Incorporating History and Chemistry Into My Tabletop Campaign

Last year I got to run my first full tabletop campaign since before the pandemic and I had a blast. Besides being the first time I’ve run a game in years it was notable for a couple of other reasons. Not only did the campaign run to completion, the setting was one that I’ve been designing from scratch for several years. The other exciting part about this campaign was that the party consisted of a chemist, a biochemist, a biologist, and a biophysicist. Being a chemist, I decided to take advantage of those backgrounds and tried to incorporate some chemistry into the campaign as well.

I decided that the characters would all be new arrivals in a major industrial city where they had come in response to recruitment posters seeking workers for a new munitions factory. There they would have the opportunity to get involved with labor riots, political malcontents, and sorcerous scheming. More on that later.

Goals and Railroading

When I was planning the campaign I had a few limiting factors in mind. The primary one was that one of my players was going to be moving out of the country soon, and the other was that I was supposed to be working on my dissertation. With that in mind, I wanted to make sure I was planning a campaign that could be completed in a relatively short amount of time with brief sessions to best accommodate everyone’s busy schedules. So I decided on some plot points that would always happen no matter what the players did. There was always going to be some kind of labor riot, someone would definitely try to assassinate the local Duke, there would be an explosion at the factory no matter what, and the Duke’s attempts at performing a dark ancient ritual in an abandoned temple beneath the city was always going to happen. The choices the players made would instead determine how they experienced these events, which perspectives they heard, and which faction’s machinations were successful.

Finally, I decided to use Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds ruleset for a couple of reasons. Firstly because I already owned the rulebooks and was somewhat familiar with it thanks to having briefly run a Deadlands Classic campaign a few years ago and a few Powdermage RPG oneshots before that. In practice, the rules were more like guidelines.

Setting Background

The campaign took place in a country called Whalvia, an anachronistic industrialized monarchy made up of a patchwork of regions that used to be independent kingdoms at some point in their history. At home, the Emperor/Empress wields considerable power but is limited in some ways by rights and privileges guaranteed to various city councils and aristocratic families. Overseas the story is much different. Whalvia is located on the edge of a supercontinent that comprises most of the known world. Huge storms fed by the hemispheric world sea regularly buffet the continent and Whalvia is one of the lucky few to be somewhat shielded by these massive storms thanks to its position on the coast of the Inner Sea. This has allowed Whalvian rulers over the centuries to amass large merchant and naval fleets with which they could venture out to far-flung locations for trade and conquest. This empire consisted of loose trade networks, leased territory, and proxy states whose monarchs were related to the Emperor through marriage, or outright conquest. All of this is controlled or owned either directly by the monarch or indirectly through their majority ownership of the Outer Sea Trading Company and its private armies. A lot of this doesn’t come up in the campaign but I like rambling about it so there you go.

More recently, Whalvia has come under the rule of the Empress Imerelda. Her elderly father Kirstivan II ruled for about 60 years and made many reforms during his reign but married late in life. When he died his daughter rose to the throne and while she was capable she was also not ready. Only two years into her reign a war began with Whalvia’s historic enemy and landlocked neighbor Icara. This brings us to the city of Hofni where the campaign took place.

Hofni is a large industrial city in western Whalvia situated at the confluence of two rivers. In the old days, its Kings were major rivals of Whalvia and the descendants of those Kings are now reduced to mere Dukes. The current Duke of Hofni was a close friend Kirstivan II and has become an ardent supporter of Imerelda in turn. He is also very old, is living with the injuries resulting from an explosion in his laboratory, and is very aware of the fact that he isn’t getting any younger. He also has no direct heirs. So naturally, patriot that he is, when the war begins he wastes no time evicting tenants and expanding his munitions factories to supply artillery shells to the front.

While the Duke has been working on these projects he has also departed from his normal scientific and alchemical studies and has been learning to perform sorcery himself with the help of his new advisor Zora(?). His family is old and descended from the original rulers of Hofni who built a temple that is now buried deep beneath the city where his ancestors made offerings to a now-forgotten god.

Historical Inspirations

Women working inside a London munitions factory. Source.

