Tag: worldbuilding

RPG-ology #18: Waterways

This is RPG-ology #18:  Waterways, for May 2019.


We mentioned rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water in connection with maps when we talked about Country Roads and again when we were talking about the placement of Cities, but we barely touched on them, more from the perspective of their influence on other aspects of our maps and our worlds.  Maps and worlds, though, are complicated things, in which everything influences everything, and understanding how waterways work will help us put together better maps.

This is difficult for me, because so much of it seems obvious to me so I expect it will be obvious to everyone else.  However, I have the advantage, as I think I mentioned in Shock, of over a thousand miles of long-haul canoeing, so I am perhaps intimately familiar with rivers and lakes and ponds and how they work.  I thus hope that I’m not telling you too many obvious points, and that some of this proves to be practical.  Let’s start with some terms.

A river is pretty much any waterway that flows downhill.  They can be big or small, swift or lazy, shallow or deep, straight or meandering, rocky or clear, in any combination.  Smaller rivers are often called brooks, streams, creeks, and similar diminutive titles, but the only significant difference is the attitude of the people toward the waterway and the probability of it going dry, which rivers rarely do.

Lakes and ponds are usually found as interruptions in rivers, and they are distinct from rivers in a significant way.  A lake or pond is formed in essence when water pours into a natural basin and has to rise to the level of an exit point.  Because of this, the surface of a lake or pond is level, while that of a river is always sloped–if you look at the accompanying photo, you can see that the downstream end is downhill.  In the vernacular, lakes and ponds are generally distinguished by their size, but technically they are distinguished by their depth:  a pond is shallow enough that water plants such as waterlilly pads can root on the bottom and grow on the surface, while a lake has at least some areas in which it is too deep for that.  Lakes and ponds are sometimes created intentionally by the use of dams, built by people or sometimes by animals, most typically beavers.

It is difficult to distinguish a sea from a lake in many cases.  Seas tend to be the terminus of rivers, at least one and often several, but most of them either drain into or are contiguous with the oceans, which are also sometimes called seas but which as a word tends to refer to the vast expanses of water separating the continents.  The two exceptions to the drainage rule are the Dead Sea, which is constantly evaporating and so is too salty to support marine life, and the Mediterranean, which also loses its water to evaporation but is large enough that its salinity, although elevated, is not inimical to such life, and fishing and the like are active there.  (It is easy looking at a map to suppose that the Mediterranean drains into the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibralter, but the water there is mostly flowing very rapidly in the opposite direction, salt water from the Atlantic constantly replenishing the losses in the Mediterranean through what some have called the world’s largest waterfall. There is an undercurrent flowing westward as a small amount of dense saltier water goes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, but the bulk of the volume is inflow from the Atlantic.)  It is also the case that seas tend to be salty while lakes tend to be fresh, but this is not a hard and fast rule, there being a number of salt lakes in the world.  Part of this is because the distinctions between lakes and seas are not made in all Indo-European languages, and English has often translated words strictly that were used loosely.

A passageway that connects two bodies of water of the same or similar level is usually called a strait (or sometimes straits), usually unlike a river because water flows in and out both ends generally with the shifting tides.  If it is wider or longer, it is often called a channel, but this word also refers to the best path through a river—rivers tend to carve a deeper groove through which most of the water travels, and boats and ships navigate through these deeper sections either with or against the current. In modern times, these channels are marked by buoys, red buoys to the right when traveling upstream (“Red Right Returning”), black buoys marking the other edge.

A bay frequently appears as a brackish (that is, salty but less salty than the ocean) body of water connecting a river to a sea or ocean.  As the tide rises, water from the ocean pours into the bay, often forcing its way upstream reversing the “normal” flow of the river; the Delaware River is brackish as far upstream as Trenton, New Jersey, about eighty miles upstream, about fifty feet above sea level, and this reverse flow is often used by ships to navigate to inland ports upriver.  As the tide ebbs the bay drains into the ocean, and the river into the bay, and fresh water makes its way downstream to wash away the salt.  Because of the backwash, those upstream ports have rising and ebbing tides, but these are out of phase with the coastal tides that drive them, often by as much as six or eight hours, depending on how far upriver you go.  A very small bay-like inlet is usually called a cove; a lagoon generally is a type of coastal pool that fills from ocean spill when the tide rises over its banks, and then slowly evaporates, frequently not completely before being refilled.

A wadi is something like a river, but significantly different.  Common to inland tropics such as Africa, the wadi is a watercourse that floods and dries in a seasonal cycle.  During the “rainy season” water falls in the highlands and flows down very like rivers, working downstream and gradually covering thousands of acres of ground, pooling but flowing, spreading over wide expanses of open space.  Animals are aware of the seasonal cues, and migrate toward the anticipated flood; plants desiccated from drought spring to life and blossom.  For a few months it is a lush wet marshy world, water plentiful, wildlife active.  Then gradually it all evaporates, leaving the dry grassland to wither in the heat, as the animals scatter to places better able to support them during the drought.  The water from a wadi never reaches the seas, soaking into the earth and evaporating into the air long before joining any other watercourse.  Wadis do not support ship traffic or permanent settlements, because the water level is non-existent for a significant part of the year and rarely deep enough for more than the smallest craft.

Swamps, marshes, bayous, and deltas all tend to be areas where a river spreads out to a shallow wide area, usually with a channel passing through it somewhere but often a confusing labyrinth of waterways leading to dead ends and shallow muck.  Wadis do support marshes and swamps during their wet periods; bayous and deltas tend to be at points where the river meets the sea, and are brackish like bays.

