Reflections on Karameikos

So, GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, published in 1987 by TSR. What a book. What a gloriously imperfect, yet exciting book. As someone whose gaming supplement standards are informed by the likes of Yoon-Suin and Kevin Crawford’s Sine Nomine products, it’s difficult to not be a little frustrated by GAZ1. Information is generally provided in a text-dump expository way; there are very few tables to generate new content; it lacks many of the innovations and conveniences that modern OSR publishing has pioneered. The text is somewhat unpleasingly presented in many places, and conveyance suffers from the usual lack of clean formatting and highlighting of important bits. But faulting the book for this would be like faulting for 1939 Chevrolet for not having air conditioning. What’s there is there, and what’s there is pretty great. And I find myself thinking and daydreaming much, much more about Karameikos than I ever anticipated.

A lot of the interesting bits of the book stem from how author Aaron Allston’s vision of Karameikos is delightfully messy. What does it mean to be from Karameikos? It depends on whether you’re a Traladaran, or a Thyatian settler. It depends on whether you approve of Grand Duke Stefan or not – and whether you consider him the prophesied reincarnation of King Halav. If you’re a thief, which of the three guilds do you belong to? If you’re a magic-user, do you roll your eyes at local superstitions or do you abide by them? If you’re a cleric, which church do you belong to, and do you subscribe to any secret doctrine?

Interior art from GAZ1: Grand Duchy of Karameikos, © Wizards of the Coast.

Playing in Karameikos immediately invites you to interrogate your character concept on the setting’s premises without too much long-wrought exposition or setting lore mastery. GAZ1 hits the sweet spot here, and adds one pinch of spice to perfect the dish: no one has perfect information about everything from the beginning.

Karameikos is deceptively complicated to just the right amount that it becomes a story machine as soon as you insert some player characters. It conceives of the Grand Duchy as anything but monolithic. Because Allston does not structure the region around modern conceptions of nationality and nation-statehood, Karameikos appears much more authentically medieval than many other takes on adventure-friendly feudal polities. Like Capetian France and Norman England, Karameikos is animated by the interactions and tensions between constituent groups and factions, and more than any dungeon (a subject the book is surprising sparse about), sociopolitical messiness provides the stimulus for adventure in the Grand Duchy.

A normal day in Karameikos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, delving and dungeoneering seems almost like an afterthought in Karameikos. The provided list of adventure seeds almost all deal with some kind of social or political theme. I can’t help but think that Karameikos in many ways would make a better Burning Wheel setting than it would a D&D setting. Or a reskinned game of Pendragon, where the players take on the role of knights in the service of Stefan III. The setting just seems to lend itself very well to characters who have stakes in the social situation.

I’d happily participate in a D&D/OSR game as well though – in fact, grabbing Kevin Crawford’s An Echo Resounding and an assortment of sandbox toolkits, populate the wilderness, and roll up some new-freshed adventurers sounds like a hell of a time too…

Damn. I kind of want to run a Karameikos game now.

Any older publications that unexpectedly inspired you recently?

A Campaign Ended, A Campaign Chronicled

I recently wrapped up an incredible Burning Wheel campaign ran over discord and roll20. Certainly one of the most meaningful games I’ve ever participated one. A player in the group is a campaign-chronicler par excellence, and has posted the full campaign log, complete with GM’s (me!) retrospective at the end. He’s done an incredibly job recording the groups adventures with crime cartels, canals, and cults of the Monkey God. The whole thing can be read here.

Situation Mining: War of the Burning Sky

EN Publishing’s War of the Burning Sky is a 3.5-era ‘adventure path’, and it’s got quite a lot of cool stuff. Invading dream-demon, set piece battles in icy fortresses, Council of Elrond-style gatherings of the Good Guys, and a battle inside the beating heart of a deity. Adventure paths as a format are not my preferred form of gaming, but that’s no reason to scoff at awesome ideas. The inciting incident of the campaign is as follows: Emperor Coaltongue, the sorcerer-ruler of the Ragesian Empire, has died, and Supreme Inquisitor Leska has claimed leadership of Ragesia, issuing a grand decree against magic-users. She invades neighboring countries while striking down rebellions inside Ragesia with an iron fist – all the while the resistance attempts to find and secure the Torch of the Burning Sky, a powerful artifact of Ragesia whose fiery influence is slowly seeping into the mortal world. All of these threads converge on the city of Gate Pass, a neutral settlement that stands in the way of Leska’s armies. It’s all very Lord of the Rings meets Malazan Book of the Fallen by the way of D&D 3.5 tropes. And it’s a hell of a Burning Wheel situation.

Empire in succession crisis? Check! Rebellions? Check! A state-sponsored cult of anti-sorcerous priests? Check! An ever-burning cursed forest? Check! Half-orcs actually having non-marginal roles? Check! Stalwart and aloof elves? Check! A quest for an artifact of unimaginable power? Check, check, check!

© EN Publishing.

