Category Archives: Roleplaying Games

Superheroes are a cop

Revolutionary Heroes: Superheroes are a cop

Superheroes are reactionary. Not all of them, of course, there are no absolutes, but by and large mainstream “classic” comic book superheroes are reactionary and they serve a reactionary purpose. I’m not talking “modern politics pejorative reactionary,” but reactionary in the sense that they seek a return to the status quo.

Broken down to its basics, the prototypical superhero plotline is “right the wrongs.” Something has happened, something has changed, and we need to fix it. The costumed vigilante swings out, punches a few bad guys, undoes what they’ve done, and we’re back at square one.

Part of this is because of the narrative format Superheroes exist in; serial fiction intended to stretch out into the foreseable future, comic books or cartoons or movie series in which a succession of writers can come in and write the same character in the same setting where nothing ever changes. Hundreds of issues later, the Batman is still the Batman, and Gotham is still Gotham. Occasionally a big shake up happens that promises to Change Everything Forever, but by and large this happens because our heroes fail in their efforts to prevent the big cosmological crisis.

Step away from the narrative, and examine the fictive dream of the superhero. What they do within the context of the imaginary worlds in which they inhabit.

Our friendly neighborhood superhero is out patrolling or investigating a mystery or hanging out in their civilian guise – dwelling in the context of their personal status quo, Campell’s “ordinary world” for people who can throw cars or shoot energy blasts out of their eyes – when a thing occurs. An incident incites. Somebody does a crime, or they get attacked by an old foe, or literally anything.

Our superhero reacts. Even if they were showing some initiative to Do a Thing, this interruption or unexpected development has disrupted the status quo and forced them to react.

Again, part of this is just narrative structure, the first act turning into the second, but outside of the vantage we Dear Readers are looking through, this is the superhero life. They go looking for disruptions of the social contract, the status quo, crimes, and they react to stop them, to return us to our neutral setting. Often with raw physical violence.

Now, don’t get me wrong – much of the time they’re doing a good thing, they’re addressing an intolerable situation, but that doesn’t make it any less of a reaction. Superheroes, by and large, aren’t seeking change. They’re not trying to make something happen, though they’ll often phrase it as something like making the world a safer place, or Making Gotham Great Again, but it comes down to a maintenance of the status quo.

Even when they sympathize with their opponents, or understand the nature of change their villains are trying to bring about. The better written episodes will at least touch upon these moral quandaries and tempt their protagonists with the choice of accepting and embracing this change, or reluctantly opposing it. And in almost all cases, they’ll eventually come through their dark night of the soul on the side of maintaining order.

So. The position that Superheroes occupy within the context of their fictive environment is that of the champion of the status quo. In the rare case that some form of capital ‘E’ Establishment is the villain, it’s because the police or government or whatever have become compromised by some outside force that must be defeated, but we must always strive to keep ICE or the FBI or the Drug War intact.

If a superhero did take that devil’s bargain, if they did seek to redress the flaws in the system to the point of abolishing the system or causing major social changes, we’d call them a supervillain.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.

Heroic Explorations: Organization of the Etatian Empire

Etatia is an elective empire in the west of the Old World, north of the kingdom of Vaquero and south of the Staten.  It is a vast feudal nation that imagines itself the heir to a much older empire of the same name.

Imperial Provinces

The Empire is made up of over a hundred Imperial Provinces ranging in size from independent cities to counties, duchies, and minor kingdoms. The chief requirement is that the territory answer to no feudal lord other than the Emperor.

Imperial Circles

The Imperial Provinces are organized into half a dozen administrative Imperial Circles for the purposes of defense, gathering taxes, and organization within the Assembly. There is no internal Circle organization or hierarchy. These are, incidentally, the basis for our campaign map development.

The Assembly

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms by Hermann Wislicenus

The head of each principality is entitled to vote in the Assembly, the chief legislative body in the Empire. Each Imperial Circle’s provinces vote and act as a block within the Assembly. Other Assembly members include the Pontifex of each god’s priesthood and the Grand Master of the different knightly orders. These members do not belong to specific Circles; their votes are “loose” and they are highly courted to vote alongside a given Circle.

The primary duty of the Assembly is electing a new Emperor from among their number when one is required. They also pass the various laws of the Empire, and rule on matters that concern all of them.

Each Circle meets in an great hall in their own territory, each of which is in magical contact with each of the other circles. In most cases the actual members themselves do not travel to these meetings, but send a representative.

The Emperor

Election to the the position of Emperor is for life. In the past, when the position held more power, that might not be terribly long – competition could be fierce. However, over time, the Assembly has gained more and more authority, and at this point the Emperor is mostly a figurehead. The appointment still carries a great deal of prestige, and elections themselves can be fiercely competitive.

