unnamed Gygax and Grubb campaign setting

This week, two exciting, unpublished TSR settings collided in my head to form a third setting.

setting 1: Jeff Grubb project

On the latest WOTC D&D podcast, Steve Winter talked about the great campaign-world books that came out of Second Edition D&D. He said that, for every kick-ass setting like Planescape or Al’Quadim, they had a bunch of ideas just as good – they just didn’t have time to print them all. Prompted, he described one of the settings that he’d never forgotten:

There’s one that always comes to mind: it was proposed by Jeff Grubb, and I forget what the name of it was, but the idea was, it was a world where there were all these mountain ranges, and all of civilization – the good part of civilization – has been driven up to the tops of these mountains, and then there’s a tremendously thick cloud layer, so wherever the sun shines is where good exists. Everything beneath the cloud layer has been overrun by evil. There are cloud ships that sail out from these mountain-top cities across the clouds, and the adventurers rappel down to the world where they go raiding the ruined cities that used to be down there, looking for gold, metal, and all the kinds of things that they don’t have in these mountaintop cities.

As Steve Winter says, that idea isn’t quite as fresh as it was in the late 80s (he’s seen elements in anime, and it reminds me of Final Fantasy) but I think it’s still an evocative and inspiring world. I’m ready to play it! But, since all we have is a podcast sound bite and not a campaign book, I’m left with a lot of questions: exactly what kind of evil lurks in the cloudy lowlands? What does the wilderness look like?

setting 2: “The Original D&D Setting”

Here’s the other great setting I read this week: The Original D&D Setting, a series of blog posts by Wayne Rossi. This teases out the weirdness that you get if you take the original OD&D books and play its assumptions to the hilt. Griffin-riding Arthurian knights wait inside sinister castles, swamps crawl with dinosaurs, there are Martian creatures in the desert, and undead shamble through cities.

Wayne Rossi provides a “campaign map” of this strange wild land: James Mishler’s version of the Outdoor Survival map that Gygax used for his wilderness adventures. When I took a close look at it, I noticed that three areas had little snow-capped peaks – presumably impassable. That’s when the Steve Winter idea crash-landed into the setting. What if those white-capped peaks aren’t covered with snow, but shining with sunlight? What if they’re the only safe places in the setting, and the PCs descend from the mountains to explore the misty lands of Wilderness Survival?

A couple of nice things happen when we combine these settings:

getting lost

Getting lost is a big deal in Wilderness Survival, and in the OD&D exploration rules. If you roll badly, you can end up wandering north when you think you’re going south. I’ve always wondered how getting lost by 180 degrees can happen on a sunny day, when you always know which ways East and West are. But suddenly, in this setting, it’s possible! Beneath the cloud cover, you can’t see the sun or the stars, and navigation is much harder than it is in a traditional outdoor adventure.


Even if you’ve played a campaign on the classic Wilderness Survival map before, this setting inverts it. Usually, peaks are impassable and towns are your home base. Now, peaks are safe in a way that no valley village is. Cities will be places of horror: mockeries of safety.

In OD&D, in a city encounter, 50% of the time you roll on the “men” subtable and 50% of the time you roll on the “undead” subtable. Even in straight OD&D, there are way more undead in cities than we’re used to from later adventure settings. It really makes sense in this below-the-clouds horror setting, where, as Steve Winter says, the ruined cities are the primary dungeons. Since it’s always cloudy, you’re never safe from sun-fearing undead like vampires. Maybe the cities are filled with vampire lords who keep humans (the “men” encounters) as their cattle; maybe anyone who dies down here becomes undead, so cities are amoung the most dangerous places in the world; maybe the cities are straight-up dungeons ruled by necromancers and evil high priests (who together form 1/6 of the encounters on the “men” subtable).

Wayne points out that the arrangement of the cities is odd: there are five in a cross in the middle of the map, and the central one is in the forest. If we’re saying that ruined cities are the main dungeons of the settings, the central one, overgrown by eerie forest, is probably the scariest and most dangerous dungeon.


