read a rules book and go “oh yeah this needs to be house-ruled” in the first ten minutes.

Fifth Edition has been around for a while, and there are credible rumors that it will get overhauled in 2024, for the 50th Anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons. This seems likely, given that Wizards of the Coast has changed a ton of the game’s subsystems in various splatbooks released since 2014. Races are a prime example. And not all changes are for the better; races seem to become more bland, and lose all disadvantages they may have. The participation award culture has finally come to Epic Fantasy, I guess.

I’ll still use Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Probably with some heavy modifications. At the end, it has managed to do one very good thing, and that is to get new players to the table.

But my excitement about a shiny new toy? Pretty much gone.

© 2024 Enderra

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