Lets make a Stalk setting

This episode of RefMentor is brought to you by the garden of imaginary things…where game settings come from!

The Ecology of the Setting

Recently I was asked by a young GM about his setting.  He had a map and had started a timeline.  Great beginning, but he was trying an unorganized top down design.  And, if you have ever tried that…you know it can get out of hand very quickly!  So, here is a method that I recommended to him.  The analogy is not great, but it does work.  It is really a middle out built, disguised as top down.  Let me try to set up the idea:

When you are creating a setting, you have lots of ideas that you want in it.  so, you throw out a bunch of seeds and let them grow.  Hopefully you can tell the difference from the weeds and the planted seeds…and what if the seeds don’t work well together…so I recommend that you plant a central stalk of your setting, and then associated pieces can bud and branch off that central stalk!  OK.  That is the very general  description that might not make any sense, so now I will, as I often do, go into more detail, then try to give an example.  Granted, the topic of a setting in the length of the se posts is daunting, but if you want more, let me know…I’ll work on detailing it more!

When you are building  a setting…and for this purpose, I am not going to touch on game system, as that is a later decision that should have minimal influence on this step of your setting, you have ideas for what you want to play.  Sometimes it is a couple of things you want to see, and other times it is lots of ideas that you want to be present.  The first step is make a decision about what is the most important aspect of your story.  Map? A Culture? A business? Magic? Technology?  A language?  Whatever it is, that will be your stalk…the central trunk of your setting design.  Once you have your stalk, then you are going to build it, let it grow beyond what you think you might need.  As you build the central core idea, you will have things, little branches that will act as hooks for all of your other ideas.  Try not to worry about making them, and when you see them, make a not of them rather than try to make them complete branches.  Once, you get this stalk built, when you are satisfied that nothing else would add to what you have, then…Take a break!  Seriously…Take a break away from this…get a drink…find a distraction…play a game or ref another game.  This is important because when you come back to it your fresh.  Re-examine what you have.  Decide if it still is what you want to use.  If it is, decide if there is something you want to add to it.  Do it as needed.  THEN…find the natural breaks. A map has natural boundaries…large mountain ranges, oceans, big rivers.  A culture has breaks, when governments change, or borders expand.  Each of these natural breaks should be considered as a place to splice in the next piece of your setting.  Now…look at what you had identified as hooks/tags/branches before and add these new breaks to it.  If you have other ideas that you want to see, look and see if they will hang off of one of these natural places.  If not, do you have a place that you want it to be?  Then force a break in the stalk and put it in!  That shouldn’t change the main part of your stalk, but you may find, if you review everything, that maybe the stalk has a few things that make more sense to be changed with this new influence.  I would suggest that you work more on tying those ideas to the natural places, but if just won’t work then shove it in there!

This is where you develop those ideas that you wanted in there…remember that an idea may branch completely off from the main stalk and never touch it again, or it may wrap around the stalk and twine in and out of it.  This method allows you to keep a focus on what is important. Don’t be afraid of free association…maybe, in building this, you may find a branch actually becomes a new stalk!  Ideas can build on each and every branch and always reach back to another one…the natural world has all of these weird interconnections, why can’t your imagination place?!  The biggest concern when using this is to get carried away!  Not that is a bad thing, but if you get to far from the central stalk, the more work you are doing.  In some cases, you may be developing a setting for years or even the rest of your life.  Other times, you are creating a setting, to tell one story (which of course should be your stalk) so you don’t need to go far from it.  Put as much work into it as you want, but this technique will allow you to be certain you have what you want, and may reveal interesting new options that never occurred to you before!

Now…an example…Obviously just a stalk itself could take pages, but I hope this will illustrate the point.  I’ve mentioned a setting that is roman empire in space.  Well…that statement right there gives me the important stalk.  Obviously I want an interstellar civilization that is based upon early roman democracy.  So, I start with the stalk and it will go something like this: The Empire never fell.  The madness of the Ceaser’s was cured by divine magic and they ruled for a millennia.  Because Rome remained in power, and because of divine cures, the polytheistic belief system kept Christianity and other monotheistic beliefs on the sidelines, but they have always had active followers.  Because of this, the dark ages didn’t happen, so technology has advanced more rapidly, putting the tech tree about 200 years ahead…computers in the mid 17th century…The empire eventually dominates the world, opposed by a small but significant guerrilla movement in the far east, and a resolute native American (Indian, Mexican) forces. resistance.  Like the original Romans, they would have citizenship rules, castes and slaves…And on and on…it would obviously need to have a general timeline, the discovery of FTL drive, the Planet of New Rome, current home of the Senate, and so on…

