Instead of NaNoWriMo, I’ll be doing this.
What is the “Gygax 75 Challenge”
“The Gygax 75 Challenge” is both the title and premise of a PDF by Ray Otus. To quote the website:
This workbook is based on an article written by Gary Gygax in 1975, less than 12 months after D&D was released. It encapsulates his thinking at the time about how to get your own D&D campaign world started. I have taken his general advice and parsed it out into achievable, bite-sized prompts & goals for a week-by-week program.
Meanwhile this site is littered with lots of grand ideas (some of them possibly good) but few usable details. So I thought maybe I could learn from following this method with a completely blank page. The lessons may then transfer to Terra Australis, or Erebus, or Kutheria, or one of the other worlds I’ve started then abandoned.
As an exercise I’ll create a setting for a D&D-like game, either D&D 5th ed., the DCC RPG, or Into the Unknown, all of which I looked at lately.
To quote the introduction,
The setting you will create assumes a “dungeon” and a “town” with “wilderness” in between. It also assumes some challenges in the form of “monsters” and rewards in the form of “treasures.” Feel free to interpret these concepts any way you like […]
Rather than interpret anything, I’ll use exactly the sort of game that revolves around dungeons, towns, wilderness, monsters, and treasures.
He goes on further to say:
The system you use matters a lot, actually. You can choose about any set of rules and/or genre, as long as you understand the built-in assumptions referenced above: town, wilderness, and dungeon.
However, once you choose a system, this workbook assumes you are building on top of it.
Furthermore, for inveterate system tinkerers who want to add a mechanic or twelve (like Hard Mode Alignment to D&D 5e) the author says:
Go ahead and build out your campaign setting and assume the things you need are in the system. […] Assume the system has it … or will. Just keep a list of system elements you need to create or adapt as you go without actually doing the work for now.
Assumptions and Requirements
Before I begin, I feel compelled to add some extra requirements:
The only real alignments are Law, Balance, and Chaos (and Unaligned). This fits both Hard Mode Alignment and the default of DCC and ItU. Ditching alignment completely will mean big changes to DCC, while leaving the full ninefold D&D alignment system in place will annoy me.
Any class or race combination in D&D 5e, or any of the 7 classes of DCC/ItU, are legal. Thus I have to assume at minimum Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. If this requirement becomes too onerous, I’ll revise it.
I have my own idiosyncratic take on the Planes. (Especially for D&D 5e.) In particular Astral Travel is a minigame unto itself (perhaps literally). I’ll put that on the back burner, as Otus advises, and revisit it after I have a town, a dungeon, a wilderness, and an adventure. But I do have some ideas …
Sailing ships and airships might crop up in my eventual setting, especially if I start riffing on Aaron A. Reed’s Skycrawl. AFAIK the rules for ships in D&D 5e are minimal, and nonexistent in DCC. Again, I’ll put this off until later, although I’m sure there are plenty of sources from which I can
So add ship / airship / aethership rules to the list of backburner homebrew rules (potentially).
I started with the Norse earth deity Jörð and started mangling phonemes until I got something that sounded almost but not quite like “Earth”. Thus I condinue the find tradition of Greyhawk’s Oerth and GURPS Banestorm’s Yrth.
Maybe I should have started with “Earth” in another language, e.g. Slovak zem, but whatever.
Tasks for Week 1
Get a notebook
Most of my “product” will use Markdown files on my computer checked into version control for safe keeping. Looking ahead, though, I’ll need hex paper and square graph paper to draw maps. I have a few options:
A long while ago I bought a few “Pocket Dimension” booklets – blank books with hex and ruled pages – from Melsonian Arts Council. I guess they’ve been discontinued. Designing on little pages is not what Gygax or Otus had in mind, but at least for wilderness maps I can start with a large area at, say, six miles a hex or more then draw a second graph to zoom into each hex. (Or vice versa.)
My printer is not the best, but I have some hex paper on PDF I can print.
For a digital solution, I could buy Hex-Kit for $15 or the Pro version of Worldographer for $34.95. But I’ve spent too much this month already. Plus my experience with Hexographer suggests that I need a rough sketch of the world before I start tweaking hexes.
Graph paper shouldn’t be too hard to find; worst case I drive to Office Depot about a half hour away. For that matter I could use graph paper for the wilderness maps too …
I have file folders for any loose papers I generate. Although maybe I should get a cheap school notebook with a folder in it … We’ll see how much loose paper I generate.
Develop a pitch
Write down 3-7 well-crafted bullet points that will both communicate and “sell” the world to your players.