Now, this might sound obvious, but water falls from the sky.  Really all of it does.  Water in wells and water coming from springs is water that fell from the sky and soaked into the ground, then collected atop or between layers of rock and either sat waiting to be collected or built up pressure from gravity until it spurted through an exit.  It gets into the sky by evaporation, the vast majority of this from the vast expanses of tropical oceans—if your world does not have vast tropical oceans, you will have a lot less rain, and a lot less fresh water.  Evaporated water, water vapor, is held in greater quantity in denser warmer air; if the air cools or becomes depressurized, it cannot hold as much water and so releases it.  This is why so much precipitation (rain and snow) falls on mountains:  warm moist dense air currents are shifted upward into cooler low pressure altitudes, and can no longer hold as much water.  From there it collects in streams or soaks into the ground.

There is an interesting atmospheric phenomenon at this point.  As water falls, it washes carbons out of the air, turning into mild carbolic acid.  It has always done this; this is not a modern result of air pollution, although air pollution does contribute to it.  Carbolic acid which lands on dirt and soaks into it decays and releases its carbons back into the atmosphere.  That which lands on rock and flows into streams dissolves the rock, creating calcium carbonate which washes downstream into the oceans, burying the carbon for millenia.  That’s not really useful to this discussion, though, so ignore it.

Technically, a well is a hole dug deep enough to hit what is called the water table, the level under the ground where bedrock prevents water from seeping deeper, and so has water refilling it constantly from the surrounding lands.  It is sometimes confused with a cistern, which is a dry hole usually lined with stone designed to catch rain when there is rainfall and keep it deep and cool in the ground during the dry seasons.  The famed Jacob’s Well is actually a cistern.

This is also obvious:  water flows downhill.  Because of this it is constantly “seeking” the lowest point, and that means it collects into fewer larger rivers.  If it pours into a low point—call it a basin—it collects there, rising as a pond or lake until it rises over the lowest edge.  A lake can have several rivers feeding it, or no rivers feeding it if it is fed by a spring or springs below its water line, but rarely does it have more than one draining it—odds are good that there will be one lowest point, and once the water starts pouring through it erosion will make that point lower.  If the lake is filling faster than it is emptying, it might rise high enough to begin spilling from another point.  However, most typically these are near enough each other that the streams soon join creating an island at the head of the river.  If the two streams are headed in different directions, it is most commonly the case that one of the outlets will erode until all the water passes through it, the other becoming dry unless it is fed by other water sources below.

Where the ground is steeper, the water moves faster and generally straighter.  It follows the lowest ground, but in doing so carves the path deeper, sometimes wider, removing the dirt and softest stone.  If it comes into a pocket of harder stone, it will be turned, but the turning will create swirls and eddies which often drill deep spots in the riverbed.  The northern reaches of the Delaware River are frequently shallow enough to wade through, but where it turns sharply at Narrowsburg, New York, there are whirlpools during flooding and the depth at the curve is over a hundred feet deep.  Rocky rapids form where the ground is too hard to erode easily and the slope is steeper, as the river becomes forced into a narrow space often between high banks and spreads over the area to become swift and shallow, the irregular bottom redirecting the current in directions difficult to predict without surveying in advance.

Where the ground is less sloped, the water spreads to cover a wide path and flows more slowly, but still tends to follow the lowest ground and carve a channel.  In older sections of the river these channels are often meandering, and as the water ultimately settles into them they form snake-like slow rivers with very little noticeable current, frequently surrounded by marshy ground, meadows, and flood plains.

As rivers join, they become wider and deeper, and usually become straighter as the land is less able to resist the flow of the water.  These wider deeper rivers which ultimately reach the sea are frequently navigable by ocean-going vessels, and as we noted are also subject to reverse flow when the tides rise, thus brackish but also easier to navigate upstream.  They will carve deep sections particularly at curves and bends in the river, as in Narrowsburg, creating good ports at such curves, considerably more so than along straight paths.  Upstream of a certain point ocean vessels, which have deep drafts to provide stability in rough seas, give way to shallow-draft river boats, able to navigate farther upstream.

The same currents that form harbors on rivers do so where rivers hit the seas, which makes such points doubly convenient for trade, as a port there accesses both the oceans and the river.  Such harbors are also created where the coastline recedes sharply, as ocean currents form eddies which create depths near the shoreline, although if the surrounding ground is low there will probably be a river outlet there, and if not the deep water is likely to be surrounded by cliffs, making for good anchorage but a bad place for a port.

So to summarize, most rivers begin from streams in mountains, flowing downhill and collecting into larger rivers, forming lakes in low spots, rapids over steep rocky ground, meandering courses over flatter softer ground, ultimately becoming large enough to support riverboat trade and then ocean vessels, subject at the downstream end to tidal backflow, emptying into seas and oceans sometimes through intervening bays.  Harbors form where currents have carved significant depths, usually at the mouths of the rivers and at river bends.

Now you have some idea of how to put the waterways on your maps.

I have omitted canals from this discussion.  Men build canals usually where there are two disconnected waterway systems near enough to each other that it would be commercially profitable to be able to run boats or ships between them.  Usually these involve mechanical locks which enable the control of the flow of water between the two systems, particularly if they are not at the same level, and typically because such canals often have to cross ground that is higher than either of the waterways (the reason the waterways haven’t flowed into each other).  Sometimes canals are built to get around sections of a river that are not navigable, if there are navigable sections upstream of falls or rapids.  They are a lot of work to build, operate, and maintain, and if neglected gradually deteriorate.


Previous article:  With the Odds.
Next article:  Treasure Auction.

Treasure Division: A Case Study From Northumbria

This scene takes place between part 2 and part 3 of “Terror in the Tower.”


Background

The session began with the PCs back in the village of Lakesend, in between forays to the ruined temple of Pholtus. At some point, the PCs had an interesting discussion on treasure division, and I, as DM, played the various NPCs in the party. It was an interesting rebirth of an age-old dilemma, namely ‘How should treasure be divided?’ I submit that by letting players grab whatever they want without forcing them to think, you miss some good role-playing opportunities.

