I’m running a new Dungeon World campaign beginning Saturday, so I thought I’d offer some insights on how I’m approaching this game. I’ve run DW once and five Apocalypse World campaigns. I love the highly improvisation nature of the game. But, this time, I’m going into the beginning with more prep than I have before.
The idea for this setting began with a city, somewhere on the very edges of civilization, a refuge for outlaws and exiles. A city with no real ruler or government, only temporary agreements made by shifting alliances of wealthy merchants, powerful arcanists, and scheming priests. The city’s greatest resource is the people who call it home. They’re either employed defending the power brokers or as expeditionary companies hired to search for treasure or to fight for whoever hires them. There are a number of cultures surrounding the city. To the far west, the remnants of the Pharizanic Kingdoms rule the fringes of an enormous desert. The the far east, the Empire rules over a fractious land of green farmlands. To the far north, two viking-like cultures war with each other. Closer to the city, the forest along the river is divided, east and west, by a Germanic culture and a Celtic culture.
From the city, two roads lead away. One, the Emperor’s Road, is a broad, muddy path through heavy forest and rugged hills to the western provinces of the Empire. To the east, the remains of a paved highway lead to the desert and the Pharizanic Kingdoms. Trade, by caravan or ship, often passes through the city.
I want to build depth into the city from the start, to help expand options later on. I’m starting with the idea that the city is built on a rocky prominence rising up where a great river empties into the ocean. The river splits into two around the Rock, and there is a small, deep harbor on the eastern side. Bridges span the river to the east and the west. North of the Rock, the river delta is a swampy region surrounded by heavy forest on both sides.
This history of the city is important to me. I’m working with the idea that it was first settled by Dwarves as an outpost. They dug deeply into the rock, mining it for silver and turning it into Thaforathol, the Grey Fortress, named for the normally grim, overcast skies. They improved the harbor by dredging it and excavating the stone docks. They also built the original East and West Bridges. Their underground construction included a number of great halls, a temple complex, barracks, workshops, homes and deep wells (which still supply the city with water). Above ground, they built the Lighthouse, the avenues that circle from the bridges down to the port, and the homes and shops built into the walls along the avenues.
After some period of time, the Dwarves withdrew or were driven out and the city became dominated the Pharizanic Kingdoms far to the East. The Pharizan brought with them their own culture, hieroglyphs and construction methods. They, or the Dwarves, sealed off many of the Dwarven passages. But, the Pharizan settled in the Avenue homes, and built their squat, square buildings around the Port, to which they added watch towers. They called the place Mennat Hir, “Storm Fortress”.
When the power of the Kingdoms began to wane, they lost control of the city to displaced nobles and settlers seeking a refuge from the Empire. The Empire is far to the west, and has always been politically unstable. The Exiles brought with them their own architectural style, which was adapated into the tall, thin round tower homes built anywhere there was cleared ground. By this time, the Lighthouse had partially collapsed, and given superstitions, an area several hundred meters around it remains clear of building.
So, as I describe the city, I’ll be drawing on three different cultural styles. The rounded, moss-covered stone towers and timber and brick buildings of the Exiles; the Pharizanic buildings built from imported yellow stone blocks with timber roofs; and below it all, the exacting perfection of the Dwarven engineers working in smooth stone, featuring runic glyphs and fanciful scenes carved into the living rock.
Dwarven Style (underground):
- Out-sized public spaces
- Dwarf sized passageways and personal spaces
- Cut from and utilizing the natural pinkish granite of the Rock, usually highly polished
- Runic symbols, fantastic wall carvings
- Lanterns hanging down from overhead
- Hidden and secret doors
- Ramps or narrow stairs
- Square buildings with timber roof structures
- Utilizing imported yellow sandstone blocks
- Hieroglyphs and stylized wall carvings
- Round, narrow open windows set high in walls
- Often two levels, with private rooms sectioned off with wooden walls atop and living space and fire pits in the center, below.
- Narrow, round towers made of limestone of various grey and bluish shades.
- Narrow, thin windows.
- Covered with moss on northern sides, which makes climbing difficult.
- Cultivated, virulent poison ivy grown on the southern sides.
- Main door is short, arched, heavy wood with iron bands.
- One small floor every ten feet.
- Owners almost always live on the top floor.
- Mostly conical roofs (with trap doors).
- Often a secret exit leads down and out.
It’s a jumble, but I’m working with the Rule of Three. Having three (or more) of the same type of elements allows you to compare and contrast the details. It allows you to form webs of relationships and rivalries that, over time, the players can discover for themselves. I intend to start with three primary business factions, three arcane factions, and three divine factions in the city. I’ll have some details sketched out, and let the players fit in and fill in the blanks as we create new characters. It’s intended to be a brooding, dangerous environment, a place that faces a terrible doom and a ticking clock. Because time-locks are another great writing trick. I’d tell you more, but some of the players are reading this and I want them to dig for the answers. Or die for them.
I’m still stuck on one thing… the name of the City. Thaforathol is the Khuzdul (Tolkien) word for Grey Fortress. Minnatl Hir is a word I made up, using the Desert culture (Pharizanic) name generator on my Dungeon World site. I’ve had several ideas run through my head, but I’m headed back to Tolkien for this one. Sindarin in fact. Gondgûl will work for me. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what it means.