Setting element: Those who fight the forest.

8 January, 2008 at 7:21 pm (game design, game element) (, , , )

This setting element started as an exercise in setting design. First posting happened on the Campaign Builders’ Guide.

Design goals: To make a setting suitable for many gaming styles, including the exemplified by Dogs in the Vineyard, and to further make it one that has themes that engaging to me on personal level. The setting has seen some play-by-post action, which is currently on hold because one player is serving his year in the FDF. The game hopefully continues after that.


Once upon a time there was a magnificient forest, untainted by civilisation. Humanity came and hacked and burned. Significant areas are now devoid of forest, but vibrant with farms, livestock and even a few cities. Now the forest is coming back.

The forest

It is dark, ancient and malicious. It wants to conquer your lands. Beasts mundane and mystical have been sighted. Few who dare to enter the woods come back, fewer still untainted.

Yet the forest is not without a weakness. An iron fence keeps a village safe from the enroachment of beasts. An iron blade is what can slay the beasts. An iron amulet protects one from the vile sorceries practiced by witches.

The people

Men and women are weak. They open the gates and let the forest in. They worship dead gods of the ancient forest-dwellers. They give away their amulets to be cured from a disease. They huddle behind their gates and let their blades rust. They neglect the fences during cold winter nights. They build with wood, not stone.

The banished, the outlaws, the poor, the diseased, the heretics, the muggers, those are the only people who have no choice but live next to the forest. No noble, no merchant would ever live there. Few are brave, or foolish, enough to visit the border. Most live in their secure castles and fabulous palaces, caring little of the forest and even less of those who live next to it.

The wardens

The nobles with no money, the bastards, the wealthy or influential who have earned the ire of the powers that be, the nonexistant children of the clergy are trained as wardens. They are taught to fight, to pray, to help. They travel from border village to next, slaying beasts and heathens, bringing news, murdering, raping, robbing, saving innocents, repairing the iron fence, holding sermons, smothering rebellions. They are the law near the forest. Theirs is the power over life and death, over sin and salvation. They are trained to be righteous, just, and careful saviors of the poor. Many are murderous, cunning, lecherous thugs. They hunt rogue wardens as often as beasts of the forest.

In play

A group of wardens, together for safety and watching over each other, enters a border village. Maybe they need to identify the witch, whose evil eye has cursed the doubtless devout priest. Maybe they need to judge the witch: She heals people and works as a midwife, the best of the region. Her magic is tainted by moss, rot and corruption, yet it is used for good. What’s a warden to do? Maybe they need to bring down the wolf of huge size and great cunning, which has slain all herds and some men. No villager has the courage to tread outside after dusk. Maybe a village is full of heretics worshipping the ancient pagan gods. Slaying everyone is not feasible. Maybe a rogue warden tracked down is enjoying quiet country life with his new-found wife rumoured to be a witch.

The themes

There is man fighting the forest (I am on the forest’s side). There is new religion against the old one (I support the old). Behind all conflicts are humans.

That said, do go and play it as a heroic monsterslaying spree. It is adaptable. It can be investigation, travelogue, hacking and slashing, or a tragic full of angst and moral dilemmas. That’s the point.

Add it to an existing setting. Some fringe area, possibly an island, where humanity recently arrived. It may be a jungle or a marsh. It may be a distant planet or moon, far from conventional trade routes.


  1. Phased Weasel said,

    I first read about it on the Invision boards linked in your About page. I’m glad you polished it for the front page, I thought it was a lost gem.

    I adore this setting. It has a very strong, “grokable” central theme from which all else flows. Versatile in many ways, elegant, fun. Perhaps next time around. This has definitely stuck in my mind, and I will always think of it (you left out in the summary the idea of silver allowing a Warden to see through forest enchantments, did you drop it from the setting?)

    I am running a game where civilized beings (humans and dwarves) are not from the current plane. It’s a more nature-oriented plane where certain metals are extremely rare (iron and gold), and when a town is not actively growing and expanding, the “Green Wind” may come through and erase it. Rot and decay of structures happens in a matter of weeks, and wild animals and beasts appear very quickly.

    There is no active defense, it’s more a constant struggle. Expanding regions do well, regions which begin to languish or age disappear quickly.

    It’s not quite the same constant battle or central focus you provided (more of a justification for the “points of light” idea of 4E), and there are no fun thematic links with iron and silver (given the paucity of metals in my world, iron fences wouldn’t be feasible).

    More settings, please!

  2. Phased Weasel said,

    One more thought on why I enjoy your posts so much. Most campaign builders seem to focus on alternate magic systems, or detailed histories explaining half a dozen custom races, or complicated pantheons.

    Your setting focuses on what is fun, and how immediate play works. I know what to do, and the overarching feel of the whole campaign, in a few paragraphs. There’s no need to detail the magical systems, or make lists of monsters, or gods, etc. I can think of a handful of game systems this would work in easily, and even how to drop it smoothly into a 3.5 campaign. Keep spreading the creation of useful amateur content!