Notes on Setting, Situation, and Rules

Adventure paths work very well as foundations and jump-off points. Make no effort to stick to the plot as written out in the text. Take a broad strokes-approach to the setting when necessary. The adventure path is not your script, so jettison whatever does not work for your game as it evolves.

For the beginning of the campaign, focusing on the initial conflict around Gate Pass is a double-edged sword. It creates a strong link between characters and starting location but it risks tying the game too much to that location and not to the greater conflict. Tie Beliefs and Relationships to the greater forces and conflicts at work, and not just to Gate Pass.

For Leska’s wizard-hostile clerics, the Curse miracle from the Codex seems very appropriate if targeted at the Sorcery skill.

The Ragesian Empire has more than a few important half-orcs running about – including the deceased Emperor, Coaltongue. If everyone agrees beforehand to play Ragesian characters, I see no harm in reducing the cost of the Fey Blood trait to 2 points to give everyone some real Orcish flourish. Or they might be outright Orcs.

Speaking of Ragesian characters, the Inquisition and/or the Imperial Court make fantastic Affiliations. On the side of the Good Guys, there are a nice catalogue of factions as well; the various polities, the Lyceum of free magic-users in Seaquen, the elves of Shahalesti, and so on. Don’t be afraid to invent new ones. Quest fantasies of this variety benefit from local factions not yet committed to the larger conflict. If only some itinerant heroes would unite them.

While Leska and the Ragesians are waging war, a race of extradimensional dream-demons are conducting their secret invasion as well. It’s just the way of things. They may or may not play important roles in your game, but they’re a good excuse to include some Corruption rules.

Cultural Traits

Ragesian Empire: Brutal, Grim, Proud.

Dassen: Firm, Passionate, Well-Dressed.

Seaquen: Erudite, Ideologue, Tolerant.

Sindaire: Agreeable, Reckless, Righteous.

Ostalin: Arrogant, Earthen, Rough Hands.

Burned-up Characters and Belief Prompts

All made with the excellent charred-black online character burner.

Lyceum Agent

  • Write a Belief your views on sorcery and why its free practice is a good thing.
  • Write a Belief about how you rationalize or deal with the dark work the Lyceum sometimes needs to do.
  • Write a Belief about a seed of corruption and decay you have glanced in the Lyceum.

Gate Pass Mercenary

  • Write a Belief about how Gate Pass has become a home for you.
  • Write a Belief about how you intend to make a lot of money supporting the resistance against Ragesia.
  • Write a Belief the shameful secret that forced you to become a mercenary.

Ragesian Defector

  • Write a Belief about how Leska’s reign of terror is destroying the Ragesia you know and love.
  • Write a Belief about what you gave up when you defected.
  • Write a Belief about how far, and no further, you will go in aiding the resistance.

Elf of Shahalesti

  • Write a Belief about the Torch of the Burning Sky and the legends you have heard of its power.
  • Write a Belief about the indignities your homeland has suffered under Ragesia, and how this drives you to act.
  • Write a Belief about how your service to the cause will further your own family’s standing in post-war Shahalesti.

Thoughts On Delving, Burning and In-Betweens

My current Burning Wheel campaign is wrapping up, and so we’re discussing what to play afterwards. We still want to play BW, and it was suggested that we could do a ‘Burning OSR’, and take the traditional starting premise of dungeon-delving knaves out for treasure as a springboard for a campaign. This, in a sense, is very much the idea of Torchbearer, which I sadly haven’t played.

Threw a ‘teaser poster’ for the idea together in Affinity.

All this got me thinking about ways to inject some OSR into Burning Wheel and vice versa. A quixotic task. The two systems exist in vastly different spaces, and operate on vastly different mechanical chassis. Creating a character for B/X D&D can be done in minutes; burning a character for BW can take all afternoon. OSR wants you to accept that your character can die any moment; BW tends to make death rare and dramatic. We can compare and contrast until the end of time easily enough.

Yet what both systems share is a sense of struggle. A sense that every decision can and will matter, that consequences (good or bad) will appear based on player agency, and that no reward comes without a cost. We can do a couple of gross simplifications here.

Burning Wheel is a highly character-centric game, and so rewards and obstacles tend to be structured around the emotional lives of the PC’s. They believe Thing A, which is at odds with their loyalty to Thing B, while they are instinctively driven to do Thing C, and so on. The inner struggle is often the most powerful in Burning Wheel. BW is Luke and Vader in the lift before entering the Emperor’s throne room; it is Aragorn agonizing over his shame about his heritage.

OSR gaming tends to be more focused on the physical space and on physical rewards and obstacles. You delve for physical treasure, and while there is obvious psychological elements (and sometimes codified rules) to the whole affair, the drama of OSR stems from how spatial and physical problems are dealt with by the characters. OSR is Indiana Jones running from the rolling boulder; it is Conan attempting to infiltrate the orgiastic rituals of Thulsa Doom.