Now we look at the timeline.  We see a guerrilla movement in Asia…so, let’s have a rogue theft of an early FTL by a Chinese agent…and they have formed a small, but resolute alliance of worlds.  So the guerrilla have become a full force, and the American resistance has overthrown a few planets, but these are backwater, frontier types that the Roman  Stellar forces and the Asian Universal Alliance cannot afford forces to take back over, but they both impose trade sanctions…and these rebel ships are considered pirates and smugglers in any non-rebel systems.  So, now we have the Cowboy/lawless feel of the rebellion, but they specialize in stealth tech and maneuverable ships.  But they make few breakthroughs because whenever they get big enough to do the required research, the site becomes a target…

There we have it…just a few minutes of thought, and much less than the minimum of work on the stalk, and we have a divinely guided Roman stellar empire, opposed by a resolute force of Asians…that still need a lot of fleshing out.  As well as rebel cowboy spies…with fashion and culture defined primarily by the Roman empire…and, as I set here writing , I see so many possibilities…A Star Wars variant…a Firefly variant…A Space Spies game…Roman Star explorers…

And with that little bit done, I could start a bottom up detail level and write specific adventures with a well established setting to reach back to for support.  Still a lot of work, but it can spark ideas, and maybe a new hobby of world/universe building! (Something that will always help an aspiring Ref!)


As Always:

That’s my Story…Take it or Leave it…My Trucker buddies, they believe it!

Room at the Inn (of the Harpy’s Roost)?

Here is the first in a series of Ecology posts.  One of the things I love doing as a ref, as I have stated before, is making worlds and settings.  This is mostly going to be Top down type detail, but it is of use to the bottom up crowd, and any in between, as well.  However, they will be very broad stroke and should lead a setting builder to many questions.  Hopefully, it will help them with a logic that will underlie their ideas and answers to those questions.  The concept of these posts was brought up with one of my kids when we discussed how far apart to place inns on the road…and I realized that these kind of questions come up all of the time, and they are ones that I spend significant (OK, maybe too much) time on.   Some of these ecology posts will focus on a particular setting, a particular creature or ecosystem and sometimes it will cover general “Suspension of Disbelief” type questions…like inns on a road in a fantasy campaign setting…

How far apart should I have inns along the king’s road?

First off, look at your question.  You already have made a couple of assumptions based on your setting, or at least the setting you are contemplating.  You know that 1: The ruler of the land is a King. 2: The kingdom has roads that the King claims. 3: There are inns along the king’s roads.  Next, you need to figure out what you are asking, or define your need a little better.

Let’s say, you want there to be inn’s that are privately owned along the roads.  These inn’s can receive incentive from the king (tax breaks, annual stipend, supplies, etc.) if they meet a certain security standard and will house a given number of the the kings guard, who patrol the road, for no charge.  So, in breaking down that question, and thinking about why we asked it, we have come up with a better definition of what we are asking.  It has also laid out a few other things that we might want to know.  Is there a standing army, or only road patrols?  do these patrols travel in large numbers, or just pairs?  What is the required security standard and so on. 

As you can see, like in top down world building, a simple task can branch and grow into a month long exercise just to work out roads and inns and so on.  While you could go there and work all of these questions out, you have a few ways to approach it.  Top down and you will be working out details like where the wood/stone/iron comes from to determine how much could be afforded at any given inn, that we still haven’t located….and so on.  For Bottom up, ( or even an episodic story?  more on that in another post) why worry about how far apart they are.  Does the story call for a fortified road side inn?  Then, the characters arrive at the inn you have detailed (as well as close surroundings, staff and owner) and they will have the encounter/information/adventure that needs to happen there.  But either of those still don’t really answer that question.  So, how do we get there?

Lets re0look at the question:  and state it as a need.  I need there to be inns along the kings road separated by a reasonable distance from one another.  The simple answer might be to look at your kingdom.  Do people walk, ride horses (or ostrich, or camels, or xubecks), or drive wagons?  If the inns are there to support the kingdoms travellers, then they would be about a day apart.  maybe 20 miles if most people walk…40 if people ride, or maybe only about 15 if the inns are in place for the much needed merchants and their wagons.  Simple.  BUT…now you have the basic answer to the original question, you have opened up a consideration of other issues.  If most people ride, are there established roadside camps along the road at walking distance?  Do these inns, or indeed these camps, have wells?  What about firewood or coal?

