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.
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.
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.
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, writers, 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.
Starting with Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, the game designers included a list of “core assumptions” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The core assumptions are statements that describe (most) official D&D campaign settings at a high level. (The assumptions differ somewhat between 4th and 5th edition, and it might be interesting to look at those differences one day.)
Most D&D worlds predate formal “core assumptions”. I do like the idea of using Core Assumptions at the outset of building a new world. They are our high level design decisions that inform everything else. The post “My Approach to Building a Better Enderra” outlines “how” I am going to build Enderra, the Core Assumptions outline “what” Enderra is like.
Table of Contents
Humans (and Elves) Dominate The World
Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs are the primary civilized peoples of Enderra. Of these, humans are the most active empire-builders, the ones most likely to explore strange new lands, and the most expansionist. This invariably puts them at odds with the other races, but also with each other.
Elves have lived in organized kingdoms far longer than humans, and the nations of both races compete for much the same lands. Both sides enjoyed their successes and setbacks, but over the centuries, the elves have slowly lost land and power.
Dwarves generally tend to keep to themselves, and isolate in their mountain-homes. And while orcs are aggressive and expansionists, they are far too unorganized to build empires. They can’t even hold on to land they occupy for very long.
Humans, elves, orcs, and dwarves are all related, and they can have children with each other.
There are a few other sentient species, mostly of the monstrous kind. For example, lizardmen are the remnants of a civilization that was destroyed in a great flood a long time ago.
The Gods Are Absent
In ancient times, the gods of Enderra interacted freely with the mortal races. They guided and protected their followers, and cursed those who blasphemed. They ruled from the fabled Golden City, bringing Enderra’s greatest heroes to live with them. Some gods took mortal husbands or wives.
But that was the distant past. The gods have long since fallen silent and departed Enderra. They do not answer prayers, and they do not communicate with their followers. Some divine spells still function, and some don’t. There has been a fierce debate over what this means, but so far, nobody has found a satisfying answer.
Left to their own devices, some people have renounced their gods. Some clerics have become more radicalized, seeing the absence of their gods as a test that must be passed. Many splinter groups rose. Some resorted to violence to fight their rivals.
Commoners generally still attend the temples, and pray to the gods, as if nothing changed.
The World is Full of Conflict
Much like Earth, Enderra has been embroiled in near-constant conflict throughout its history. This does not mean that all regions have experienced open warfare at all times, but long periods of peace have been the exception, rather than the rule.
There are five main sources of conflict:
Humans and Elves have been competing for territory for as long as anybody can remember, and Elves have very long memories.
The largest Human Empire has fallen, destroyed in what is now only known as the “War of the Wizards”. Successor kingdoms of various sizes squabble over the scraps.
Orcs are a constant threat. They indiscriminately raid and kill everybody, and are, in effect, in a low-intensity war with all the civilized peoples.
Without any guidance from their gods, what was once a more or less unified religion has splintered into a myriad of groups, many of which are fighting one-another over both theological grievances, and power and influence.
Wizards and other users of magic are often mistrusted, and in some places persecuted. The Inquisition hunts all unsanctioned practitioners of magic.
The Dwarves stay out of most wars. They are happy to sell their weapons and armor to whoever pays their prices. As a consequence, nobody really likes dwarves, but everybody nods and smiles and is happy to do business with them – when they have to.
The World is Ancient
The Human Empire was not the first to fall, nor will it be the last. Kingdoms, empires, even entire civilizations rise, prosper, and decline. From the age of darkness that follows, new kingdoms arise, repeating the cycle.
When an empire falls, most of its achievements and treasures are lost as well, often surviving only in legends and myths. Adventurers look for tangible remains, from old tomes, gold, to magical artifacts.
Enderra is not in a Medieval Stasis
Science and technology – and magic – do march on. Firearms were invented more than a century ago, to counter wizards. They are mainly used by Dwarves and Humans. Cannons are used as siege weapons, but also in naval warfare.
In general, Enderra is at a stage somewhat comparable to that of the Age of Sail, the colonial era, even the early modern age (roughly equivalent to the 1400s to 1600s). Some areas are more advanced, while some use only copper, or even stone age, technology.
Magic and technology do mix. Improvements in one do not mean the offer declines. Some wizards have created enchanted firearms, for example. There has been no scientific revolution on Enderra yet, but when that happens, Thaumaturgy will become one scientific discipline among many.