A meeting of the Aulic Council c.1700The Imperial Concilium

The supreme court in the Empire, the Concilium hears cases between provinces, and any case that it otherwise chooses to weigh in on. It is perhaps well known for the length of time it takes to reach a verdict. The 18 members of the Concilium are advisors appointed by the Emperor, and when an Emperor dies, his Concilium is in turn dissolved. It does not generally hear criminal cases, unless a procedural matter is involved, or a crime has been committed against the Empire itself.

The Imperial Army

The Empire itself has no standing army. When defense against a foe or a military campaign is called for, each principality has a certain military obligation to meet, providing a fighting force to act under Imperial command. These units typically have greater loyalty to their homeland than the Empire as a whole.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.

Heroic Explorations: Implementing the Sandbox

We have our broad-strokes campaign setting, some history, fuzzy notions about incorporating the quirks of FRPG systems as setting conceits, but nothing we can actually use to play with. It’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of implementation. How exactly we do this has a lot to do with the kind of game we’re planning to run, so at this point we need to step away from the theoretical and make some solid choices about the game we’re going to be playing.

Welcome to the Sandbox

This Heroic Expeditions campaign is going to be a hex-based sandbox played in 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, using the Hexbox supplement freely available from Taoscordian Games through DriveThruRPG. Go ahead, download it if you want, give it a quick read-through. The basic idea is that the game is structured by the players’ choices, without a heavy metaplot, and the story arises from the stories they create as they explore.

If you’re not interested in sandbox games don’t worry; most of what follows will still apply to you. The first big difference is that rather than starting with a “bottom up” or “top down” approach, we’re going to start by defining a large campaign area in playable detail, and move on to another when our players express an interest in exploring it. We’ll start on the nation-state level, giving us Avalon, Vaquero, Alem, the Staten, and Etatia to choose from.

I haven’t drawn a full map of these areas, but I picture the Staten in the north, Vaquero to the south, Etatia in the middle, Avalon as an island to the west, and Alem somewhere East. Etatia seems the most centrally located, giving us plenty of room to expand, so we can start there.

A Matter of Scale

Of course, the way a Hexbox map works is that every hex includes something interesting for the players to interact with, so the more hexes we have, the more work we have to do. We could use bigger hexes too, but that means that our map becomes more sparse, with a lower density of “interesting things” overall. In our case, though, Etatia is, for our setting, fairly well settled… there’s still a monster-haunted wilderness and dungeons a-plenty, but maybe here, in the heart of civilization, they’re not so tightly packed. We can definitely get away with a larger scale map.

If Etatia is a Holy Roman Empire analog, we can use the size of the historic HRE as a basis for deciding what we’re dealing with. At its height in 1050, the Empire covered almost 400,000 square miles. The standard Hexbox hex covers 70 square miles, so a standard map of Etatia might require 5700 hexes… or a hex map 75 hexes by 75 hexes.

Yeah. I’m not going to come up with 5700 interesting locations. For Ibu: The Emerald Canopy, we ended up with 60-70 hexes, owing to the irregular coastline and plentiful water, and we can consider starting with a project of similar scope using a 10×10 hex grid. 100 hexes.

A partial map of Ibu

Ibu’s midsection. Each of these hexes had to have some interesting encounter or location written up.

The question is, how sparse are we talking here? If we wanted to cover the entire Empire, we’re talking hexes of 4,000 square miles each. That gives us hexes that are 68 miles across, taking days for a party to walk through. Yeah, that’s possible, but each hex’s interesting encounter is a needle in a hay stack. We could subdivide each hex into a hundred 40 square mile hexes, but that gives us hexes that are only 6 miles across. A party will zip through a handful each day, making it even less likely that the prep work we do will be used. And besides, it feels sort of arbitrary.

Instead, we should consider starting with a hex map of some political or geographical division within Etatia. A given province, perhaps, or some other Feudal grouping. Duchies. If we go with a 24-mile across hex – the distance a party can move in a day under normal conditions – that gives us 498 square mile hexes, and 10×10 grids of 50,000 square mile coverage. Eight such regions makes up our 400,000 square mile empire, and that feels a lot more manageable.

And that is how we’ve come to the design decision that Etatia will be made up of 8 roughly equivalent regions, either geographically or politically.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.

Heroic Explorations: World War Wizard

Two-thousand years ago, our Heroic Explorations setting wasn’t too different from Earth’s own Iron Age, with the addition of nonhuman races, powerful magic, and active gods. There are a number of powerful empires, but nothing on the scale of the earlier Atlantean or Elven civilizations. There are powerful Dwarven kingdoms as well, but the Elves are still sequestered away, and the other races don’t organize above the community level.