OK, here goes:
The alignments/forces/powers of Law, Chaos, and Balance shape the multiverse.
The true nature of the Alignments is mysterious. What we do know is that they act through their supernatural servants: the angels, aeons, and archons of Law, the immortals of Balance, and the daemons, devils, horrors, and other corrupted beings of Chaos. More active and visible in our world, however, are their mortal agents – the Church of Law, Schools of Balance, and Cults of Chaos – who compete with priests of Eordh’s gods for worshippers and power.
Civilizations have risen and fallen on the World of Eordh multiple times, and Eordh is far older than most people suspect.
Most people believe the world is only a few thousand years old. Even the elves have only six thousand years of history, much of it oral since no elf has lived longer than two thousand years.1 A scant few scholars in the West split over six thousand years of known history into Five Ages: the Age of the True Kings, the Age of the False Kings, the Age of the First Empire, the Age of Confusion, and the Age of the Continental Empire. The Southlands corroborate this account from their own unique perspective. Historians of the East divide history differently, but they’re Easterners.
In recent years scholars and treasure hunters have turned up ancient ruins where no ruins should be, and artifacts unlike any previously known.
The Great Continental Empire controls nearly the entire continent of Ekumene, but it, too, seems destined to fall.
Rumors abound of intrigues and instability in the Capitol in the far West. In the North and East, outlanders and barbarians have infiltrated the Empire. In the wealthy Southlands, the people talk of leaving the Empire and founding a new queendom around the deposed royal heir of Thera, the largest and richest province. Even in the central Territories some ask what the Empire has done for them (apart from roads, sanitation, defense, public works, and a common language).
In Antoeci a new religion threatens to destabilize the Kingdom of Khem, the Empire’s biggest trading partner across the sea. Attempts to find a route to Perioeci have failed, and the aging Emperor has halted all exploration. Meanwhile the God-Emperor of the Antipodes has rebuffed all diplomatic overtures from Khem and the Empire, and has closed their country to all foreigners. The Empire of Ekumene, apparently, stands alone.
The people of the Empire are diverse, but regional and species tensions persist under the Empire’s aristocratic nose.
The Canonists – the Church of Law – isolate themselves from the polytheist majority. The Imperial worship of Sol Invictus is squeezing out other gods. Chaos Cultists are out there doing something. The followers of the “Way of Balance” just smile …
North, South, East, West, and Middle have never agreed on much, but as the Empire falters each region, each Imperial governor, and each noble plans for their own survival. The empire’s dozens of ethnicities chafe under their foreign rulers, clash with their neighbors, and like all mortals struggle for more money and greater influence.
In the far east, the Hegemony seems more stable, but out of the public eye its princes scheme to supplant the current Shahanshah on the Dragon Throne. Its many peoples and satraps, too, quarrel, plot, and commit violence against each other.
Of late the elder species – including elves, halflings, and even dwarves – have forsaken their traditional homelands to “adventure” in human lands. Many larger settlements have developed “dwarftowns” where dwarves drink, ply their old trades, and plan for that one big score that will buy the forgiveness of their clan. Naturally these newcomers perturb already unstable human societies, and in turn are perturbed by the “uncouth” and “barbaric” ways of their hosts.
Monsters have become more prevalent, and the Governor of the Territories has chartered “Adventurers’ Guilds” to contain them.
“Adventurers” in the Guild receive membership badges with a rating that reflects their competence, reliability, and battle or magical prowess. They have the right to accept jobs appropriate to their rating2. Entire groups can register as “Adventuring Parties”, and develop their own ratings beyond the average rating of their members.
Anyone doing “adventuring” – mercenary work, bounty hunting, monster hunting, or ruin exploring – without a Guild membership risks fines, slavery, maiming, or death depending on the severity of the offense. The Governor insists these measures protect citizens from thieves and honest Adventurers from claim jumpers and frauds.
The Adventurers’ Guild is one of the few guilds with government oversight. (The others include the Goldsmiths’ Guilds and the Pharmacists’ Guilds.) Some suspect the Adventurers’ Guild also exists to control the growing number of mercenaries, bounty hunters, and other ne’er-do-wells.
Gather your sources of inspiration
The Late Roman Empire provides a model for the Continental Empire, for which I really need to find a better name. The era of Constanine seems like a good time to research: after the chaos of the Third Century Crisis and the failure of the Tetrarchy, but before the Empire split in half and the Western Empire declined.
The Persian Empires (there were several) provides a model for the Empire’s sort-of rival, the Eastern Hegemony. Obviously I need to research it as well, although the technique of using “satraps” to manage conquered kingdoms is well know. It’s also more sustainable than Rome’s allocation of military and administrative personnel to every conquest, which eventually led to locals being more loyal to their neighbors than to Rome.
