Updated: Aug 2, 2020
Anna Meyer's work on Greyhawk is jaw-dropping. If you zoom in and just slowly scroll her map, you find yourself on roads leading to wastes, jungles; all manner of mysterious places! I can imagine the cold off the sea and wonder what they do in Djekul, so far from anything else!
Then there are the smile-inducing discoveries: White Plume Mountain, Thingizzard's hut, the lair of Dragotha, Homlet, ToEE, Tsojcanth, WG4, and (in the former lands of Telenetculi) basking in the tropical sun along the shore: Tamoachan. I searched for the site of the crashed spaceship in S3 but couldn't find it.
All of this made me nostalgic, wanting to run or play in Greyhawk again and possibly search the ruins of Robilar's keep. The setting is rich beyond words for it has been under construction by many hands for decades.
My setting is much humbler, for I am a hermit builder splitting logs, with but a handful of fanatics lending aid on game nights.
Adummim is a world I conceived for role playing, then refactored for use in writing novels, and now again finds utility as my setting for role playing. The forthcoming blog entries (this one included) intend to not only reveal my setting, but show you how I thought through its creation. Thereby, you may be able to create your own highly-detailed setting that is as grounded as it is mysterious and as logical as it is fantastic.
The word Adummim is Hebrew, I think, and means "red spots". I like this association with mortality for it is a world of conflict. Notably, the planet itself is also spotted with red deserts and (along the equator) pink oceans. All the action I have recorded on Adummim has taken place on the Atlath Continent, a diverse and broad stretch of land bounded by the Loor Ocean and the North Seas. Early on, my players joked about the map's "North" direction. This is because, if you look at the map, North is the Black Forest of Jeulfall and South is the Rauch Desert.
As you can see, it features none of the cliched things you'll find on other fantasy maps:
Huh. Actually my map looks just like that one! How can this be?
Of course it does! I drew it in the 80's! I agree that this is amusing. But archetypal maps (with norse-like tribes to the north and sultans in the south) mixed with diverse and recognizable archetypes does offer utility: they allow me (and you) to ground the world in a "vanilla" space where third-party modules can be plunked in as needed and still make sense. Greyhawk is guilty of this, as are the Forgotten Realms. But this method remains popular because it is palatable. Truly strange and unique settings are often lauded by those who publish them as avoiding the pitfalls of banal fantasy tropes. Kay? But who here has been playing in a crazy Aztec-alien setting for ten-plus years? Who here has been playing Jorune regularly for fifteen?
There's a wiseguy who chirrups here like a distant bird, calling out, "Me! Mee! And let me tell you..."
I am unmoved. I find overly-themed and insistently-strange settings to be draining. Why? Because they preclude affordance and deny my desire to use all the lessons I've learned in life to solve problems at the table. A ruined tower at the edge of the marsh, you say? This setting immediately offers meat for discussion and planning. "Let's see if we can find insect repellent," says Martin. "There might be undead," says another.
But a floating pylon with 8 pink eyes painted on it that whispers the word "krom" over and over?Hmm. "Should we just avoid this thing? It will probably kill us."
The utterly alien often defies strategic planning, but is very cool in other ways. So, what you want, I think is some of both. The pylon sounds compelling because it's different. Yet, if you started your game in a landscape where they were ubiquitous, you'd find the pylons quickly lose their shine.
To be clear, I am not talking about prepping for a one-year campaign, or a summer spent playing Vampire, or Cthulhu. In order for what I'm saying to mean anything, you have to understand that I'm talking about pouring the foundations of a campaign that will last for decades----like Greyhawk. That's because striking into the unknown and returning again to the familiar is comforting and, more importantly, supportable long term.
As I begin talking about the World of Adummim, I will gloss the vanilla spaces that the PCs occupy during downtime: where their strongholds exist and where their allies and contacts live. These are the sorts of lands anyone can understand and therefore the least interesting. They are also where I have always started the campaign when faced with a new batch of players.
So, even though I think it far better to dig in as quickly as possible to places like The Horth Gar, Crypt Garden, and Moreh (where the last remaining elves ride giant ghost-white mantises) I will begin with the basics.
Adummim is peopled by humans, with humanoids (gnolls, ogres, etc.) being far more prevalent than demi-humans of any kind. Halflings are rare, Elves (also known as Hjolk-trull) are even more rare. The dwarves are dead, but for a few ancient hermits in the mountains awaiting the inevitable. No one in my campaign has ever seen a gnome.
Here are Adummim's human races:
Despche: very dark skinned. This noble and regal race are often talented prophets and fortunetellers.
Ghnall: large hirsute barbarians, covered with tattoos and piercings. They live among the humanoids and are regarded as sub-human savages who have turned their back on humankind.
Ilek: ivory complexion with black hair and strange eyes. These "Island people" are stereotyped as capricious and cunning. Though many are attractive, some have that "Innsmouth" look.
Nanemen: pale to blue skin with red, blonde, or darker hair. Stereotyped as hot-headed clans-people. I try to lean more toward Visigoth than Viking in terms of influence.
Pandragon: rich mahogany skin and blonde hair, these southern people are often lithe and graceful.
Pplarian: white skinned, very tall and lean. Eyes of pink, violet or blue. Highly intelligent. Most have two vestigial caterpillar-sized arms hanging below their pectorals (though surgical removal is becoming common). They are descended from ancient extra-terrestrials mixed w/ human and elfin stock.