Atlantis Rises

The ancient Atlantean wizard-kings had been sealed away by the Elves twenty-thousand years ago, but no spell lasts forever. Each had grown in almost unimaginable power during their exile, even compared to their earlier might. Their return to the world was heralded by death and destruction across the globe as each ancient established a domain, dominating the locals with pathetic ease. The only thing that could stand against the wizard kings were the other wizard kings.

Once again their battles rocked the world, and this time there were no immortal spirits to oppose them. In the end, it fell to Adventurers, who traveled to the realm of the gods and secured a great pact; the gods would seal away the wizard-kings, but in doing so they would have to leave with them. Mortals would be alone in their world, with only very rare connections to divinity.

The bargain was struck. The gods left, bringing the wizard-kings with them.

Life Goes On

Empires continued to rise and fall in the absence of the gods over the next thousand years. While the gods had gone, the religions left behind to venerate them remained potent political forces, providing spiritual guidance to their communities and shaping the course of geopolitics.

Many fell beasts were left behind by the wizard-kings, propagating and growing in power over the centuries that followed, unchecked by divine might, until the wilderness between cities became the monster-haunted nightmare we all know and love. Left behind, too, are the numerous Dungeons of ages gone by, scars on the face of the world, resources to be exploited by those with the guile and willpower to wager their life against the unknown.


  • 400,00 BCE: Atlantis founded, beginning the era of human domination.
  • 20,000 BCE: Atlantean civil war. Island sinks. Elves begin clean up efforts
  • 18,000 BCE: Era of elven dominance begins. Those elves that reject the plan become the first Ranger order.
  • 15,000 BCE: Human slaves throw off yoke of elven oppression; Avalon removed from time and space
  • 13,000 BCE: First human civilizations arise. Indus Valley/Catal Hyuk equivalents.
  • 9,000 BCE: Humans in late neolithic
  • 4,000 BCE: City state unions. Like Mesopotamia, Minoan on Earth.
  • 3,000 BCE: Writing rediscovered. Arcane magic isn’t far behind. The first small kingdoms.
  • 2,000 BCE: First empires. Call it the Bronze Age.
  • 800 BCE: The Etatian Empire is founded.
  • 0 CE: World War Wizard. Ancient Atlantean Wizard Kings return. The Gods seal them away, but are themselves removed. Dawn of the Common Era.
  • 200 CE: The Empire of Etat falls due to internal conflict and pressure from barbarian tribes.
  • 1000 CE: A conquering adventurer unites many of Etat’s former provinces and declares it a new Etatian Empire.
  • 1200 CE: The provinces of Vaquero are conquered by the Alem Caliphate
  • 1300 CE: The Last Wizard-King returns, and in thwarting him Avalon is returned to the world. The Elves decide to remain aloof.
  • 1325 CE: Vaquero expels the Alem invaders, and opts to remain a separate nation rather than rejoin Etatia.
  • 1480 CE:  The Norse kingdoms form the Staten, in order to compete with modern nation-states.
  • 1490 CE: The Vaqueran army fails to invade Avalon. The Elves decide they cannot simply sit out eternity, and begin establishing colonies with surprising efficiency.

So, there we go. Call the current year 1500, reckoning from the defeat of the Wizard Kings. We have given ourselves a rich history to dig through when designing our world of magic, mystery, danger, and excitement.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.

Second City Survival part 6: Post-Apocalyptic Gangs

The gangs of Chicago were uniquely situated to survive after the collapse of mainstream authority in the city. While their populations were no more spared the initial die-off than anyone else, they were more accustomed to the violence that followed, had organizational hierarchies to follow, had caches of weapon, and were psychologically prepared to take harsh steps when required. They acted swiftly to appropriate foodstuffs and supplies, which they used themselves and sold to what civilians could afford their prices.

Over the next decade the gangs largely let old conflicts rest as survival took priority, and the die-offs brought plenty of elbow room. Survivors flocked to the gangs to protection, either joining them outright, or providing labor in exchange for food, shelter, and safety.

Of course, the gangs were themselves no less susceptible to the technological and communication breakdowns than anyone else. Cut off from leadership at any level above the local, individual sets within a gang drifted apart until they owed one-another no more loyalty than they did their formal rivals.

In 2050

In 2050 Chicago is ruled by gangs, each claiming their own territory and the resources within, which more often than not includes salvage rights and the civilian population. In some cases these civilians are little more than slaves. In others they are valued members of the community.