  3. Tommi said,

    Silver is detail, much like the specific nature and symbols of the involved religions, much like the exact nature of magic, much like almost everything else. To use Chris Chinn’s terminology, this is very much an evocative setting, and quite sketchy one at that.

    I’ll see if any other settings lodge themselves into my head. I may revive the arctic one with severe changes.

    Your idea of stagnation literally leading to death is a nice one. It provides plausible reason for adveturing, and if player characters get a settlement of their own, it keeps them active regardless. Do you have more detailed a write-up anywhere?

  4. Phased Weasel said,

    I have a full campaign document for my players detailing the local regions and spins on races, but not much information on how to handle the stagnation. I envision the world as rich in elementals (air, water, earth) and spirits.

    Iron and gold are rare. Most weapons are assumed to be bronze or some other “primitive” material (I like the idea of pretty brass knives). Steel weapons receive a material bonus to hit and damage. However, iron is the antithesis of magic (why else would cold iron be so hurtful to fey?). Iron and steel are unenchantable.

    Venturing further afield, I think humans have settled from an older plane, perhaps a dying one. This plane has an old, red sun, little magic and some light technology maybe (muskets, steam?). I’m setting up a small conflict between a band of iron princes who have crossed over (armored in full steel armor, wielding masterwork steel swords!).

    I think perhaps the fey have always been hostile to this neighboring realm, and created the rust monster as a sort of whimsical weapon.

    Beyond that, I’ve mostly tried to alter the races slightly. The frozen north is populated by savage elven barbarians (who says they always have to build cities of light?). I find elven barbarians formidable, because they’d have the benefit of long experience and powerful ties to the land (good arcane magic and druids).

    Sea elves are the dominant force at sea. With the practice of millenia to perfect ship design and sailing technique, aided by reasonably powerful magic (spells like powerful versions mend for straining masts and control winds are very valuable in sailing), and an uncaring attitude toward danger, dashing and psychotic sea elves brave storms and gulfs few else would contemplate.

    I decided to make the oceans freshwater, which has a few consequences in my mind: no salt means oceans freeze easier and storms are more violent. Sea life and ocean life can mingle more, and finally salt becomes a valuable commodity. Humans and minotaurs working the deep badlands provide much of the salt essential to civilization, and therefore they have an almost revered status.

    I enjoy a lively dwarven civilization, and I envision dwarven runemasters and wizards binding powerful elementals deep in their mountain forges, forgoing the need for huge coal mining and woodcutting industries to fuel their smithing.

    Finally, a new metal: shadowy adamantite. Because adamantite is so hard, it must be worked with the aid of magic, which becomes unavoidably imbued in the substance. You can make whatever powerful or twisted items you find evocative from this substance, I’ve used it as a dark replacement for mithril (the other typically magic associated metal) in my world.

  5. Phased Weasel said,

    Damn, no edit feature. That teaches me to hit “post” quickly.

    The freshwater oceans allow sea life and river / lake life to mingle (originally “sea life and ocean life can mingle”).

  6. Linnaeus said,

    This is wonderful, Tommi. A genuinely brilliant example of an evocative setting. Concise, just vague enough that anyone can customize it to their own nefarious purposes, but several hooks for imagination, and several suggested premises (in the non-Forge sense), or even campaigns.

    The hardest part is deciding which system you want to play :)

  7. Tommi said,

    Thanks. (Burning Wheel, all else being equal.)

  8. Robert Mason said,

    Would you mind if I used this (and / or your revamp of goblins) in a book?

    I would of course credit you.

    Robert Mason

  9. Tommi said,


    I would not mind at all, thank you for asking. So go ahead and use them.

    If you are feeling particularly generous and have the resources for it, I would appreciate a copy, physical or electrical, of said book, once it is done. This I leave to your judgement.

  10. Robert Mason said,

    I’ll make sure to do so.

    The electrical version would be no problem, and if I actually manage to get this published, I’ll try and see if I can get one mailed to you. Well, depending on just how successful I am. I have a nasty feeling I’m going to be somewhat along the lines of Philip K Dick, who was barely managing to pay the bills.

    And that’ll be if I’m lucky. Odds are I won’t even get past the front door. XD

    Robert Mason

    PS. Would you want me to submit my ideas / outlines to you before sending it to anyone?

    PPS. How would you want me to attribute it to you? Just as “Tommi,” or something else?

  11. Tommi said,

    If you want to get feedback, feel free to send them in. I won’t promise anything, but I’ll try to be useful.

    I prefer Tommi Brander for attribution. Thanks for asking.

  12. D&D my way « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    […] the forest strikes back (in a way similar to, but distinct from, the one outlined in that article) and is closely connected […]

  13. We fight the woods « Cogito, ergo ludo. said,

    […] former posts of mine: 1 and […]

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