If you haven’t been able to tell this setting is heavily inspired by the early 20th century with fantasy, dieselpunk, and steampunk elements mixed in. And during the First World War, there was a very real shell shortage that was quite the scandal in the UK’s Parliament known as the Shell Crisis. This wasn’t unique to Britain, no one was prepared for the intensity of industrialized war and shortages caused problems in both east and west alike. I tried to replicate some of the working environment inside the munitions factories including the wooden clogs workers had to wear to prevent sparks and included several NPCs who were suffering from the effects of TNT poisoning and other workplace hazards.

Chemical Inspirations

The munitions factory I had the players working in was synthesizing TNT and then using it to fill artillery shells while the explosive was still molten (TNT melts at 80.35 °C ). Two of the player characters worked on the filling line and two others worked with the factory’s alchemists managing heat flows and mass transport.

Lots of people know about TNT but not as many know that those letters are short for trinitrotoluene. That’s a toluene molecule with three nitro groups. TNT isn’t the only explosive that was used in the first world war but for simplicity, I decided to stick with it. Despite being an explosive it’s actually fairly stable and will only detonate under specific conditions.

TNT is made by nitrating toluene using nitric acid, a process that requires a few other chemicals like sulfuric acid as well. All three may be familiar. Toluene has a sickly sweet smell and is often used to thin or strip paint. Nitric acid and sulfuric acid are also common chemicals and are produced industrially in huge quantities. Concentrated nitric acid is especially fun, is red in color, and gives off toxic red vapors. This red color is not actually nitric acid but various compounds of nitrogen and oxygen that can act as powerful oxidizing agents. These can cause some fun (dangerous) side reactions the synthesis of TNT is not done properly which I considered as a possible cause of the factory’s explosion.

Branching Paths

Like I said before, I had a few different threads planned for the players to follow in Hofni. Here are the main three.

  • Union organizers in the munitions factory agitating for safer working conditions.
  • Evicted tenants who want revenge for being kicked out of their homes.
  • The Duke’s efforts to reach an abandoned temple beneath the city that he believes will heal his broken body.

How It Went

The players immediately took a liking to the NPCs and got mixed up in a brawl between union organizers and the Duke’s guards sent to break up the meeting. Then, in exchange for weapons, they made a deal with the proprietor of a local dive bar to steal a quantity of TNT from the factory in exchange for supplies. Later, discontents used the TNT the players stole to make a bomb that was used to blow up the chemical storage tanks outside the factory. Heavy black smoke and choking chemical fumes filled the streets, it was great in a horrifically tragic way.

I worried about finding a way to draw the players into the Duke’s search for the temple beneath the city. Two character backstories made this pretty easy. One of the characters was academically inclined and wanted to secure a job in the Duke’s research facilities so there was an immediate hook to draw them all to the palace. The other was a character who was being stalked by a lost god.

In this setting gods and other entities are mostly gone from the world. Some are dead, others forgotten, and some just…left. The Old God of Hofni (OGH) was one of the forgotten gods. So forgotten that it had almost lost its form entirely. When one of my players said that his character was on the run from a shadowy entity he had met in a cave I knew what I had to do. The player didn’t know it, but in that meeting the much diminished OGH had latched onto him and his fear of it gave it new strength. In effect, he became a sort of pseudo-worshipper for the OGH which followed him to Hofni and took on his appearance. It was a lot of fun having the OGH appear in the distance to spook the players, give its new worshipper visions, and help them win the Duke’s favor by foiling an assassination plot.

The campaign wrapped up with the players finding the temple beneath the city. In the process, they fought a group of giant spiders and some reanimated temple guardians. Once they opened the temple the OGH was able to return to its home. Then, when the players realized that the Duke planned to use arrested union members as human sacrifices they turned on him and locked him in the temple. Also, they stuffed a roast pig full of TNT as a distraction. It blew up.