Most of them are isolationist, focused on their survival and the survival of those under their protection, but they will cooperate in defense of the city against both suburban mutants and any of their number who threaten to destabilize the rest. Any inter-gang warfare is limited to the occasional raid for resources or to count coup, or retaliatory actions for these raids. Nobody can afford to fight a protracted war, at least not yet.

Gang Structure

While the gangs have developed in relative isolation for the last decade and a half, they did grow from the common Chicago street culture as of 2036. As such, there are a few generalities we can make.

  • Leader: Each gang has a strong leadership, either a single individual or multiple individuals who each control a different aspect of the gang’s activities. The nature of the leader (or leaders) bleeds into every other aspect of the gang.
  • Committee: Those members most trusted by the leader. They see to it that his orders are passed along and fulfilled. In some gangs they may have specific duties, like Warlord or Bookkeeper.
  • Foot Soldiers: Most gang members are rank and file. They do everything from tag territory to scavenge for goods and clash with rivals.
  • Associates: Non-gang members who live in a gang’s territory under their permission. Some of them may provide services for the gang with the hopes of eventually joining.

The Core Members of each gang are primarily made up of those who were in the gang before the collapse, and the few newer members who’ve managed to make a name for themselves since then. As such, most are now in their thirties, and most gang leaders are in their forties.

In 2036 many of the gangs were split along ethnic lines, but these matters are less important after the apocalypse. Those who survived were those willing to put their differences aside.


The old People and Folk alliances still exist, but by 2036 they’d become little more than nominal history, observed more often in the breach. By 2050 they’re thought of as archaic, simply because the gangs are too busy trying to survive to worry about serious war; at worst, the gangs raid one another. This could change either way in the future with new alliances built on the bones of the old, or the struggle for resources could intensify into more frequent clashes.

Selected Gangs in 2050s Chicago

Folk Gangs

  • Gangster Disciples
  • Satan Disciples
  • Imperial Gangsters
  • Spanish Cobras
  • Two Six
  • Insane Deuces

People Gangs

  • Latin Kings
  • Vice Lords
  • Black P-Stones
  • Four Corner Hustlers
  • Gaylords

Unaffiliated Gangs

  • Black Gangsters
  • Black Souls
  • Lynchmen Sercaun Gangsters
  • Molotov Mafia



Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.

Heroic Explorations: Developing Ancient History

When we were talking about the setting’s magic and cosmology, we decided that the Gods had once been more active and communicative, but were no longer, and that’s one of the reasons why there are so many monsters running around tearing up the countryside. Let’s expound upon that a little.

The History of History

Just to be clear, what we’re dealing with here is what’s actually happened, not how it’s remembered. Remembered history, oral or written, is a matter of culture. Different people may have more or less accurate recollections of what’s happened. The Elves are probably the closest, though the Dwarves keep the best records.

In the Beginning

In the beginning, the various humanoid races wandered the world in loose bands, knowing neither civilization nor magic. Barely more than beasts, they were largely nomadic, though those in especially fertile regions might settle down for decades or even centuries.

The spirits that would eventually become the elves, the Alvar, were immortal and unaging spirits of nature, manifestations of the earth’s life force, serving to nurture and protect it. They were the stewards and guardians, largely immaterial but able to manifest physically as needed.

The gods existed as the primitive races saw them, rough manifestations of natural phenomena and cycles. The world was simple, if occasionally savage.

The Fall of the Elves

The Alvar eventually became addicted to the sensation of physicality, spending more and more time experiencing the world as flesh and blood, and less time as spirit. Eventually some made the choice to give up their true immortality for a life of pleasure and pain, becoming the first elves.

The First Civilization

Four-hundred thousand years ago several tribes of humans banded together into the first true civilization of Atlantis. They were advanced in both science and magic, mastering metalworking, writing, and agriculture on a scale unseen in the world.  They were a true magiocracy, where political power was tied directly to magical might, and over time their pantheon grew broad and complex. The wonders created in those days have never been equaled.

The elves watched with growing concern, but by the time they were moved to act, the Atlanteans had far outstripped the power of the Alvar.

The Fall of Atlantis

While the elves were unable to stem Atlantis’s ambition, no empire lasts forever. Twenty thousand years ago the ruling mage-priests fell to factional bickering that soon blossomed into civil war. Great magics were brought to bear against the different factions and the gods they championed, some bargaining with strange entities from beyond reality. In the end the power was too much for the humans to wield, and the world was threatened with destruction and dissolution.