By looking at this simple question, you can add a lot of detail to a setting.  Let me elucidate:  Our setting is a typical fantasy, based on medieval Europe. So, we have magic available, probably no fire arms, at least one other kingdom at war or unease as well as the roaming monsters and bandits.  Because of these threats, or king has determined that trade needs to be protected, and he has teams of Rangers patrol the roads in bands of 6 – 10 men.  The typical caravan consists of three wagons and as many as a score of people (merchants as well as guards).  The mounted rangers can cover roughly twice the distance that a wagon caravan can.  So, there are inns that are somewhat defensible, heavy reinforced doors, shutters that can be bolted with arrow slits.  Stables as well to house a score of animals, assuming that the caravan and a team of rangers may sleep there all on the same night.  Water is available at every inn.  These inns are places that messages or packages can be left to be picked up, effectively making them a post office.  The rangers are not charged for their stay, but the caravans are.  The supply caravans, that bring food to these inns, are always escorted by rangers and they receive a substantial discount to their room and board.  The  Inns are built by the crown and the innkeeper is considered a royal appointment.  They are far enough apart that if a party is delayed more than an hour, they will be arriving after “Travel hours” so may encounter a barred door.  Half way between each inn, is a road camp.  These camps have a fire circle, and all travellers are expected to replace at least some of the wood they use.  some have wind breaks, or defensive log walls.  Most have a well or spring located at them, but some have water butts.  Tampering with the water source is considered a crime equal to highway robbery…which means summary execution.


Lot of information from a very simple question…but with simple effort, a whole new aspect of the game setting comes to life!  What do you think?  More of these ecology’s?  or is it too far off base?  Let me know!  I AM going to try to get at least two posts out a month from now on…So, until next time!

Do you understnd the words coming outta my Glaberling?

…blank looks from the players… “Hey,” you say, “that is the word for mouth on this planet!  And they use Twizinkle for a cute, small furry rodent that steals carrot from farmers.  Here we’d call them rabbits, but the characters don’t know that word, and besides, the fur on a twizinkle is much more coarse and longer anyway…almost like hedgehog, or gohrut, but not as stiff!” …still getting blank looks, til one says, “um, can we say OK, or is there a four syllable word for that”…

I LOVE CONLANGS!  CONLANG = constructed language.  They are great fun, particularly when you can create your own writing and symbols!  Unfortunately, there is little value added for RPGs, particularly compared to the huge amount of work needed to make it consistent and believable.  Not that they don’t have their uses, but they are quite limited.  This post is about this favorite thing of mine, and why it is not generally useful, and the times that it can be.  Also, I’ll conclude with some techniques for creating usable Conlangs, as well as a few resources for the more adventurous of you.


To understand what I am talking about let me refine the idea.  A constructed language is simply a language that did not evolve naturally in our world.  There can be some notable discussion on this such as “Does technical jargon count as a CONLANG?” or “So who defines a natural evolution?  Is “Telephone” part of a CONLANG?”  Simply put, yes to both, but that is not the debates I want to get into.  I am more looking at the languages of authors, or screenwriters; Vulcan or Klingon from Star Trek, Elven languages from Tolkien and a host of others. Many of the languages from Star Wars, or all of the languages from Game of Thrones.  There are folks out there whose job is creating believable and pronounceable (with a human mouth) languages for their fictional race of beings.  Sometimes this includes a symbol set to relay a written language.  These languages usually add depth to a story, as well as even allowing for plotting around misunderstanding of a particular nuance of phrase.  And for the scripted, planned and designed things that these are they work brilliantly.  I could go into how some people even create root languages and shift them so you can have related languages, as well as linguistic rules and so on…but I will have better resources for that at the end.

Sounds Cool!  Why don’t they work?

