Again and again in GM groups I’m part of, I’ve seen both new and experienced GMs asking for advice on how to manage difficult players. While I don’t have all the answers, here’s the first in a series on the subject.
PVP is by far the most common complaint I see about players. One player’s character takes actions against the interests of another or the whole party. This can range from not revealing found loot, to harassment, stealing from other party members, attacking them, refusing to heal them, or stabbing them in their sleep.
Epic RP Opportunity
If the group are okay with this, it can make for some amazing games and great role-playing opportunities. I’ve played in a game where one character convinced the party that their material components cost 20% more and pocketed the extra from the party kitty as a result. The other players knew what was happening, but (and this is key) were not upset by it, they took it very much as part of that character’s personality.
I’ve also been in a game where a group of characters marched another character to the hangman when, after several months of play, it was revealed that they had been working with the bad guy all along. Again this was in character and no player was upset, including me as William Donez aka Bloody Billy (my character) gasped for his last breath as the noose tightened.
Breaking the Social Contract
When PVP’s upsetting some of your players though it’s a problem, because for me the game isn’t worth hurting people for.
Over time most groups create a social contract, often non-verbally, and this becomes the expected norm for a lot of players. Despite the Lawful Good alignments of the Cleric and the Fighter, they will put up with some levels of criminality from the Rogue and look aside as the Wizard raises the dead.
They do this in part because the characters are a team and in the metagame they’re a bunch of friends having fun. When another player breaks this, it upsets the others because they understand the contract and won’t have their characters murder or disassociate from the guilty party, despite the fact than in a group that relies on each other for security and survival, it’s probably exactly what they’d do. What you’re left with is angry players.
The action being ‘in character’ is one of the most frequently used and lamest excuses for crappy behaviour and is held up as if the player couldn’t possibly have done anything else – that’s rubbish.
First, the player brought this character to the table; they decided this character’s personality. Second, they decided the character was limited to only this choice of action, caricatures have no restraint or options, characters don’t. Third, these characters typically don’t feel the same level of, or manage to control their kleptomania, aggressiveness or insanity around powerful NPCs, because they know the social contract doesn’t protect them. Finally, players who give this defence are frequently the first to call foul when another player attacks or refuses to help them ‘in character’ because of their character’s behaviour.
Ideally you’d set up the game to avoid these issues by explicitly forbidding or allowing PVP before the game even begins. Or if you’d like to leave the option open you could agree a mutuality clause (both players must agree to anything PVP). Session 0s, while skipped by many GMs, particularly when with a group they know, are really helpful to lay this kind of thing out.
Beyond this though a common issue is players creating characters who are antagonistic or don’t work in the game that’s being run. These characters usually have a backstory something like this “Brandel is a loner, trusts no one since he was betrayed and has sworn an oath to kill all x (x typically including either another character in the group or all your major supportive NPCS)” and this is my usual response:
That’s a great and interesting character you’ve described, they’re off having amazing adventures. Now can you go and make one that wants to be part of this group and the story in this game?
Getting the set up right should reduce the instances of PVP, but sometimes it goes there anyway…
What to do
So what do you do as a GM when it happens?
As a coverall to everything that follows there are some behaviours so toxic that they get players an instant ban from my games. PVP as a disguise for sexual assault or rape fantasies, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, threats of violence and other generally abhorrent behaviours are completely unacceptable. I don’t feel the need to list these out for players before the game, I expect to have decent human beings at my table. If a player engages in any of them they’ll be asked to leave immediately.
That said, and obviously with a caveat for your own safety, if one player is upsetting others it’s on you to intervene. This may sound a little harsh, after all, you’re just hanging out with your friends, but if you’re the GM you have more authority than the other players. It’s your game, and your silence on this type of situation will almost always be seen as tacit approval.
I would never (despite what I frequently see advised) try to resolve this in character. While it’s often disguised as such this isn’t a character conflict, it’s a player one. This needs to be resolved by the people at your table not their fictional representations. I’ve stopped games mid-flow to discuss and fix this kind of situation.
Take a break, let tempers cool and then come back together to discuss how to avoid one of your friends upsetting another. Outside a game that explicitly includes PVP, this usually means I ask the player who caused the upset to agree not to do it again and (re)establish that such actions are not part of the game. The reason I fall out this way is pretty simple; it’s easier for one player to stop taking an action than it is for another to stop being upset by it.
Human nature being what it is may mean it doesn’t end there, and you may find either the instigator or the victim holding a grudge and seeking out ways to ‘get even’. At the end of the day my line’s pretty clear; if a player continues upsetting others in my game they can leave or I’ll kick them. I’d rather that than many more sessions of anger, frustration and recriminations that eventually poison the group – I prefer my drama in the game.
The players from my latest campaign have arrived at the city of Drage and clearly wanted to know more about the city, its culture and politics…
Ask most Dragonborn from which nation they hail, the name of the largest island in their kingdom or the name of the city on that island and the answer you’ll get is the same: Drage. Dragonborn sages have sworn there is a distinct difference, but draconic is almost impossible for non-Dragonborn to speak or understand given its reliance on posture, tone, clicks and frill movements.
Made up of a half dozen volcanic islands, the only settlement of note is on the western shore of the largest of those islands, the only island non-Dragonborn are welcome on.
Worshipping the dragons of old that bore them, the Dragonborn are a race apart and while they may mingle with others across the world, only in Drage are they found in great numbers. While only a Dragonborn may own land or property on the islands and a sponsor is required for any wishing to conduct business there, a great number of merchants and traders cannot resist a visit given the exotic and varied merchandise available. It is said that you can buy dreams and folly in equal measure in the sweltering streets of Drage City where, as long as you have a sponsor, no trade is illegal.
Built into the cliff wall of a south facing cove, from the shore the city appears to be only a large dock backed by a cliff wall covered in magnificent murals and dotted by a few caves. Those entrances though lead to an extensive network of caves that form the city. Entering the caves, most visitors are amazed by the complex murals that cover every surface. Blending the history of the Drage faith with the myths of their dragon ancestors and hundreds of geometric designs in every colour, artwork covers every wall and ceiling of the caves. Knowing how to read the patterns and stories residents rarely become lost in the city’s winding paths, but most newcomers find the profusion of colour and symbols confusing.
Less obvious but equally amazing to travellers is the fact that the walls glow with a steady golden luminescence. As the day progresses, through some unknown magic, sunlight soaks through the stone until it reaches even the deepest caves, lingering long after the sun goes down. Slits, cracks and small holes dot every cave, and through these the Bellows, buried in the lowest level, circulates air throughout the city.
While the corridors that thread through the cliffs are public, each chamber is claimed by a specific family. Cloth panels hung from the ceilings divide each chamber into smaller rooms that are used as dwellings and businesses. One of the few edicts of the ruling council is that no additional tunnels be dug. Many families do so anyway, but must avoid tunnelling into another family’s domain or interrupting the flow of air, something the Aetos family react very badly to.
The city, and by extension the nation, is ruled by a council that includes the temple leader and the heads of the six families, but they rarely intervene in everyday events and set only the very broadest of policy.
The current temple leader is Xenia, a powerful blue dragonborn with an almost mesmerising personality that she has used to drive a dramatic revival in the last few years. She is a strong proponent of the ‘Ancients’ interpretation of the Drage faith, for many years considered a heresy. The tenants of this interpretation include amassing great wealth, treating all other life as food and a stricter division of dragonborn along hereditary lines and the elimination of half-breeds. Currently though there is just one she wants to have the families agree for all Drage; ‘Do not allow other creatures to reside in your lair, they will defile it’, but thus far they are resisting her demands.
The Six Families
Indomisal A family led by Damaris, a golden dragonborn. Primarily interested in the trade of food, spices and alcohol, the family crest displays a dragon guarding an overflowing cornucopia. It’s said that individual members of the family take after either the fierceness of the dragon or the gluttony represented by the cornucopia. Damaris takes after the later and while his feasts are legendary his younger brother Gandas believes he is leading the family to ruin, and Gandas takes after the dragon…
Galvanros A family led by the brothers Achaz and Lamech, grey dragonborn. Being half breeds they are vehemently against to any shift towards the ancients interpretation and oppose Xenia in most things. Noble and honourable, but proud and with a long memory for a grudge, the family control the port and manage the island’s lumber trade. They also maintain and build the nation’s navy of dragonships, triple decked war vessels that dominate the northern seas.
Kyra A family led by Protemus, a red dragonborn. Mercenary in nature the Kyra produce fine cloth and exquisite jewellery that is highly prized. The family love to present themselves as refined, patrons of the arts and sophisticated. Meanwhile they also deal in weapons, drugs, extortion and assassination.
Zeneci A family led by the couple Korianna and Talithia, both copper dragonborn. These two are ancient, with some sources suggesting they are in excess of 2,000 years old, perhaps it is their extreme age that has allowed them to develop a mastery of the magical arts that is unparalleled. Under their guidance the Zeneci family study magic in all its forms and run several magical schools. Producing potions, charms and offering magical services, the Zeneci are renowned for refusing to negotiate, often declining to trade with those who try. They inhabit the third level of the city just to the east of the flying market.
Aetos Led by Leon, a one-armed silver dragonborn, the Aetos control the lower levels of the city including the dying and paint producing facilities and the slave markets. Most importantly though they control the Bellows, a series of chambers that maintains the flow of air through the city. Leon is incredibly devout to the teachings of the temple and despite his disability is said to be as deadly in a fight as a paladin in full armour.
Zosimena A family shrouded in mystery, none of the other families know where they’re based or how the family maintain such wealth and political power, but they have plenty of both. They’re represented in public by an unknown dragonborn referred to as “Krymenos”. When Krymenos appears in public they wear a dramatic silver mask studded with emeralds that hides their face, long black gloves and a long cowled cape the colour of verdigris.
Stuck inside due to the Coronavirus I took on the challenge from ProtospielNotts and came up with a game in just 10 minutes!
Designed for 2-4 players, Panda Families sees you trying to build up your panda population in their mysterious forest home. There is a full print an play linked below which should be quick to learn and play.
If you try it out I’d love to see pics and hear what you thought of it.