Cast of Characters

Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers.

Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Jade Cormallen: Half-elf ranger, distant relative to most
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Acolyte Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, burly and jovial
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Brother Liam: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie
Sir Raynard: Cavalier, handsome and witty
Raymond: NPC (Fighter 1), stoic and responsible
Owen: NPC (Ranger 1), introverted and self-sufficient
Kieran: NPC (Magic User 1), gentle and intelligent
Sergeant Blaine: NPC Fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Dagis: NPC (Fighter 0), new squire to Sir Callum

Narrative

Day 25, Eighth Moon

That evening after supper, the family casually discussed treasure division. Here are some bits of the conversation:

KIERAN BECKETT: “We are a family, and we have always worked as a team. Some of us perform very basic and very boring duties so that others are free to perform tasks for Lord Balin or to further the family’s interests. Owen has led a few of our kin on hunting expeditions almost every single day. Elwood and I have been gathering food, fishing, and caring for the shepherd’s sheep every single day—part of our agreement with Lord Balin. Since we share duties—exciting or otherwise—perhaps we should share spoils to some degree. Personally, I am less concerned with spending money than I am with restoring our family’s wealth by discovering the secret to those Cimbrian blades that we captured. Perhaps, each time we come into some wealth, we can put a very small percentage aside for those efforts? There is so much that I need to purchase or to acquire for proper research.”

SERGEANT BLAINE FORESTER (from his sick bed): “The Becketts will always have my loyalty and my halberd. I need no fancy trinkets, but some coin to buy a beer each day would be welcome. That is all. I used to serve for pay when you had your estate. Of course, when we were displaced, I did not expect you to pay me a wage. Now that we are coming into some coin though, perhaps a few coins each month would be possible. It is a small matter at the end of the day though.”

OWEN BECKETT: “Granny has kept us all on our feet more times than we can count. All those herbs and strange concoctions must cost something. Something tells me that we shall need her services many times in the future. It might be wise to take a small percentage of whatever we gain and put it towards restocking her stash of elixirs and such. Elwood and I could probably find all of her herbs for free, but feeding the family every day has consumed all of our time and energy. I am exhausted, by the way.”

RAYMOND BECKETT: “Along similar lines, it would not hurt to make small regular donations to both the Temple of St. Cuthbert, here in the village, and the shrine in the Keep. Sooner or later, we may need more than Granny’s healing, and the clerics will have to ask themselves why they should help us. Sure, Brother Lewie has connections with the curate and Brother Liam has ties to the vicar, but do not forget that we are newcomers here. They barely know us, and they are preparing for a major siege. Healing us with anything beyond minor salves and poultices may not be very high on their priority list.”

ACOLYTE DENSTON BECKETT: “From experience, I do not expect you heathens to worship the one true God (Pholtus), but it is only fitting that you allot me the same amount of coin that you dedicate to your temple or shrine. I must have something to donate on our behalf.”

DAGIS: “I require no coins. Sir Callum… and you all… have provided me with meals; a warm, dry place to sleep; and protection; as well as some armor and a weapon. I need little else.”

SIR RAYNARD BECKETT (throwing a handful of walnuts at Dagis): “That’s because you are a squire! We are supposed to provide for you, and you are supposed to be poor until you make something of yourself some day… maybe… if you live. The rest of us are not squires. I’m not greedy, but I like gold as much as the next man. I shall happily accompany or lead the next expedition. I need a break from hunting anyway. As a sport, it is good fun. As an occupation, it is drudgery.”

KENRICK THE KENNELMAN: “I have felt rather useless as a kennelman since we lost our pack of hounds back home. On your advice, I found employment with Lord Balin, assisting his kennelman and caring for his hounds. I need little else, but I agree with Blaine that a few silver moons to buy a drink would be nice. As much as my employer treats me well, I am still your man as long as you would have me. Say the word and I shall return to your active service.”

FINN THE FARRIER: “I too am working each day for Lord Balin, on your orders. Though I sought employment with the armorer, seeking to learn some of his trade, they had need of my skills with horses so I work each day in the baronial stables. There is no pay, but I have shelter, food, and drink. They even offered me permanent employment, but I told them that I remain in the service of the Becketts. A wage of some sort would be nice though. I leave the details to you.”

MARIN THE PILOT: “I will take whatever you give me. I am grateful that you tried to save my pa. For that, you have my service. As long as I have food, drink, a place to sleep, and some protection, I am yours. I never had no armor or more than a staff or sling, but I get by just fine. I can ferry your anywhere on the lake, run errands, and find out many things from the locals. I am a decent cook too.”

ELWOOD BECKETT: “I have been talking with some of the locals, and I heard of a few people that live together in the forest, sharing all of their food, clothing, and equipment. Each person contributes what he can, depending on his skills, and takes whatever he really needs. When they get donations or gifts from new members, they divide it equally among them all. When they need coin for something, they all decide what to do.”

RAYNARD BECKETT (throwing walnuts at Elwood this time): “Like that would ever work. Be quiet.”

KIERAN BECKETT: “My good cousin is correct in that we cannot go leaderless. The idea of equality is silly, but we might learn something useful from even these strange forest denizens.”

RAYNARD BECKETT (picking up more walnuts): “Forest what?”

