The Witchtide Project: Taking Shape

After two weeks working on the deities and geography of the world of Witchtide, both are still very much a work in progress. I think the time and effort is worth it, though. In figuring out these details, I’m actually shaping the entire campaign. They say geography is destiny, and putting some careful thought into how the world is laid out now will make it simple to generate natural storylines later on. Same goes for the gods of the world. A mythology is the distilled essence of a people, presenting their worldview and core values in the form of characters and narratives.

Shaping the World

As seen in the rough map above, there are three major continents, each home to various kingdoms and worlds. There’s also some major islands, which essentially have their own “seafarer’s culture”. Cultural elements from all over the world can be seen on the islands, and yet, each island’s culture is unique.

Mbakulu is the cradle of civilization. Mammalian civilization, at least. Myths differ on who arose first and from what, but it’s accepted that all humans, orcs, elves, dwarves, and gnomes can trace their lineage back to the heart of Mbakulu. Today, that heartland is dominated by the great kingdoms of the orcs, lending credence to the theory they were the first race from which all others evolved. To the south is the human empire of Zola, surrounded by smaller human and orc territories. Two dark elf empires rule the western coast of Mbakulu: Aq’i and Nya’yed. In creating these cultures, I’m pulling elements from west and central Africa, along with Egypt and Iran.

Mångata is a crossroads of civilization, settled by dwarves, gnomes, and humans from Mbakulu as well as dragonborn tracing their lineage to Nkte’ul. Along the southern coast are human kingdoms such as Cantile and Baluaer, taking inspiration from Latin countries like Spain, France, and Italy. The north is home to gnomes and dwarves, whose lands I haven’t thought about yet, but will draw liberally from Germanic and Scandinavian culture. Scattered in between are the Slavic flavored lands of the dragonborn.

At last we have Nikte’ul, the main setting of the campaign. The broad strokes of the other two continents are important for adding flavor and context, but we’ll probably be spending most of our time here. Nikte’ul is the birthplace of reptilian races like lizardfolk and kobolds, as well as the avian kenku and aarakocra. Though they are strictly native to the continent, a subrace of elves also migrated to Nikte’ul sometime before recorded history, and are equally entrenched in the land. All of these cultures pull from Mesoamerican peoples like the Olmecs, Nahuatl, Maya, Inka, and Shuar. More recently, enterprising humans, dwarves, dark elves, and orcs have arrived from the other continents in search of land and treasure.

Shaping the Heavens

I’ve been doing a ton of research in the process of creating the world’s religions, and still have a long way to go in terms of fleshing out the details. I am happy with the distinctive world views I’ve created so far, though.

The Edroze, the dominant pantheon of Mbakulu, would be revered by most orcs and humans. The pantheon, at it’s core, is a tale of a primitive god adventuring in a cruel and frightening world. In his travels he encounters hostile forces embodied by Death, Death’s wife, and his daughters. First he flees from them, then makes war with them, learns to coexist with them, and ultimately marries the two daughters, creating the final four gods, his sons. Different cultures have elaborated on the tale to create complex mythologies, but the core story remains the same.

Many similarities can be seen between the Edroze and the Ka’alsa, the dark elf pantheon. As befits dark elf society, however, the positions of the deities have been inverted, so that the feminine forces associated with Death are the primary objects of worship.

Moving over to Mångata we have the Dwiztosc, a pantheon with deep roots in druidic nature worship. The humans, dwarves, and gnomes of this land see the world as shaped by two opposing forces–one male, one female–and divide nature into three elements: air, water, and soil. I took inspiration for this pantheon primarily from Slavic mythologies, but also from the early Indo-European mythologies that would become the Greek and Norse religions as we know them today. While they all worship the same entities, the different human, dwarven, and gnomish kingdoms each have unique mythologies, each leaning more Greek, Norse, or Slavic.

The Siyayushchiye, worshiped by the reptilian peoples of Mångata, include some of the same entities worshiped as part of the Dwiztosc. The main difference is that each of the Siyayushchiye are depicted as dragons, and each associated with a specific type of dragon. Although I’m trying not to include any of the typical gods of Dungeons and Dragons, I made an exception for Bahamut and Tiamat, whom I am partial to.