In these difficult times I hope it brings a little entertainment and distraction. Remember; wash your hands, keep your distance and stay safe.
My son is now six months old. While that time seems to have flown by, I’ve also been very busy.
While my blog has been a little neglected I’ve been moving forward with my board game designs and seem to be making a lot of progress.
My first game, some two years into its life, Werewolves of the Black Forest has been through a pretty major overhaul moving away from some core things you experience with other deck builders. It now plays with the pace and energy I’ve been focusing in on. I’ve loved the journey its taken me on and there have been plenty of lessons learned and mistakes made. A publisher is currently reviewing the game and I hope they like the changes as much as I do (they’d seen a previous version).
Dice Planters has been through three iterations, moving from a dice rolling push your luck game (think Zombie Dice) to a multiplayer solitaire game (think Yahtzee) to its current form which is a match for what I’d envisioned to begin with. Players carefully watch each other adjusting the greenhouse, looking for the right moment to stop working on their plants and see them flourish.
I also have a new game in Guardian Spirits that’s come together really quickly and specifically to meet a publisher’s request. Its light weight, fast paced but still has enough depth to be interesting. This one clearly benefited from the challenges and errors I made in the first two as it came together so smoothly.
I’m going to try and get back to more regular blog updates but make them a bit more casual so they’re easier to get done.
Karithia’s underworld and changes to life and death
With Odysseus’s journey through the underworld a classic part of Greek mythology and with my previously stated thoughts on character death already out there, my new campaign was going to need some detail about how death and bringing back the dead worked.
These Greek deities even with the changes in story I’d made aren’t in the business of undoing the natural order on a whim and certainly not just because a cleric asked. Bringing someone back from the dead is going to require an epic adventure!
Before heading off into the changes I’m making in the way things work mechanically, here is the general description of the Underworld on Karithia
The Plains of Despair
After an individual dies their soul appears on this endless depressing plain. To the east lies the river Styx, but in every other direction, the plain continues unbroken. Populated by souls of those too afraid to move on or who lack the coins required to pay for passage. Souls are typically only troubled here by the reaching of mortals desperate for a last word from their loved one., but if they remain too long they might find themselves attacked by vicious mobs of unhappy souls looking to seize the required coins to obtain passage.
Flowing from the north, this wide black river burns like acid any soul foolish enough to touch the surface. It is rumoured that if a mortal could survive the scalding their flesh would ever after be proof against mortal weapons. Standing on the western shore is the ferry house from which Charon, the ferryman, poles endlessly across the river, collecting his coins; one per soul, for safe passage (one way) to the other side. To the far south, the river cascades over an unimaginable drop, a waterfall dropping into the Abyss.
Standing on the edge of the Styx’s waterfall, far to the south on the Plains of Despair this dwarven city shines with golden topped towers. Any hope of a warm welcome is quickly driven from any who approach as the dwarves within are dour and fierce. Focused always on the Abyss and anything that might be seeking to escape the city is tense and gloomy and almost all its inhabitants bear scars and a lethargy that its rare to see in dwarves elsewhere.
Home to Tartarus’s dreams and twisted desires, the Abyss contains demons of every size and shape imaginable. Every now and then a demon smart or determined enough is able to scale back up the waterfall appearing in either the Plains of Despair or the Fields of Torment.
The Spirit Path
Leading away from the jetty on the eastern shore of the River Styx the Spirit Path is a silvery stone roadway that leads across the Fields of Torment to the Mountain Wall. It is said that as long as you remain on the path no evil may touch you.
Fields of Torment
Divided into the domains of various Devils the name of this grey place is well earned, as every imaginable punishment is carried out against the mortal souls unfortunate enough to find themselves here. Perhaps eventually such souls are allowed to re-join the road and seek their final peace, but the wails of the unfortunate are such that those with the hope of a better option rush quickly to the Mountain Wall.
Running north to south this impenetrable line of peaks forms a solid barrier, preventing anyone from reaching the Meadowlands who has not first passed the Hall of Judgement.
Hall of Judgement
A vast keep splits the Mountain Wall, this is the seat of Hades and here each soul is weighed and measured and its fate decided. At the gates sits Cerberus, its three heads sniffing constantly at those who approach. Those holding a coin have nothing to fear, but for those without one the beast will seek to destroy them entirely.
Paying the coin to Hades, or more often one of his minions, souls are either passed through to the Meadowlands or cast out back into the Fields of Torment. Each of the other gods has representatives here to offer supplication and favour, but in all things in the Underworld Hades’s word is final.
Beyond the Mountain Wall and the Hall of Judgement, the Meadowlands is a surprising change from what has gone before. Golden corn and vibrant green grass are waved by unexpected wind and soft summer sunlight dapples the land. No raucous cries can be heard and all is peaceful here. This is the place of rest where most hope to be reunited with loved ones.
On the far side of the Meadowland across a bridge that spans the river, Lethe is Elysium; the final resting place for the acclaimed and glorious. Guards stand on the gate looking for the star that shines on the forehead of any who should be permitted entry. Within its hallowed halls, Elysium is riotous and full of joy, feasting, competing and telling tales of their exploits. All the heroes of fable reside here as well as the occasional visiting god or goddess.
For those bored with the serenity of the Meadowlands or for heroes who feel the call of duty, the river Lethe offers a way for them to walk again in the world. Just a short time bathing in the river’s waters (rumoured to be the tears of Hypnos) sees a soul wiped clear and begins the process that will see them reborn…
So how will I be changing the game rules to fit into the tone and style of game I want?
First off I’ll be allowing revivify as a form of CPR. As I mentioned in my last post on character death, D&D really feels like it needs someway to undo a poor choice or bad luck. This will mean players can bring someone back as long as it’s very quickly and they are prepared.
I also want to imbue the narrative with the sense found in the Greek myths that the greatest heroes have a manifest destiny. Such heroes were different, bending and the natural order, changing the normal rules and able even to challenge the gods, so as characters gain levels returning from the dead should be made easier.
To accomplish this the following spells will be replaced in any list they appear in:
Note that each spell provides a mechanism for returning someone to life, but I’ve still left plenty of room for epic stories as the spells don’t simply stand someone up. A character’s allies need to travel at great personal risk and cost to recover their fallen comrade, potentially needing to negotiate with beings of unimaginable power in a domain totally alien to the land they know.
The first two spells feature these adjustments and a very high base DC (20) Wisdom check:
-1 per level of the deceased +1 per previous death of the deceased (including revivifications) +1 per previous attempt to revive the deceased -1 to -3 for sacrifices and/or offerings -1 to -3 per connection present and/or stated during the ceremony. Connections can take many forms, including but not limited to; loved ones present, presentation of tokens of importance to the deceased, declarations of a need, demands of owed service.
A few quick calculations will reveal that casting this on a 10th level character who has not been previously revived by a cleric who has a +3 Wisdom adjustment means the required roll is actually only a 7. It’s possible to fail sure, but if you add in some sacrifices and connections this becomes a pretty straightforward check to pass.
The challenge then comes in the form of travelling through the Underworld to find the lost soul. These spells are structured so that they don’t force it, but my intention is that returning anyone from the dead is going to be an epic adventure, with a great deal of in game time given to such a journey.
Hades’s Supplication, being such a high level spell, doesn’t include the connections clause however as he is not concerned with the need of the request and because you are negotiating directly with the god to return a soul it is a Charisma check rather than a Wisdom one. You will notice also that Hades’ Supplication does not fail if a spirit is not in the Underworld, woe betide anyone calling on Hades for a soul he cannot produce.
As Hades will deliver the soul requested this has the power to very quickly return someone to life and in this world I’m creating this on a level with a Wish. I therefore wanted some of that sense that you had bent the universe and its rules to obey your whim into this spell, hence the Wish-like chance to never be able to cast this again.
Arcane Blaster Casters is charmingly straightforward lighthearted fun; just grab your wand and set about reducing your opponents to the mystical goop they came from without a hint of remorse.
Arcane Blaster Casters is a game I first played at UKGE back in 2016. When I played it then my spells were not impressive, often doing more damage to me than my opponents. I was therefore keen to play it again and hopefully improve my performance.
In Arcane Blaster Casters you take on the role of a wizard in an arena trying to reduce your opponents to a glop of primordial magical energy. To do this you have a range of spells to hurt, blind, freeze, slow and push your opponents, or heal, shield and teleport yourself. Moving around a claustrophobic arena (particularly if you’re playing with the maximum 8 players) you prepare spells from a selection of cards in your hand attempting to blast your opponents while avoiding their return fire.
Somehow all the aggression and picking on each other is so on the surface that none of it feels personal and the game remained fun even for the players in our group who aren’t fans of combative games. When someone pushes you through three traps leaving you a frozen, blinded mess in front of the player who’s spell is about to be cast, you get it; this is exactly what the game told you it was going to do.
You create spells by combining spell cards, with each one offering up three different modes with which they can be played. Each card contains a start (a), middle (b) and end (c) such that you can end up with a spell called “Whirly Irritating Rain” or a “Vicious Dripping Tempest” with exactly the same cards.
Depending on where you put each card it’ll add different effects to the spell you’re casting. Want your spell to have greater range? You’ll need to choose a spell piece (or pieces) that give it movement. Want it to drop traps? That means a different choice. The iconography is clear, simple to learn and you’ll quickly recognise the effects each spell will produce.
This choice of which cards to use is at the heart of the game and allows you to craft the outcome you want. The game could bog down here, but it does a great job of pressuring these decisions with its initiative system. This also creates conflicting advantage; casting your spell first is great, but also means you’ll have to move first next turn letting others react to where you go.
While rushing to complete your spell choices and grab the turn order token that will allow you to cast first, you’ll undoubtedly follow my example and set up spells that cause you more harm than your target, or peter out short of their intended victim.
The spell reference cards are excellent, but we did wish they’d clarified that they showed the order in which spell effects were resolved, or that this information stood out a little more in the rule book. It’s an important rule that we missed during our first game. The designers have built a wonderfully intuitive and straightforward game and we were eager to get blasting each other as soon as possible, a little more help on the less intuitive rules would improve that experience. Ps. we’d also have teleport resolve first so they can be used more aggressively, as typically its used to run away after firing off a spell.