It was left to the Alvar and Elves to preserve the tattered remains of reality. The remaining Alvar sacrificed themselves to power a massive spellwork to seal away the most powerful wizards, trapping them in the space between space, the time between time. Atlantis itself sank below the waves, abandoned by its gods, failed by its masters.

Elven über alles

It became clear to the Elves that the humans and other mortal races could not be trusted to gain so much power. To preserve the world, they had to dominate it, bringing the scattered tribes to heel. While they felt the need to regulate the action of all, they were harshest upon the humans, enacting strict limits on their population and limiting their exposure and understanding of magic and technology. The shattered remnants of Atlantis could offer up no resistance, and the rest of the world never had a chance.

The Elves Fall. Yes, again.

This Elven dominion lasted for almost five-thousand years before the humans managed to overthrow their yoke. The elves had never been very numerous and largely kept to their own island of Avalon, ruling at a distance by decree rather than force. Many of the earliest legends of Adventurers date back to this resistance, and this is at the point where the earliest of human written records begin. The elves themselves were exiled to their island, which itself was mystically sealed away. The few that remained were only the ancient order of Rangers, who had rejected the formation of the Elven state, instead choosing to remain true to their origin as wanderers in the wilderness.

A New Beginning

Free from elven suppression, human civilizations rise across the globe, mostly independently. While there was some benefit to be gained from Elven and even older Atlantean ruins, for the most part it all had to be discovered again.

So far, the world we’re describing is not yet far from Earth’s own neolithic age, but with a few monsters, nonhuman races, and active gods. Next time we’ll delve into more recent times, with the return of Atlantis and the Elves, the fall of the Gods, and World War Wizard.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.

Second City Survival part 5: Community Areas

Before the apocalypse Chicago was organized into 77 community areas, each of which contained multiple neighborhoods. This division is useful to us in designing our version of it, because it allows us to parcel our information out in manageable chunks. As our PCs move through the city, we can use these areas and neighborhoods to tell them where they are, without having to track them block by block, street by street, building by building.

A crowded cityscape

That’s a lot of work.

What’s in an area?

We could just jump into our first area and start brainstorming, but there’s a better and more systemic way to go about it, one that allows us to both compartmentalize our creation process and to approach the city holistically. The faster we get down the basic information about each of our community areas, the more clear our overall city’s flavor becomes, and the more we can weave it all together.

77 areas isn’t even that many… that’s fewer than a 9×9 grid of hexes. We can handle it, and the best way to start is to decide what we need to create for each area.

What do we need?

We’ll start figuring out what to design from a utilitarian standpoint. We need to know what our players need us to know, and that’s determined by what they’ll be doing in the campaign. So what is there to do in a post-apocalyptic cityscape?

  • Salvage. One of the basic activities players can do is look for more stuff. So we need to know what stuff is in each area, and how difficult it is to find.
  • Deal with the locals. This might be fighting, trading, building an alliance, or just sneaking past. Whatever the PCs approach, they need to know who’s there. We need to know who runs bartertown, what kind of defenses they have, how much scrutiny outsiders will be under, and how easy it is to get away with shenanigans.
  • Fighting mutants. That’s basically what the mutants are there for. Hazards to avoid or blow up or whatever. Maybe some mutants can be reasoned with, and maybe some locals can’t. We can throw in other natural dangers here too, so let’s just call this category ‘Hazards.’
  • Forage for food and water. Probably just lump this under Salvage.
  • Places to go, things to see. What landmarks exist in an area, or other resources to be exploited.

Working it out

Population: First off, how many people live in the area? This is pretty easy to determine if we want something quick and lazy. Look at the current population levels, and reduce to 1%.

The problem with this is that pre and post apocalyptic Chicago have entirely different criteria for population density. Before the apocalypse it was available housing and access to public transit. After it’s arable land for growing food and a paucity of mutant rats. So adjust those numbers freely.

Health: How healthy are the locals? This depends on a few factors as well, such as how much food they’re getting and how careful the locals are with their waste.

Prosperity: How well off are the people here? We can lump together the availability of food and water as well as trade goods and barter, condition of equipment, and how well they’re armed. This implies a certain availability of skilled workers, as well as what technology has been recovered.

Politics: In our Chicago, many of our areas will be controlled by street gangs. Others will be free zones without any kind of imposed order or organized protection. So who rules the roost? What kind of leadership do they provide? How do they relate to the rulers of other areas? How much freedom does the ruling body give those passing through, or the non-gang-members who live there?

Defenses: How are the locals armed, and how are the ruling body’s forces organized? Do they have any fortifications or other features that give them a tactical advantage against invaders?


Post-Apocalytpic City by Ty'Onah Gallman

Disease: This ties in to Health, above. How much more or less likely are the PCs to pick up some illness in the area? Are there any particular contagions to worry about?