KIERAN BECKETT (his hands raised to shield his face): “People that live in the forest, cousin. We could learn even from them. We might take a small percentage of each windfall and divide that equally so that all have at least a few coppers to spend in the village. In this village, we may need to make it a few silvers, as everything is so overpriced. With a small percentage going to spending money and a small percentage going to research, Lord Roger could divide the rest as he sees fit, paying for training, buying supplies, or awarding more coin to those that deserve it most. ”

Sir Raynard put down his handful of walnuts, but discussion continued for some time…

GRANNY: “While we have just come into considerable coin it has been spent on debt and training. We are barely out of the red. Though once the family is once again profiting, the whole family will profit as well as those who have served us and become as family in our darkest hour. No one’s loyalty will go unrewarded. As for tithing to the churches, the gods are always generous, but their clergy still needs to eat. We will remember them as well once the income we are receiving exceeds the debts we are incurring. The family will prosper again, our reputation will shine once more, we will be restored.”

JADE (playing with her arrows): “As much as I like gold in my pocket, I agree to share the wealth. Our debt is still there, but we have paid off a large portion of it already. Training should be a focus. Plus, I am quite curious to see how the rest of you handle a battlefield.”

BJORN: “I share the coin, but never the glory! The glory and accolades belong to me! Okay, maybe me and Sven. Yeah, the glory all belong to me and Sven! Well… and some of the good weapons and armor. Okay… All the glory belongs to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor! Oh… and some coin for new boat. Okay…  All the glory belongs to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor and some coin for new boat. Oh… and the good booze! Okay…  All the glory belong to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor and some coin for new boat and the booze. Oh… never mind! Bjorn share some of the loot. Let us go smash something interesting!”

SVEN: “And pie! I like pie… And maybe some private time with the bear cub that we saved… once she gets older that is. I’m not some sort of a freak you know! We make strong kids!”

Sir Raynard threw a handful of walnuts at the grinning Varangian.

Compendium of the Land Surrounding Blackwater Lake — Table of Contents

 

An Introduction, and Of the Barony of Blackwater

Of Blackwater Keep, and the Inhabitants Therein

Of Lakesend Village, and its Commerce

The Blackwater, its Denizens, and the Lands Surrounding

Various Peoples of Northumbria, and the Cultures

Of Elves

Of Frangians

Of Zeelanders

Of Varangians

The States and Rulers in the Western Lands


In addition to the materials in the above Gazetteer, here are some further notes and systems useful for adventuring in Northumbria:

Languages of Northumbria

The Moons of Northumbria

Rules for an Exorcism Ritual

 


Dungeon Master Michael Garcia runs two games in Northumbria. These are a few adventures featuring the Winchester family:

Screams in Store

Battle on the Beach

Brigands Rock

 

Here are some tales of the Beckett family:

Ants in the Darkness

Treasure Identification

Terror in the Tower, Part 1

Treasure Division (Still to come!)

Terror in the Tower, Part 2

The Investigation Falters

Terror in the Tower, Part 3

Trial by Combat

The Battle of Heinrich’s Horn


The Editor would like to extend his warmest thanks to Michael for sharing his setting and these play reports. We hope that many more are forthcoming! If you’re enjoying the adventures, please let us know in the comments sections!

States and Rulers of the Western Lands

One final entry in the Compendium on Lands Around Blackwater Lake.


Northumbria, Frangian Province of

His Grace, Jonathan Prestwick, Duke of Northumbria

Capital: Yarrvik (pop 6,000)
Population: 70,200
Population Density: 12-13 people per square mile
Area (in square miles): 50,000 (only ~5,460 controlled)
Hexes: 7+ (population controlled)

Hex with Yarrvik (780 x 40 = 31200)
Hex with Albanton (780 x 10 = 7800)
Hex north of Yarrvik (780 x 8 = 6,240)
Hex with Kingstown (780 x 2 = 1,560)
Hex with East Hampton (780 x 10 = 7800)
Hex with Middleton (780 x 10 = 7800)
Hex southwest of Yarrvik (780 x 5 = 3900)
Hex south of Yarrvik (780 x 5 = 3900)

Other Notable Settlements:

Albanton (3000)
Kingstown (2250)
East Hampton (1680)
Middleton (1260)

Fortifications: Yarrvik’s citadel
Resources: Lumber, furs and skins, fish, horses, rye, oats, fruit, superior building stone (basalt), syrup, and manufactured goods (ships)

This vast province, only recently claimed by the Crown, has great potential for wealth and power, but it also holds great danger. King Richard personally appointed his long-time friend, Jonathan Prestwick, to rule this sprawling frontier province. In actuality, the Duke only controls the regions around the major settlements. Read more

RPG-ology #16: Creatures

This is RPG-ology #16:  Creatures, for March 2019.


In seeking a topic for this month, I kept coming back to one covered in Game Ideas Unlimited, August 3rd, 2001, which discussed envisioning and describing fantastic creatures.  I thought of rewriting the idea for this column, but as I reviewed it I was more and more persuaded that I couldn’t improve on the original.  Thus I offer here a republication of

Game Ideas Unlimited:

Empiricism

Empiricist philosopher David Hume espoused the opinion that we can’t imagine anything we’ve never experienced.

To support his position, he adduced evidence from the descriptions of mythical creatures.  The Gryphon, for instance, has the body and legs of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle.  Pegasus similarly is just a horse with bird wings attached.  This is a small that, that a large this.  Even the dragon proved to be nothing other than a giant lizard or snake with the wings of a bird or bat.

He did concede one point:  he thought it might be possible to imagine a color that was a shade between two other colors.

I don’t want to suggest that I’m smarter than David Hume; let’s say I had the advantage of a century of technological advances.  It seemed to me almost immediately that that exception was a crack in the wall which would ultimately admit the flood.  Read more

Blackwater Lake

This document is another piece of the Compendium of Lands Surrounding Blackwater Lake, compiled for Lord Beckett by Talvion Tulossa of Clan Cormallen. The Compendium is thus far incomplete, for the Becketts arrived at Blackwater before a full survey could be performed.