Traps form a major part of the game, you even start the game with some in play, and at some point, you’re going to get shoved through them. This is a part of this that we’re a little uncertain of, the game isn’t called ‘Arcane Trap Masters’ after all, but you frequently feel like your best option is shoving your opponents rather than blasting them. Doing so however is also incredibly fun so we are a little conflicted and if you ever manage to pull off a double trap, double burst and fill a 5×5 grid two traps deep (the board is only 9×9), dropping 50 traps with one spell, you’re going to feel truly epic!
Adding to the negative side around traps is the fact that some include positive effects and that really takes away from the enjoyment of sending an enemy through them. We saw one situation where a player was shoved through half a dozen traps and came out with more hit points than he started. That, while rare, just doesn’t feel right.
On an incidental note the section that details how to resolve multiple traps is is an odd section of the book, not linked to pushes or traps (and no direction to the section in either area). It took us a few games to find it.
When you push someone through lots of traps they stop for each trap, resolve it, then continue any leftover movement. Unless they pick up pushes in which case they hold them until the initial push is complete, then you can choose to send your victim off on another journey through more traps possibly picking up more pushes along the way. This often means that the traps take much longer to resolve than anything else and its them that cause most of the damage and disruption, not your spells. This is not the fast-paced, clean gameplay we were looking for with this game.
Disrupting your opponents can be almost as fun as knocking off a few hit points and a well-timed ‘freeze’ that prevents your opponent slipping away can be very useful in letting you finish them off next turn. The game utilises condition tokens and these work exceptionally well. Flipping tokens over to extend the effect is simple but really clear and each effect is clever and easily grasped; Slow reduces the length of your spells (two cards instead of three) while Hastened extends them (four cards), Blindness means playing your spells without looking at your cards and Frozen means you can’t move.
This just makes such intuitive sense and it’s really easy to pick up. I really love the places, and there are several, where the game allows you to play almost without looking at the rules, but it highlights rather harshly where it doesn’t quite manage it.
Eventually, a player will fall to the attacks… I say ‘eventually’ because there seemed to be too much healing for my group’s tastes. It’s also frequently an accidental benefit on spell cards as the opportunity cost of taking it feels too low. We were expecting the game to be quick and brutal, and not include turns where a player scuttles back into a corner to heal.
Sorry, I got distracted, as I was saying; eventually, a player will fall to the attacks, but unlike other games, this doesn’t remove you from play. You instead turn into the delightfully named ‘slug’. When this happens you roll on the slugification table to see what unexpected results your untimely demise may have had and there’s even a chance you’ll return to the game immediately. We couldn’t find clarification on what happened to a player’s prepared spell when they became a slug and assumed this was considered part of the hand and discarded.
Slugs are basically immune to damage, traps and effects, but only use a single card to cast spells out of a hand of just two. If you’re able to destroy another wizard as a slug though you’ll be able to return to play with a fresh chance to win. We loved the randomness generated by the slugification table and having players not completely out of the game was great from a participation point of view. In fact, as they continue to pile pressure on the remaining players they help close out the game quicker. We weren’t however comfortable with the ‘return to play’ mechanics, as they seemed destined to extend games unnecessarily.
Arcane Blaster Casters is charmingly straightforward and lighthearted; just grab your wand and set about reducing your opponents to the mystical goop they came from without a hint of remorse. Overall we loved the game, it plays in a reasonable time frame, does what you expect it to and is great fun along the way. The spell cards naming convention is very clever and there are places where everything is so intuitive that learning to play is easy.
That said the rulebook needs a few tweaks for clarity and we felt the game offered too many chances to heal or return to play and while loving the traps, worried about the time and focus resolving them en mass consumed. It feels as though the designers heard too many complaints that players got eliminated and tried really hard to make wizards survive longer, but for us, it just extended the game time, and we’d much rather have died sooner and played two shorter more aggressive games. I’ll be keeping my review copy to play but we came up with a variant that turns this into the faster-paced, more aggressive game we wanted it to be:
Make Teleports resolve first
Remove any healing, shielding, hastening, pushing or 0 damage traps
Remove all but 1 copy of each spell card with any healing on it
Eliminate the slug reform rule for killing another wizard.
If you’d like to hear more about the game, visit Battle Boar Games‘ facebook page to keep up to date. You’ll hear more about the Kickstarter next month as well as see the improvements they’re making to the components and artwork.
Note that I was given a free review copy of this game for the purposes of providing a review.
Snippet histories for the regions and nations of my new campaign setting Karithia.
The High Elf homeland, ruled from Den-Varia, the only elven surface city to survive the “Erespia” (the return). The high elves are cordial and polite to any who visit but wary of any advocating change. They revere Apollo most of all while having great respect for his sister Artemis.
The Oracle of Den-Varia is legendary, choosing to whom they
will offer their insight, Kings and Queens have been made to wait years, while
beggars have been seen instantly. It is said that a prophecy from the Oracle is
always becoming truer so that at various points the person believes they have
seen what the Oracle prophesied only to later see even more of it had been
revealed. The High Elf civilisation has remained unchanged for millennia and
they continue on Leifhame to act as though their ancient lordship over the
world had continued. One notable exception exists due to prophesy given by the Oracle;
the Drow are welcomed back as long lost cousins.
A note on elvish – The ‘Den-’
prefix in refers to a walled settlement while ‘Ko-‘ prefix is one formed around
a vast open cavern, an ‘Aran-‘ is a settlement formed by several interconnected
caverns and a ‘Fal-’ is one close to a river.
Legends tell that this land is home to mind eating monsters,
no one goes there, or if they do they don’t come back.
Ask most Dragonborn from which nation they hail, the name of the largest island in their kingdom or the name of their city on that island and the answer you’ll get is the same: Drage. Dragonborn sages have sworn there is a distinct difference, but draconic is almost impossible for non-Dragonborn to speak or understand given its reliance on posture, tone, clicks and frill movements. Made up of a half dozen volcanic islands, the only settlement of note is on the western shore of the largest of those islands, the only island non-Dragonborn are welcome on. Worshipping the dragons of old that bore them, the Dragonborn are a race apart and while they may mingle with others across the world only in Drage are they found in great numbers. While only a Dragonborn may own land or property on the islands and a sponsor is required for any wishing to conduct business there, a great number of merchants and traders cannot resist a visit given the exotic and varied merchandise available there. It is said that you can buy dreams and folly in equal measure in the sweltering streets of Drage where as long as you have a sponsor no trade is illegal.
Encompassing and welcoming all races, the Rithane was formed
in the chaos following the Erespia as a place where things might be begun anew.
As the elven union and empire collapsed in the face of so much destruction, the
wood elves retreated to Adalespi and the high elves to Leifhame leaving the
other races to fend for them themselves. Evercity was formed in this vacuum and
with it as a foundation, blessed by the gods it quickly grew into Rithante, a
strong and vibrant nation.
Athena, entranced by the idea of a city welcoming to all
blessed the founders of Evercity, convincing many of the gods to provide gifts.
The founders were an adventuring party looking to settle after many years of
epic deeds and Athena provided each member with a gift from the gods.
To Lana, the mighty human warrior she gave Zeus’
axe, a most potent weapon so that she might bear justice for the city.
To Peri, the Gnome cleric sworn to her, she gave
a mechanical owl that whispered wise words and balanced Lana’s justice with
To Hal, the sneaky Halfling she gave the cloak
of Hermes to hide him from unfriendly eyes and so he might always be able to
uncover the truth.
To Elowyn, a Drow mage of great knowledge she
presented the Tomes of Io so that no question should confound her.
To Avangad, a dwarven protector she gave one of
Hephaestus’s hammers, that he might help build the city strong and true with
walls sure always to keep its inhabitants safe.
Finally, Hestia came and laid the stones of the first
hearth, swearing that those who came to it seeking solace would find it.
The axe was taken by Lana’s children and smuggled out of the
city far to the south; there it has become an heirloom to the nation of Isylta
and a symbol of the ruling family’s divine right to rule.
The Owl is said to reside in the great temple to Athena at
the heart of Evercity giving guidance to her clerics. The cloak, like its owner,
was never seen again after the day it was given. The Bard’s Library is said to
contain the answers to every question among its endless scrolls, parchments and
books, but finding anything can take years in the endless clutter and chaos
that are its halls. Somewhere inside the Tomes of Io are said to reside.
After building the walls of the city Avangad grew homesick
for the mountains and took the hammer and with it built the city of Kholm and
there he became king. The hammer became a symbol of lordship and several
generations later when it was lost, the city of Kholm lost its king. The city
is now held by stewards who form the city council, ostensibly ruling in the
King’s place awaiting his return (something none of them expects). The hammer
is lost somewhere in the Underdark and who knows what its return might mean.
The First Heath has become a temple of Hestia, offering
sanctuary to those who request it. Her clerics ensure no one may be arrested
within its walls and that any who stay with them are given time to heal and
The city today is a melting pot of different cultures and it
is not unheard of to see an Orc clansman striding past a Gnome merchant
haggling with a Minotaur and the city’s cosmopolitan and tolerant makeup is
well known. Apart from the capital, there are three other areas of note;
Believed to be the home of the gods, this snowcapped
mountain is the destination of many pilgrimages. Most return from the difficult
climb with aching limbs, a sense of wonder at the majesty of the mountain and
if they are unlucky frostbite and altitude sickness. A few claim to have
entered the heavens, been seated at Zeus’s table and dined with the gods, but
most scoff at such claims.
A dwarven stronghold in the mountains to the south of
Evercity, Kholm is not formally part of the dwarven nation, but they don’t
answer to the leadership in Rithante either. Old friendship and the benefits of
trade for both Kholm and Rithante, however, has prevented any conflict. High in
the mountains and pressed into the cliffside a pair of goldstone pillars
standing on either side of a grey stone door are the only surface indication most
travellers will ever find that Kholm exists. It’s rumoured there are many exits
scattered through the mountains, but for those wishing a friendly reception,
the door behind these pillars is the only way to enter the city from above.