Conclusion

I had a lot of fun running this campaign. Like I said it’s the first one I had run in years and the first time I had run a game in a setting entirely of my own design. That was a little nerve-wracking and I came to each session worried that I didn’t have enough planned or that the encounters wouldn’t be fun enough. I was wrong though and we had a blast. I also really liked starting a campaign with a set ending and sessions that were limited to about two hours, it kept everything moving and I didn’t have to worry too much about story bloat or any kind of mission creep. Of course, all the fun we had was really thanks to the players. They took the setting I laid out before them and ran with it creating some unexpected scenarios that were a lot of fun to play through.

What Makes You, You? Memory, Identity, and Digitization In Fiction

I’ve been consuming a lot of science fiction lately and something that comes up a lot is the idea of mind uploading and even a digital existence. It’s even something that may one day be possible in our own world. Scientists have been able to simulate the entire brain of a worm already and many futurists expect up to one day to be able to copy and simulate our entire minds in computers. This would mean many interesting things for the future of longevity and space exploration. Why pay to ship an entire crews’ bulky, resource-consuming bodies when you can just upload their minds to a robotic probe and send them on their way? Entire populations could be digitized and live on in a simulated world where they would be safe from natural disasters and be able to persist long after their fleshy meat bodies would have decayed and consumed all the available resources.

Most narratives that incorporate digitization treat it as somewhat routine. Characters are able to move from one body to another as needed, create copies of themselves to act as messengers, and continue to interact with the world long after their physical selves are gone. Authors have explored a myriad of ideas relating to this concept but there are a few questions that keep gnawing at me.

What makes a person a person?

If you made a copy of yourself with all your memories and personality you could hypothetically sit in a room together and have observers unable to tell you apart. You both have the same memories, personality, appearance, and you both claim to be the real you. Which is it? Similar to how a transporter would kill someone and then reconstruct someone every time it was used, digitization coupled with discarding the original does the same.

The question then is what exactly makes a person. In this post, we’ll look at how several books deal with this digitation technology.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan Book 1) by [Arkady Martine]

We’ll start the list with the setting that uses digitization the least. The inhabitants of the remote Lsel Station, in an effort to preserve vital knowledge, record the memories of their most important citizens and implant those memories in the most qualified successors that they can find. This technology is kept secret from outsiders and Lsel Station is careful to prevent destabilizing individuals from being added to one of these imago lines. Basically, the people of Lsel have fancy Trill Symbionts.

Since very few people have these imago machine implants we mostly only see how the protagonist adjusts to her newly implanted memories. At times she has trouble telling her feelings and memories apart from her predecessor and she often struggles to explain to others that she is not becoming her predecessor, rather they are merging to become an entirely new person. Of all the entries in this list, it spends the most time contemplating exactly what it means to be yourself.

Old Man’s War

Old Man's War by [John Scalzi]

John Scalzi’s first novel was about an interstellar government that picks and chooses who gets to leave Earth. Out among the stars, humanity is at war with countless alien species. Meanwhile, on Earth, things don’t look much different from today. To get off Earth a person has to be either from a disadvantaged nation facing overpopulation or a senior citizen from one of today’s leading powers to enlist as a soldier with the Colonial Union.

By limiting Earth’s contact with space, the CU limits who can leave and creates an incentive for people from Earth to unknowingly sign up to participate in the CU’s constant wars of expansion. This all works because they map out all the structures of the brains of these older and wiser recruits and give them vat-grown bodies to fight the war in. When they’re done with their tour of duty they get a younger civilian body and a plot of land on some newly settled world.

Digitization in this setting is really only used to give soldiers useable bodies and saves the army time that would otherwise be spent fixing damaged bodies. But it doesn’t seem to be used to provide any kind of immortality. Once a person is discharged they don’t get any new bodies. The only deviation from this use case is when the recorded memories of a fugitive are implanted in a brand new body and this duplication of a living person seems to cause some issues for the clone that receives the memories.

In this way, the books avoid the thornier questions that other works explore when it comes to this technology. More specifically the fact that if such technology existed it would likely allow the rich who can afford new bodies to “live” indefinitely while the poor make do with just one existence. Instead, those who are able to take advantage of the technology normally die some kind of horrible battlefield death shortly after they get their new bodies. The problem pretty much solves itself.