Now is probably a good time to mention that I’m eschewing the whole concept of alignments. I’ll talk about that more in the future, but Bahamut is not necessarily good, nor Tiamat evil. Dark elves and orcs aren’t inherently evil, either, though the moral code of a specific dark elf or orc culture might conflict with those of a specific human or dwarf culture. Then again, the mores of one dark elf society would probably conflict with another dark elf society. The idea that your race defines your morality seems inherently problematic to me.

Finally, the Tahual are the predominant pantheon of Nikte’ul. They are a loose pantheon of deities from all the cultures of the continent, making it a little more difficult to identify any unifying themes in the mythology–with two major exceptions. The worship of entities depicted as snakes is universal to the cultures of Nikte’ul, even in regions that are not home to snakes. In addition, they all incorporate the motif of sacrifice–often the sacrifice of sentient beings in order to appease the gods.

Shaping the Shapers

Very much a work in progress, but here’s a list of the deities I’ve created so far, with their associated portfolios and domains.

Edroze

  • Kabua-Mbosano, exploration, discovery (War)
  • Ilotho, sun, wealth, law (Light)
  • Arenyankha, sky, moon, wisdom (Knowledge)
  • Lahnkonto, rain, health, luck (Life)
  • Ehin, darkness, mysticism, messages (Trickery)
  • Uku, forests, thunder, death (Death)
  • Tsetse, birds, lightning, fire (Tempest)
  • Togefa, mourning, disease, blood (Grave)
  • Khunzel, the hunt (Nature)

Ka’alsa

  • Telmet, chaos, oceans, wonder, dragons, the sublime (Nature)
  • Sahir, magic, knowledge, history (Knowledge)
  • Sam’il, sun, sky, floods, storms (Tempest)
  • Haqora, love, fertility, protection (Life)
  • Sekhnare, war, the hunt, beauty (War)
  • Sha’at, truth, justice, law (Light)
  • E’te, creation, art, stability, crafts, earth (Life)
  • Mar, desert, secrets, the unknown (Trickery)
  • Q’ir, death, rebirth, balance (Grave)
  • Iten, change, vengeance, revolution (Death)
  • Sin, writing, wisdom, moon (Knowledge)
  • Kayr, beer, celebration, gardens (Nature)

Dwiztosc

  • Ballobar: sun, men, music (Light)
  • Chertes: moon, women, the hunt (Death)
  • Sovenicar: judgment, fate, wisdom (Knowledge)
  • Dreva: life, harvest, fertility (Life)
  • Ogneyr: fire, sacrifice, war (War)
  • Agasz: trickery, invention, writing (Trickery)
  • Zvor: sky, air, thunder (Tempest)
  • Ruen: earth, water, nature (Nature)
  • Svade: underworld, soil, death (Grave)

Siyayushchiye

  • Bahamut: sky (Light)
  • Tiamat: sea (Nature)
  • Zolto: gold, writing (Knowledge)
  • Serebryn: silver, luck (Trickery)
  • Ronza: bronze, trade (Knowledge)
  • Latuun: brass, crafts (Light)
  • Meadh: copper, harvest (Life)
  • Kasnyr: red, war (War)
  • Sinai: blue, travel (Tempest)
  • Zelna: green, nature (Nature)
  • Belyn: white, hunt (Death)
  • Chyra: black, death (Grave)

Tahual

  • Miqlectli, goddess of death and rebirth (Grave)
  • Toltlamet, god of art and the hunt (Death)
  • Atzinachtli, goddess of the moon and fertility (Life)
  • Tlahuicatl, god of the sun and corn (Light)
  • Coacpac, god of the wilderness and medicine (Knowledge)
  • Iltepetl, god of storms and agave (Tempest)
  • Xocoyotl, god of trickery and travel (Trickery)
  • Tletatl, goddess of love and war (War)
  • Xelquetzli, goddess of ships and outcasts (Nature)

The Witchtide Project: The Big Picture

When creating a campaign for Dungeons and Dragons, where do you start?

I’m pretty old school: I crack open the Dungeon Master’s Guide and follow the steps.

Let’s dive right in!

Core Assumptions

Right away, the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide presents you with a set of core assumptions that most campaigns are built on. I’m good with most of these: the world is untamed, the world is ancient, and conflict shapes the world’s history.

The other two–gods oversee the world and the world is magical–I also accept, but with qualifiers.