Beasts: What mutants and wild animals dwell here? What’s up with that? What about two-legged threats – bandit gangs and other scum – aside from what’s covered under Politics, of course.

Salvage and Random Encounters

With the above information in mind, we can work up a scrounging finds table and a random encounter table for each area. Maybe make up a few “base” tables for different sorts of neighborhoods, and then refer to them from our Community Area entries.

In the end, entries will look something like this:

  • Community Area
  • Who’s In Charge
  • Population
  • Salvage Table & Modifiers
  • Forage Table & Modifiers
  • Prosperity
  • Politics
  • Defenses
  • Hazards
  • Random Encounter Table

With some variation to account for unique features in each area.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.

Heroic Explorations: Linguistics and Monoculture

The way that languages are presented in a lot of FRPGs has always bothered me. Intellectually I understand that they’re playable abstractions, that the players usually don’t care, that it really doesn’t matter, but emotionally I’m still attached to the way that linguistics actually work, how mutable language is, and how they impact the very way we think.

A Common Tongue

Historically, yes, there have been pidgin and trade languages used by those who frequently interact with other cultures, but they’re a lot more limited than presented in fantasy gaming fiction, and they don’t really “solve” the problem… each pidgin is itself a language. If you speak German-French you don’t speak Hungarian-Russian and only a little French-English. These pidgins are determined by the intersections of cultures at specific places at specific times – hardly universal.

On the other hand, for much of medieval history Latin was close to a common language in all of Western Europe and Greek was in the East; if you spoke both, you could find someone to understand you no matter where you went. Still, this was in Europe during a given time period, and many of the people you’d meet – farmers, craftsmen, etc – would only speak the local language. This ties in to our next section, actually.

Racial Tongues

every dwarf

Pictured: Every dwarf

All Elves speak Elven. All Dwarves speak Dwarven. All Orcs speak orc. What?

This is part of a larger issue; monocultural species across the globe. Despite the vast variety among humans even on the same continent, all of the members of a nonhuman culture will share, with little variation, the same general cultural archetype, perhaps flavored by the local humans. Japanese elves have Daimyo and Samurai and all that plopped down on top of the elven cultural template.

There is some support for this, in that we can ascribe “Elven” or “Dwarven” or whatever nature to the way they differ from humanity on a biological and neurological level; if Dwarves, as a race, tend to be more staid than the human baseline, then Dwarven culture itself will come across as more somber and dour to human observers. But there should still be a great deal of variety within that spectrum.

You can see this in science fiction, too – where the human protagonists retain some sort of national identity and cultural variation, but the aliens are a single “sort” of people with one language, fashion, and set of social values.

The reason for this is obvious; it takes a lot of work to define one culture, let alone several. This is the same reason we have a single Common tongue; the humans, too, get one language.

A Few Cultural Options

Now, remember that we’re here to incorporate FRPG tropes and not subvert them, here are a few solutions to ponder that embrace the monoculture.

  1. What we think of as Elven is just these elves. Other elves might have different customs or speak a different language, but the ones we’re familiar with are like this. If and when we describe other groups, we’ll need to figure out how they differ.
  2. These elves are the only elves. Our local elves are the only ones in the setting. That’s right. Just the one group. We don’t need to define others, on account of scarcity.
  3. All elves from the same source, with little drift. Across the world all elves come from a common cultural source, and for whatever reason, time and distance hasn’t made much of an impact on who they are. Maybe they keep great records. Maybe “change” isn’t something they’re comfortable with. We can come up with minor variations, but overall they’re a lot more “stable” than humanity.
  4. Elves are just riding humanity’s coattails. They have no true culture, just variations on the local dominant race’s themes.

In Heroic Explorations, we’ll use all of these excuses and explanations at different times, for different races. The Elves might be few in number. The Dwarves might have a heavily traditional mindset. Our orcs are like this, who knows about the rest. And halflings? Little runts have no culture.

But what about Common? Do we want a single language that can be spoken anywhere you go?


Let distant places stay mysterious, and let the language barrier be part of that. We’ll have a lot of common languages, maybe one per big region, to eliminate most of the problems within our own homeland, but you go far enough East and they stop speaking Latin, start speaking Greek. Go a bit further? Maybe they speak something you’ve never even heard of. Hire a guide, cast a spell, or learn a new language, traveler.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.

Heroic Explorations: the parts that aren’t dungeons

We have our Adventurers, and we have Dungeons for them to cavort around it. In describing them we’ve sort of implied a context for the rest of the setting. Let’s run through that quickly.