It is cool, but they don’t work because your gamers already speak a native tongue and perhaps a few others.  In a game world, that means you would either have to spend several game sessions teaching them another language so that they can play in your world.  Or you can introduce the appropriate words, phrases and turns of phrase as they come up and explain what they mean…and then explain them again if and when they come up, because your players didn’t remember that the position of the ess sound is only important when using the religious form, so that even though the word sounds different from when you used it, in passing, with a 3 minute explanation 3 weeks ago, that this is the same word, because it is not a religious but a formal setting, and so the prefix doesn’t change the meaning, its only an honorific…Yes!  Even a simple language can have such distinctions, and in fact usually simple languages have many more rules to try to make a limited vocabulary fit more complex issues.  Furthermore, it takes a significant investment of time and commitment to create a language and language rules, not to mention consistent sounds and maybe even a graphic symbol system to serve as a written medium.  Keeping this in mind, CONLANGS seem to be solely a tool to show how clever you are while taking a significant time investment, but only adding a small bit of flavor to the setting that needs to be explained almost every time you use it!  Seems there are better uses of your time…

Why do you even bring them up, then?

Aside from the fact that etymology fascinates me, they do have their uses, and with out a huge outlay of work.  When you are creating a setting for a new game one of the things to consider is language.  You don’t have to think about it in a “how many symbols are in their lexicon” kind of way, but in a “what does the language sound like?” way. For instance, you are creating a modern-day setting where the Roman empire never fell, and all the Roman citizens have Greco-roman names.  When someone creates Senator Cheezwaddle, it kinda ruins the mood.  Since you know what the language should sound like You can create and enforce some simple “Sounds Like” rules.  You know that hard constants are rare, and usually only at the beginning of names; Julius, Guyas, Jermania.  You know that names are usually short, and usually 2 syllables long and end with vowels or sustainable consonants.  Given these simple rules, you could alter the senator’s name to be Geezwadus!  Ok…maybe not a great name, but much more in your “Sound like rules” Naming is a great place to begin CONLANGs, and if you really want, create a simple table with, say 4 parts: Part one is a prefix for the name…and it might be blank, maybe half the table has no prefix. Part two is a single or double syllable name.  Part three is an appropriate suffix and part four is an adfix, that again is more than half blank.  This would assure that all the names are sound appropriate, and you might have different tables for males and females or for citizens and non citizens.

A further use of language “sound like” rules is in naming places.  When you are naming your locations, you could use the standard Old English naming style of descriptive place: Blackmoor, Cold Hill, Fall Bridge or Oldford.  Great and viable names…but what if you have set the world in somewhat of a Russian steppes style?  Enter Google Translate!  Then they become Cheryynmavr, kholodnogo kholma, padayut mosta, or staryy brod!  But you are only looking for Sounds Like, so make them a little more english freindly and the become Cherrymvar, Kholmanogo, Padaymost and Star Ybrod! Using this same technique You can populate nearby kingdoms, or worlds, and the places can have the local name and then a name in common tounge or mechant Cant, or whatever all of your players supposedly use!  So, the capital city of Star Ybrod (Old Fording in the common)  is the home of the Velkiy Volshnik Krolya,or the Grand Wizard King!  And now you have some sound right locations, a title and their more common names.  As a ref, you just need to be aware of where the info is coming from as to what name to use.  If it is an ancient scroll refereing to a temple in the city, it might be and “Old Form” of the local language, so you add a phoneme to each word and it becomes Strara Ybrodoh, but when a foriegn merchant is talking about the trade guilds there, she would liklely use Old Fording.

However, what if you want to be 1st person rather than narrative when your players encounter a language they do not speak?  You can’t use a real world language…one of your players may speak Russian better than you! In place of all of this, …Make shit up!  If it is a harsh language, Orcish or Klingon, then lots of hard sounds and spitting.  If it is a melodious language, like Latin or Elvish, then hums and long vowels, susserants and few plosives.  If they are trying to ask a question just keep repeating your sounds.  If they don’t sound like they did last time, well, the speaker has changed to a different dialect or style because they obviously didn’t understand!

Aside from names of things, another place that conlangs work is simple, oft repeated phrases: “Yes”, “no”, “more please”, “Kill it with fire!”  In many of my games I create (or steal from) languages, but only a dozen or so words, and usually, then only use of them is for things like that.  Players all know the words Ja, Da, Si, Hai, Hola…but when you put them in a gaming world, they have the same meaning, but you have added some definite spice to your campaign.  Players pick it up fast, no explanation needed.  You can add a few other phrases in either a known language, or a pure conlang, and so long as you use them consistently, they become usable and enjoyable AND put a bit of memory on your game with almost zero work.