BLACKWATER LAKE

Nestled between several ranges of hills, Blackwater Lake is a narrow body of water that stretches for about 30 miles from north to south. The cold, deep waters of the lake, though only a few miles wide, allow for easy transportation of valuable goods. The lake drains northward and forms the source of the Blackrun River, which flows northward about 100 miles to the ruined capital of the old Northern Realm of the Varangians. Just south of Blackwater Lake are the headwaters to the Blackwater River, which flows southward for roughly 250 miles and leads to the chief Frangian city in Northumbria, the port of Yarrvik.

Lying directly between these two great waterways is the tiny hamlet of Lakesend. Realizing long ago that the site was perfectly suited to control the waterways, royal agents established a keep at the southern tip of the lake, not far from the hamlet.

Blackwater Gobalds

Legends say that a clan of gnomes left the forests around Blackwater Lake centuries ago, and its members have survived as waterborne scavengers ever since. Known to lake region residents as gobalds, they supposedly organize themselves into egalitarian communes in the form of armored warships. Each such “turtle ship” is a large, sail-powered, slow-moving vehicle with multiple decks, auxiliary oars, and armor plating. The ship is large by human standards, making it downright spacious for the three-foot-tall gobalds. This ship provides them with shelter, transportation, and defense—all in one.

Based on all accounts, gobalds are essentially pirates, but their small stature places limits on their ventures. They do not attack large or well-manned ships, choosing instead to prey on small craft or lone travelers. They ply the waters of the lake almost exclusively at night, for their night vision allows them to travel undetected, to avoid confrontations, and to ambush small craft. Gobalds do not limit themselves to the water, but they are never far from their turtle ship. Often, they will dock their ship and venture a mile or so inland, organized into small raiding parties, looking to ambush lone hunters, trappers, miners, pilgrims, and other travelers. Though they will not exclusively do so, they prefer to ambush at night, as their night vision makes their night attacks just as effective as those in the daylight, while enemies suffer significant disadvantages in battle.

In their depredations, they seldom aim to kill, for their main interest is plunder. Whether they get their loot on land or sea, they aim to sell it at bargain prices to the scattered residents around the lake. They are competent leatherworkers and blacksmiths, able to repair tools, basic armor, and basic weapons—at least enough for sale. According to guards that have patrolled the lake for years, the gobalds have also developed a symbiotic relationship with the many human pirates that operate in these waters, purchasing excess weapons, armor, and equipment that the pirates do not want for half its standard value. In return, they are often exempt from pirate hostility, the pirates seeing them as useful ‘fences’. Gobalds usually sell their wares for standard rates, and since rates for most goods in the lake region are inflated to three times the standard rates, many communities deal with the gobalds despite an inherent disapproval of their methods.

A band of travelling gnomes shared with me that gobalds live almost entirely on various forms of mushrooms that grow all about the lake. In some places, they have hidden mushroom patches in the forest, which they harvest every few weeks. They drink mainly water, and even stagnant water does not seem to bother them or make them sick. Gobalds are reportedly highly resistant to magic and poison.

Gobalds dress in rough-spun, gray-green monastic-style robes, over which they have leather bandoliers. Though all work for the enrichment of the commune, they effectively embrace personal poverty, which explains their meager dress. Quite often, their clothing is dirty and musty-smelling. Though they bathe often enough, their preference for the interiors of their dark and gloomy ships, as well as their habit of nighttime travel, means that their clothing is often fouled by mold. Yet, they seem to have developed immunity to both its smell and its effects. In fact, gobalds are known for their hardy health, despite their foul food and dank living conditions. When in a natural setting, such as woods or hills, gobalds move very quietly and blend into vegetation so well that they are nearly invisible.

Gobalds try to avoid open battle, but their ambushes do carry a degree of risk so they sometimes wear light leather armor beneath their robes. As for weapons, they favor light crossbows, javelins, and half-spears, but their primary weapon is a paralytic substance that they obtain from a rare mushroom and then concentrate. They put this substance on all of their weapons, and they presumably carry an ample supply of antidotes. It takes only one minute to take effect and then renders a human victim helpless for several minutes. This is usually long enough for the gobalds to rob or to capture the victim.

Gobalds can largely speak the language of the forest gnomes, though their own language has significant variations. They also speak Frangian, albeit with a choppy dialect that makes it almost incomprehensible. Hand signals greatly aid communication. Their speech is fast and choppy.

Gobalds seem to have lost their ancestors’ inherent mining skills, but instead they have developed inherent navigation and mariner skills. They never seem to become lost, and they seem undeterred by fog or darkness. As for seafaring skills, they can sense coming storms. Ironically, at such times they rarely dock, but rather take to the open waters of the lake, perhaps because the turtle ships are incredibly well built and buoyant. Though one may pitch and roll, it will seldom take damage at while on the lake, whereas pounding waves may smash to bit any ship near the shore.

Little is known about gobald society. Rumors indicate that most females and children dwell in underground lairs near the lake. Upon reaching adulthood, male gobalds take up service in the turtle ship. There is a legend that female shamans oversee gobald society, and that males hold all other positions of importance.