  • Adventurers are a known and specific class of generally powerful individuals known to cause problems as often as they solve them.
  • Anyone can potentially become an Adventurer, but few do, owing to the effort involved in uprooting your life and the general lethality of Adventuring.
  • The landscape is littered with dungeons of great danger and potential financial reward.
  • Many of these dungeons are ancient ruins.
  • There was an ancient advanced Elven civilization.
  • Adventuring has a dramatic impact on the local economy.
  • Guilds exist as a thing. So does a nobility.

So from this we can sort of imagine a quasi-feudal landscape filled with danger. Adventurers are tolerated, why? Maybe the world is just that dangerous. In fact, let’s say that it is, as FRPG tropes imply a high frequency of random encounters with fierce beasts just in the course of daily travel. Just… just monsters everywhere.

So with so many monsters (so many) how can civilization persist?

Civilization among the monsters

The default situation is one of chaos and danger. Predators exist in numbers greater than a sensible ecology could reasonably be expected to support, so let’s put a pin in figuring out why. We could just backtrack and say that encounters with dangerous monsters or fierce predators are actually relatively uncommon, but that goes against the strengths of the games we’re going to be playing. In a very abstract way, let’s say that an encounter with a dangerous beast is possible once a day, and likely once a week. These encounters don’t always result in combat, but there you go. Still way more dangerous than in the real world.

So we have this monster haunted wilderness. Add civilization. Towns, cities, villages. There’s a pacifying effect… settlements mean organized human resistance. Not that monsters never attack, but you’re safer in numbers. Safer yet if you build a wall, maintain a militia. So any communities we run into have some sort of defense against the darkness surrounding them, or else they’d be dead. This pacification doesn’t extend far… say only within a mile or so band, enough for the growing of crops, but where possible the crops are within the walls, too.

So a lot of isolates. People rarely travel, and when they do, they do so in large groups. This is not too different from pre-industrial societies where a peasant was likely to be born and die without ever leaving the sounding range of his village’s church bells.

To have gotten to this point, though, civilization had to have advanced to the point where fortifications and the like were at least possible. So maybe all the monsters weren’t always there. This brings us back to our ecological problem; the preponderance of monsters is an artificial crisis. Dates back, at most, to the bronze age. Maybe the gods stopped protecting us, or maybe wizards did it, or maybe it’s an otherworldly invasion. Pandora’s box got opened. We’ll think of something cool that makes an interesting hook.

For now, though, we have a sparsely populated landscape of isolated communities where travel is dangerous and uncommon. So there’s a greater degree of self-sufficiency, which works well with a Feudal power structure. There’s a king, sure, but for all practical purposes the local lords are on their own and operate with minimal oversight. Small villages and isolates are uncommon due to the danger; towns are more frequent, and there’s a greater frequency of cities than in the real world, though they’re far apart.

Vaguely EuropeanEuropish

As I said in the first post in this series, we’re developing a world based on the “Old World” briefly mentioned in Ibu: The Emerald Canopy. I didn’t elaborate much in the book because it was just a generic placeholder, but here’s what we’ve got to work with.

  • The Etatian Empire is loosely based on the Holy Roman Empire with an age of sail twist. There are a number of client states, each of which gets a vote for the Imperial Seat. More French and Italian than German.
  • Vaquero is a mix of post-reconquista Spain and colonial Mexico. Vast open plains, a powerful navy, machismo.
  • The Staten is a northern land of ice and snow, Scandinavia having just outgrown its Dark Age “viking” phase. Independent kingdoms united in an almost-democratic Confederacy.
  • The Alem Caliphate is more of a near neighbor, but it’s mostly what you’d expect from the Near East. A little ancient Persia, a little Ottoman Empire, a lot less monotheism.
  • The Avelonian Empire is an elven colonial power based on an island, very early British but with more of a Celtic influence and Elven snootiness. I don’t want them to be a direct analog to the British Empire, but there will certainly be parallels. The goal here, though, is to emphasize the inhuman nature of a culture of veritable immortals.

This gives us a good enough base to start with, though the geopolitical situation may in fact be a distant concern to our Adventurers. It does provide a lot of cultural “flavor” to draw from. And further afield? Is there an Africa with kingdoms like Egypt and Kush? A Russian princely state? A far East?

Yeah, probably, but let’s deal with what we’ve got here, first. We have more “Big Picture” questions to address first. Like what’s up with the gods. Like how magic works. Like where did that Common tongue everybody speaks come from. Like why are gold coins only worth ten times the value of silver. Like how did all the monks get to our European analog from wherever martial arts comes from. And is everywhere as ridiculously dangerous?

