This past week I completed another edit of the basic rules for the 2nd edition of Freebooters on the Frontier, my attempt to recreate my personal experience of playing OD&D in 1978 with new-school mechanics. Along with this revision, I made a pass at the culture and settlement generation process which I’ve been envisioning for a while, which I will discuss at greater length below. The page design on these parts feels close to final, and over the next few weeks I’ll be updating the other playtest files (Beasts & Booty, Plumb the Depths, playbooks, etc.) to match. If you want to check any of this stuff out, feel free to download and take the game for a spin yourself. Here are the current playtest files. Be warned that these are just the essential rules, with no explanation; you’ll need to know how Dungeon World or other PbtA games work in order to make sense of it all. I’d love to hear what you think.
Even as I recognize that the culture and settlement generation stuff takes Freebooters a big step away from its previous, minimalist iteration, I’m excited by the possibilities, both for creating interesting content on the fly and for facilitating prep between sessions.
Applying the “nested” approach to regional notation and organization that I introduced in The Perilous Wilds to cultures, settlements, factions, and NPCs may seem like an obvious move, but it took me a while to get there. The big shift in this case is how the alignment and values of a prevailing culture may affect its subordinate parts, and the way in which those parts interact to generate hooks and dramatic possibilities all on their own. The best way to illustrate what I mean is to create a culture, settlement, faction, and NPCs here from scratch. You can follow along using the current draft.
First, I choose Albanian as the linguistic basis for naming things in this incipient culture, and because I want it to be one of the main human cultures in my campaign I don’t roll for a random originating species.
A roll of 6 on the Cultural Alignment table gives me neutral—this means that any settlement, faction, or individual who represents the culture’s ruling authority will also be neutral, and skews the alignment of non-authority entities toward neutral. While reducing a vast spectrum of worldviews to the 5 alignments seems simplistic, the interaction between those various entities creates a lot of nuance and unexpected texture. Alignment serves as a quick and broad summary of a worldview, but a given entity (culture, settlement, faction, or individual NPC) becomes complex and interesting thanks to its context and constituent parts. Coupled with the fact that in the latest update to the basic rules a PC can shift alignment at the end of a game session, the 5-alignment system has become much more flexible than it would at first appear.
Two rolls on the neutral column of the Values table give me a 3—“balance” and a 12—“roll 1d10 on chaotic.” Rolling 1d10 on the chaotic column gives me “celebration.” Noting balance and celebration as the culture’s core values, I move on to Cultural Profile and roll 8, 6, 5, 7: its sizable (possessing 3 features), enjoys a comfortable economy, has a capable military, and a resigned overall populace. For the 3 Cultural Features I get “renowned terrain (woodland/jungle),” “renowned faction (revolutionary/subversive),” and “signature tradition (public space).”
Time to take a moment to step back and look for connections. The picture comes together pretty quickly: this culture developed in a jungle environment, and although it may cover several regions of varying terrain, the primary terrain is jungle. What is it about the jungle that makes it such a well-known aspect of the place? I’m going to say that its incredibly lush, often shrouded in mist due to the humidity, and in possession of some truly gigantic trees.
Considering “balance” and “celebration” in relation to the signature tradition involving “public space,” I decide that every settlement of size is built in a ring around a central greenspace or commons where jungle flora is allowed to thrive. These common areas are considered vital to the balance between civilization and the wilderness, and serve as sites for ritual celebrations of this balance. I want a name for these spaces, and look up how “green heart” translates into Albanian: zemra jeshile. Let’s shorten that to “heart:” zemër.
The last thing to consider is that this land is also renowned for a revolutionary or subversive faction. Perhaps the society-wide emphasis on balance has created an economic system where material wealth is redistributed according to the individual needs of the citizens, but a revolutionary faction has arisen with the goal of concentrating wealth in the hands of the most “worthy.” Although their long-term goal might be to overthrow the government, in the near term they are simply seizing wealth by force; a growing army of bandits with political aspirations. Let’s call them the Golden Hands.