Once below ground, the city of Kholm is a wonder to behold. Set in a deep but
relatively narrow cavern the city is lit by the Olios, a great web of light
that stretches across the vast roof, fingers darting out too light the many
pathways. A relief carving of a dwarf of gigantic proportions dominates the
southern wall of the cavern and cut into the remaining three sides are tiers
and stairways that lead to long avenues of homes, workshops and public
buildings. Beneath the city, the mines of Kholm are deep and dark and provide a
wealth of riches. Some pathway exists between Kohlm and Dolina in the Underdark
and for a hefty fee, dwarven guards and guides can lead travellers between the
This sprawling city is seated just before the joining of the Essus and Danathi rivers at the point where they become the Danesuss. Surrounded by open woodland and rich soil the halflings who make up the bulk of the city’s population are great farmers, woodsman and herders. The city produces an abundance of food and of course their famous mead for transport not just within the nation’s borders, but beyond to others. Olynhame is known for its lavish festivals and wild parties and at the turning of the seasons. The temple of Demeter Olynhame is magnificent, grown from a bower of trees and hedges it encompasses an acre of land and includes a small lake, numerous orchards, carefully tended seasonal flower clocks and several mazes. Most Druidic circles have members who tend the temple and hold regular rites here.
The Eastern Marches are a huge territory of windswept land,
dotted with small stands of trees, tumbleweed, venomous snakes and strange
formations of red stone. They look barren and uninhabited to the untrained eye,
but hidden from view the landscape is pitted with canyons, arroyos, gullies and
gorges. In some of these, life can be found and the tribes that make this land
Moving with the many herds and the seasons, these tribes
thrive in a landscape where others would struggle to survive. Orcs make up the
majority of the tribes, though Goblins, Ogres, Centaurs and Minotaur clans also
dot the landscape. Some are warlike while others are willing to trade or share
a fire and a meal. Close to the south coast, most tribes become more wary of
strangers, the threat of Wood Elf raids keeping them on alert.
The hills in the far eastern edge of the marshes are
considered holy lands for most of the tribes and even among those who don’t
share this view; they are treated with respect. During Ares’ time among them,
the orcs assaulted Den-Jinja many times, but Zeus would always recall Ares at
the critical moment, leaving the Orcs leaderless. The end result was heaps of
their dead left on the field to be buried in mass graves by the elves. Large
numbers of cairns are scattered through the hills that come from that time and
many more have been built since as different tribes leave monuments to their
Sitting at the heart of the hills in the Eastern Marches,
Den-Jinja was the last of the elven cities decimated by Zeus’s thundercloud.
The residents of the city worshipped Zeus above all others and among the broken
columns and shattered homes carvings of Zeus’s crown and javelin are commonplace.
As the cloud approached they refused to believe that their father god would
turn against them, calling out prayers and offering sacrifices, but they were
not answered and almost none of the elves survived. Now all that remains of
them are wailing spirits, languishing among the ruins and lashing out at the
living in bitterness at their god’s fury. The remnants of the cloud, centuries
later, still darkens the sky over Den-Jinja, and every hour or so the broken
remains of its towers are illuminated by lightning and echo with the sound of
The Western Shore
Once the elven centre of magical learning, Den-Perend was
destroyed not only by the lightning of Zeus’s thundercloud but also the tsunami
of Poseidon’s storm, and in the wake of that destruction broken and
uncontrolled magic has infested the city. Any number of strange magical effects
might be observed by a visitor, but the two most common are areas entirely devoid
of magic and those where portals to other realms appear. Today the nation of Isylta
competes with the city-states of Voromont and Túya for control of the ruins,
each side seeking to find any great magical treasures left behind and to
exploit any opportunities offered by the region’s portals.
South of the ruins of Den-Perend and bounded to the Gohari
desert to the east, the kingdom is ruled from Linhold by a monarch supported by
a feudal system and made up of mostly human communities. Claiming the right to
rule through divine right the ruling family is said to possess Zeus’s axe,
given as a gift at the forming of Evercity. While they claim lordship all the
way to the river Adalin they avoid any open conflict with Túya
and hold little dominion that far north with most of the small communities
along the river effectively independent. As well as securing its people against
the ravages of the Wood Elves, Isylta sends expeditions every few years to the
ruins and so maintains a substantial army. While some expeditions are very
successful when they fail there is often a great deal of suffering in the land;
taxes are raised and the young encouraged to sign up for the army to reclaim
the nation’s glory and where that is insufficient they will often hire
mercenaries to fill up the ranks, though these are often treated as cannon
Built very much as a military encampment there is a sense of
order but also impermanence in the city of Voromont. Little has been done to
soften the edges of its structures and they are not built with aesthetic
concerns or comfort in mind. The devastation of the Erespia saw a great number
of Tieflings torn from Hades and dumped into Karithia against their wills. Once
they understood what had happened the Tieflings immediately claimed ownership
of the ruins of Den-Perend. Ostensibly they will claim this is necessary
because they are seeking a way to return to their home, but many factions
within their own ranks actively work to gain more power on Karithia and it has
been several hundred years since any Tiefling was able to return through the
portals of Den-Perend. While most Tiefling are born to Tiefling parents within
the city, some are born to non-Tiefling parents out in the world. These
typically lead a life of suffering as they are mistaken for some type of demon
and often they will find their way to Voromont seeking a place where they can
be accepted. As their numbers are not great, Voromont hires a great many
mercenaries, often entire companies, to defend its walls and support its
expeditions. Such work is highly attractive to the mercenaries as the Tiefling
command pay good wages and are tactfully careful never to waste of any of the soldiers
at their disposal.
In contrast to Voromont, Túya is more a work of art than
a city, its high fluted towers and ivory coloured walls and buildings make it a
wonder to behold. Home of the Aasimar (or demi-gods) each resident wears their
allegiance to a god proudly. The residents of Túya believe that the gods have
called them to this city to wage a war preventing the Tieflings from ripping
open a hole to Hades in the ruins of Den-Perend. As with Voromont, it appears
that not everyone is fully committed to that cause with the residents spending
as much time beautifying their homes as seeking the downfall of Voromont. Occasionally
driven by a vision, their god’s calling or a simple desire for glory an Aasimar
will feel the need to quest and small bands will strike out to the city seeking
to achieve great renown by disrupting the nefarious plans of the Tieflings.
Particularly pious or desperate mercenaries seek work in Túya
as typically the pay is poor with soldiers expected to be serving out of a
sense of duty. That said the food is good, the scenery amazing and the
healthcare beyond anything seen elsewhere. Additionally, should any great
wealth be discovered during a quest the Aasimar frequently have no interest in
such things, considering such things beneath them. Aasimar are born in all
areas of Karithia, but many will feel the pull to settle in Túya
at some point. Several less pious scholars have suggested that the gods use Túya
as a holding pen when they are not sure what to do next with their Aasimar.
This tiny Gnome community sitting on a smaller set of ruins
would seem like easy pickings for one of its more powerful neighbours or the
many wild tribes that inhabit the forests to the north, but something the
Gnomes have found in those ruins, or maybe something they have made means any
who seek them with ill intent once they are within a day or so of the city
suddenly find themselves remembering a pressing need to be elsewhere or a sense
of dread that the gods have cursed such an enterprise. Great tinkerers the
Gnome of the Keksia are far freer in their experiments not focusing on the
making of weapons alone like those in the Forge. A walk down one of the cities
many wide thoroughfares will often result in hearing the word “Eureka!”
squealed in great excitement several times, that or “duck!” as a test goes
spectacularly wrong. It was the Keskian Gnomes who invented the portal
stabilizers that allow much of the exploring of Den-Perend by other communities
and keep the Gnomes wealthy enough to focus on their experiments.
High up on the side of the mountain Emos, this small town to
the east of Keksia’s dominion, like many others long the Elemental Mountains,
contains a high proportion of Genasi among its residents.
A vast crater a dozen miles across and several deep marks
the spot where Brokal, the greatest city of the dwarves, once rested beneath
the earth. No one is sure what exactly happened and several versions exist; a
foolish deal struck with devils, a punishment by Hades or the dwarves opening a
portal to the abyss by accident. What is known is that for several months all
contact with Borkal was lost and then, in an instant, the entire city was gone
along with all its inhabitants. Now the city is said to stand in the Fields of
Despair on the banks of the River Styx where it begins to descend into the
abyss and the dwarves of Borkal act as the first defence against the never-ending
threat of the demons. Rumours also suggest that in the ruins the barriers
between planes are thin and easily crossed.
Zeus’ thundercloud struck first and without warning at
Den-Qender, the city that was at that time the capital of the elven nation. The
first strike of lightning reduced to central district to slag and the thunder
was so loud and powerful it knocked down the remaining buildings and shattered the
city’s walls, scattering them into the surrounding fields. Following that the
thundercloud split in four seeking the other great cities of the elves.
Given the destruction of its walls, some now refer to
Den-Qender as Fal-Qender for the river Lasias that flows nearby.
Now a place of pilgrimage and mourning, many shrines and
mortuaries have been raised around the city and temples of many of the gods
have been raised. All such building has remained outside the few remaining
sections of the outer wall that stand like broken teeth, marking the ancient
boundaries of the city. At its heart a glass bowl some 200ft across marks the
point of the lightning strike. For some, its surface still gives off heat,
while others claim to see lost loved ones in its opaque surface and hear their
cries on the whistling wind that seems to inhabit the place, a very few claim
the residue of Zeus’s strike imbues them power and strength.
Still mostly buried beneath the ground, Ko-ofest is the only
Drow city with any surface structures. Ko-ofest acts as a major travel hub as
it sits in the largest north-south running valley in the Elemental mountains
and maintains hundreds of miles of roads running north, south and west. While
the Cult of Artemis drew the Drow back from the ‘Darkened Path’ (a term used to
describe Hecate’s mandates and teaching to the Drow) they remain an intensely
competitive society. While this doesn’t typically turn to murder and genocide as
it would have in the past, the great houses jostle for position endlessly, with
Matron Mothers always looking for the next opportunity to improve the standing
of their house. Much of the architecture has been reworked across the city with
spiders almost entirely removed, replaced with a fawn in brambles motif as a
dedication to Artemis. While deer is perfectly acceptable it is a serious
offence to hunt or kill a fawn in the city’s domain.