The Carolingian Empire seems like a good period to draw from too. It’s yet another supposed “golden age” before a fall and a long recovery, in this case because Charlemagne’s son split the empire in three parts for his three son.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire may also prove a fruitful model for a multi-ethnic empire barely holding together until a World War ended it. Unlike the Continental Empire, though, the rifts between Austrians and Hungarians affected the governance of the Empire, not just the management of its “provinces” … which was equally bad.
The Mu hypothesis and other mythical “lost civilizations” provides some ideas for the “unknown civilizations” that built the dungeons our “heroes” will crawl. I’ll probably have to outline two to five, perhaps even entire prior worlds, before this is all over. Fomenko’s “New Chronology” and other “Phantom Time” hypotheses are also worth a mention; as history they’re nonsense, but the notion that “somebody” falsified all history books for social and political control makes an interesting story, particularly in a pseudo-medieval world where all history might trace back to only a handful of sources.
Speaking of worlds, Numenéra takes place in the “Ninth World”, where the technology of the prior eight is indistinguishable from magic. Beyond concepts, some of its “cyphers” (one-use magic items) and “artifacts” (multiple but limited use magic items) may show up in the game as well.
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks has always fascinated me: science fiction (or at least science fantasy) in my medieval fantasy game! ("You got medieval fantasy all over my science fiction!") While putting identifiable tech in a dungeon feels gauche, I may litter the aliened-up Numenéra or Mutant Crawl Classics versions around the lower levels.
An “adventurers’ guild” is an old trope from JRPGs and the anime based upon them. At least one YouTuber has argued that it’s a sensible idea where monsters are common and monster-slayers are a profession. In any case, it lets the PCs join up into a group somewhat naturally, gives adventurers a central hub for jobs and rumors, and provides a safe place for them to store their loot until they spend it with mad abandon.
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG might be my system of choice as it encourages throwing oneself on the mercy of the dice. The art evokes the better parts of older versions of D&D – the gonzo off-the-wall ideas – while the rules update mechanics to modern standards. More importantly, resource management is virtually nonexistent: casting spells successfully isn’t a matter of slots but good die rolls, while a bad die roll means you’ve lost the spell for the remainder of the adventure … unless you want to sacrifice one of your attribute points. (On that note, I might add house rules to replace strict accounting of resources like torches, ammo, and rations with “resource dice” from “Black Hack” and Forbidden Lands.)
Other Old School Revival (OSR) games have naturally influenced this project, particularly the limited classes and “race-classes” taken from the Original, Basic, B/X, and BECMI lineage of D&D. Some notable mentions:
Into the Unknown gets special mention for casting D&D 5th Edition rules into an OSR framework. It may be a way to lure players who wouldn’t otherwise touch “that old stuff” … and the 5E rules are certainly cleaner than the D&D versions that OSR tries to emulate (and improve).
Crypts and Things takes the Swords & Wizardry rules toward the sort of swords-and-sorcery style I prefer: no clerics (just magic-users), no elves, dwarves, or hobbits, just barbarians, fighters, magic-users, and thieves. The setting above notwithstanding I could easily make clerics and nonhumans NPCs … and I don’t really need elves or halflings. (I like dwarves, for some reason.)
Gargoyle 74 seems like a fairly bog-standard OSR retro-clone, save that its PC race-classes (species-classes) are Antediluvians (re-skinned elves), Dwarves (reimagined as clockwork constructs), and Lizard-Kin. (Barbaric!, also from Stellagama, adds Gecko-Kin, maybe because the Stellagama logo is a gecko.) Maybe those should be my “elder species” rather than elves, dwarves, and halflings. Or maybe I can reskin elves as Devil-Kin (Tieflings) and give them a different spell list …
Lamentations of the Flame Princess, cleaned of all the gore and goth makeup, is a fairly solid rule set. I particularly like replacing the “Thief” with the “Specialist”: anyone can attempt a skill, but the Specialist improves theirs. My RuneQuest/BRP instincts say that anyone should be able to improve any skill, but every party needs someone who’s specialty is everything else the warriors and magic-casters let slip through the cracks.
Just as elves meditate but do not sleep, venerable elves do not age so much as lose their interest in life. Sooner or later every elf that does not die by violence will wander in search of adventure and never return. ↩︎
Ratings use metals: lead, bronze, iron, silver, electrum, gold, platinum, orichalcum, mithril (“elfsteel”), and adamantite. ↩︎