Most OD&D castle encounters, with wizards and clerics who enslave you and high-level fighters who challenge you, fit squarely into Steve Winter’s description of the wilderness as “overrun by evil.” While cities are the megadungeons of the settings, castles might be the bite-sized minidungeons that the players can try to clear in a single adventure.

Wayne Rossi makes the point that, according to the number of castles on the Wilderness Survival map and the castle-inhabitant charts, you’d expect three of the castles to be controlled by good clerics. I have my eye on the three castles in the mountain pass near the largest mountain peak area.

Wayne suggests that these good clerics are all part of one holy order dedicated to recapturing the land from evil. This makes sense to me. We can say that, while the surface of the world is nearly overrun with evil, there is one little area where a holy order has a foothold. This is the likely starting point of the PCs’ adventures: these castles control the only safe way to ascend to the mountain peaks. From the southernmost castle, it’s only 4 hexes to the closest city. That will undoubtedly be the first dungeon that the PCs tackle.


OK, there’s something I haven’t figured out. According to OD&D, rivers are just swarming with buccaneers and pirates. Who are they preying on? Each other?

Steve Winter said that cloud ships travel from mountain peak to mountain peak. Maybe the buccaneers and pirates are based on the river, but their ships can ascend to the clouds to attack cloud shipping. Maybe the pirates even have flying submarines.

That said, if pirates can fly, why do they spend so much time on the river? Maybe someone can solve this for me.

Another thing: there are a lot of flying monsters in the original OD&D encounter tables – dragons, griffins, chimerae. Can they threaten the mountain settlements and cloud ships, or are they confined to the lowlands?

This week I’ll try to delve more into the implications of this setting.

19 Responses to “unnamed Gygax and Grubb campaign setting”

  1. DMSamuel says:

    Excellent post!

    As for the pirates… I see two choices for this – either their ships CAN fly above the clouds, or their ships CANNOT fly above the clouds.

    Let’s assume they CANNOT, for the moment and then we have to answer your original question – who are they preying upon? In OD&D, they are probably preying on fishermen, royal boats, traders, and trappers. Anything they can hijack and sell is fair game, including fish and other boats. In this new setting, though, there will be very little for them to prey upon in the world under the cloudlayer since most things there are beastly rather than human.

    So… perhaps the rivers are actually the safest places under the clouds and the pirates are there just trying to survive. Perhaps the pirates are exiles from the mountaintop havens – perhaps criminals or enemies of the state, or some such. That means they are forced to stay below the cloudlayer and they are probably going to try and stay in the safest areas possible – the rivers. They can find food there and remain relatively safe while also terrorizing or at least keeping track of things moving from one region to another (tracking cross-river traffic).

    Now, what if they CAN fly above the cloudlayer? Well, then they are just regular pirates, stealing from and terrorizing the “good” boats that travel on the clouds. They descend to the river and spend time there to make sure that they aren’t pursued by cloudlayer law enforcement or the royal navy. Since it is extremely dangerous under the cloudlayer, it is unlikely that anyone would follow them down. That is an adventure seed right there – the group is hired to be bounty-hunters, searching below the cloudlayer for the pirate captain that stole the macguffin.

    As for the flying monsters… I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be able to fly above the cloudlayer but perhaps they just don’t do it very often because there is ample food below the cloudlayer and they can rule their domains without the “good” people hunting them. Seed: Perhaps the rulers of the cloudlayer have made a bargain with some powerful flying creatures to be left alone as long as they keep providing food to the creature in the form of tasty people exiled from the cloud cities. This agreement may be clandestine and the exiles may not know they are supposed to be griffon-food.

    Anyway – there are some reasonable options – keep up the great work! I kinda want to explore this setting further now!

  2. Craddoke says:

    Perpetual cloud cover would seem to imply non-traditional vegetation, though. Perhaps forests of fungi? Alternatively, perhaps the cloud cover is imperfect – which raises the question of what happens when a flying ship runs into clear area and whether there is a permanent hole in the clouds above that central city making it even more difficult to reach.