In short, the medieval stasis that many other fantasy worlds find themselves locked in, does not exist on Enderra.
Much of the World is Unexplored
While somewhat reliable maps exist for most of the “known world”, they are often inaccurate, outdated, and lacking local detail. Some kingdoms – especially human ones – have sent expeditions to the far reaches of Enderra, usually in search of trade, resources, or new magic, but also – rarely – out of sheer curiosity. But with the fall of the Human Empire, and new wars brewing, most nations have better things to do than explore the world.
The average inhabitant of Enderra knows their own town or village and its immediate surroundings. They may have traveled to nearby villages or the local market town. Few have travelled further afield, unless they fought in one of the many wars, or work as a merchant or similar. They barely know what exists beyond the next village, let alone the hills beyond that, or the interior of the dark, foreboding forest nearby.
The wilderness, even in so-called “civilized kingdoms”, can be extremely unsafe. Dangers include wild animals, monsters, even bandits or Orc raiding parties.
Magic is Uncommon
Magic-users are rare, but common enough that most folks will experience magic at one point or another. Depending on local customs and culture, magic may be seen as something mundane, or it might be revered or feared. In some locations, wizards organize, for example in guilds. Where they are not persecuted, they can wield considerable political power.
There are not “magic shops” where an adventurer can just buy a magical sword, but potions are fairly accessible. As for everything that is incredibly valuable, there is a black market, and finding the right artifact can make an adventurer incredibly rich.
Magic used to be a lot more common, which is why adventurers – who explore ancient ruins – often have more access to magic than other people. It is also more common in some distant lands.
Fantastic locations do exist, but they are likewise rare. There may well be a city inside an active volcano, or an enchanted forest from which there is no escape, a gate between worlds, or a castle in the clouds, but they do not litter the landscape.
There are other worlds – other planes of existence. Many spells interact with extraplanar creatures, or permit travel to – or through – other planes. Some adventurers explore these worlds, but doing so is extremely dangerous.
Last but not least, I’ve always been a fan of Spelljammer – as a serious setting; not the joke into which TSR turned it – so Enderra does exist in a Spelljammer universe. Contact between spelljammer civilizations and Enderran groundlings is essentially nonexistent. That said, at least one nation on Enderra has magical, flying ships. They might be able to reach the stars. We’ll find out.
The Adventurers and their Foes are Exceptional
While there are other powerful people on Enderra, there are few who rise in power as quickly, and as far, as player characters. Powerful people tend to attract other powerful people, either as allies or as opponents.
While many characters may have some levels in a player character class, not every king is a high level fighter, not every guild master is a high level rogue.
Player characters are above-average capable and talented, and they tend to be at the right place at the right time to have a chance to shape the history of Enderra.
Many Shades of Grey
The traditional alignment system of Dungeons & Dragons applies only loosely to Enderra. Even people who adhere to a strict moral code (like some Paladins) have flaws and may act differently according to situation. And nobody thinks of themselves as “evil”. People may act in a way we consider evil, but they usually do so for a reason other than pure spite or sadism.
I think that sums it up. These assumptions may change over time; world design is very iterative, and I may expand the list, or edit it, at a later date.
Before I get started working on a design for Enderra, I want to lay out my thoughts on what I want to achieve, and how I will go about it. I believe this is helpful to stay focused. It also gives you an idea of what to expect.
A Fresh Start
The original two incarnations of Enderra were used for a GURPS Fantasy campaign and two Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition campaigns. (I also used it for some fantasy stories I wrote, and it replaced Aysle in my TORG campaign.) These old versions of Enderra were fun for us to play in, but they were pretty standard fantasy role-playing game settings. Before we started to play the D&D campaigns, I fast-forwarded Enderran history by a thousand years. I updated the setting, retconned a few things, and improved it a lot. But it was still the same world it had been before.
I’m going to take a different approach this time – I’ll start over from scratch. And I will lock away my old material, and ideally not look at it at all. There are no “holy cows”, no sacred elements of the old design that I will carry over.
The only thing I will re-use is the name “Enderra” – because I like it, because it’s difficult to come up with good names, and because I own the .com domain.
Other than that – complete tabula rasa. Reset to zero, and start anew.