Rumors Related to the Lake

  1. Blackwater Lake is bottomless. Its waters run down deep into the earth, far below the sight of mortal man.
  2. A giant sea monster dwells in the depths of the lake. Over two-dozen witnesses have seen it at one time or another. Most describe it as a pale serpent, longer than a carrack. There the agreement between their descriptions ends. Some mention worm-like tentacles, dripping with slime, and others mention six or more heads with black beady eyes.
  3. A giant dragon—pale as a grave worm—dwells in a burrow near the lake’s edge.
  4. Barbarian legends say that a meteor strike formed this lake centuries ago. Its impact left a giant scar on the land that later filled with water. Over time, the meteor’s energies somehow changed the waters, giving them their distinctive black hue.
  5. The lake’s waters bring strange powers when enough are imbibed.
  6. The lake’s waters are poisonous.
  7. The vile goblyns that swarm the mountainsides of Northumbria have their origins in black underground waters. They are not natural creatures. They do not breed or eat or sleep. Instead, they spawn from black subterranean waters at the will of their dark god, Maglubiyet. Blackwater Lake is a rare spot where those dark subterranean waters touch the surface.
  8. Blackwater Lake contains a strange blackish metal that is worth many times its weight in gold. It is so hard that no normal fire can smelt it. It must be cold-wrought, requiring weeks to craft a single blade. Smiths must use special techniques to give such a blade an edge, but it will punch through normal iron with relative ease.
  9. The strange blackish metal found in Blackwater Lake is somehow deadly against unnatural creatures such as demons, restless spirits, and werewolves.

Points of Interest

Smaller Bodies of Water

Long Pond

Streams descending from Settlers Mountain gather in this narrow basin about a league in length. From there the water runs past Lakesend on its way to form the headwaters of the mighty Blackwater River. During heavy rains and the spring thaw, the water rises high enough to overspill its banks just upstream of the village. The overflow cascades down to the Narrows below the Keep. Occasionally the river threatens to divert entirely to this secondary channel, but the Baron pays to have the main bed dredged in order to preserve the income from tolls on the East Bridge.

Martin’s Cove

The Narrows

This narrow body of water is the extreme southern tip of Blackwater Lake, extending in a crescent from the site of Blackwater Keep southward to the Blackmoor. The waters of the Narrows are shallow, so merchants do not send large ships to dock at the Keep, instead sending smaller boats to unload cargo.

Rockteeth Cove

Silvercrest Cove

Steffan’s Spring

Stillwater Pond

Whitehart Lake

Caves and Caverns

Drucker’s Den

The Pens

Hills, Peaks and Passes

Baldface Peak

Baldwin’s Bluff

Belford’s Ridge

Black Bear Mountain

Boulder Hill

In 604 FR, Duke Leopold of Ostmark arrived in the lake region with 1000 well-armed men and countless mercenaries to drive out the goblyns. They crushed an army at Boulder Hill, though the noble Duke died of his wounds. This defeat set the goblyns back, but it was the last effort made by men. Just a few years after the battle, goblyn numbers began swelling once again.

Brigands Rock

Burke’s Hill

Craig’s Peak

Falcons Eyrie

Foster’s Ridge

Hammond’s Hill

Hanover’s Hill

Hickory Mountain

The Horns

Lonewolf Mountain

Rumor has it that a werewolf haunts this rugged mountain. At the very least, a large black wolf is often sighted prowling by itself in the forests here or baying at the moon on the mountaintop. A few dozen settlers live independently in small wooden huts on the sides of this mountain. Baronial tax collectors have had little luck getting taxes or fealty from these settlers. Most are woodsmen and hunters.

Luthor’s Leap

Mount Melias

Mount Smestad

Parisi Point

Legend says, long before the naming of the lands, a star fell from the skies and sheared off the north face of the mount now known as Parisi Point. The event created a crater at the base of the hill that filled with water and since has been known as Moon Lake. The lake’s waters are rumored to be poisonous, and periodically its heated waters bubble to super-heated levels and release noxious gases that keep the area entrenched in a sickening fog. The lowland areas between the lake and mount have become wetlands, and the small swamp is always filled with mist and fog that tends to disorient travelers through the area. People often become lost when passing through, and many have disappeared entirely, with growing rumors of a magic fog, creature, or mystical forces blamed for the disappearances.

Another feature of lore is a suspected vein of an unknown metal that was exposed, or introduced, to the landscape in the sheared face of the hill. The substance, again according to legend, has been used in the magical conjuring and religious rites of the ancient peoples of the area. It is unknown what methods were used to explore the area, or locate and collect the material. Many have searched for the ore only to end in failure and folly.

An Aquilonian lord, a ranger by the name of Gregorius Parisius, took up residence in the area and became intrigued by the rumors. Despite decades of searching, growing a consuming obsession, and witnessing strange happenings, Gregor didn’t locate a vein, but he was able to find a small amount of some strange ore. He used the metal to forge a small axe that is reportedly indestructible and holds magical properties that helped the ranger defeat and drive back the goblyns in the realm.

The method and means used to forge the axe blade, along with Gregor and the axe itself, have been long-lost in history. It is rumored that Gregor disappeared on or around Parisi Point, in search of more ore, possibly overrun by the goblyns he fought hard to drive away. Others claim the axe possessed the ranger and granted him an extended life, and that it is he that ambushes passers-by, hoping to keep them from his find. Several bits of terrain surrounding the hill have taken the name of this mostly unknown figure, including Parisi Point for the hill, Gregor’s Grotto to the poisoned lake and its surrounds, and Gregor’s Swamp for the surrounding wetlands.

The swamp is also known as the Walking Wood, as it propensity to disorient travelers has led some to say the trees move to change and obscure trails. Some have even said there are dangerous plants and flora that poison or attack infiltrators. Other claim to have witnessed—or been attacked by—goblyns when passing through the region.

Pilgrims’ Mountain

Over three decades ago, clerics of St. Cuthbert erected a small shrine on the top of this rocky peak, but a small earthquake caused it to collapse, and it has never been rebuilt.

Runestone Peak

An ancient black monolith, made from some unknown stone and carved with indecipherable runes, sits atop this lofty peak, one of the highest in the region. Travelers weave many strange tales about the monolith and the peak on which it sits. Some tales tell of diabolic gatherings, human sacrifices, and witches’ covens.

