Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kalamar, Judges Guild-Style

I remarked last week that one of the Kingdoms of Kalamar's greatest assets was also one of its greatest weaknesses, that being the way the Atlas is set up. As I remarked then,

[T]he Atlas lacks those details that mean the most to referees and players: names for those ridges and other geographic features, small woods and bogs in out-of-the-way places, ruins and castles, and notes on local non-human (or non-civilized) populations. You can write them in with a felt-tip pen, but you'll hate to "ruin" the book.
Well, I've decided to bite the bullet and go ahead and "ruin" my Atlas in order to create something akin to the old Judges Guild Wilderlands sets.

For background, my first encounter with Judges Guild was sometime in the 90s, when I was browsing the dealers' room at Dragon Con--the best way to find wonderfully odd games and playing aids back in those days before the Intarweb. Anyway, I was rummaging through some old books, and I came across a couple of items from a company that I at that point in my life knew nothing about: The first was a notebook of hex paper, complete with numbered hexes and little tidbits of information about creating wilderness adventures, and the other was this strange bundle with two sets of maps titled The Elphand Lands. I bought them up on a lark and spent many an hour pouring over them for ideas for my own homebrew world.

I've often regretted that I've never actually played a game set in the Wilderlands. I thought about picking up the boxed set for D&D3.5, but found the price to be more than a bit steep. It's too bad, because the Wilderlands really are in many ways the perfect D&D world-in-a-box. Every other campaign on the market gives you the overview of a world, but leaves you to work out the nitty-gritty, low-level details that actually makes it possible to adventure there. The Forgotten Realms came closest to the JG ideal by focusing on a relatively small area from the Sword Coast to Raven's Bluff, but even there you had to come up with your own encounter tables and adventuring sites. With a JG product, on the other hand, you could literally open up the box, pick a random place to plob in the PCs, and just let them wander. Nearly every 5-mile hex had something interesting for them to stumble across, while leaving the descriptions bare-bones enough to force the referee to bring his own creativity to the fore.

In any case, I'm taking that approach with the KoK Atlas. My location-based notes about the world are being organized according to the Atlas' page numbers, and I'm scribing small numbers onto the pages to reference in my notes. So, for example:

The Old Watchtower of Rellas
Situated high on Rellas Hill, this ancient watchtower stood guard over the eastern border of the then-expanding Kalamar Empire, later falling into disuse and ruin as the frontier moved further east through modern O’Par. It has long been a meeting place for rangers and other adventurers, the nearly-bare hill that serves as its foundation giving a wide view of the land about. Now, however, it has become a watchtower for goblins in the employ of the Locust Lord, who use it to plan raids and ambushes.

Below that, I've noted the creatures that might be found there and what treasures might be found. As I get past the bare-bones level, I'll include maps of the various locales that might need them, but right now I'm just brainstorming a paragraph or two at a time. I've photocopied the map as well, which I'm using to draw encounter regions. As I've done so, the political situation has started to really take shape. It'll be interesting to see if the players decide to get involved in it at all, especially as they move into the natural endgame of building their own fiefdom--and it'll be even more interesting to see which side they take, or if they'll try to take on all comers.

It's been a while since I've been this focused and thrilled with campaign design. Before, I had a million ideas competing for attention, with a half-dozen uncompleted maps lying strewn across my floor. Now that I've settled on a world, the rest is flowing naturally from the world's details and the seed ideas that I started with.

Now, if James will just hurry up the details on Urheim . . .

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