Building a world is a complicated, time-intensive hobby, and it’s very easy to get bogged down in detail and never get anywhere. Trust me, I know. And a world is a big place – just open up Wikipedia and read up on Earth. You have to limit your scope, or worldbuilding becomes an endless project. The goal is always to create usable content.
Enderra should be used in actual games. Either as a stand-alone setting, or at least in cannibalized form in someone else’s setting. Maybe I will be the only person on Earth who wants to run a game in Enderra – if I have that urge and set up a campaign, I have reached my goal. Of course it’ll be way cooler if at least one other person finds anything I publish useful.
To keep myself on track, I’ll create a checklist of topics I want or need to cover. The list won’t be cast in stone, and I can always add or remove items. And it’s perfectly okay to add things not covered by the checklist – once I am done with the checklist. I want to make a serious effort to “get it done”, and not I might even go back and add extra stuff – once I have achieved my goal and finished that worldbook PDF.
Everything I post about the setting should be actionable. That is, everything should be usable in another’s campaign.
Top-Down vs Bottom-Up
There are two basic approaches to world-building, “Top Down” and “Bottom Up”. They describe where you start, and in what direction you build from there. “Bottom Up” is the traditional approach, where the Game Master build a small local area for low-level player characters, and then expands the world later. “Top Down” is the opposite; you start building the wider world and then zoom in on the details.
Enderra will be built from the top down. I will decide on the “big picture” and then fill in the details. This principle applies to everything, not just the world, but also its continents, cities, peoples, deities, and so on.
One Fantasy World, Many Fantasy Settings
We often use the terms “setting” and “world” interchangeably. I don’t think this is correct. A “setting” is an environment with a specific genre, a certain look and feel. For example the pseudo-medieval fantasy kingdoms that are so prevalent. And in many fantasy worlds, there is only a singular setting, a singular story if you will. If the authors or game designers want to tell a different story in a different genre, they usually invent a new world, one tailor-made for that specific story.
(More often than not, an author or a company who have a successful product will just focus on that anyway, which probably helps to reinforce this perception.)
One example for multiple settings existing in one world – or franchise – is the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting.
It started out as a set of standard pseudo-medieval kingdoms collectively referred to as the “Forgotten Realms”. When this setting became popular, the company used the “Forgotten Realms” brand to sell different settings. They added a Mongol setting (“The Horde”), an East Asian setting (“Kara-Tur”), an Arabian Nights setting (“Al-Qadim”), and a Mesoamerican setting (“Maztica”).
A character who lives in any of them could, in theory, travel to any or all of the others, experiencing wildly different adventures and cultures as they do so. To the best of my knowledge this rarely happened, and we could have a long discussion about the reasons – and about the handing of the Forgotten Realms by TSR and, later, Wizards of the Coast – but I still think that the basic approach is sound.
Why? In no particular order:
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. World-building takes time and effort. If you can reduce the load, you can spend more time telling your actual story.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By adding new stories, new location, even entirely new settings to an existing world, you do enrich that world. This feels axiomatic. But, say, you have a bustling port city for a guild of thieves campaign. The city is rich with trade, and our protagonists siphon some of that off in daring heists. You never specify who the city trades with, it is of no relevance to your characters’ thieving exploits. Later, you tell a story set in a Thousand and One Nights style environment. Merchants again play a central role. You decide that they trade with the rich port city from your thieves campaign. Suddenly, both settings are part of a bigger world.
Enderra will contain multiple settings. The old versions of Enderra were at an in-between place. Enderra was originally designed from the bottom up, but I still had a vague notion of what the greater world looked like. Most of our campaigns played out in a standard Dungeons & Dragons pseudo-European society, but there was an age of discovery going on, a “East Asian” land, a wilderness exploration forest, and a mage-run empire, to name some examples.
New Enderra will be created from the top down, and it will contain all settings I am interested in – as long as they fit together at all. I’ll leave some room for later expansion. However, to stay focused on creating a “complete” setting, I will choose one and work on that more or less exclusively. Those other places will make great follow-up projects.
Of Genres and Kitchen Sinks
This leads to the question: What sort of setting or settings?
Most – though not all – Dungeons & Dragons settings are epic fantasy “kitchen sinks”, that is, they are derived off of Tolkien DNA and contain everything under the sun and then some, presumably in an attempt to appeal to a broad audience. This does make sense if you are Wizards of the Coast and want to sell as many books to as many people as possible.