Russel’s Pass

Saint’s Peak

Settlers Mountain

Traders Pass

William’s Pass

Wyverns Peak

Islands

Berel’s Island

Carlon’s Prize

This small island received its name in 506 FR, after a Frangian expedition crushed the Cruthni Picts. The leader of the expedition, Count Carlon, had many enemies in the provincial court at Yarrvik, and rather than receiving a large swath of territory as a reward, he received only this tiny island.

Eric’s Island

Hunters’ Island

This small island features a safe haven of the Huntsmen. They maintain a sizable lodge there.

Sanctuary Rock

About this large rocky island near the center of the lake swirl strange currents that defy all explanation. Swimming in these strong and unpredictable currents has proven deadly on several occasions. A very rich merchant named Jehan of St.-Martin donated a large sum of coin to build several structures on the island, including a large hospital, for he had a young sister that required special care. A small but dedicated staff attends to the unfortunates here.

The island’s geography makes access extremely difficult. Aside from the strange currents, only one area is suitable for mooring, and only during a specific part of the day, when the weather is fair. The inmates never leave so there is seldom a problem. These factors led the Baron to construct a special prison there for a few noble prisoners that he spared from the axe but dared not release. The island also features a lighthouse to warn off passing ships.

A small, select Baronial garrison patrols the island constantly to keep out the curious and to keep in the condemned. All guardsmen answer to the caretaker of the Island, who attends to prisoners and lunatics alike. The guardsmen, almost all of who have committed some serious crime and received a life sentence, live well on Sanctuary Rock and have no desire to leave.

Rushes Island

Wycliffe Island

DRY DOCK FACILITY

The Guild maintains a small dry-dock facility on a sandy shore of the island. This facility is adjacent to a rather placid, deepwater bay. The facility consists of a stone wall surrounding a stone building or two, as well as a number of wooden outbuildings.
Something, believed to be a force of goblyns, recently overran this facility and slew almost all of the staff. We found their charred remains in a pit.

BATTLE RIDGE

CEMETERY RIDGE

CHAPEL HILL

This grassy hill sits on the southern edge of the island, overlooking the lake. At its crest is Wycliffe Chapel.

GALLOWS HILL

TOWER OF MANATHANMOCH

As it has for untold centuries, a towering column of giant basalt seems to protrude from the sides of the limestone cliffs on Wycliffe Island. Measured from its base, it rises over 1100 feet, though its rises only about 800’ above the surface of the lake. Called Manathanmoch’s Tower, the eerie structure obtained its current name from a bloodthirsty Pictish king, who ruled this island and terrorized the denizens of the lake region some three hundred years ago. It is largely believed that he lived in this strange and formidable tower, its size and grandeur reflecting his power, and its dark and foreboding architecture reflecting the fear he engendered. After his unexplained disappearance, his fierce Cruthni clansmen dominated the region for decades more, using their primitive longships to raid and plunder surrounding settlements. The only known scroll that mentions Cruthni civilization, the incomplete Chronicle of Painted Kings, written by an anonymous Varangian sage, recalls that the Cruthni fell from power because of some mysterious disaster that suddenly befell them. It is clear that not all perished, for years later, when Frangian knights first explored the lake region, they clashed repeatedly with Cruthni warriors. Yet those Picts, easily swept aside, were but shadows of their former kinsmen.

WYCLIFFE CHAPEL

This multi-denominational chapel, built in a neo-Frangian style, features buttresses, flying buttresses, and large stained-glass windows with pointed arches. Inside are four separate chapels, dedicated respectively to Pholtus of the Blinding Light, Celestian the Far Wanderer, Saint Cuthbert, and Boccob the Uncaring. There are also two separate crypts for notable servants of the Blackwater family, while a third crypt is reserved for members of the family. A force of goblyns recently overran this facility, desecrating some of the chapels.

Landings and Moorings

Belcastro’s Landing

Trappers Landing

Man-Made Structures

Ash Hollow Camp

Fort Angus

Horik’s Tower

The Moat House

Pine Ridge Camp

Shrine to Celestian

Shrine to Fhalanghan

Temple of Pholtus

Zeelander Trading Post

Peninsulas

Beacon Point

Watchtower Point

White Birch Point

Widow’s Point

Swamps

The Blackmoor

Stillwater Swamp

 

Blackwater Keep

Part two of the Compendium of Lands Around Blackwater Lake, the gazetteer for the Northumbria campaign.


Strategic Location of the Keep

The Keep is a large stone fortress—one of the largest in Northumbria. Situated on the shores of Blackwater Lake, it commands the Narrows at the southern tip of the lake, as well as the wide stream called the Norbeck, which flows down from the hills and spills northwards into the Narrows and southwards into the Blackwater River. This means that the garrison at the Keep can control river traffic flowing between former Varangian lands in the north to the Frangian port of Yarrvik. Any power that wishes to control Northumbria needs to control the river traffic and thus the keep. At present, no single known state is in a position to do so. Thus, the Baron of Blackwater remains independent and highly desirable as an ally. Read more

Village of Lakesend

Part three of the Compendium of Lands Around Blackwater Lake, the gazetteer for the Northumbria campaign. These are being published out of order because the next Beckett family adventure takes place in the village. Part two, describing the keep, is coming later this month.


Agents of the Frangian Crown supposedly founded the village of Lakesend about the same time that they laid the foundations of the nearby keep, about one century ago. From a military standpoint, the sites seem odd in that they are located over one mile apart. Considered separately though, each site makes sense. The keep sits on the shore of the Blackwater Lake to control the Narrows, a narrow body of water at the southern tip of the lake. Ships going northwards or southwards any significant distance must pass through the Narrows, and a garrison there can control the river trade. Meanwhile, the village sits astride a small river that comes down from the hills and then splits, one part running northward into the Narrows and the other part running southwards to form the headwaters of the mighty Blackwater River. Considering the distance between the two settlements, one can see a weakness in the arrangement, for an enemy can isolate both settlements rather easily.