Yes. Yes it is.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.

Heroic Explorations: Magic and Morality

A setting’s magic and cosmology are usually tightly related. Let’s deal with that.

Miracles are Everywhere

The first question we should concern ourselves with is, “how common is magic?” Let’s say, “pretty common.” Not so much that everybody’s a wizard, but maybe everybody knows one. Everybody has an idea of what magic is even if they don’t know how it works. Powerful magic is correspondingly more rare, but so is high skill in every endeavor. We don’t want it so common that magic isn’t special, but nobody gets burned as a witch for lighting a candle from across the room.

Magic helps a little with the “how do lone communities in the middle of a monster-filled wilderness survive” question, but not so much that they’re living in a post-scarcity magical economy. Everything is still more or less recognizably medieval and feudal.

Do Divine Powers Prove the Existence of Gods?

Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe divine powers are a matter of the blessed individuals personal faith, rather than a gift from on-high. This has two implications.

  1. Faith is the belief in the absence of proof, or in the face of contradictory evidence. With absolute proof of divinity, there can be no faith. With no faith, there is no magical divine power. So there must be room for doubt in order for faith to resist doubt. That means the gods are either so subtle or inactive that they don’t really make their presences known on the earthly plain.
  2. Divine power is untied to rank within the church itself. This fits in nicely with our general attitude towards Adventurers as powerful outsiders, and gives priest characters a reason to be off adventuring rather than in some town giving sermons.

In fact, we can take it a step further and say that our established religions are largely orthopraxic. Modern religions tend to be orthodoxic – what matters is your belief, your faith. In an orthodoxic religion, like that of ancient Rome, your faith doesn’t matter… only your behavior. That makes our faithful priests more the outsiders; rank within the church is about your ability to play politics, and the highest ranks may be outright political appointments.

The Gods

But what about the gods? Well, they’re distant, if they’re real. We established earlier that the appearance of all the deadly monsters is relatively recent; maybe this is tied to the cause of the gods’ disappearance, or the result of their inaction. Or maybe they were never real to begin with.


Despite the ambiguous nature of divinity itself, morality is an objective force. There are spells and magical effects that target “good” and “evil.” And everybody has an alignment.

In Dungeons and Dragons and many other systems, this Alignment is a defini

te part of your character’s stats. You are good. You are evil. You are lawful. You are chaotic. In some interpretations alignment is fluid and based on your behavior and attitudes.

Not here, baby.

No, we’re going to say that Alignment influences your choices. It’s not absolute. Good characters are not incapable of harm, and Evil characters are not unable to be compassionate, but these tendencies are strong, known, and taken into account by the people who live here.

What is ‘Alignment?’

Alignment is a concept within the context of the setting, as are its variation. If we’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, that’s Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil. These alignments aren’t choices that you’ve made, the result of devoting yourself to good or evil, but accidents of birth.

You were born that way. This is this setting’s astrology. The time of day, the position of the stars and planets, a lot of tiny astrological circumstances determines your Alignment. It’s not a definite thing. It’s not a divination. But it influences who you are, and who you will become. You’re not doomed to a life of evil for being born Chaotic Evil, but it might be a constant struggle against your nature.

So, Alignment is not what you have done, but what behaviors you tend towards. It’s not a compulsion, it’s an affinity.

  • Good characters feel altruistic.
  • Evil characters are selfish.
  • Lawful characters prefer order, structure, and hierarchy.
  • Chaotic characters find such restrictions stifling.

But in all cases, characters have free will, and can make conscious choices to resist (or play into) their instinctual drives.

Attitudes towards Alignment

Most people don’t know their alignment. The process to chart it out is complex and requires specialized training.  But it’s an accurate enough statement of character that people do judge one another. As a result, most people are close-mouthed about their alignment except around very close friends. To ask someone about their alignment is one of the rudest things possible, and “proper” people refuse to discuss such things in public. “Are you Neutral Evil” is the same kind of question as “Are you a liar?” and “Are you Good” is like “can you be trusted?”

Racial Alignment

Are all orcs evil? No. Just as with every other sentient creature, they are born under an Alignment Sign. Their culture and society may reward different behaviors and encourage different attitudes, but that just reinforces the fact that alignment is not an absolute predictor of attitude and behavior.
Same goes for every other race.Universality

Alignment is a literal moral force within the setting, but of course, not every culture views it the same way. Maybe they think about it in other terms, or ascribe different reasoning to the reason for these attitudes, like blood type or time of year.

But Alignment itself is a spiritual reality, and magic can and does reveal its truth.

Questions? You are invited to either leave a comment below, or ask directly through the comment form.