Building the Gulf of False Hope (Part 1)

I’m still kicking around the idea of that West Marches game I mentioned a few weeks back. I haven’t really got the ball rolling because I am not really sure if I have the time to commit to running it on top of my non-gaming obligations, which are kind of up in the air at this point. We’ll see where things settle, and worst case I will just have to wait until my schedule clears up to actually try to get anything off the ground.

Still, I have spent some time thinking about the region itself, both in terms of some cultural elements, physical geography, and other background information. This is more of a brain dump for my own benefit than anything I expect my future players to read, but if they (or you) are interested in this random world building stuff, feel free to read on.


As I briefly mentioned in the previously linked post, the setting is the “Gulf of False Hope”, a large natural bay across the sea from the civilized world. The Gulf appears a natural landing site for would be colonists attempting to tame the continent, and there have been several attempts to do so in the past. While some of these attempts lasted longer than others, all eventually met their end, which is how the Gulf earned its name.

Still, in every age there are those that are willing to risk it all for a chance to start over or improve their lot, and the Gulf has once again begun to see an influx of migrants believing that they will succeed where those that came before failed.

The game will start about 40 years after the first of the newest wave of settlers arrive on the Gulf. Humans, Halflings, and even young Dwarves will be young could easily have been born in the Gulf area. Elves, meanwhile have almost all been born overseas, but it is said that there is a hidden village of Elves that has survived since the last previous attempt. The coastal areas have mostly been cleared, and quite a few towns and villages have been established since then, but further inland remains wild and mostly unexplored. The previous attempts at taming the Gulf will have left lots of ruins, tombs, and other remnants of a bygone age that makes for classic dungeon crawling.

East and West

In the classic West Marches game, the adventure was, as the name implied, to the west, and civilization was back east. The Gulf of False Hope, however, is on the West Coast of its continent, meaning adventure is out east, and civilization to the west. There is no particular reason for this reversal, just that my very rough sketch of the Gulf placed it on the west coast.

The western (civilized) continent is called Asila, while the Gulf is on the continent of Pericolosa (not exactly subtle but still makes a cool name). In West Marches tradition, Asila is not a place for adventure, at least in terms of old-school dungeon crawling. No monstrous beasts, no unexplored ruins, no unmapped and unexplored sections of wilderness. Pericolosa, however, is the opposite. Outside of the (relatively) safe coastal areas, there are beasts and wild men, ruins and lost places, even dungeons and dragons.

Travel between Pericolosa and Asila takes about 4 to 8 weeks, depending on the winds and other factors. The Trade Winds along the latitude of the gulf tend eastward, so the return trip generally takes longer. It is not an impossible trip, but it is also not one that is made lightly, and, in the context of this game, if a PC gets on a boat to Asila, that is likely signaling that PC’s retirement.

The Salvatian League & The Gulf Colonies

I could probably spend a great deal of time going into the politics of Asila, but my efforts are best directed in keeping it to what is relevant for the game.
Most of the major sea powers of Asila have an interest in gaining the resources of Pericolosa, and over the last few decades, have been racing to claim their share of the pie. The region around the gulf is primarily occupied by the Salvatian League.

The Salvatian League is a loose federation of eight duchies. The federal government is an elective monarchy, with the eight dukes being both the sole electors and candidates. The Dukes generally see Pericolosa as a chance to not only expand the League’s power, but also their own power within the League, in hopes of leveraging that into becoming the next King or Queen.

The Salvatian League is a predominately human nation, with a noticeable Halfling minority. A few Dwarven Holds and Elven Forests exist as enclaves within its boarders, but aside from the traders, mostly keep to themselves. Salvati refers to the people, and the language (which replaces the common tongue given to all PCs), Salvatia is the name of the region, while goods and animals originating from there are Salvatian. Ethnic Salvati (of all 4 races), fall in line with the default rules in the rulebook, it’s boring, but it makes things easier.

Culturally, Salvati are a conservative society, and generally distrustful of outsiders or new ideas, although these traits are less pronounced in those that chose to start a new life in the Gulf, they are generally still present. They value self-reliance although not so much minding your own business. Both men and women Salvati are notorious gossips and rumor mongers; it is said that a Salvati would rather believe a well told tall tale than a boring truth.

