Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Alexis Smolensk Challenge, World 1 of 3

The Kingdom of Minoa

How to Run details principles and elements of design which I have endeavoured to implement in constructing each game setting to test over the following few sessions. I will have to read the book again, and anyone considering DMing should certainly read it. Smolensk advises spending one month each on construction of a few different worlds, at the end of which everything should be put aside, with all attention then given to the next world for design. He warns that this is a task at which few will succeed. As it turns out, my first effort, detailed below, became an obsession and was indeed difficult to shelve. My second attempt failed miserably: One of my players had expressed a fondness for the Hyperborean Age of the Conan stories, and I spent two gruelling weeks researching it and growing increasingly frustrated; the political divisions as Robert E. Howard determined them were absurd, and the stories, poorly written as they were, inspired me rather to return to designing worlds based on actual history. This I did for the remaining two on which I actually spent a full month each: one in sub-Roman Britain, and another during the reign of Richard II. Details of these will come after they’ve been tested, so players won’t know immediately for how much of their adventure I was prepared, and how much I was frantically improvising. 

At any rate, How to Run emphasises detail in the starting domain and general outlines for surrounding ones, and offers guidelines such as:

The first domain will be under a single authority. The culture is in a state of ascendancy. The people are well-fed, content, industrious, friendly and governed well. Ownership is free to all, while both the agricultural and manufacturing industries are fairly uniform—the same crops, the same handicrafts, the same industries. Most persons in the urban areas pursue similar interests. (305-06)

For the size of the initial domain, Smolensk suggests ‘an area that would take a minimum of a week to cross’. I decided to go rather far back in time for the first world, and settled on Minoan Crete primarily based on the area recommendation. 


Area: 3190 square miles (160 miles long, 35 miles across widest point)
Population: 330,400
Major Settlements: Knossos (pop. 18,012), Phaistos (pop. 12,024), Malia (pop. approx. 8000), Kato Zakros (pop. approx. 6000), Kydonia (pop. approx. 6000); many smaller settlements throughout; a remaining 5508 persons are itinerant, including traveling bards, hermits, and philosophers. 

This island kingdom is located at a convenient crossroads for trade with the world beyond the seas. Boasting a mild climate, ample natural resources, and many able seamen, it enjoys amicable business and diplomatic relations with the surrounding domains. The western part of the island is covered in cypress forests, which provide a rich supply of wood for export; production of grapes and wine increases steadily eastward; and much wheat is cultivated on plains and in river valleys throughout. Additional exports include honey, precious stones from a number of mines on the island, and a purple dye made from mollusks. 

The island is governed by a federal bureaucracy and divided into five administrative regions, each owing nominal fealty to the Council (the high priestess and her magistrates) at Knossos in the north. The south is dominated by Phaistos, the central eastern region by Malia, the eastern tip by Kato Zakros, and the west by Kydonia. In practice, towns and villages are highly autonomous. 

Currency (drachma and obol) is minted at Knossos, where the supply of precious metals is centrally accounted. Gold is for minting and jewellery is imported from overseas to the east and south, as are certain other essential products such as textiles and papyrus, as well as slaves for working in the mines. The island is largely self-sufficient for its basic needs, with vegetables, herbs, and livestock, wool and linen for clothing produced inland, fish caught on the coast, and limestone, clay, and sandstone for building and pottery quarried locally; none of these are produced in great enough quantities for export.

The area is tectonically unstable, with frequent earthquakes. The ruins of several demolished settlements can be seen on the island, the most famous landmark being the partially submerged ruins of Prassa just west of the river mouth leading to Knossos. 

Most of this is based on bits and pieces of conjecture available on the Internet, and it's far, far from complete. I’ve never been to Crete, and most of the locations and names of settlements and rivers are probably wrong—certainly, centuries before Christianity was invented, there wouldn’t have been places called ‘Agia Triada’ and ‘Agios Antonios’—but nonetheless I can rest assured that my players don’t care about historical precision as long as they have a walloping time and enough to drink. Besides, I didn’t want to buy books if I wasn’t sure they would like this world. The layers of the .pdf are easy enough to cut and edit.