Great, I have a loose overall idea of how this culture operates. I can embellish and expand upon it as I wish as the campaign progresses, but right now the idea of a jungle civilization with ring-shaped settlements and a revolutionary army of gold-hungry guerillas is a good visual to work with. Time to give this kingdom a name. How does “Land of Balance” translate? Tokë e bilancit. Too long. I shorten it to Bilancit.
Next, just for fun, I’ll create a settlement within this culture. On the Settlement Size table I roll a hamlet, and using the column for Bilancit’s prevailing alignment of neutral on the Settlement Alignment table, I roll a 3: lawful. So this small community differs from the overall culture by placing more emphasis on law and order. Rolling 1 feature and 1 problem on the Hamlet tables, I get “noted landmark (statue/shrine/menhir)” and “shortage (water).” I don’t even have a map on which to place Bilancit yet, but these rolls make me decide that some part of the kingdom is desert, and this community resides there. Perhaps it grew up next to an oasis, the water supply of which has diminished in recent times and limited the settlement’s growth. The landmark is a shrine to a lawful god in the Bilancit pantheon, to whom the locals pay homage in hopes that the water will flow freely once again. This place needs a name, maybe “Law-Water,” or “Oasis,” or “Dry Spring.” Ligji i Ujit, Oazë, or Pranverë të Thatë. I like the first one, but choose to compress it to “Ligujit.”
I want to know more about the people of Ligujit. Who are they? What is their relation to the Bilancit values of balance and celebration? A hamlet is comprised of just a handful of dwellings, so I decide that all of its residents together comprise a faction, and they look to a single leader. The rules state that the lead authority of a settlement shares the settlement’s alignment, so I know this person is lawful. Starting with this leader, I roll up the four most prominent inhabitants of Ligujit. Rolling NPCs is straightforward except when it comes to alignment—in this case, I’ll roll everyone’s alignment (except the leader) on the lawful column of the NPC Alignment table. I generate all of their names using the Albanian name generator at the amazing Fantasy Name Generators site, and interpret occupation rolls according to the context (e.g., the result “innkeeper/tavernkeeper becomes “cantina proprietor”).
FACTION: Hamlet of Ligujit (lawful)
Miror Ciftja (cantina proprietor; lawful (loyalty); leader; disciplined, courteous, reckless; notable chin, ponderous, charismatic, paranoid)
Tonja Hamiti (desert guide; evil (fear); aggressive, antagonistic, wrathful; squints, notable clothing, traumatized, rebel)
Nanda Mujushi (religious zealot; chaotic (disruption); fair, antagonistic, obsessive; doughy, imposing, taciturn, cultist)
Enid Aliu (cartographer; neutral (luck); bold, wasteful; missing teeth, tall, reclusive, fugitive).
And from these four I can spin the drama of the desert hamlet of Ligujit. Poor Miror must be barely holding the place together, given that two of the three next most prominent residents are an evil rebel and a chaotic cultist. No wonder he’s paranoid! Tonja is fed up with having to share the money she earns for her guide work with the rest of Ligujit and yearns to join the Golden Hands, but she’s going to try to scare the locals out of their valuables before cutting out. The sleepy-looking, apparently harmless Nanda secretly worships one of the Bilancit gods of chaos, and is plotting to destroy the shrine that stands at the edge of the oasis pool. Enid the mapmaker is the only person of note Miror might be able to call upon if the situation worsens, and even then he might take some convincing.
Out of a series of random rolls, I’ve easily worked up a portrait of Ligujit. When the PCs pass through, they might just camp out for a night before moving on. But if they need the services of a guide and/or mapmaker as they search for ruins in the sands, they may end up learning more about this place. And if they wake up one day to find the shrine toppled and the freshwater spring reduced to a trickle, they’ll have a special kind of problem on their hands.
So that’s an example of how generating the various nested components of a culture can result in a matrix rich with possibility. I’m pretty happy with the basic procedure and the way the various parts relate; I just need to add a few sections (pantheon generation!) and refine the contents of some of these tables.