This is starting to get a bit long, so I’ll leave other stuff for a future post. I still want to write on time/calendar, religion, locations within the gulf itself, and a handful of rumors/quest hooks for what is out there in the wilds, so those will likely be covered in a part 2.

Settings – Less is More

I don’t really care too much about the Forgotten Realms, or Eberron, or Mystara. I think they have some neat ideas but I don’t really care about the settings as a whole. I kind of like Dark Sun, but I don’t really care about who’s the sorcerer-king in charge of Gulg (google tells me her name is Lalali-Puy). I have a favorite clan in Legend of the Five Rings (Dragon), but I really don’t care what happened in year XY of the What’s-his-name dynasty. I enjoy some Shadowrun, but I honestly can’t tell you a single one of the major megacorps off the top of my head, let alone who their CEOs are (although I know one of them is a dragon).  In the Blades in the Dark game we just started, there is this huge list of factions in the book.  When we made our crew, we picked a handful of them that like us and dislike us.  I care about that handful, but it just as easily could have been a number of factions we made up, and the others on that list? I don’t really care about.

Here’s the stuff I DO care about.  Dark Sun is a world that was almost destroyed by a magical disaster, those who survive do so in a barely habitable desert.  Magic drains the land further, metal is rare, and the major cities are ruled by powerful and mysterious sorcerer kings. In L5R, I love the value of face and honor, the role each clan plays in the empire (and the power struggles between them), and the threat of the shadowlands.  Also I just like the Dragon clan in general and think the Kitsuki being the ONLY ones in the empire who go “Hey, maybe we should investigate crimes with forensics, guys!” hilarious.  In Shadowrun, I care that the megacorps EXIST. I care about the meta-humans and the racial tensions between them.  I care about the highly stratified society, the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.  I do care about dragons and that they can run businesses, just not which dragon and which business in particular.

The settings above that I said I didn’t really care about? They have some cool stuff in them.  I think Warforged and the Lightning Rail are super neat. There are a lot of really cool classic modules and adventures in Mystara. I honestly don’t think I would be the gamer I am today without the Baldur’s Gate series, which really benefited from all FR lore that was included in the game. They’re not bad settings, and I would happily sit down and play a game in any of them. They have some cool details and neat locations, but no strong themes or conflicts that gets me super excited about them.

I want to know the big picture of the setting.  I want to know what’s going down (or about to go down if no one stops it)!  I want to know the themes that this setting is trying to express.  I want some details, not the whole 10,000 year history of the setting, but just enough to get me interested.  Tell me the cool stuff that’ll give me an idea of how different this setting is compared to our real life (and the other stuff on the market)!  Tell me why I want to play or run game in your setting!

I don’t need any more information beyond that, if anything, all the extra stuff is just going to get in my way.  If I got the flavor of the setting down, my gears are already working.  I’m already coming up with my own situation, as well as some NPCs and situation to highlight that situation.  Maybe I’ll find a neat location or NPC that I want to include amid the established setting materials, but ultimately all the details of the setting only exist as far as they serve the game.  If the situation requires that the Crane and the Phoenix be next to each other cause shit is about to go down between them, I don’t care what the map in the book says, they are (An aside: I do really like maps, but they need to serve the needs of the game, not the other way around). It’s only once we’ve been gaming for a while in the same world that I start caring about established facts, and even then only what has been declared in our game.

There’s nothing wrong with a setting having lore, facts, and details in it. I know for some other people, that is WHY they like published settings, so they don’t have to come up with that stuff themselves. Heck, I can even find those details fun to read, and I appreciate the care that went into crafting it. It is just that kind of stuff doesn’t excite me to PLAY in the setting. Worse, sometimes it makes me feel like I actually have to memorize and know all this to run the setting ‘properly’. When the setting is painted in the broadest strokes, with just enough for me to grok what this thing is about. Show me just enough to get my imagination going and starting to fill in the rest. Show me just a few details, the things the authors thought was just way too cool to leave out!

Show me this:

Not This:

The bottom chart maybe more useful information, but the picture above is what makes me think it would be cool to go there!

Picture Sources:

Pyramid Picture: Dennis Jarvis, taken from Flickr
Demographics Chart: Screenshot from Wikipedia on 11/16