These two kinds of struggle could, and should, cross-pollinate and inform each other. They do so a bit by default, of course. But can they do so even more, without becoming an awkward attempt to hybridize two systems with very different design intents? No one wants to show up to play Old School Essentials and then be told we’re actually playing Burning Wheel in disguise – and I strongly suspect the reverse to be true as well.

For OSR, I think the answer might lie in emergent context. Whenever there’s a goal reached, or a sacrifice made, or some other powerful decision point, it’s a spotlight on the character(s) making that decision. Ask them about what drove them here. Questions are good, leading questions even better. When the 1st level party returns from their first delve, ask them what keeps them from retiring on the spot with the loot they got. When the fighter almost died and was saved by the last cure spell, what thoughts allowed him to grip unto life? Contextualize the inner life of the character through their physical hardship, and empower the seat-gripping moments with just a bit of extra spice. Hitch unto the dramatic moments rather than the downtime moments for revelation and exploration of characters. It might reveal something cool.

For Burning Wheel, physical obstacles disconnected from the character’s story feel awkward and arbitrary. In the words of one of my players, “There are no random encounter tables in this game”. There aren’t, and that’s for a reason. The opposition to PC’s in Burning Wheel is less interested in the interactive physical specifics, and more in the opposition’s relationship to the PC’s character. But, and this is an important but, a lot of the inspirations for Burning Wheel strongly emphasize the physical hardships as well. BW games can too often over-focus on the inner struggle and emotional sacrifices. The resource management of OSR gaming is enlightening here. Torches are sparse. Food is running low. The rocks are slippery, leading to a great chasm. These are all challenges the heroes of the great tales must face, and there is no reason our BW protagonists shouldn’t either. Do not handwave their rations when they go on an expedition; do not skip over climbing the cliffs so we can get heart-wrenching inner drama; do not let them go through mud and blood without getting their clothes real damned dirty. The struggle should be fair, but it should be a struggle.

Situation Mining: Umbar After Sauron

Judd Karlman established the practice of situation mining: taking ideas and premises from various media and formulating them as potential Burning Wheel campaigns with character ideas, questions, etc. His site is full of great stuff in that regard.

It’s mentioned in Tolkien’s appendices that after the War of the Ring, Near Harad and Umbar are brought under Gondorian rule. I always thought that sounded like a rich environment for a Burning Wheel game. We got a proud city-state with a shady history, whose religion has been revealed to be a sham perpetuated by the dark lord, now without its proud navy, and forced to submit to its hereditary enemy. Excellent campaign fodder. Here’s an attempt at situation mining it.

These ships? Sunk! Fantasy Flight Games 2016.

In the books, we never hear much of Umbar aside from the corsairs. Is it a kingdom? An oligarchy? Perhaps ruled by a council of the grandest corsair lords – whose power base of warships has now been eradicated. Perhaps it is ruled by a puppet prince. How do the Gondorians impose their rule? How do merchants and commoners navigate the new situation? What has happened to the former priests of Sauron? What’s political environment like after the city has been humbled so profoundly? Use the pre-game to answer these questions and fine-tune the Situation.

Potential flashpoints include choosing new leaders, new market opportunities, dealing with underground Sauron-cultists, negotiating the power vacuum left after the war. Tie the Beliefs into volatile, dramatic premises. Umbar is a small enough setting that the political and the domestic go hand in hand – milk it for all its worth! Lean into the themes of injured pride, of dark pasts, of forgiveness, redemption and rebuilding.

Sample Cultural Traits

Culture clash between Umbaran, Gondorian and Haradrim norms could be a central theme. Cultural traits in Burning Wheel don’t mean that every member of the culture actually are this way, but are rather points for how the culture is perceived and sometimes perceives itself.

Umbaran: Aggressive, Mercenary, Swaggering.

Gondorian: Dutiful, Proud, Righteous.

Haradrim: Devout, Merciless, Sharp Dresser.

Burned Up Characters and Belief Prompts

All made using the excellent charred-black online character burner.

Umbaran Ship-Noble

  • Write a Belief about the qualities and worthiness of your house, and how you aim to preserve those in the new age.
  • Write a Belief about something you admire about Gondor, reluctantly or not.
  • Write a Belief about how you need to ensure you get a say in ruling Umbar.

Ex-priest of the Dark Lord

  • Write a Belief about the connections you still have with the Dark Lord’s loyalists.
  • Write a Belief about someone you need to ally with and offer your services to.
  • Write a Belief about what you gave up to serve the Dark Lord, and how you now wish to reclaim it.

Good excuse to use the ‘Faith in Dead Gods’ rules from the Codex.

Gondorian Envoy

  • Write a Belief about some public or governance project in Umbar you wish to realize.
  • Write a Belief about your home’s history with corsair attacks.
  • Write a Belief about the pressures and demands from the crown of Gondor and how they affect you.

Haradrim Merchant

  • Write a Belief about how your business can benefit from setting up shop in Umbar.
  • Write a Belief about what you lost in the War of the Ring and how Sauron’s lieutenants subverted your home.
  • Write a Belief about some clandestine trade deal you have a part in.