Revelation Space

Revelation Space (The Inhibitor Trilogy Book 1) by [Alastair Reynolds]

Mind transference is a lot more common in this series and unlike Old Man’s War, there’s some disagreement among different characters whether a digitized person is actually a person.

There are two types of digitized people. Alpha Levels are simulations created by taking highly precise scans of a person’s brain. This scan tends to destroy the person’s brain in the process and the early attempts at digitization quickly went insane. The others are the Beta Levels, simulations created by an AI that has watched a person’s every move and use that data to predict how a person would act in a given situation. It’s important to note that a Beta Level will tell someone that it believes itself to be the real thing. That’s what the real person would do after all.

Beta Levels are generally implied to be an inadequate version of the digitization process and the first one we meet in Revelation Space begins by demanding to know what happened to their Alpha Level. It’s clear that the Alpha Levels are the ones considered to be truly sentient.

Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs Novels Book 1) by [Richard K. Morgan]

In Altered Carbon, every person is implanted with a stack at birth that records their mind every second of every day. The people who can afford to transfer in and out of bodies at a whim. To shorten travel times, to prolong their lives, to get fancy implants, or just because they felt like having a different look that day.

Those who can afford to treat bodies like outfits that can be discarded and it’s clear that most people view what’s stored on their implanted stack to be their actual selves. The only thing they have to fear about the death of their bodies is that they might not be able to afford a new one, or that if their new one is not a clone of their original that their family might not recognize them.

It’s also clear that at least some people in this setting have sat and thought about what it means to make multiple copies of a person, which is a crime in this series. There are also characters who have offsite backups so even if their stacks are destroyed they can reload from an earlier save.

Depending on how you envision the stacks to work all of this could mean constantly dying over and over again or just moving files from one place to another. It gets a little trickier if you start to think about double sleeving and off-site backups.

For the most part, these books seem to focus on matters of identity and inequality in a world where bodies are treated like outfits. Many of the “lizard brain” tendencies like nicotine addiction, muscle memory, etc stay with the body. So someone that re-sleaves frequently might find themselves suddenly saddled with a smoking habit or stay up staring into a mirror at a reflection that they can’t convince themselves is them.

The Culture

Consider Phlebas (A Culture Novel Book 1) by [Iain M. Banks]

Of all the books in this list, The Culture novels probably spend the most time on the ethical aspects of simulation and digitization. Including protracted discussions on whether turning off a simulated universe constitutes murder or not. Some characters are fine with making copies of themselves to send on trips or missions and then merging the memories the other gains, thus “killing” the copy, others see this as murder and allow their copy to continue once its purpose has been served.

What makes The Culture different from the other settings explored here is that the characters can actually afford to contemplate the ethical and philosophical questions that this technology requires. Citizens of the Culture live in a post-scarcity society where anyone who needs a new body or a new copy of themselves or a new backup made can have it in an instant.

Conclusion

If you think about the idea of digitized intelligence long enough the concept will probably begin to confuse you, amaze you, and maybe scare you. We’re not in a world where such a thing is possible yet, but it’s not much of a stretch to think that mind uploading will be possible in the near future.

But would it really be you? Sure, a digital copy might have your memories and act as you would have, but you won’t get to have the same experiences. You’ll be either somewhere else or you will be dead. This begs another question; does it matter?

Even if it’s not really you, digital copies would allow some aspect of you to continue on. It’s a way for a person to leave their mark and express their wishes long after they are gone. For their loved ones it could be a great source of comfort or it could veer far too close to the uncanny valley.

Ultimately I think it’s up to the individual and the peace of mind that their backups provide for them. What do you think? Let me know with a comment or on Twitter @expyblg. I can also now be found on Facebook @expyblg!

Animals That Should Have Been Domesticated

Creating fictional animals is hard, but there is another way. Instead of inventing your own animals, just use animals that are dead.

And no, I don’t mean the dead cat that you saw run over in the road. I’m talking about the world’s megafauna. The massive animals that once roamed this world and are now long gone. I know I’m not the only one who has ever looked at a picture of one of those beasts and thought “I wish I could pet that.”

