Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Gundobad's Settings with Strata

Gundobad Games came to my attention in the OSR reddit group. I was working on an idea for a bronze age setting and, somewhat conveniently, along came this academic of ancient history peddling a selection of character backgrounds. 

As regular readers will know we're fans of step-by-step sandbox/dungeon/worldbuilding procedures at Alone in the Labyrinth, and we like to chuck our own ideas into other people's machinery and see what emerges on the other side. Most recently, I attempted to get something coherent out of Jones' Oracular Dungeon Generator  and I intend to follow up on that at some point in the near future. You can read part one of that experiment here:

Within the same vein (providing a process by which an original campaign setting or adventure site can be produced) Gundobad Games has produced a settings with strata procedure for building history into a campaign world. 


I promised myself I'd give it a go, the following represents the fulfilment of that promise.

Settings with Strata

In the words of Gundobad Games:

To me, separating the history and the placement of locations - even more, writing the history after you place the locations - divorces things that belong together, and misses important opportunities for greater cohesion and depth in your setting. 

In reality, settlement locations reflect not only basic environmental geography, but also the continued influence of previous generations' settlement histories. Think of the layered strata that make up an archaeological site; many sites have been reused over periods and centuries. Sometimes this reflects only the recurring appeal of fertile land or strategic chokepoints; in other contexts, however, the cultural significance of an old site may draw renewed settlement (or even provoke furious destruction) from later generations interested in more than just growing food. Ideally, then, (IMHO) placing and designing adventure locations or settlements should reflect the big picture of the setting's history.

But can this be done efficiently, or does it require unrealistic amounts of time? What if you just want to throw together a setting for a short campaign? How many of us really have time to write those 5-page imperial genealogies or 20-page accounts of the Terrible War of Titans From Before the Times That Any Player Character Will Care About? Not me. 
In place of an elaborate history, Gundobad suggests the following process:
  1. Come up with a simple three sentence initial concept.
  2. Draw a regional map to fit that concept.
  3. Create 3-4 strata: historical eras that have defined this region. Write 1-3 sentences for each era.
  4. Come up with 3-7 locations that were most significant for each era.

1. Campaign Concept

  • Inspired by the OD&D implied setting with adjustments: post-apocalyptic pseudo-medieval fantasy with occasional sci-fantasy elements.
  • Dichotomy of Law & Chaos.
  • The frontier is a blighted waste: The Fells

2. Regional Map

So I'm using a pretty horrible pencil, but just want to get a rough outline. The whole area is an upland moor, with great craggy hills and mountains forming river valleys.

There's no real forests here apart from around the rivers, I'll add those in later, just lots of low-lying scrub which herds of animals like to eat.

3. Historical Strata

  1. Time immemorial. An ancient civilisation builds huge structures at sites of great power. No other trace of their culture remains.
  2. The ancient past. Nomadic humans arrived in the uplands, settling in the river valleys. Their civilisation advanced rapidly as they discover the secrets held within the monoliths.
  3. Age of Chaos: at the peak of its artistic, magical and technological achievement the human culture wipes itself out in a global apocalypse. The very fabric of reality is rent asunder, with gateways to the underworld ushering in hordes of monstrous creatures. Humans flee to the southeast.
  4. The Return of Order: a new human civilisation is attempting to assert its authority over this wilderness. A king in the south is rewarding veterans of his wars with land in the wilderness. The Temple of Law has established outposts for its various orders in the hope of quelling the forces of Chaos and returning order to the fells.

3. Locations for Each Stratum

First Age: The Great Builders

A. The Black Column   

A large lake in a crater in the mountains, surrounded by coniferous trees, fed only by melting snow and precipitation. Opposite its outflow stands a pillar of smooth, black stone etched with incredibly fine engravings. The imagery is abstract. In a curious language of magic and mathematics, it tells the story of the creation of the universe and the nature of reality.

B. The Red Sphere

Buried in an enormous underground cave is a perfect, 1200' diameter sphere of an identifiable red mineral. Placing one's hand against it allows one to listen to the song of creation, which tells the story of the creation of the universe and the nature of reality. The information completely contradicts the story that can be read on the black column.

C. The Silver Pyramid

The mountain peak appears to have been has been carved into a perfect pyramid of solid silver. It is approximately 606 feet high with four faces, each one 952 feet wide. A deep groove, less than four inches wide, traces a spiral around the pyramid from the base to the top, with each lap being roughly one foot apart.