The major subterranean settlements of the Drow are:
Formed around a series of volcanic vents and renowned for
its hot spring baths and the richness of it’s Mulk (Rothe wool).
Great seams of precious metals were long ago mined out to
create the twisting caverns and alcoves that this city fills. While much of
that ore is long gone there are still great deposits of mithril and the city
enjoys a great deal of trade with the Forge.
The falls of Fal-zolan are said to be enough to take your
breath away. The city itself is nestled into a cavern underneath the falls
supported by two vast pillars and the skills of its famously powerful mages. The
vast multi-channelled falls cascade water constantly, and the streets close to
the entrance of the city experience an almost constant rainfall. The magical
lights that illuminate the city rotate and shift throughout the day and
creating magnificent rainbows that the residents can read like a clock.
Deepest of the Drow cities Ko-tenebris is said to have been
closest to Hecate and the ‘Darkened Path’, but now seem almost as aggressively
devoted to Artemis to a degree that makes most other Drow nervous.
The Karikdan clan have ruled the dozen or more dwarf cities
from Dolina since the Okharan royalty disappeared with the city of Borkal.
At the time of the disappearance, a member of the royal
family named Davdan was ward at of the Karikdan clan and married off quickly to
member of the family named Vald. One of them must have been of each gender as
children were born to them and from that line the nation now takes their
Hephaestian has no gendered pronouns and it is only when
translated into other languages that they gain any such meaning, the words most
often translated as ‘King’ and ‘he’ could just as easily have been translated
‘Queen’ or ‘her’, but most other races see a beard and make assumptions, most
dwarves don’t care enough to correct them. Relations between dwarves rarely
concern themselves with gender and while there are male and female dwarves, a
relationship between two dwarves could be formed of any gender pairing and only
the dwarves themselves are likely to know. Most unions are made to confirm an
agreement or bind families and clans closer together and arranged marriages are
the norm. If it is discovered later that they admire each other and take
pleasure in each other’s company that is a happy coincidence.
The lay of Davdan and Vald is a classic of dwarven culture,
lasting many hours in its fullest forms. It outlines the many trials and
tribulations of their reign and the difficulties of their relationship given
they each were passionately attracted to other dwarves at the time they were
married. It admires how well they put aside personal feelings and happiness
time and again for the good of the dwarven people. At its conclusion Vald
abandons Davdan to a grisly death at the hands of the Drow (prior to the
Erespia) because to rescue them would have cost the dwarven people too dearly
at a time when resources were stretched too thin. The last few verses are told
from Davdan’s point of view where they realise their love for Vald precisely
because they were left to torture and death. Dwarves consider it a romantic
masterpiece while most other races seem confused and bored by the time a
presentation is complete.
Many hundreds of years ago members of the Okharan family
found their way back to Karithia, but they had somehow been twisted by the
abyss, feeding off hatred and a thirst for vengeance against those of their kin
who were not drawn into the hells. Attacks have been plentiful, savage and
fought without mercy over the centuries. No dwarf has been able to confirm
where the war parties originate, but it is believed that somewhere in the deep
Underdark the Duergar have founded a home.
After many centuries of fighting against the darker races of
the Underdark; the Drow, Ilithid, Duergar, Kuo-toa and more the dwarves have
developed a society that focuses on cohesion and cooperation. For a typical
dwarf first and foremost comes the nation, then clan, then family and finally
personal gain or enjoyment.
Slow to forgive and likely never forgetful the Dwarves still
view the Drow with suspicion and while welcoming the cessation of hostilities
begrudge the exclusivity of Underdark goods they had enjoyed before the Drow
opened up trade with the world.
Dolina itself is the only dwarf city in which natural light
falls, set as it is in a huge cavern, one end of which opens onto a south-facing
cliff face. The giant faces of two dwarves are carved into the rock face above
the cavern opening, gold plated with eyes rumoured to be made of precious gems.
The city rings with the sound of industry as the great forges and foundries
produce weapons, armour, ironwork and jewellery ranging from the commonplace to
the exotic. Trading extensively with both surface and Underdark communities
Dolina is an incredibly wealthy city.
While in the city (as with any other dwarven community) it
is expected that any resident or guest will act to protect of the city and
offer aid should any emergency occur, failing to do so will likely result in
Standing on the eastern side of the cavern the Lawhall
matches the splendour of the royal palace on the western wall. In this building,
all dwarven law is recorded and it is the home of their judicial system, a
system based on precedent and case law built up over centuries. Each dwarven
Judge will spend decades training and debating in the Lawhall before they are
granted the title. Cases are handled quickly and once a court is in session the
Judge holds complete sway and will question and hear evidence for as long as
they need before making their judgement. A court allows for no appeal and in
line with their cultural priorities a Judge will often act to defend the nation
if they are uncertain. Many outsiders accused of petty crimes are banned from
any city in the dwarven realm as a precautionary measure. Conversely those
considered vital to the city’s defence and wellbeing are often given lighter
sentences. Outsiders hearing this imagine an opportunity to abuse such
privilege but Judges have been known to act in defence of tradition or unity as
much as explicit need.
After leaving Dolina and travelling for many weeks through
the Underdark you might eventually come to Bezdana. According to the dwarves
the city is directly beneath Dolina, but a thousand fathoms deeper and no one
seems inclined to argue with them. Set in a natural geode the city is barely
lit and yet filled with a soft glow at all times. The legend tells that the
original founders were part of mining party that was seized by Duergar, after
being blindfolded and bound they were marched for many days and their leader
Vodis a devote of Athena prayed for assistance. What some put down to a simple
earthquake, Vodis claimed as a miracle as while on one of their infrequent
rests they stopped near the geode only for it to crack open throwing shards of
crystal that speared their captors. Freeing themselves Vodis led his party into
the geode finding a wide-open space inside along with a stream that somehow
flowed down through the earth and into the geode and a ready supply of fish and
mushrooms to sustain them. Famed for its crystal deposits, large quantities of
gemstones are cut from the surrounding area, but the geode itself is considered
holy and remains untouched. Free-flowing water is a huge blessing to the city
and they are able to maintain substantial herds of Rothe trading them both for
food and Mulk.
After many ages, the mines of Peshchera show no signs of
failing and the great tiered city is built into two sides of the fissure that
contains a seemingly endless supply of ore. Known as the city of bridges
thousands of them span the chasm between the north and south faces and in
places houses and markets have been built on the suspended structures. Focused
almost entirely on mining operations the settlement the city produces vast
quantities of iron, gold and silver.
The newest of the dwarven cities, founded barely two hundred
years ago the Cerkora clan operates the city as more of a military encampment.
The nearby Kuo-Toa territory has resulted in many clashes, but the extensive
mithril deposits have made it impossible for the dwarves to resist.
The Forge (Kovat)
It is said that somewhere in the heart of the volcano
Hephaestus works tirelessly out of the reach of men and gods, but what he’s
working on none are certain.
Build into the side of an active volcano the Gnome city
commonly known as the Forge is more formally called Kovat in Hepheastian,
though a great many of its inhabitants never learn their ancestral tongue. Made
up of many levels, most visitors will only ever see the Hearth, perched on the
outside of the caldera with water flowing beneath it that keeps the great
turbines turning. The river Falton falls away from what appears to be a wall of
solid rock, but hidden from view by the great rush of water is a portal that
leads onto the elemental plane of water. No one is exactly sure what magic, for
surely magic it must be, allows the Forge to exist.
Graceful buildings and luxurious parks dominate the Hearth
along with the demonstration grounds at the very edge of the outcropping. In
the Hearth, the salespeople of the gnome factions demonstrate the latest
technology and weapons they have developed. For those who want an edge in trade
or war and have sufficient coin the Forge is always open for business. The
factions form tightly bound groups mostly within families working always to the
benefit of their own and often engaged in clandestine disruption, sabotage and
theft from each other. While no outright warfare exists between them there are
still casualties among the different factions and the powerless are frequently
the victims in the endless power struggles.
The Bellows district, set beneath the Hearth, houses the
most important and influential members of the factions as well as the Great
University and the Hall of Assembly. Life here is a series of formal
gatherings, symposiums, technical briefings, political manoeuvrings and gentile
While the University technically remains independent,
individual scholars are known to accept ‘gifts’ at private meetings and let
slip new ideas before they are formally announced. Frequent presentations of
new ideas occur and an auction of research, experiment results, models and
prototypes are often held at their conclusion. Some factions attempt to
purchase such to help them develop interesting ideas while others employ gifted
tinkerers to develop the ideas from just the presentation.
The Hall of Assembly is technically the governing authority
within the Forge, but in reality, very few new laws are ever past as wrangling
the different factions to a successful vote (itself a difficult challenge given
the systems labyrinthine quorum rules) is next to impossible. Heracles in his
labour to get a new the Hall of Assembly to pass a new law, only succeeded by
threating the lives of everyone present, and the law they passed banished him
from the Forge.
Lower still, in a rising heat is the Beck, where the wild
ideas and fabulous inventions of the academics squarely meet the reality of
what the gnomish engineers can construct. Compounds within the Beck are heavily
guarded, as this is where the aforementioned disruption and sabotage take
place. Important workers and valued engineers will have lodgings within the compounds
but most workers live below.
The Sawge is the lowest level of the city and houses the
least skilled labourers. Dirty, dark and constantly hot the poor and powerless
live in the Swage. Most faction-sworn manage to live in small communities on
the riverside where the water falling on the outside of the mountain at least
gives some relief. Venters, however, are casual workers with no affiliation and
live on the side of the Swage closest to the volcanoes main channel where the
ground is frequently hot to the touch and life is brutal and short.
The seas around Adalespi are well patrolled by the wood elves who attack anyone they can catch, and with the enchantments on their ships, that’s pretty much everyone. Those who have survived approaching the island report two wooden settlements one at either end of the island. They appear to be elvish in construction but what they might be called is anyone’s guess.
The southernmost of the ancient elvish kingdom’s great cities the whole of the island was swamped by Poseidon’s great storm and much of the city swept away. Those brave enough to have ventured onto the island and who’ve then managed to avoid the wood elves report a city that seems abandoned and overgrown, filled with odd shadows and the sense always of being watched.