When I see one of those pictures I see a lost opportunity. I see a creature that could have lived alongside humans. Horses and dogs and cats are great, I love them. They have their place in fantasy and I don’t think that they can be replaces. At the same time, why create new fantastic creatures when we can draw on Earth’s past? So here are three extinct animals that I think would have been really cool to have as pets.

Ground Sloths

Modern sloths are cool but I am not sure what they could be used for

Listen, I know that sloths seem useless now. Cute, but useless. But I really think that they are capable of great things. Imagine those claws! Imagine that size! I’m not imagining these things as a mount (but they could be) but imagine how useful those claws would be for diggin or pulling our tree stumps, or how the giant sloths could help to carry heavy loads. A traveling merchant with a ground sloth would be really cool.

Saber Tooth Tigers

I wonder if those teeth could be turned into knives…. Photo from Wikipedia

The decline of megafauna is often linked to the spread of humanity because we tend to kill everything. One thing that may have suffered from the decline of megafauna is the the saber tooth tiger that hunted them.

Now I know, a big cat with teeth that big can be scary, but imagine if we befriended them. They were suited to hunting big things, we were (are) suited to hunting everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t need help. Sure, dogs are great, maybe the greatest, but imagine a giant house cat with giant fangs charging towards your enemy. That beats any dog.

Woolly Rhinos

I’m just saying, one of these would be way scarier than a horse.

Everyone loves a rhino. If you’re like me as a child you only got to learn about the rhinoceroses that are native to far off lands. You might also have been upset to learn that we used to have an animal as ubiquitous as the woolly rhino right here in North America.

If bread in sufficient numbers these animals would have been so much better than horses. They come with horns! Just imagine for a second the rohirrim mounted on rhinos charging into ranks of unprepared orcs.

What extinct animals do you wish were still around today? Let me know in the comments!

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Campaign Cartographer: First Impressions

I am always looking for new worldbuilding tools. Am I substituting more tools for actually working on things? Probably, but it is fun.

There are a lot of worldbuilding tools out there, and figuring our which will best suit your workflow is tough. Personally I seem to just buy all of them, but that doesn’t mean you should have to. So, is Campaign Cartographer worth it?

I’ll be honest I had no idea what it was until ProFantasy started advertising their stay at home bundle. Now, compared to Wonderdraft these programs are expensive. But I got their map maker, city maker, and dungeon maker for about $60 on sale. Still not terrible considering all the included art assets.

I poked around online for some reviews. I wasn’t entirely thrilled by what I found but looking at the screenshots I really liked the art. A lot of it conjures up images of classic fantasy maps. That said, there’s still a lot to learn about making them.

On first glance the UI is anything buy modern. It’s not like wonderdraft were the icons immediately hint at what they might do. It takes some tinkering and a few checks of the manual to figure out. I don’t know about you, but as dated as this UI looks, to me it just oozes functionality.

I know it seems old but just look at how functional it is!

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to use. After a few minutes I was able to figure out how to draw land masses and to add rivers. I wouldn’t say that they look any good, but I’m getting the hang of it.

While the UI is very different there do seem to be a lot of similarities when compared to Wonderdraft.

The most important shared advantage of the two are the art assets. Having premade icons for towns, houses, bridges, and what not are a huge timesaver. And just like wonderdraft it’s hard at first to figure out how to best use these assets and still seem original.

As long as you’re careful about what order you add assets in there is a lot you can make with just a small set.

Just like with Wonderdraft, the key is to experiment. After a few tries I think you’ll find that it’s easy to combine these assets to create something original. The trick is to be patient and not be afraid to start over. I know always want my first attempt to be the last but I don’t know of any project that doesn’t need a few edits.

So is campaign cartographer worth it? Is it better than Wonderdraft? To be honest with you, I don’t know. I can see already that both have a lot of potential, and Campaign Cartographer wouldn’t have lasted this long if it didn’t have potential. For me personally, I’m already enjoying Campaign Cartographer simply because it’s easier for my computer to run.

I’ll post a full review once I’ve had time to fully explore its features. For now it seems clear to me that Campaign cartographer has a lot to offer. Picking it up on sale and seeing if it’s right for you might not be the worst idea in the world, but be warned that it will take some getting used too. And right now they’re even featured on Humble Bundle!