The world of the Witchtide Project definitely has gods, but they’re remote and have a very limited ability to affect the world. Similarly, the world is definitely magical, but magic is not as abundant as in the typical campaign.

My philosophy is that the fantastic is only fantastic when it is grounded in reality. If divine intervention is a common occurrence and every village has a wizard who can conjure infinite food, we wouldn’t be able to recognize or relate to that world and its inhabitants. If the world is, for the most part, beholden to the same laws as ours, then the occasional wondrous occurrence will create real wonder.

To express this in game terms, I put a soft level cap on nonplayer characters. There are of course exceptions, most notably the players and their adversaries, but the vast majority of people and monsters who inhabit the world have an effective level of 6 or lower. That means the average inhabitant of the world, during their lifetime, will run into someone who can magically induce sleep or shoot fire from their fingers, but most likely will not meet someone who has traveled to other planes of existence or can teleport.

Gods of the World

I love creating religious systems, so Witchtide throws out all existing gods and starts from scratch. One of my goals with the campaign is to draw from a wide range of cultures not usually represented in Dungeons and Dragons, so I’ll be looking into mythologies from all over the world for inspiration as I create the pantheons of Witchtide.

In real life, gods tend to spread among cultures and be called by different names, and that’s something I want Witchtide to reflect. This runs counter to the typical Dungeons and Dragons setting, in which gods have very set and very clear alignments and portfolios. For example, the Satan figure in Christianity, who represents evil itself, pulls heavily from the Greek Pan, mischievous god of nature and music. Similarly, the depiction of gods in Witchtide will vary from culture to culture.

We’ll get into geography more later, but the world of Witchtide has three major continents. I figure one pantheon would originate on each continent, and there would also be an “Oceanic” pantheon from the countless islands between the continents (not to mention aquatic races like sahuagin and tritons).

The northern continent of Mångata will have the pantheon most similar to the typical setting, as I’ll be pulling from European mythologies such as Greek and Norse traditions. That said, I’ll be diving deep into the original mythologies of these cultures, drawing on stories that are still alien and shocking to those passingly familiar with figures like Zeus and Odin (hint: cannibalism and rape are horrifyingly common themes in basically all religions).

Nikte’ul, the southern continent and focal point of the campaign, has a distinct Mesoamerican flavor, so expect gods reminiscent of real-world Mexica, Maya, Olmec, and Inka beliefs. The eastern continent, Mbakulu, will draw upon African mythologies, particularly the antecedents of Haitian Vodou found in Benin and the Congo.

Finally, the Oceanic pantheon will be a collection of sea gods reminiscent of those found in island cultures like Hawai’i and Indonesia.

From there, other pantheons will break off, forming new pantheons with some of the original deities and some new ones. I’ll keep it simple by focusing on one secondary pantheon per continent. On Mångata, reptilian races will have their own “draconic” pantheon in which the gods are portrayed as dragons. Meanwhile, their reptilian counterparts on Nikte’ul will have their own pantheon pulling from Chinese and Indian myth. The elven population of Mbakulu will have a pantheon pulling from Egyptian and pre-Abrahamic Middle Eastern religions (nothing recognizably Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, in other words).

I have a lot of gods to design and I haven’t created most of them yet, but here’s a rough sketch of the Tahual, the major pantheon of Nikte’ul.

  • Miqlectli, goddess of death and rebirth
  • Toltlamet, god of art and the hunt
  • Atzinachtli, goddess of the moon and fertility
  • Tlahuicatl, god of the sun and corn
  • Coacpac, god of the wilderness and medicine
  • Iltepetl, god of storms and agave
  • Xocoyotl, god of trickery and travel
  • Tletatl, goddess of love and war
  • Xelquetzli, goddess of ships and outcasts

Geography is Destiny

Now my favorite part: mapping everything.

I’ve already mentioned the three continents. To the north is Mångata, which draws from Europe and Russia in both culture and geography and is predominantly settled by dwarves, gnomes, and dragonborn. To the east is Mbakulu, reminiscent of Africa and the Middle East and home to humans, orcs, drow elves, and goblins.

Nikte’ul, where the campaign will begin and probably mostly take place (though this is of course up to the players), draws from the precolonial Americas as well as some Asian cultures, and is mainly populated by elves, halflings, lizardfolk, and kobolds.