Queenz is a set collection and pattern building game for 2-4 players which is played in turns. On your turn you have two options; plant a field or collect flowers.
To plant a field you simply select one of the five Tetris shaped field tiles available and fill it with some combination of flowers and hives from your supply. For every new area of 2 or more flowers of the same colour, you’ll immediately score points equal to the number of tiles in that area.
You’ll also be able to collect a honey pot of the same colour if you don’t have one already. If you can collect honey pots of all five colours you’ll earn a ‘diversified production’ award. Yes, that’s the actual name given in the rulebook, for a fairly abstract lightweight game about bees I can only guess that something got lost in the translation here. These awards are worth more points to the first player to achieve them so there is a real incentive to get them quickly.
That sounds simple enough but you also need to consider where you’re placing your hives and bees for final scoring. At this point, hives are just dead space, but at the end of the game each hive scores one point for each bee in a space adjacent to it, and these points can often be the difference between victory and defeat.
Taking the final field tile will also net you a victory point, but will refill the selection giving other players more choice after you.
Collecting flowers is a little more complex. To do this you need to look at the line of flower tokens that the Gardener token is stood next to. You may take from this row or column in the garden any combination that matches one of the following three conditions:
Any 1 tile
Any 2 tiles as long as they don’t contain bees
Any 3 tiles as long as they don’t share a colour and don’t contain any bees
If you take a flower with a queen bee (a single bee on the flower) you’re also able to switch it for a flower already planted. This is the only way to fix mistakes or improve placement after it’s done.
Once you’ve collected your flowers the Gardener is moved forward a number of spaces equal to the number of flowers you collected. If the Gardener has arrived at an empty row you receive a victory point and the flower garden is refreshed additionally if the Gardener has completed a circuit of the garden you receive a victory point and both the available field tiles and the flower garden are refreshed.
The game ends when one player plants a fifth field and the remaining players are permitted one final turn and can only partially fill a field if necessary.
This is the third game I’m reviewing from Mandoo Games and while it is definitely my favourite, after the previous two I was a little surprised by the poor component quality in this one.
On the one hand I understand the use of thin card stock from a cost perspective. On the player boards, score track and the garden board this doesn’t make a huge difference to gameplay (though it’s still annoying), but on the Tetris pieces, which are already fiddly to interlock, this is going to be a real issue. I managed to bend one of them getting it out of the punchboard and ongoing wear and tear is going to reduce the lifespan of the game.
More frustrating though is the scoreboard design. The scoring tokens are pretty small and probably couldn’t be made any smaller without making them annoying to handle. Unfortunately, they haven’t scaled the scoreboard to match, so as you can see the four tokens in this image cover five spaces on the score track. This is a game where close scores are common so this is a real nuisance.
The gameplay offers a great balance of two core strategies. You can collect lots of flowers, planting quickly and continuously extend fields, maybe grabbing a diversified production award along the way, or you can plan for the end game taking fewer flowers, prioritising bees and ensuring your hives are scoring powerhouses. I’ve seen both played to the extreme and achieve victory and I’ve seen players blend the two to succeed as well.
When you initially play you’ll take the best flowers and or fields for yourself each time, not really concerning yourself with the options you leave other players, but as you become more experienced you’ll find that sometimes planting early will be to your advantage, or that you should take fewer flowers leaving the next player with a less optimal choice.
As some scoring takes place as you play, while the rest is added at the end and both can score a vast amount of points, it’s difficult to be certain how far ahead or behind you are. This is actually a good thing as players are less prone to becoming discouraged and can keep focusing on achieving what they can.
Queenz offers clear straightforward rules and rewarding strategic choices from the first play, with the option to grow into more nuanced decisions as you gain familiarity with its mechanics. The playtime is spot on, it really doesn’t outstay its welcome. The theme, though only really pasted onto an abstract frame, shouldn’t be threatening to anyone and it features only indirect interaction making it perfect for families. This one might be making an appearance at Christmas with the family.
Note that I was given a free copy of this game for the purposes of providing a review.
If you’d like to try any of this week’s reviewed games from Mandoo Games I’ll be bringing them to Stabcon South 1st-3rd November where they will be available to try.
Embedding the Greek gods and myths into my campaign world.
As I mentioned in my last post about Karithia, we had decided to use the Greek Pantheon for our new campaign, but when I went looking into the relationships between the gods it quickly became a bit overwhelming!
I needed to pair this down, establish a smaller pantheon that players could absorb quickly. It would need to keep the very human elements of the Greek deities, with their bickering, passions and petty squabbling, but allow me to incorporate the features and structure of a D&D campaign world.
If you look through the monster manual you’ll find a lot of the creatures and creations come directly from Greek mythology, which was great but there are also things that are missing, critically the player races and of course Dragons! These were things I wanted in our world so I need to bring them together.
This then was my reduced pantheon:
Having studied classics my aim was not to maintain the Greek myths intact, but to use that tone to create a mythology that blended the various parts together.
Each of these beings is linked to an element they represent,
while they have an impact on the realm of Karithia, they also occupy and embody
those elements. They are beyond normal mortal understanding and any interaction
with them is like insects interacting with an elephant – one most likely won’t
notice any interaction and is likely to be extremely destructive by accident,
the other has at best a very limited understanding of what they are
Gaia is the mother of the gods and by extension all mortals,
a warm, friendly but distant figure associated with the earth. Many dwarf and
gnome communities include shrines to Gaia.
Eros is the embodiment of all passions and the father of the
gods and mortals, Eros is a dangerous being, prone to extreme volatility, at
one moment congenial and friendly and in anther filled with sudden violence. More
savage communities of orcs include rites for Eros and it is rumoured the Wood
Elves also offer sacrifices to him.
Ephemeral and changeable, Nyx is strongly associated with
the air and the night. Eros, filled with passion for the unattainable sought
her out for two nights of unimaginable passion. During the first she appeared
as a gargantuan lizard and from them sprung the dragons, in the second she
appeared as a cloud of black smoke and the devils were the result. Returning to
Tartarus she discovered him lost in a bitter sleep and her children gone. She wailed
inconsolably in an attempt to rouse him and it is said you can still hear her
keening on the wind at sea and that way the seas roil and flow is because of
his angry response to her cries. Legend says that should she ever manage to
awaken him his anger will cause an endless storm and the seas will rise to
cover the land.
Known as the mad dreamer, it was Eros’ pursuit of Nyx that
drove Tartarus insane. In his bitterness and fury, he brooded, his thoughts
like a whirlpool churning on the fact of Nyx’s betrayal. Sinking deep within and
eventually losing himself to his own crazed thoughts he fell into a sleep, like
to death, a slumber that continues to this day. In this bitter sleep, his
tortured dreams formed the Abyss and into that darkness he drew the children
Nyx had borne him; Typhon and Echidna.
Born of fire and air, dragons are known in myth and legend,
though none living, even among the elves can claim to have seen one. Said to
fly among the stars, there are stories that tell of the dragons leaving to
journey far and wide into the cosmos leaving Karithia behind.
Formed of smoke and heat the Devils were proud of their
heritage, frequently boasting until they learned the truth of their parent’s
infidelity. Seeking forgiveness they approached the Abyss seeking out their
siblings Typhon and Echidna, but Tartarus’ madness had already taken them and
the Devils were attacked without warning and many died. Seeing the danger of
their siblings and the demons they had spawned, the devils swore to prevent any
escape from the Abyss. They now patrol the lands of the dead guarding against
the Demons that would rise and consume all things. To replenish their numbers
in such an endless war they capture souls from among the dead, turning them
into new devils. They also bred with mortals who travelled into the hells
creating Tieflings who live in great communities in the underworld.
Typhon, Echidna and
The children of Tartarus and Nyx were young and growing when
their father’s madness overcame them and dragged them into the realm of his
dreams. His dreams are dark and twisted and all things finding their way into
the Abyss are bent and corrupted by it. Typhon and Echidna were no exception
and long years in the Abyss have given them forms created out of a nightmare
and the hunger to destroy and consume all things that come into their reach.
They are first among the denizens of the Abyss and there they rule over their
own children, the demons who share their warped desire to devour and destroy.
As Hades was laying claim to the lands of the dead, making
deals with the Devils, and establishing the Spirit Path he came across
Cerberus. The giant three-headed dog had been injured in a fight with many
devils and had stopped to lick his wounds. Both were wary of each other, but
Hades struck a deal with the creature, it could consume souls in safety and
comfort, but only if those souls did not bare the coins of fair burial. Hades
promised there would be plenty and so it has proved and Cerberus has remained
content and loyal for many centuries.
With an appetite and ferocity that scared even its parents,
the Kraken was brutalized and driven further and further into the depths of the
Abyss. Somewhere in the darkened depths however it found a path into the seas
of Karithia and once there it fed and grew strong. Eventually noticing the
disappearance so many creatures in his domain Poseidon sought the monster out.
The two fought an epic battle, and after five days of fighting that caused
storms the like of which have never been seen before, Poseidon defeated it. In
the final moment though he offered it a choice, guard the entrance to the Abyss
unless called upon to strike at Poseidon’s enemies and the Kraken could feed on
anything that came within its reach. In addition, Poseidon would arrange for a
portion of his sacrifices to be given to the Kraken, to these terms the Kraken
agreed. Many times now the Kraken has repelled Typhon, Echidna or their
children from entering the world and the great storms that batter the coasts
are a reminder that the Kraken still stands guard, faithful to its word.
When Typhon and Echidna first rose from the Abyss to strike
at the Devils, the Fates came with them. Not interested in the conflict and
destruction their parents looked for, the three sisters escaped into Karithia
while the battle in the underworld was at its height. Coming first to the home
of Demeter they requested sanctuary swearing mighty oaths to all the gods that
they would not seek to consume, corrupt or destroy as their kin might. When the
Devils came to take them back it was Apollo, though still a youth and shining
with the radiance of the sun, who turned them away. Unfortunately, the
brilliance of him also blinded the three sisters, so long used only to the dark
of the Abyss. Out of pity Demeter took them in and raised them with the twins,
from her they learned of the circle of life and death, from Apollo they learned
prophecy and from Artemis they learned the hunter’s tricks and how to avoid
Years later they were presented to the gods on Mount Eserkel
during the harvest festival, but being blind and borne of demons they were
mocked by Hera. Angry at Zeus’s infidelity with Demeter, she compared them to
Cerberus, demanding that Zeus declare pets not be permitted at the god’s table.