Have you used Campaign Cartographer or Wonderdraft in the past? If so, do you have any advice you could give me? I’m always looking to learn. You can find me on twitter @expyblog. If you liked this review you can help support this site at the cost of a cup of coffee.

I made a One-Page RPG!

Making an RPG is something I’ve been thinking about doing for awhile. A few months ago I started compiling a short setting book for Sprawling Iron, but that is taking awhile and it will be quite some time before I get all the writing for it done and finalize the maps. In the mean time, I’ve made this 1 page RPG and plan to make a few others as I have time. This one is called Before the Mast, and is set in Catatera, a mobile city made up of hundreds of loosely affiliated ships that endlessly circles the globe.

I’ve included the pdf here for anyone who wants to try it. There has been exactly 0 play testing, so any feedback would be very welcome. Find me on twitter @expyblog and let me know what you think!

Worldbuilding: Getting Started

Spend some time of r/worldbuiling and you will see that many posts are from new users asking how to start worldbuilding. The short answer to this is simple-however you want! But since it seems to be such a common question I decided that I would outline my worldbuilding process here for anyone who wants to start but isn’t sure how.

1. Pick a Medium

There are a lot of ways to organize your worldbuilding. For most of my projects I like to start with a nice notebook. This comes with a few limitations, it can be hard to keep topics organized and it can be hard to go back and change major details and keep everything looking neat, but if you are as fanatical about writing implements as I am then it’s a fun way to worldbuild and use your favorite pens at the same time.

Other people use OneNote, word documents, personal wikis, or services like WorldAnvil. In the end it doesn’t matter what medium you use as long as it suits your needs or preferences.

2. Have an Idea

A lot of career advice talks about having an “elevator pitch” ready and you should have the same for your setting. If you’re making a world to run a table top campaign then this pitch might come from your players. Maybe your players want to run a wizard mafia, or find an abandoned city in the far north surrounded by frozen tundra. If you’re worldbuilding for fun or for a story you plan to write you might ask yourself what would happen in a world where the industrial revolution happened a few centuries early or Rome never fell. Once you have a theme to explore or a specific scene in mind you’ll find it much easier to make a setting where those themes or scenes are possible.

3. Pick an Era

Deciding on the level of technology found in your setting is important. It establishes the tools available to your characters, the capabilities of governments, and the resources that countries are willing to go to war over. In a world where everything runs on steam coal will be a much more valuable resource than oil, but if you’re writing diesel-punk this dynamic will be reversed.

When I pick a technology level for a setting I tend to think in terms of centuries. This is just to help visualize the kind of technology and tools available in your setting and should not feel like a limitation. In the end this is your world, if you want to introduce a new technology or put a new spin on historical inventions then do it!

4. Magic

Easily accessible magic will drastically change the dynamics of your world, so deciding if magic is common, or if it exists at all, should happen early on. You should also consider outlining the limits of your world’s magic and whether it can be classified as “hard” or “soft” magic.

If you are considering a world in which divine intervention is a regular occurrence, this would be the time to do it.

5. Make a Map

Our culture is shaped by our environment and who we come in contact with, our economies are shaped by the resources available to us, and these along with other considerations shape the conflicts we engage in. Since you are probably not going to start from the creation of your world and move forward, you’re going to need to picture the “current” state of your world and work backwards to decide what geographic features might have contributed to its current predicament. Mountains, rivers, and oceans can form natural barriers and help explain why a certain culture has stayed relatively isolated, the positions of trade routes, harbors, and rivers will decide where your major cities go.

Scale is important to think about here. You might be tempted to create an entire world map on your first go, but you should consider how much of the world you need to show for your story. Mapping an entire world is fun, but you might find yourself biting off more than you can chew. To combat this I now only map out the region that I plan to focus on and wait to flesh out others areas until I need them.

6. Fill in the Rest

This is the part where you let your imagination run wild. Outline character bios, write the histories of obscure locations or the stories of empires. There’s not really any wrong way to do this. It’s your setting, do what you want with it.