Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Journey to the Mage-Blight Hills

 We are not monsters; we simply are. We are creatures with unrealized potential.”

From “A Testament of Completion”

The paths down which imagination leads us sometimes don’t make sense, might bring us to strange places, but offer us opportunities to grow. I’m stumbling down one such path with my latest fantasy roleplaying game project, The Mage-Blight Hills, a setting sourcebook without any game stats, enabling gamemasters to port it to whatever system they prefer. It grew from a simple idea, a lark, really, for an adventure I might run for my son should I ever introduce him to pen-and-paper roleplaying (as opposed to the diversions he finds in the seemingly infinite electronic worlds of Roblox). As I thrashed about trying to develop and write another setting – the perpetually postponed Infinite Cathedral – I let my imagination run a bit wild on this other scenario...until it took on a life of its own and demanded I follow the path it set before me. Although it’s still quite a ways from any sense of completion, it’s providing both a chance to find some solace in an escapist fantasy world and an opportunity to try out some concepts in setting design.

In the midst of the covid pandemic I started considering what kind of Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons scenario I might run (with my own house-ruled adjustments) for my son and any of his friends once it became safe again to gather in person for such activities. This was in part an escapist exercise in itself, an attempt to cope with the numerous disappointments covid precautions forced on most of our society. It also kept me from dwelling on my creative anxieties at the time: the lack of anything but solitaire gaming pursuits; the pressure I put on myself to produce meaningful content at Hobby Games Recce; the intrusion of other, seemingly infinite real-world worries; my grappling with development and writing The Infinite Cathedral; and the host of other demons gnawing away at my sense of self-esteem. Unlike my younger days, when I would have jotted down notes on loose pieces of paper and notecards, along with using precious sheets of graph paper on maps, I just ran things through my head, elements I’d want to include, and how that might evolve into an interesting dungeon crawl to give my son and his friends some sampling of the core elements of fantasy roleplaying games.

The initial idea developed around a long-dead wizard whose ruined tower sat atop a hill honeycombed with chambers still containing magical beasts and fantastic treasures. Intended as a low-level starter adventure, the premise provided a superficial excuse to populate it with various iconic beasts: owlbears, slimes, stirges, gargoyles, and other monsters of the fantastical sort. Throw in some traps, abandoned libraries and laboratories, and it could include the hallmarks of a fantasy roleplaying game adventure with increasingly difficult levels perfect for advancing characters and subsequent expeditions. I figured at some point I’d drop in a generic town nearby, a place the heroes could use as a base of operations, heal wounds, cash in their spoils, and replenish supplies between forays into the dungeons. Expanding my view beyond the main adventure location inspired me to introduce some competition, a band of gnolls seeking a legendary artifact the wizard crafted giving the wearer dominion over magical beasts (including, theoretically, other gnolls).

And then my imagination started skipping gleefully off into this fantasy concept. Maybe I was channeling energy stalled with The Infinite Cathedral. Maybe I was just glad to have a fresh idea to develop. Maybe I wanted something new without the constraints of The Infinite Cathedral’s architectural, moral, and survival themes. Whatever the reason, I started expanding my beginner-friendly B/X D&D scenario concept into a much larger (and more ambitious) setting project. What if instead of a single dungeon location the wizard’s ruins spanned a vast region? With terrain blighted for two millennia after a war to end his dominion over the world? With his sorcerous creations roaming free and haunting the ancient ruins, guarding his secrets, and preparing for his prophesied return?

I drafted a quick summary teaser I revised several time until I came up with something like this:

He Shall Return...

To Finish Them All!

Kuraga, a powerful sorcerer, rose to power at the Dawn of the World, when creation had settled all things into their present likenesses. Unsatisfied with the bland forms life had taken, he unleashed his magics to transmute living beings into creatures of more advanced development. Many of these experiments failed, but some succeeded in birthing dreadful monsters still known today: slimes and oozes of various colors, griffons, gnolls, and the fearsome dragons, to name only a few. Lesser wizards gathered beneath Kuraga’s banner, aiding his research and establishing a kingdom based on sorcerous principles.

But the rulers of the world, deeming his monstrous mutations evil, gathered their forces to destroy him and his abominable experiments. A fierce battle raged, with vast armies and mighty magics ravaging the region and ultimately destroying Kuraga’s power. Over the millennia the battlefield has eroded into a vast moor, with ghostly stone hills rising from sickly bogs. The sorcerer’s creations still roam this wasteland, though many spread across the world according to their own destinies. But here, in the Mage-Blight Hills, secrets still slumber beneath the heath and stones, waiting to snare the unwary and tempt those with ambitions of greatness.

A single hilltop ruin with dungeons below turned into a vast blighted wasteland of ruins, ancient survivors, buried artifacts, and a rich environment in which to develop numerous elements evolving from the central premise. A base town on the edge of the Mage-Blight Hills offered even more opportunities for related material further reinforcing the setting. I wanted to explore several central themes, trying to weave them throughout individual elements: a lost, forbidden land to explore for artifacts, treasure, and arcane knowledge; issues of identity for individuals on the fringe of the civilized kingdom; different responses to authority and oppression generally leaning toward resignation, acceptance, and means of subverting it (with undertones of exile); and finally the threat/promise of the imminent return of a great power bringing apocalypse...or rebirth.

As I mentioned earlier this year, I’m immersing myself in the setting by exploring and developing different elements focused on a few pages at a time. This allows me to work on a number of varied sections – broad setting concepts, specific locations, and individual inhabitants – bringing some parts near draft completion so I gain some sense of accomplishment, then can move forward into new territory. Starting each new section, even if related to the prior one, reminds me to concentrate on two key approaches: putting myself first-person in the perspective of readers seeking ideas for their own interactions with setting elements; and integrating some or all of my themes wherever possible.

The Mage-Blight Hills is nowhere near complete, even in a first-draft stage. I don’t know how long this journey will take. Right now I’m happy to immerse myself as I explore different ideas, wandering around until something inspires me, and taking pleasure in creating a setting in which I hope others find some significant recuperative escape through whatever fantasy roleplaying game they like at the moment. I might post some sample teasers here if they reach the stage where I’m comfortable sharing. So I’m setting off into the Wander Mist that befuddles travelers on the moors, accompanied by plenty of medieval music to drive me forward, exploring new ideas wherever my imagination leads, and returning to find something that offered me some respite...and provides entertaining for other gamers, too.

We are all ‘unfinished’ in some sense. We all manage with our faults as well as our talents.”

From “A Testament of Completion”

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