He acquiesced and ordered that the Fates sit on the floor among the rushes with
the hounds. They waited till the gods slept and then stole the Loom of Lives
from Zeus’s treasury. Despite all attempts to track them, they could not be
found, for Artemis had taught them too well. The gods constantly watch for
signs of the Fates seeking to recover the Loom but have only found portions of
the cloth of life. From these portions, they can change the flow of events, but
only within the limits of the threads that are there.
Gods and Goddesses
While all the gods are able to use any area of magic, those
schools of magic to which they have particularly strong associations are listed
The only deity not born of Eros and Gaia, no one is quite
sure what her origins are. Her concerns are magic, mysteries, crossroads, the
night, and ghosts.
Chiefly known for his dominion over the land of the dead and
judgement of mortal souls, Hades is also concerned with riches, the deep earth
and secret places.
The first child of Hecate and Hades, it is said that Io
never lies. She spends her days riding across the skies with Apollo observing
mortals and their activities and her nights in the lands of the dead talking to
those who have died. Her domains are knowledge in all its forms, bards, truth,
history, conversations and memory.
The second child of Hecate and Hades, Hypnos is known for his governance of sleep, confusion, forgetfulness, mazes, dreams, poppies and loneliness. After his sister eloped with Apollo, his father chained him to a wall in a cave close to Elysium. There he weeps constantly because none come to visit him (made impossible by the mazes that surround him) and his tears form the river Lethe.
Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and presides over
grains and the fertility of the earth; she is also Goddess of sacred law and
the cycle of life and death.
Son of Demeter and Zeus and twin to Artemis, according to
legend the sun is his chariot and when the sun is particularly hot Apollo is
said to be riding. His areas are music, poetry, art, oracles, archery, plague,
medicine, sun, light. The High Elves revere Apollo above all.
Not only was Artemis the goddess of the hunt, but she was
also known as the goddess of wild animals, wilderness, childbirth and virginity
and the protector of young children. Since the Erespia (the return) she is also
the primary goddess of the Drow.
King of the gods and ruler of Mount Eserkel, Zeus is
concerned with lordship, fatherhood, lightning and the sky, oaths, the agora, hospitality
and judgement of the living. Zeus is renowned for his infidelities and while
technically married to Hera has sired many children, both mortal and divine
outside of that relationship. Once focused on a conquest he stops at nothing,
frequently taking to changing his form to defeat attempts to prevent him.
Queen of the gods and wife to Zeus, Hera is known to be
jealous and vengeful for which he gives her plenty of reason. She never forgets
a slight or injury and will go to extraordinary lengths to achieve revenge,
often drawing others into her plots for revenge. Her areas include; women,
marriages, births, fidelity, plotting, disguise, vengeance and peacocks.
Athena is Zeus and Hera’s firstborn and goddess of wisdom,
courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare,
mathematics, owls, olives, strategy, the arts, and skill. Often jealous for her
father’s attention, she also frequently sought to outdo him. Mother to the
Dwarves she is frequently revered by them.
Hera placed a curse on Zeus following his infidelity with Hestia and the birth of the beautiful Aphrodite. The curse was to ensure that his next child would be born ugly. Unfortunately, that next child was born to her. Known for creating the weapons of the gods, Hephaestus ugliness was a constant reminder of her hubris and Hera constantly sought ways to punish him. Eventually, he left Mount Eserkel and is said to reside now inside the forge, continuing to perfect his craft. His areas are industry, invention, blacksmithing, fire and crafting. He is frequently worshipped by both Gnomes and Dwarves as he is considered a father to both races.
Ares is the youngest child of Zeus and Hera and married to
Aphrodite. His areas are the violent and physical untamed aspect of war,
martial prowess, physical strength and passion experienced in battle. Given his
sudden and uncontrollable explosions of rage, very few of the other gods will
openly oppose him. Even his mother Hera took no action when he married
Aphrodite against her will.
Aphrodite is the goddess of fertility, deception, love, and beauty. Despite her amazing beauty, many legends tell of her attempts to seduce being thwarted by her target’s fear of Ares. A typical tale sees her trick them into sleeping with her only to be discovered by Ares, in about half the stories he joins the couple in the bed, in the others he slaughters her lovers. In the later, it transpires that Aphrodite was not actually in the bed on that night having slipped away and arranged for a mortal to take her place.
Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, home, architecture, domesticity, forgiveness, family, and the state. She is the least storied of the gods; she embodies the open welcome of a family home and rarely comes into conflict with any other deities. After the birth of Aphrodite at the request of Hera, she married Poseidon to discourage further attention from Zeus.
Married to Hestia, Poseidon is the god of the sea, earthquakes, storms, and horses. He is known to be moody, unpredictable, greedy and vengeful if insulted. In order to keep his promise to the Kraken, his temples demand animal sacrifice from anyone who seeks his protection.
Famed for his ability to move at incredible speed, Poseidon
and Hestia’s firstborn Hermes is the god of trade, thieves, travellers, sports,
athletes, and border crossings; he is also the guide to the Underworld.
The second son of Hestia and Poseidon, Dionysus is known for
his friendliness to the mortal races and his areas include revels, wine, the
harvest, dance and celebrations. He is known as the father of many races as he
casually created centaurs, minotaurs, satyrs, dryads and tabaxi in his attempts
to seduce Artemis. He is also laughingly called the ‘mother of halflings’.
After many centuries the primordials came to rest and the
world became settled. Gaia lay in her slumber, wrapped around Eros holding him
close. Nyx floated above, ever moving and lonely and Tartarus sunk deeper into
his madness. The Titans had found their places and the world was at peace, and
the gods and goddesses were seated on Mount Eserkel, bored and seeking
Race Specific Myths
The image below explains the relationships between the gods and the mortal races (Dragonborn and Tieflings, not born of the gods, are included in the previous diagram) and below are the creation myths and important stories for them.
Elves (part 1)
Before there were any mortals on Karithia, Apollo and Artemis were exploring the world, from the coldest tundra to the hottest desert they travelled and they took great pleasure in all they saw. Eventually, they settled at what would one day become the Restful Glade at the heart the Elven capital Den-Qender. In this shaded dell, the twins sang and danced for many hours and eventually the trees called out, begging to be able to join them in their revels. The twins agreed and weaving their magic allowed the trees to step forth as the first of the elves. The High Elves came from the pines, tall and proud, and raised their voices in song matching themselves to Apollo’s harmonies. The Wood Elves stepped out of the willows, all grace and movement, dancing languidly with Artemis. Finally, the Drow appeared from the hawthorn passing from song to dance as the whim took them. Hearing the song Hecate came upon them and as the song ended begged the twin to let her raise the Drow, to which they agreed and the Drow she took into the earth teaching them magic and her mysteries.
One day Apollo went to the underworld to visit with Hecate
and Hades. As they sat at dinner, Hecate, seeing the joy and light in Apollo
became enamoured of him and in her infatuation failed to hide it from Hades who
became frustrated that his wife should display so clearly her affection for
another. Apollo, however, was oblivious to such byplay as from the moment he
entered Hades’ hall his heart had been stolen by fair Io. As they talked
through the evening her knowledge and wit impressed him so that Apollo proposed
on the spot, and with Hades’ firm blessing (hoping to shut down his wife’s
affections for young Apollo) Io agreed.
Following their wedding, Hecate’s envy of their obvious passion for each other grew. When Hecate discovered that Io was pregnant she poisoned her daughter trying to kill the child. As Io suffered in pain Apollo brought to bear all his skill at healing while she used her knowledge to determine the poison. The ravages of this sickness left Io a wispy and insubstantial form that she is trapped in to this day. In the end they were able to save the child but it was born twisted and bent – the first Orc.
Apollo, not willing to risk any further retribution against
the child from Hecate asked Ares to raise the Orcs, but all he taught them was
fury and bloodlust. Apollo though had forgotten his other children, the Drow,
who Hecate began to twist and corrupt for her revenge.
As the elves grew and prospered the gods visited them often and celebrated the passing of the seasons. At a spring festival, Demeter watched as Dionysus consumed course after course, downing several casks of ale and spilling a good deal of both on his clothing. Calling out to him to control his appetite and maintain his dignity he responded that he was hungry. Smiling quietly to herself she offered Dionysus a plum which he swallowed whole. From the plum, a creature grew, and the more Dionysus ate the more it grew. Finally Dionysus began to experience some indigestion, eventually giving a mighty belch and from it, the first Halfling was ejected into Hestia’s lap. In one hand it held a drumstick in the other a slice of pie happily eating as it landed. The gathered company paused, expecting Hestia to be offended. Suddenly she started laughing, clearly entertained by the Halfling and offered to be their father, for clearly Dionysus was their mother and the rest of the gods laughed at Dionysus’ new nickname.
As the Orcs grew in number Ares encouraged them in their excesses and frequently joined them, leading their raids, until he withdrew from the company of the gods entirely and lived among them. The Orcs became a scourge and with Ares leading them they destroyed many settlements, but even the other gods were fearful of facing him in battle. At this time Hecate revealed the extent to which she had corrupted the Drow as they attempted to return to the surface. According to Hecate, they came to help defeat the Orcs, but they actually turned against the other gods proclaiming Hecate the Queen and only true god and attacked Mount Eserkel. They were repelled in the end but managed to defile Hera’s temple, burning it to the ground before they were defeated an offence for which she has never forgiven them.
It was Athena who came up with the plan that finally defeated Ares, though it did not work as she had planned. She encouraged Aphrodite to seduce him, but while Ares fell in love with Aphrodite she also fell in love with him. Rather than leading him into a trap where the other gods could capture him she led him away from both the trap and the orcs. For several years the couple disappeared and in that time the orcs were pushed back and lost some of their aggressive tendencies without Ares leadership. When the couple returned to the company of the gods, they brought with them humans, being born of such opposites has made humans flexible in their thinking and behaviour; capable of the most incredible destructiveness, but also beautiful creativity.