Veyden: green skinned jungle people with black or red hair. Extremely muscular. Universally feared. Most have integrated into southern cities and become suave business owners but some isolated jungle tribes remain.
Worian: the mongrel race. A mixture of the others.
The races then represent a ratio of recognizable stereotypes mixed with a few curve balls for spice and a heavy dose of tribalism. No ability score modifiers are given and the races of are reserved primarily for role play, language, and setting. Since most players play some type of human, I often find alignment to be of greater mechanical value!
If you've read my novels, you might get the sense there is a rich history to the world and in very general terms, there is. However, you'd also probably notice that this history is mostly glossed over or alluded to and I take the same stance in the campaign world.
While some designers fill volumes with the setting's past, I believe loose sketches of history offer greater value. Not only are few details easier to remember, but if the past is cloudy when the campaign begins, it is also mutable.
Mutable histories are wonderful for role-playing because they are able to dovetail with the choices and actions of the players (and this, I think, is the whole point of the game).
So, while I believe you want as brief an outline as possible for the history of kingdoms, I also believe you want a very good map.
Greyhawk is the king of settings IMO because of its map. Props to Darlene and everyone who's added to it since. The map is whence the wonder springs as players search it, reading names, planning routes, theorizing what place is most dangerous. My map is not even in the same ballpark as the Flanaess, yet it offers enough mysteries to thoroughly captivate my players' imaginations.
The map is where you put the people, of course; how you distribute your races. But unless you know something about those races, the distribution won't matter. So how do you add meaning? How do you find logical adversaries and allies? Tolkien understood that race was central to many stories and that one of the ways to make race matter is through language. The language carries the culture and the history. Languages in your campaign setting can function like shaders to this or that city, country, and so on. They also help you stake out the basics of that mutable history we mentioned earlier.
Here is my campaign's language tree:
Immediately, you can sense what languages might be similar, who might be related, what civilizations might be older than others, and you can also speculate how splinters and divisions between groups might have caused rifts or wars. Gringling is actually related to Limuin (which is not shown) and as such is as old as Dark Tongue, but that's a whole other story.
I like the mystery of the chart, the fact that you can see an ancient alien influence on the planet. It's not revolutionary. But it is instructive. With a few basic lines and you're laying in parameters, consistencies and maybe even adventure hooks. This is your first sketch of the planet's history: its people, its lands and its languages.
With these three things, you'll find everything else starts to happen naturally and it becomes easier to punt when players move around the countryside looking for adventure and treasure, which brings us to the last part of this post.
You need an economy.
In the chart to the right you can imagine that a Silver Crown has the same buying power as one US dollar. So a Gold Scythe pays for a decent lunch. But why do you need so many different kinds of money, Anthony?
Economies make treasure interesting and add intrigue. Crossing borders and treasure-hunting in a neighboring kingdom could cause all sorts of complications.
Is X's money also accepted in Y's kingdom? Perhaps. But the reverse might not be true.
On the Atlath Continent, the history of money tells the history of civilization. Before the north was settled, there were only six human kingdoms. Therefore nearly all very old coins were minted in the south and carried north as the Hinterlands were explored.
These old Six Kingdom coins have higher precious metal content than newer coins are are also more rare. Thus their value is higher.
To make things a little less onerous for players, "Standard Pandragor" is the modern currency for all six of the Six Kingdoms, while Barbarian and Humanoid money is its own separate thing.
The party currently resides in Ormolu, which is why I have this kingdom's system at the top. Ormolu uses paper fiat in addition to accepting Standard Pandragor currency.
Though not suitable for strictly medieval settings, paper money is fun. I've enjoyed sticking a fat roll of Blue Jabbers in a backpack and listening to the players shout "Yay!" (for it is weightless compared to coins) only to cry out in dismay later when the wad of cash fails to save throw vs Fireball.
Making money and treasure interesting requires some math, but if you keep the conversions simple, your players will love finding a Gold Tomb. They will learn to recognize its value compared to a Gold Scythe. If you think it unduly burdensome, I understand. Fortunately, there's usually a player at your table that enjoys this or that task and assumes the role, be it record-keeper or banker or money converter.
You'll notice the humanoid money above includes a bar of "spice". I have a convention where "spice" is not only currency but a drug that humanoids and barbarians take, which provides them with berserk rage and combat bonuses.
Make your money interesting.
Consider ideas of what beings on the inner planes [or] outer planes barter with. What do they trade in the Hells? Larval souls to be sure. What else? Would the highest Heaven even have money? What about the Astral and Ethereal planes? If you've bought any of my supplements you know I put significant thought into these questions.
Trade and treasure are of paramount importance to AD&D. Treasure = XP. Therefore, I love to find interesting ways to increase or decrease its value (through collectors, shortages, weight, and sometimes onerous taxes).
Thus ends this post.
Hopefully I've helped convince you that you don't need to be a great writer, or pen an epic saga concerning the history of your world. Your world can begin to feel rich with just a few notes and charts provided you take them to the table with a sense of seriousness.
Your world map
What else do you need to lure mercenaries, harbor grudges and start wars? These are the foundations of any world I would want to play in.
I leave you with another look at my world map, which I am in the process of re-mastering, coloring and labeling anew. This version is sized at only 35% of the original and still missing a great many things. I will continue working on it for the foreseeable future. If you wish to zoom and scroll its current state, simply visit my campaign pages.