Welcome back to Prep With Me, a series where I invite readers into my little prep corner and talk about the ideas I have for upcoming games and things I’m doing to make my life as a GM easier down the road.
Just as a heads up though, I’ll be taking a break from Pathfinder for this one. Actually I’ll be stepping away from the d20 system entirely and talking a bit about Mordheim, a small scale miniature skirmish game set in the Warhammer Fantasy Battles’ Old World. Some of you might be more familiar with Mordheim from Steam’s recent(ish) release of the digital re-imagining of the game.
If that’s not your bag, you’ve been forewarned. That isn’t to say you can’t use some of these ideas for your d20 home game or whatever. The process for building a campaign setting from the ground up might be useful as a thought exercise if nothing else. I’m here for no other reason if not to inspire.
So, a bit of background for the uninitiated. Games Workshop’s Old World setting is more or less directly analogous to the real world in terms of geography and gross generalizations of the cultures present. The Empire of Man is basically the Holy Roman Empire. Bretonnia is mostly medieval Arthurian-inspired France. Cathay to the east is China during what’s probably the height of the Han Empire. And so forth. Throw in Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, and other various and sundry fantasy races and you’ve got a pretty standard fantasy campaign setting. Perhaps not unlike some other settings we might all be familiar with?
The titular Mordheim is both the name of the game as well as the city in which the game is set. It first came out in 1999 and its last official supplement was in 2004. And thriving online community of dedicated wargamers and hobbyist has existed pretty much since the game’s inception. It’s still a great game in my opinion although it’s definitely starting to show its age. But if you want a low entry level, tactical combat miniatures game, with RPG elements you could definitely do worse.
All of this has just been a bunch of preamble to get into the actual meat of this article. Which is that I’ll be running a campaign using the Mordheim rules and setting of my own design. The Old World has been around for much longer than Golarion and a lot of the mysteries and places in the setting have been answered and explored. In order for me to come up with a storyline that was both engaging and was true to existing continuity within the Old World I would have needed to do an extensive amount of reading. Rather than doing that in order to be able have the creative freedom to tell the story that I want I figured I might as well just design my own setting.
Thus we have Anatolia, a city between worlds.
The first challenge was that of thematic diversity. Most of my fantasy these days is decidedly western in nature. It’s knights in shining armor, or dragons with wings, tall ships with square rigging and so forth. I’ve wanted to incorporate elements of eastern fantasy element but very often these two themes are mutually exclusive of one another. And when they do crossover it’s usually restricted to the trope of the lone wanderer or a stranger from afar visiting a foreign land. All of which is understandable. Some people don’t like their eastern chocolate in their western peanut butter. I get it. But if it’s my campaign setting, I’m going to do what I want.
Anatolia is set in what would be the analogue of the real world Asia Minor. In fact, the name Anatolia is from the Greek word for that place. As far as inspiration for a setting that straddles both east and west and might serve as a place for parts of those genres to mix I thought it would work out well. Classically, the area has a lot of Greek and Roman influences which then evolved into the more distinct Byzantine culture as time went on. It’s not an area steeped in what one might consider Asian influence, but it’s relative geographical proximity means that it’s easier to weave a story that contains elements of a larger cultural diversity than had I set this campaign in a more Eurocentric themed area.
The next challenge is structural. A warband skirmish game like Mordheim is fundamentally different than a cooperative RPG like Pathfinder in its core assumptions. In Pathfinder, the baseline assumption is that a) each player takes the role of a single character, b) that all the characters are in the same adventuring party, and c) are generally working towards a common goal. In a warband game, players take on the relatively omniscient and unnamed roll of master tactician. They control an entire warband (read: adventuring party) that can contain as many as twenty individuals. These groups of warbands might have different goals or might even be in direct opposition to one another. Generally speaking, the focus of an RPG is the roleplay with combat elements interspersed throughout. A warband game is the opposite, primarily focused on combat and contextualizing that with light roleplay elements.
So at the onset, the primary draw of both the storyline and the campaign setting for a warband game is necessarily different from that of a typical RPG adventure. The setting must have a hook or McGuffin that might interest and motivate a number of different warband leaders to attract them to the setting and narrative. Either that or one must make the blanket assumption that all warbands are motivated by the same overarching goal. The original game of Mordheim leaned this way and made the entire game about the acquisition of Wyrdstone, a incredible valuable post-cataclysmic commodity.
I do want the focus of Anatolia’s conflict to be partially about resource scarcity. So including treasures as a motivational element does still make sense. Money is still what pays the troops and equips them with gear. So one of the reasons warbands will come into conflict with one another is to struggle over the objects of value within the city and surrounding region. But the focus of the game should be about uncovering a mystery of some kind. I want to borrow from elements of Lovecraftian mystery or occult horror. Where the answers to the darkest secrets lay just out of reach, and should you uncover them, terrible things happen to you. The goal then is to create a mystery or secret for the players to uncover, the race for which will become the primary motivating factor that drives forward the narrative.