The interior of the pyramid contains a complex labyrinth of tunnels covered with an elaborate relief. This relief reconciles the contradictory stories of the Black Column and the Red Sphere, but can only be understood by touch.

Second Age: Golden Age of Humanity

(Excuse the half-arsed colouring-in)


Nomadic settlers from the south established their outpost here and quickly began to clear the land. The soil is thin but the hills and mountains are full of metal, and the ground is good for grazing, particularly sheep. Highford grows wealthy.

Temple of the Red God

Prospectors discover the cavern housing the Red Sphere. They are terrified, and send for the wisewomen. The site is deemed holy and slowly it grows into an elaborate temple complex dedicated to the "Red God". Knowledge of metallurgy, matter manipulation and fire magic proliferates, with the temple at its centre. 

World's End

Fur trappers lost in the mountains find the beautiful lake and pristine coniferous forests. They try to ignore the Black Column, but it calls to them. Here they establish a city, which grows in prosperity as the secrets of the Black Column begin to unravel. 


A settlement connects the region to eastern polities, built upon the wealth of silver which is tightly controlled by an emergent priesthood. Riverfork at times wages war with Highford, and throughout history the two cities oscillate in power and influence.


A logging community, famed for its ornate wood-carving and carpentry. Nominally loyal to Highford, their allegiance shifts to Riverfork and then World's End as the northernmost city becomes more developed.



The wealthiest mining community, Silvertown also houses the home of Riverfork's priests, who guard against anyone wishing to access the Silver Pyramid.

Third Age: The Age of Chaos

Civil war, plague and famine precede a monstrous rampage. Independent mages establish their own private fiefdoms.

(I drew all over this map before I scanned it)

Fort Doom

A former priest of the Black Column attempts to utilise the mysteries of the universe for their own gain, Hilarity ensues as World's End and Woodfall are sacked, sending thousands of human refugees south to Highford. The Evil High PRiest ahs amassed a cult 

Temple of the Red God

The sphere has somehow become corrupted, and the Red Priests become a murderous, ravenous cult of chaos. A horde of Orcs sweeps across the land, sacking Highford. Many humans head south.

Tower of Many Eyes

The sorceress Kelha claims to have discovered the secret of eternal life. She guards it jealously, surrounding her Tower of Many Eyes with 


A magical curse afflicts Silvertown, afflicting all but the most rigidly lawful of its miners. These men and women do not age, nor do they tire or sleep. They keep a vigil against the forces of chaos, fearing what might happen if the Silver Pyramid is corrupted in the same manner as the Temple of the Red God. While they wait they continue to fortify their mines, burrowing deep into the ground and forging powerful weapons. They are permanently stooped from their ceaseless labour, and have grown squat and muscular.


After the city's decimation, those few surviving humans who remained are transformed by the forces of chaos into chaotic manifestations of the human spirit. Like the fey creatures of legend, they are capricious and alien, eerily beautiful but devoid of empathy. They dwell in the forested ruins of Woodfall as magical immortal beings, worshipping ancient spirits and creating wondrous artefacts.


The centuries of rampant magic transformed many refugees into bestial manifestations of humankind. Yet through strength and valour, these groups not only survived but prospered. The Oroks or half-humans built a nomadic pastoralist culture, centred on the city of Orok-Katan.

Oroks corrupted by chaos are known as Orcs
Era Four: Return to Order?

Over the centuries humanity rebuilds and seeks to reclaim The Fells, through land grants to veterans and holy orders such as the magistrates and the paladins. Adventurers are drawn to the legends of gold and silver in the fabled fells, but "prospecting licences" are hard to come by and must be purchased from the magistrates. 

The Oroks are currently the only force truly preventing the forces of chaos from sweeping into the newly claimed lands of the kingdom, but that's not good for image of the kingdom, so the myth of the "Marcher Lord" is allowed to grow. 

Monastic Orders are looking to retrieve magical artefacts from the ruins of the previous civilisations and the age of chaos, but the paladins try to keep their activities in check


Riverfork is renamed "Westreach" once claimed for the Kingdom by Holy Knights known as paladins. The paladins seek to bring the dwarves of Silverton into their holy covenant.

Minor fiefdoms given to veterans of the kingdoms wars with other human states. Usually these men and women carry the title of Lord, Marcher Lord or Lord Knight. They are poor and their dominions are fit for nothing but raising sheep.

An outpost set up by the Order of Magistrates, initially during wars with the Oroks. A truce has been declared, now the rangers mediate disputes between the chaotic "elves" of the forest and the Oroks. This is the only town where elves may move freely. 