Minotaur, Satyr, Dryad etc. and Manticores, Wyverns, Gryphons, Hippogryphs and
With peace restored the gods returned to their playful ways and Dionysus began his pursuit of Artemis. Many are the adventures described in the different versions of this tale, but in each, the same pattern emerges. Artemis is rumoured to be hunting a creature looking for signs of it’s passing, so Dionysus tries to figure out what it is. Believing he has figured it out he captures it first, mixing it with a human form born from the goddess of love to impress her – so are born the tabaxi, centaur, loxodon, minotaur and the like. When she arrives though she moves past the beings Dionysus has made appearing to hunt some other creature and so the tale begins again. Often sung in rounds, The Hunt of Dionysus is a popular folk song with individuals adding invented creatures in all sorts of combinations.
Eventually, the tale or song ends the same way; Dionysus concludes that Artemis is hunting a creature that doesn’t exist, made up of the parts of many beasts. In his desperation to win her heart, he turns himself into a vast creature made up of all the creatures he has caught along the way. It is then that the huntress springs her trap, capturing the great beast in her enchanted net and explaining to Dionysus that she will never be anyone’s bride. At this point Ares arrives, furious at the transformations made to so many humans he hacks at the beast that Dionysus has become cleaving off pieces that become Chimera, Gryphons etc. until Dionysus is small enough to escape the net and flee Ares’s wrath swearing never again to change his own shape.
Gnomes & Dwarves
Working at the forge as a youth, Hephaestus grew in strength
and stamina. Despite the ugliness of his face, his build and the fine lines of
his muscles filled Zeus with passion. Disguising himself as a wealthy merchant
looking for the services of the Smith, Zeus paid Hephaestus many visits,
complimenting him with each visit. Hephaestus eventually succumbed to Zeus’
charms and even consented to wear a sack over his head to hide his ugliness
while they were intimate. From their love the Gnomes were formed, taking shape
in Hephaestus’s side.
As this relationship developed, Athena grew jealous that her
father’s attention was no longer hers to command. Discovering eventually that
he disguised himself as a merchant and visited Hephaestus’s forge she assumed
Zeus was having a new weapon made. Wanting to see the weapon and perhaps be the
first to try it she slipped a sleeping draught into her father’s ambrosia. Once
he was sound asleep she took his robe and shaved his beard using them to
disguise herself before visiting Hephaestus. She was surprised to find herself
led to the bedroom and, with the sack over his head how attractive Hephaestus
was. After days of passion, Hephaestus slept in contentment and Athena fearing
discovery wrapped the robe around a bolster next to him and left.
When Zeus woke up, beardless and naked he was furious. He called down a curse that would wither the limbs of whoever had his robe and that whoever had his beard would forever be marked by it so he might know who had shaved him. While Hephaestus slept his left leg lay against the robe and was withered by the curse. He knew to whom the cloak belonged and who had laid the curse, so when Zeus next came to visit Hephaestus turned him away insisting he never returned. Athena suddenly found herself with a full-grown beard and feared her father’s anger when he discovered what she had done. So she sought out Hestia for her advice, while Hestia could not remove the curse she could transfer it to Hephaestus’s child that now grew within Athena. So the first Dwarf was born with a fine and lustrous beard and was taught to avoid the open sky, lest Zeus recognises his beard on them.
Athena left the first Dwarf at Hephaestus’s door after it
was born and Hephaestus, seeing Zeus’s beard was reminded of their love and
despite his pain took the child in. He raised both Gnomes and Dwarves together,
suckling them on the sweat of his brow and teaching them the smith’s arts. To
this day Dwarves and Gnomes both speak Hepheastian and revere him.
Elves (part 2)
As the centuries passed the High and Wood Elves grew into a mighty shared kingdom dominating the world of Karithia. Under their rule, the Drow hid in the darkened depths of the Underdark only rarely surfacing to cause mischief. During this time Artemis spent less and less time with the Wood Elves allowing them to grow as they would, while she attempted to redeem the Drow. Her cult worked its way into Drow society, slowly subverting it and bringing about a change that saw them longing to be reunited with their kin in peace and returned to the surface.
In the event now known to history as the Erespia, the Drow revealed themselves, bringing gifts to their kin and to the gods at the site of Ko-Ofest.
Hera somehow heard of this and sent Ares disguised at Apollo
to order the other elves to destroy the Drow. As the battle began Apollo
arrived and ordered the High Elves to stand down, but the Wood Elves, already
committed to the assault were left exposed and suffered a crushing defeat –
they now refer to this event as “the betrayal”.
In a fury that her will was thwarted by both Apollo and Artemis, Hera called out to Zeus and Poseidon that the Drow had risen again and that this time the other elves had joined them. She convinced them both to send cataclysms, Zeus a thundercloud filled with lightning to scourge the mainland and Poseidon a raging tsunami to flood the islands, her aim was to destroy all the elves and in many places, she succeeded. Seeing the approaching danger Apollo protected the High Elves at Liefhame, the northernmost island of their kingdom while Artemis shielded the Drow around Ko-Ofest, but the Wood Elves were left undefended and untold thousands died.
From that day forth the Wood Elves have turned against the gods and offer no supplication. They have become barbarous and raid along the southern coast, looting and pillaging. They create ships called serpents with some unknown magic that are articulated (they flex along the spine of the ship, undulating like a sidewinder) and impervious to the magic of Poseidon’s clerics. They are feared and hated wherever they are known. None know the names of the cities on their islands and the ruins are said to be inhabited by an ever watching entity of malicious intent.
Castello Methoni did something pretty amazing, it filled me with joy when I saw the box art, I love the simple but vibrant image and find it very evocative. It happened again when I opened the box, the board has the same art style and the components are great, tactile and solid – we have avoided playing with the tan coloured pieces that come close to matching the walls when possible though.
Those of you who played Dots and Boxes at school will recognise a core area control mechanic that fuels this game as players try to set up enclosed areas and pounce on any misjudgement by another player.
Once you’re set up players take turns playing 1 or 2 cards from a hand of five, either to trade for 2 coins or to build walls, adding them to the board on the edge of areas that match the terrain type on the card. As they add a wall they also add a house (cube) of their own to the board on one side of the wall and an opponents to the other.
If they form a Domain (an enclosed area of walls) they must pay 1 coin to the bank for each space it contains and 1 coin to each player who has a house in it, but then get to claim it by adding one of their own towers. Where three houses of the same colour exist in a domain they are replaced by a villa of the same colour.
Additionally, if they have created a new domain adjacent to another they can annex that domain by paying the owner 2 coins per space, 1 coin per house and 5 coins per villa. You then remove all the internal walls and remove the other player’s tower.
At this point I will mention that remembering these costs, particularly as they value things differently depending on who you are paying could have done with a simple cheat sheet of some kind – it would have helped enormously for the first few games. As it was I became the ‘rules’ guide every time an annexation came up with other players not able to do the maths themselves until they were already playing. In one instance this resulted in a player revealing a move that they couldn’t afford only to see the next player immediately make that move.
Claiming certain domains will activate a market (there is one on each terrain type) allowing all players to trade cards of the matching terrain for coins from the bank and the owner a small income at the start of every turn.
You have a limited amount of everything in the game, houses, villas, towers and coins. Mostly we didn’t hit limits for the pieces in your colours and were able to continue playing regardless, though occasionally getting a few houses back from the creation of a villa was useful.
Coins however, were a very interesting economy. You start the game with the players controlling most of the wealth and early on small amounts are passed between players, while a slow feed is sent to the bank. Later though as the annexations begin and money will shift in huge quantities between players.
In some games, the markets became a great area of contention with early land grabs being made only to see them annexed again and again. This resulted in games that felt very confrontational and particularly when the annexing petered out left some players feeling hard done by. With this annexing focus when finally players were able to hold a market the bank emptied quickly. In these games refusing to spend money could act as a defence against annexation as other players couldn’t afford to pay for such activity and had no way to gain more coins to do so.
In other games where we formed larger domains initially the bank tended to be far richer and choices centred on opportunity cost, yes you could spend your turn gaining the coins to annex a larger domain later, but would you be better off creating a smaller domain now?
Overall through our plays, I got two impressions:
Firstly that I was often limited by the choice of terrain cards I had in a way that wasn’t fun. This reminded me of the worst parts of Catan where you simply can’t roll the number you need (no matter how likely), but that game at least offers you the option of trading for the resource you need, however unfavourably. I feel like this game needed an option like Ticket to Ride, with a market of cards but with the option to take them blind. Yes I’d bleed information by picking up the cards I wanted, but at least I’d have them. This might also allow me to focus in on the Objective cards that were to a large degree ignored in most of our games given the lack of control and how often things were annexed.
Secondly, this felt like a game with a lot of hidden depths. I honestly think that if you have a dedicated group who will play this game frequently you’ll discover some strategic depths that casual players just won’t get. I’m sure that there are tactics that involve where and who you place on the other side of your walls, that a game exists where everyone cagily plays along to coast or that there is a reason you’d choose to play 1 card instead of 2. I also suspect it’s possible to map out and optimise which domains are worth annexing and what initial wall placements will force your opponents into coughing up an enormous domain later in the game.
Unfortunately, this is also a game that punishes errors pretty hard. In one game I created a massive domain for very low cost in the last move of the game due to an opponent’s error – this formed a 15 tile domain worth 45 points and scored me an additional 10 for the largest domain before scoring anything else; the next highest total score was 48. There was nothing the other two players at the table could do about this; I was effectively gifted the game. In another game, a player paid 39 coins (worth 1 vp each) to annex a domain that was worth less points in a move that ended the game, the highest score in that game was just over 45, scored by the player whose domain was taken, largely for the coins he’d been handed.
It is undoubtedly a beautiful game, at its core the mechanics are pretty simple, and I think there’s a more strategic game in there below the surface. It’s a shame that there isn’t a little more of that visible for a new player to find straight away.
Note that I was given a free copy of this game for the purposes of providing a review.