  3. paul paul says:

    DMSamuel: I like the idea that the river is swarming with evil men just trying to eke out a living as best they can. You have some sympathy for them when you see all the horrible monsters that are trying to eat them. But they still want to kill you and take your gold.

    Craddoke: You’re right. Giant fungal forests are just the thing.

  4. Jason says:

    What if the buccaneers are aquatic or amphibious creatures? There are no lakes or seas for them to inhabit, so the rivers are their only routes from swamp to swamp.

  5. X says:

    Skyships with a underworld beneath the lowest clouds was the setting for Skies of Arcadia. Some areas are blocked by perpetual storms at first, as seen on the maps

    There are whole continents under the clouds, though there are generally uninhabitable. Many of the adventures take place on the continents in the sky, so many dungeons have the floating castle look that’s common to Laputa.

  6. Jeff Grubb says:

    I used the concepts from that setting for a short story several years later – “Catch of the Day”, for the anthology “Oceans of Magic”. – http://fantasyworlds1.blogspot.com/2012/12/book-review-oceans-of-magic-anthology.html. In this incarnation it strays from traditional D&D and more towards Hornblower and Aubrey.

    Jeff Grubb

  7. paul paul says:

    Hi Jeff!

    I’ll track down that story. In the meantime, do you remember anything else about the pitch for that setting? I know it’s really easy to remember staff meetings from decades ago.

  8. Cain says:

    The river pirates are unwelcome in the mountaintop enclaves, so they live in running water to evade the vampire overlords of the surface cities.

  9. paul paul says:

    Cain, you are right! Canon’ed.

  10. Jeff Grubb says:

    I really should do a blog about the setting. The working title was “Stormfront”, and while we had some great concepts, we didn’t get to the art or logo stage. The idea was passed on, and we did Birthright instead.

  11. Ed Green says:

    Wow, thanks so much for the inspiration. Just so you know, I’m totally stealing idea for a campaign. Though I think I’ll give it more of a steam-punk spin. The clouds (or the ‘Gloom’) are the result of an apocalyptic war, the survivors of which live in mountain-vault refuges. Steam-powered sky ships, mad scientists, insane analytical engines, lost mountain-vaults populated by devolved morlock-men, mutants, etc. Cheers.

  12. […] was perusing RPG blogs a few weeks ago and I came across this gem over on Blog of Holding. I read hundreds of blog posts about RPGs a month and I occasionally come across a post that […]

  13. DMSamuel says:

    FYI, I just answered 20 questions (from http://jrients.blogspot.com/2011/04/twenty-quick-questions-for-your.html) for the new setting based, in part, on your post here.

    Check it out: http://www.rpgmusings.com/2013/06/eleven-pillars-post/

    I linked to your post here as inspiration, and thanks for that inspiration, by the way!


  14. […] days ago I answered twenty questions about my new campaign setting, the Eleven Pillars (thanks to Blog of Holding for the inspiration). That post, found HERE, is still sitting in my mind, spawning ideas. I thought […]

  15. […] a previous post, I talked about two awesome TSR campaign settings that never got their own boxed set. 1) Jeff Grubb […]

  16. Regarding the rivers and waterways: I would use the vampire’s legendary inability to cross running water. If you apply that disadvantage to other types of undead rivers and bodies of water become safehavens and obvious travel choices.

  17. Matt N says:

    Taking a cue from spelljammer, some flying ships can only land on water. Quite a lot of them actually, especially those retrofitted from ocean going vessels. It’s easy to imagine that pirates have cobbled together cloud engines from wrecks of cloud ships and the like or primitive magitech of their own that are really only useful for short breaches and then must land back in water or crash.

  18. Kory says:

    You could tether the pirates to water – literally. Their flying machines are powered by hoses pull up and then blast downward a moving column of water.

    Late response… 😛 but still.

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