Magistrates are licensed by the King and Church of Law to carry out summary justice and resolve local disputes in lands not held by a Marcher Lord.

This is a frontier town, and probably a good site for a starting adventuring party. There's even an outpost of the shadowy organisation known as the Guild!

Haunted Tower

The keep of Kelha crumbles, the tower of many eyes now seems blinded by age. Rumours of ghosts and dark magics are circulated by the church to keep whatever forbidden secrets it houses buried.

An underground fortress guarding access to the Silver Pyramid.

Crumbling Fort
Fort Doom lies in ruins, the High Priest presumed dead or insane after centuries of unsuccessfully attempting to decipher the Black Column.


The bulwark between the human frontier and the chaotic forces of the Temple of the Red God.

Ruins of Highford

Rumoured to be full of gold!

World's End

Once the richest city in the world, the ruins of this culture are patrolled by sophisticated golems seeking to preserve the knowledge of the Black Column.


This was a fun exercise and I think the procedure ahs great potential, but I think I was a little dishonest in my approach. I've had the OD&D implied setting at the back of my head for a while now, and just before I sat down to do this exercise I considered going down another route (Bronze Age collapse scenario) but thought I'd try and kill two birds with one stone. As a result there's probably a lot of stuff here which wouldn't have come out of the normal process.

What did any of that mean? 

Well, I think what I'm trying to say is that I'd like to do two follow up posts from this exercise.
  1. My ideas for an OD&D implied setting and
  2. ...this whole exercise again, with a different set of starting values.
Also, Gundobad, I did it! Finally! I think you have a neat sandbox generator here, what do you think of what I came up with? What do you think I should have done differently?


  1. Hi there! Thanks so much for giving my method a try, and for the detailed write-up. I like your setting; for some reason it gives me a bit of an old Greyhawk feel, even though it's its own thing. I like the ways that misinformation and variant interpretation of the oldest arcane sites keep getting woven into the setting.

    You mention "orcs" briefly before you talk about the "Oroks" becoming "orcs." Are these meant to be the same creatures, or are the later Chaos-tainted Oroks simply named after earlier "orcs"?

    A few quick thoughts about the process:

    + No need to lament the fact that you went into this with pre-existing ideas about the setting - if it worked, then that's great! I designed this process to streamline fast creation of coherent settings without a lot of prep, but if the system also works when you have a clearer idea to begin with, that's hardly a foul. :-)

    + That being said, if you do try it again with a 'blank slate,' I hope you'll have the same experience as me - you can really have fun *surprising* yourself during the creative process. Once I have the short description of my ages done and then get to work in chronological order, I often find that the emerging story takes on all kinds of twists and turns that I never saw coming - while still fitting within the broad concept and highest-level narrative that I've specified. This is a different experience that I really enjoy.

    + I saw your comment at the beginning that you would add forests in later in the process. You colored some in during Age 2, I think? There's no wrong way to do this, but if it were me, I wouldn't make a permanent forest/vegetation cover on the map until the end of the process. That's just because, historically, dramatic cycles of social collapse and regeneration often involve rebound and then shrinking of forest coverage. Again, there's no 'wrong' way to do this, but that's one thing I'd do differently - leave to the very end the actual state of vegetation that the player characters' generation would encounter - whether that includes ancient forests now shrunk back to stubs, or ancient ruins wholly covered by a verdant sea of trees...

    + I'd be interested to know how long this process took (and how long a 'blank slate' will take you). I can put something together very quickly using this method (within an hour) but I spend my whole professional life thinking about historical dynamics, so I'm not sure how easily the method translates to others.

    Thanks again. If you do continue the experiment, please let me know! Happy Gaming!

    1. Hi Gundobad!

      Yup, the Greyhawk vibe (while not intentional) was always going to arise from something inspired by the original edition of the game!

      The "orcs" thing was misleading: I wanted to have humanoid Oroks and then Orcs as a corruption arising from the chaos. Could have done with another strata to cover the period when the original oroks arose.

      I do regret shoehorning in some of 0ed implied setting stuff, I think it would have been more fun to start afresh and "surprise myself" as you say.

      The colouring in was just an attempt to test out the set of pens set on my desk. I immediately regretted it. You're right, of course, allow vegetation to be dictated by the state of culture at the end of the final age.

      This took an afternoon, but mostly because I was doing other stuff at the same time (I was at work haha). Maybe an hour if I took all that out of consideration? I'll be more disciplined on my second attempt (blank slate) and will let you know.

      Thanks for commenting!