Why is this a problem? On the outskirts of the village are fertile fields, now the site of several small farms. It seems that the village provides most of the Keep’s agricultural stores. Though the Keep sits on the shore of the lake, its garrison may have difficulty feeding itself on fish alone, especially in times of war. In addition, flocks of sheep and goats graze on the nearby hills, providing additional food stores for the Keep in times of war. Loss of the village could be catastrophic to the Keep. Baron Blackwater should remedy this strategic weakness before an enemy army attacks either settlement. Read more

RPG-ology #12:  Aphorisms

This is RPG-ology #12:  Aphorisms, for November 2018.


One of the hardest aspects of creating worlds is creating cultures.  Different cities, different countries, different peoples all have differences in everything from dress to architecture to courtesy.  The elves of Lothlorien have a different culture from those of Mirkwood.

One article is not going to serve as a complete course in creating culture, but there is one aspect of culture that struck me which I thought might be worth discussing.

In my first novel, I was expressing the viewpoint of one of the characters toward minor injuries he had received, and wrote

Even a small wound infected could be trouble, and an ounce of prevention… he chided himself for relying on aphorisms for wisdom.

My editor had no idea what that meant.  He was an excellent editor, but he was Australian, and therein lies the rub.  The expression is An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and is one of the many witticisms published by Benjamin Franklin writing in Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Americans generally recognize dozens of his sayings, from Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise to his advice to the other members of the Continental Congress as they signed the Declaration of Independence, We must all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately.  Those sayings are considerably less known outside their native country.  All cultures have these.  The British expression A penny’s worth of mirth is worth a pound of sorrow is not even well understood by those who do not recognize that a pound is a unit of currency, not in this case specifically weight.  And so it is evident that each culture will have some expressions unique to itself.

On the other hand, many of the older expressions will cross cultural lines, and the people who know the expression won’t realize it.  Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said in a public speech, “Let me quote an old Russian proverb:  Whatsoever a man sows, that will he also reap.”  He was completely unaware that this was from the Bible until the international press started calling him a “Bible-quoting clown”.  So we see that some expressions cross cultural lines and are adopted by people who don’t know the origin of the aphorism.

So, how do you do this in a game?

Since you’re creating the world, and thus most of the cultures of the world, you’re going to have to invent some of these yourself.  You might want to write half a dozen for each culture in advance, and consider times when non-player characters can use them—or even feed them to players playing characters drawn from those cultures.

Bear in mind that those sayings which become common do so because they relate to things within the culture.  A people for whom most of life is spent digging underground is not going to have sayings about grass on the other side of a fence or when to make hay; a tribe of nomadic herdsmen won’t talk much about places like home; a land-locked nation probably won’t have much to say about oceans or beach sand.  The value of a proverb lies in its ability to use something familiar to its people to make a practical or moral point.  Your diggers will know that gold isn’t the only thing that glitters, your herdsmen will know that the grass only looks greener elsewhere.

Also recognize that witticisms are often contradictory, even in the same culture—too many cooks spoil the broth but two heads are better than one; haste makes waste but a stitch in time saves nine.  There is no reason why your cultures cannot have contradictory aphorisms, and even quote them at each other in discussions.  After all, the digger goes farther following the softer path, but the hardest rocks hold the most precious gems.

That’s a good example, because of course someone from that tribe of herdsmen would have no clue what either of those mean, just as the diggers would be completely baffled by the saying When the mare is in season the stallion can’t be calmed.

Once you have outlined the culture, enlist the aid of your players, at least in connection with their characters’ own cultures.  If you have an elf, or a Bothan, or a Frangian, discuss with them what kinds of things would make good “old sayings” in their culture, and invite them to include some of their own devising.

And don’t be afraid to be absurd.  In the movie America’s Sweethearts, the “Wellness Guide” (played by Alan Arkin) says, as I recall it, “In my country we have an old saying, Mecka lecka halava, beem sala beem.”  Eddie (John Cusack) responds, “Oh.  What’s that mean?”  The answer?  “No one knows.  It’s a very old saying.”

So create a few very old sayings that sound like they contain wisdom, and release them into your game through peoples that would understand them, and see how that helps define your cultures a bit better.


Previous article:  Scared.
Next article:  Cities.

Compendium of the Lands Surrounding Blackwater Lake

Compiled for Lord Beckett

by Talvion Tulossa

of Clan Cormallen

in the Year 614

by Frangian Reckoning


Preface

The enclosed notes are for the use of Lord Winchester and his kin. The author hopes that they may provide some aid in his quest to locate his family’s ancestral lands, to reestablish the Winchester family, and to restore it to prosperity.

Introduction

Blackwater Lake and its environs lie within a vast region that most people simply call Northumbria. This region, which stretches for hundreds of miles, is comprised mainly of forested hills and mountains, brimming with mineral resources, towering trees, and wildlife. The primary inhabitants of this rugged land seem to be either primitive human savages that dominate the lowlands, or wicked goblyn tribes that swarm over and under the hills and mountains. However, just over a century ago, explorers and adventurers arrived from the Kingdom of Frangia, perhaps the most powerful kingdom across the Great Sea. The Crown first established an agricultural colony called Southumbria, and, a few years later, it explored and claimed the vast tract of virgin wilderness to the north.

The Frangian Crown’s claim to ownership of Northumbria seemed ludicrous at first—and still does—given the sheer size of the region and the scarcity of royal settlers here. Settlement has been steady, but it will take decades before any semblance of control is established. Perhaps because of this uncertainty, daring Frangian settlers and freebooters have flocked northward, seeking opportunity and adventure. Read more