And so, like any good mystery, we must start with writing the backstory. Now, normally I’m a strong advocate with writing exactly as much as you need to, no more and no less. When running a homebrew, often you might dedicate hours developing this one region or plot arc only to have the PCs never encounter or learn about the thing you spent so much time on. But in this case I’m going to try and be as detailed as possible, or at least try and flesh out my background narrative as much as possible so as be able to foreshadow things to come.
We begin, like many such stories, a long time ago. Let’s arbitrarily say something like a millennium before the current timeline. That’s seems like a sufficiently long enough time to for contemporary scholars to have muddy details of actual events. It’s also a easy enough chuck of time to talk about. One thousand years. One millennium. One Backstreet Boys Album.
So, on to spitballing ideas. Sometimes I find it easier just to let thoughts flow and clean up stuff later. You might pick up on this when Alex and I do a Create Demiplane on the Private Sanctuary. Except here I don’t have a co-host to bounce ideas off of so my brainstorm might be unnecessarily messy as a result. Anyways, here goes!
A thousand years ago Anatolia was a prospering kingdom. I’m not picturing anything too large. Given the geographical layout of its real world namesake I’m thinking something on the order of a single metropolitan city and surrounding villages complete with such industries like pasturage, farmings, and lumbering to support such an establishment. The majority of region’s wealth comes from its position along a trade route that spans two great but distant civilizations. The real world inspiration here is the Silk Road. Anatolia has no real standing army. They have regional patrons and the king has a company of guardsmen. But the region is kept independent and safe from potential conquests by its reputation for magical prowess – this will come up later as both the cause of its downfall and as one of the lures for adventurers to come into the city in the present day.
Now let’s take a moment to address government. To build upon the magic theme, let’s have a wizard-king elected for life by a council of similarly powerful sorcerous-elites. Because compound words are fun. Ideally, the wizard-king should be the strongest, wisest, or other superlative etc of the council. But because mortals are jealous and fallible creatures, in practice the wizard-king is often a weak and easily manipulated individual that is subject to the whims of the most powerful factions of his council. Because infighting is intriguing.
This is the system when Malakai Etribiates (MAL-uh-kai ET-rib-bee-ah-tees) ascends to the throne in our T-minus 1000ish years date. He’s an wily sorcerer who successfully hid both his talent and ambition before securing the throne. Fortunately he’s a friend of the common folk of Anatolia and has grand designs for reform. As you can imagine a system where in the most powerful rule over the quite literally powerless individuals might become corrupt over time. And Malakai might just be the one to do it. He’s charismatic, intelligent, and powerful. He’s met with some initial resistance from amongst the council when he unveils his plans. But after a brief and violent clash his detractors are put into line. Anatolia enters a new age of wealth and prosperity and if it sounds like I’m setting up poor Malakai for a tragic downfall it’s because I am.
In secret, the Grand Vizier (it’s always the Vizier!) Astygages (Az-TIG-ah-geez) the Black (wasn’t that a clue?) was fomenting a coup to remove Malakai from power. Utilizing (obviously) forbidden arts he summoned minions of the Dark Gods to help him overthrow his king. But things didn’t go according to plan. Astygages was tricked by the powers he meant to control. Instead of an army of summoned creatures as he’d intended, the Grand Vizier unleashed a virulent plague upon Anatolia. The nature of this plague is mostly to be determined. But in an act of state-enforced sacrifice, Malakai magically quarantined the region in a exclusion zone to prevent the spread of disease. While not the way he’d intended to challenge his liege, Astyages took the opportunity to kill his distracted king. The careful balance of the exclusion zone was disrupted during their brief but explosive duel and Anatolia was blasted side-ways through time.
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Anatolia disappeared in an instant. As time passed, neighboring kingdoms mounted investigations into the region. Each reported back strange but disturbing occurrences like metal suddenly rusting in a matter of moments. Or draft animals being found turned inside-out overnight. Or other spooky things to scary away the inquisitive. Within the exclusion zone, life in Anatolia went on, but isolated from the outside world. The struggle for the throne continued on in some capacity for the next thousand years or so, much to detriment of pretty much everyone one.
Fast-forward to present day and some recent near-cataclysmic event pops Anatolia’s stasis bubble and it reappears in the world. I’ve got the rudiments of an idea as to why and how but I’ve not even begun to develop that yet. The contemporary governments of present day react much in the way one might expect them to when a city out of myth and legend suddenly reappears without warning. They want to know what it is, what’s valuable there, and whether or not they can acquire it before their rivals.
Thus is the groundwork laid for the events of Anatolia, a City Between Worlds. Specific details and events should probably become relevant a later and I’ll develop them when they do. But for now this should set a decent framework for me to begin the narrative. The in the next installment I’ll try and lay out the actual mechanics of how I plan to run the campaign as well as flesh out some of the NPCs and specific locations within Anatolia some more.
For now I hope this has been inspiring or, at the very least, entertaining. Let me know what else you’d like to see in the comments section below or in the forums!