I believe in the bottom-up method of campaign design, so I’ll be focusing first on where everything begins: Puerto Amargo, a port town of ill repute in the province of Cienbar, a coastal region of the kingdom of Mareaña on the northeastern portion of Nikte’ul.

Next week, I should have some rough maps of the campaign world and will hopefully have filled in a few more pantheons. Then we’ll move on to settlements, currency, and languages.

The Witchtide Project: A Dungeons and Dragons Experience

On Monday, I explained the idea behind my six new columns: each of them is built so that they could become their own fully-realized project one day. Of all of them, the Witchtide project has the clearest path to get to that point (well, except Crossroads Conversations, which started past the finish line).

What is the Witchtide Project, anyway?

A New Adventure

I recently discontinued a Dungeons and Dragons campaign and podcast. Witchtide is the successor to that show. Nothing is set in stone, but I do have vague plans to launch a new campaign with a new group, which we would stream, record, and release as a podcast.

As a Dungeon Master, there’s no limit on how much time you can sink into campaign prep. You can make a perfectly fun game in an hour a week, or you can sink an ungodly amount of time into it and create an almost cinematic experience.

Since we’ll be releasing the adventure as a “product”, albeit a free one, I want it to be as polished as possible. My time investment will be closer to the “ungodly” end of the meter. I want to put a lot of work into the project but don’t want it to take away from other projects, like this blog, so I’m going to double dip and turn all that work into content.

Designing an Experience

The Witchtide Project will take you every step of the way as I build a dungeons and dragons campaign from the ground up. This includes the setting, which I already have some ideas for and which should feel at once familiar and unique. It also includes the gameplay. We’ll be using the 5th edition dungeons and dragons rule set, but I’ll be exploring alternate rules and coming up with some house rules of my own to create a very specific experience.

Even if you’ve never played dungeons and dragons and have no interest in it, you should be able to get something out of this column. Dungeons and dragons is about telling a story, but it’s a collaborative story and nobody at the table can guess how it will turn out. Designing a campaign is a bit like writing a novel and a bit like designing a video game, but with a lot of unique challenges and opportunities.

If you’re a creative, and especially if you’re a writer, planning and participating in a role-playing game can teach you a lot. As I go, I’ll talk about my thinking behind each decision, and the experience I’m trying to create for my future players.

And when we get around to actually playing the game, you’ll get to see if any of my decisions were any good!

Name of the Game

Next week we’ll jump right in to fleshing out the setting and making design decisions. For now, I’ll talk about my vision for the game–what I’m aiming for with the decisions I’ll make over the next months, whether I’m ultimately successful or not.

Witchtide is a working title. It came to me randomly and may or may not end up being relevant to anything in the campaign. It does capture the atmosphere I want to create, though: dark, ominous, and vaguely nautical.

The core of Witchtide is the idea that the point is not to “win” but to participate in a story. The gameplay will reflect this. At first glance, some of the rules I come up with may seem limiting or punishing, but only if you go in with the mindset of a gamer trying to beat a level. The best stories are about heroes who suffer and fail on their way to victory, and it can be just as fun to roleplay a character in defeat as in triumph.

The setting will draw on my personal expertise. Mexican culture and history will probably play a large role in the design of the world. Not that I’m an expert on Mexico by any means, but I know enough to create a setting distinct from the standard “Medieval France but with elves”. Beyond that, expect the setting to be on the gritty side of fantasy, influenced by a blend of real-world cultures not usually represented in fantasy, and incorporating more science than usual (I’m already fleshing out a map of how all the different fantasy races evolved from one another and migrated around the world in prehistoric times).

Bringing together setting and gameplay is the thematic element. A lot of the themes will, ideally, arise from the stories the players choose to tell with their characters, I’ll be building the experience with a few ideas in mind. The nature of death will probably be an interesting theme to explore given the setting. If you’ve had a chance to see Coco, you know that Mexican culture has a much more cheerful take on mortality compared with other Western cultures. I’ll probably also loop in an old favorite of mine (one that shows up in everything I make anyway so I might as well put it in now): the absence of good and evil, the idea that there are two–or more–sides to every story.

If any of that piques your interest, check back in a week when we start to build a world in earnest!