The Trial Adventure

The only session we’ve played so far in this world covered approximately the wee area covered by the brown line and vaguely south of the ruins of Zominthos. The adventure took about six days of game-world time. There are few overland roads—all of them appear as red lines—because the mountainous and boulder-strewn terrain makes land travel excruciating; navigable rivers are generally preferred. In this case at least one character with a good sense of land and direction is essential. 

Per Smolensk’s suggestion, there were ample player characters from which to choose, and one of the players was adamant that there should be some pretext for the lot of them to have come together initially, rather than just being dropped into the world and left to grope and fondle for adventures. I capitulated, and had them begin in Vathypetro, a settlement of approximately 3,080 people producing the finest wine in the kingdom. Play opened at the beginning of the Great Dionysia, an eight-day festival of parades, dramatic plays, and feasting. The scion of one of the prominent wine families hired the party to take four empty pots and eight drachma each to fill them with a herbal concoction brewed by the hermit Asasthenes in the ruins of Zominthos. They would each be paid another ten drachma for bringing each pot back full. 

The landscape was the primary difficulty, until they came to the ruins and were told that the amount of brew requested required more dittany than Asasthenes had, which sent the party southward into the forest to pick it. On attempting to do, a satyr’s piping put half the party to sleep, but the rest of them succeeded their saving throws and remained awake enough to be told not to pick from that particular area but to go further into the mountains. They decided not to argue with the satyr, and ascended the hills, where they were fired on by outlaws who mistook them for agents of the law. The misunderstanding was settled after a few rounds of combat, and the party, deciding to neither slay nor report the outlaws, eventually brought the hermit enough dittany to complete his job, and went home. 

Obviously, all of this could have gone in an infinite number of directions, but the party chose a rather safe and non-confrontational approach, preferring just to complete the task they’d been given at get back to Vathypetro. It seemed to have crossed their minds to try to sell the herbal concoction on the black market, but the idea was abandoned. I was ambivalent about introducing something as untoward as a satyr so early in the game, but this is the way it panned out. So to speak. 


Creating a spreadsheet for weather is easy enough by researching meteorological data and inputting minimum and maximum values with the =RANDBETWEEN function. Temperatures appear in celsius, and precipitation (in this case, just rain) varies in probability according to month as well. Ancient Greek lunar months are used, which would have to be adjusted year by year if the campaign were to continue in this setting. As it turns out, the range of temperatures I input made for a somewhat unlikely variation in temperature between day and night, but not significant to make the characters suffer; some of them forewent tents and simply put their bedrolls on the ground. Minoa enjoys a splendid absence of dangerous animals and insects. 


The concept of ‘rations’ was always a thorn in my side. Although it was something of a convenience to players in the world we were using before, they adapted immediately to its absence here. They stocked their bundles (baskets borne on the back) with wheat cakes, fish, olives, and figs, and managed to bring down some small game at intervals during travel. I was able to leave it entirely to their common sense to determine how much of these the party would consume each day, and they kept excellent records. I reminded them they would need double normal calories for the day following combat, and they did fine. The only shouts of regret came when they were dressing their wounds after combat: ‘We didn’t bring any wine!’

Other Feedback

For one of the players, this session was the first with us, although he had played AD&D before and was well aware of the need for tweaking the rules. For another, it was only his second time ever playing, and he finds it difficult to assess the relative merits of one or another world. The entire crew was not present for this session, so I didn’t get copious feedback. The world of next session’s world will be quite different, and I hope this helps to provide more perspective. 


  1. I am only just now finding this and the other post you've written. I will highlight both on my blog tomorrow. I'm startled that you chose to write about it on your blog and reassured that the work seems to be going along well.

    Though the Pennine Campaign may not be as immediately exciting, remember that people generally take time adapting to new circumstances. I'm sure the effort is teaching you great things.

    I think the concessions you're making to the party, described above, are terrific, as are your details regarding terrain, weather and the island's authority. What a pity I can't watch this play out!

    1. Sir, I am honoured that you've read and commented. Most of what I know of DMing I learnt from your blog and your books. I feel very vindicated by your encouragement.

  2. This was nicely detailed, and makes me want to purchase his book even more now. Please keep up the good work and post it on here as I am sure many people could benefit from it.

    1. Excellent! I've fallen behind in updates, so I know I need to get cracking.