One final point before some references:  Never underestimate the value of a note written in a foreign language.  There are lots of references you can use to create a written language, but in general you only need to decide what it looks like, and you can create nonsense that looks great!  Maybe it is carved into stone…in that case, straight lines…maybe it is written on delicate tissue like paper, then brush strokes…Whatever you like.  You can even just type up your message on a word processor, misspell a lot of the words, take out all spaces, then put two spaces every 7 or 8 letters and convert the whole thing to one of the graphic or wing-ding fonts…It don’t work half bad, and you have an instant foreign message…a local scholar can “Translate” it, of course some of the words may have the wrong meaning…or the the city may no longer be call Cheynvar… I could go on…but this is already a bit long.

If you are interested in looking up more info on creating your own language there are any number of websites and blogs, but here are a couple of books that I have used and really like: The Language Construction Set, The Conlangers society, Random Names and of course Seventh Sanctum

Some Common Ground

In an effort to make certain everyone knows what I am talking about, I want to start with a bit of a glossary.  This will probably be referenced a lot.  I will present the info in pairs of opposites.  Be aware that very few things fall all the way to one extreme or the other, but somewhere along the continuum   I don’t intend to get into the various merits or problems with these, as they will probably all be posts of their own.  My intention here is simply to explain some of the terms I use, so you can expect to see in these posts. The TSR – FGU Scale: Back in the early days of our hobby, there were two big companies.  TSR (Dungeons & Dragons (hats off), Top Secret, Boot Hill) and FGU (Space Opera, Chivalry & Sorcery, Bushido) who, in general approached the games from two different sides. TSR (Originally Tactical Studies Review, but became just TSR by the time RPGs were coming into fashion) tended to make games that were very easy to pick up and play, but they tended to make it very difficult to suspend the disbelief because of game play decisions that were made for the sole purpose of game balance.  FGU (aka Fantasy Games Unlimited) decided to more closely represent real life by making the game simpler to suspend disbelief, but made character creation and rules in general much more complicated. Epic – Episodic Game: Epic games cover from the start of the story to the end.  This includes the mundane as well as the fantastic.  The depth and length of these games tend to create very deep and detailed characters.  Episodic games are more like TV shows in that they go from important scene to important scene.  These tend to make highly specialized characters. Monty Hall – Pauper:Monty Hall (or haul) games (named after  the game show host: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Hall) are games where the rewards (money, magic and/or experience) are very high, some might even say way out of proportion…1000GP for killing the rats in the cellar.  These games often end up with 50gp mugs of ale.  Pauper games have the characters scrimping to buy their next meal, and hoping to make enough to repair their second hand armor.  These games tend to have a more realistic economic model. Top Down – Bottom Up: World, town, universe design models.  Top down creates the Universe first, then the planets, then the terrain, then the empire boundaries  then the capital cities, then the small cities, then towns, hamlets, castles, dungeons…resulting in very rich tapestry, sometime light on local differentiation.  Bottom us is exactly opposite…start with the tavern, then the village and it’s inhabitants, then the haunted forest…can lead to patchwork worlds. Narrative – In Character: Play style.  In Character Players and NPCs speak as the character.  Great for adding accents or speech characteristics.  In Narrative, the actions and speech of the characters are described rather than word for word spoken.  Very handy when the player and the character have very different verbal (or knowledge) skills. Story – Character: Arc styles.  In Story arcs, The characters are involved, but do not have a great deal of influence on the overall outcome but specific pieces of the arc.  In Character arcs, the characters directly affect the story, and are not only main characters of the stories, but critical to it’s outcome.  Although this sounds perfect, it can present significant challenges to the ref, or leave characters with little to no guidance. Persona – Idealized- Munchkin: This triumvirate is broad stroke player styles.  They Persona player makes and plays characters to escape or explore.  These players usually have the most difficulty creating a character that fits (easily) with in the rules.  The Idealized player makes and plays characters to be the best at what they do.  They often find their character idea in the archetypes set forth by the rules as representative of their desires. The Muchkin, or min-maxer makes and plays characters to “Win,” to be better than everyone else.  They often are great during play-testing as they tend to push the rules to limits to see where they break, by taking as many advantages and as few disadvantages as possible. If there is anything that is not clear in this post, please let me know!  Remember, there are no stupid questions, just stupid people!