And for the same reason, it may feel like it’s a good idea to include everything that’s in the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook – Races, Classes, Spells, etc – in Enderra. Or even everything the official D&D rules books provide. It would allow players to play whatever they want, and build characters without knowing any of the Enderra specifics.
However, this severely limits what I can do with my world. Think A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), or Conan – both are very human-centric and have little to no magic. A fireball-slinging wizard would be very much out of place in either of those settings.
It’s also easy to argue that the world does not need another Middle-Earth or Forgotten Realms clone.
Limitations are usually good. If you are constrained for any reason, it encourages (even forces) you to be creative.
I don’t like my fantasy too epic. I have always leaned towards lower-magic campaigns than Dungeons & Dragons provided. This has changed somewhat with D&D 5th Edition, which has severely dialed-down the power level of the game anyway.
Epic fantasy is fun, too. That said, there is nothing wrong with epic fantasy, and it, too, can be very fun. I really like Dragonlance, for example. Whether something like that is appropriate for Enderra remains to be seen.
I will evaluate everything in the D&D Player’s Handbook – and other books – and decide what is and isn’t available in Enderra. I will err on the side of staying faithful to the Player’s Handbook, but maybe not even that. I could – and maybe will, some day – make a case for sticking with the SRD and building on that.
When In Doubt, Add Conflict
When building a world, I love internal consistency and “plausibility”. A fantasy world has to be believable – that is, players have to be able to suspend their disbelief in something that is clearly not real – to be enjoyable.
But sometimes, the most likely or most “logical” explanation for any given thing is not the most fun. A king could just die, leaving an inexperienced price on the throne. Sure. But we can ramp that up. Maybe the king was poisoned, or the prince favors some other nobles, or he is a thrall of a wizard, or an illegitimate son, or a changeling. You get the idea – there is always another complication that can make a situation more interesting.
Conflict fuels storytelling. If there is no conflict, there is no story. So I have to make sure there is plenty of conflict.
And sometimes, things just exist because they are cool. If I ask myself whether or not to include something in Enderra, I should ask myself “is this fun?” That, then, is the answer. It has to be cool. It has to be fun.
I think this covers the basics. I may come back and edit this post later, if I discover something I missed. Let me know what you think.
And now, let’s get started, and build ourselves a fantasy world.
Hi there! And welcome back to Enderra. It was nice to take a break but what can I say. I missed this – blogging, writing, worldbuilding, and above all, roleplaying.
However, this site won’t continue quite the same from a few years ago. I think I was trying to do too many things all at once. As I get older, I simply do not have the time – or the energy – to do everything. Focus is a Good Thing™.
As I currently envision it, this site will be about the following:
First and foremost, Enderra itself. Enderra is my personal fantasy world, first developed in 1992 (yes, thirty years ago!). It went through two previous versions that saw extensive play. Over the years, I have learned a lot, tastes change, and I think I can do better. Instead of patching Enderra with band-aids, I will tear it down and start from scratch. I will develop a more modern, more interesting Enderra. And while fluff is nice, I will try to make each and every “lore post” actionable, i.e. something another game master can import into their campaign and use. (We’ll see how well that works.)
Worldbuilding. As I develop Enderra, I will discuss what I am doing, and how, and why. If you’re an experienced worldbuilder or game-master, I’d love to hear your perspective on my methods and madness. If you’re new, I hope there is something for you to learn. Either way, please don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: I recently signed up for an online D&D campaign – a West Marches styled one – and it’s fun. While I am an experienced gamer and D&D player (and Dungeon Master), I am new to D&D 5th Edition – so I expect to post about my experiences with that, and thoughts on what I like, what I do not like, what I’d change, and above all, how it all relates to Enderra.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll actually get to run a game set in Enderra at some point.
This is not to say I won’t cover other topics. I can imagine posting about something a little more “meta” now and then, or something that only somewhat relates to building Enderra or playing Dungeons & Dragons in some way. And I used to write stories set in Enderra, maybe I’ll bring that back at some point. But even so, those posts should be the exception rather than the rule. Most notably, other settings, such as my Science Fiction universe, will not be covered here. No matter how much I love that setting (and I have a lot of material for it), mixing Science Fiction and Fantasy like that seems to be a major distraction.
I’m excited to start a new chapter, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Let’s find out where it takes us.