Note. This is a blog article I posted back in 2016. I wanted to revisit the topic again and add some additional thoughts.
One of the more distinctive attributes of Kulthea is the presence of Essaence Flows, Storms and Foci. I would argue that Essence Flow is the primary differentiator for the Shadow World, a setting often described as generic and “kitchen sink“.
From the original Loremaster modules, the back page blurb:
Clusters of islands and small continents dot the surface of the the world. Myriad cultures and peoples lie separated by sheer mountains, treacherous reefs, and the powerful but invisible Flows of Essence.
Churning like ocean tides under the Five Moons, the Essence ebbs and flows, its eddys and currents dictating unseen barriers and centers of power. Some have learned to trap that power.
Travel across the world is perilous, though some have made it an art: the aloof Navigators will transport anyone anywhere –for a fee.
For many, myself included, that blurb was the defining description of the setting. I’ve discussed the importance of other elements of Shadow World: the Loremasters, the Dragonlords and the Lords of Orhan, but the fundamental trait of Kulthea is the various manifestations of the Essence.
Essaence manifestations have shaped cultures and history, provided a raison d’etre for the Navigator Guilds and added a unique flavor to the campaign world. In the earlier Loremaster modules the Flows seem to be more ubiquitous; splitting and separating regions and isolating pocket cultures throughout Jaiman. Not only was this a great campaign hook, but provided a “sensible” explanation for the disparate cultures, races and even climates within a relatively small geographic area.
In later SW modules, the Flows seemed minimized and moved to the background. Early SW supplements often included regional maps of the flows while later books mention them but don’t specifically call them into the gameplay or narrative. I’ve talked to quite a few people who have used Shadow World for a setting. Each handles Flows in differing degrees:
- Slight. The Essence Flows are invisible paths of energy that explain spellcasting and powerpoints.
- Modest. Essence can manifest as energetic storms with some unpredictable effects.
- Average. Flows can occasionally manifest as invisible “walls of force”. Essence Foci, while rare, are concentrated centers of energy. Travel is normal, with an occasional annoyance or impediment.
- Strong. Essence Flows are a regular part of gameplay, but are generally atmospheric but duly impactful. Travel is a bit more difficult, but Essence obstacles are temporary or delaying rather than problematic.
- Extreme. There are established, permanent Major Essence Flows that are physical barriers, random but frequent Essence storms that can have varying but impactful effects and Lesser and Major Foci that have significant impacts on gameplay. Travel is restrictive and will invariably require a Navigator or planning and routes will be determined by known Essence Flows.
I would guess that most players/game groups that have adventured in Shadow World would describe the Essence as falling somewhere on that scale. But I would also point out that many of the elements of Shadow World ONLY work with #4 or #5. If you are playing within #1 to #3, there probably is no real point (or commercial demand) for costly Navigators. I would argue that the Shadow World is unique as a setting the more potent and extreme the Flow of Essence are depicted! Essaence Flows should be seen as an essential NPC in SW campaigns: always present, unpredictable, and frequently impacting the storyline and gameplay.
Essaence manifestations can play a number of roles in gameplay and GMs should embrace this element:
- Disruptor. A sudden and dangerous Essaence storm can change things quickly! PC’s or enemies may be forced to flee or find cover. Spellcasters may be drained of needed PP’s or find casting to be too unpredictable due to the fluctuating power.
- Limiter. A temporary or permanent Essaence wall can block PC’s from travelling to certain areas that the GM is unprepared, too dangerous for the group to explore or to create an obstacle for the group to overcome.
- Balancer. A Foci can provide PC’s with added Power Points needed to overcome a more powerful adversary or replace spent PP’s to allow the PC to continue the battle. An Essaence storm could hamper a powerful spell casting opponent or agent of the Unlife.
- Re-locator. Essaence storms can have spatial or temporal vortexes to move PC’s to a new place or time! If you want to avoid a time consuming trip or introduce the PC’s to a distant point on Kulthea than a temporary portal could do the trick! Additionally, you could move the PC’s back or forward in the SW timeline!
Not only do Essaence effects add great flavor to the game but they inject a constant randomness that plays much different than typically fantasy RPG’s. If you aren’t maximizing the use of Flows, Storms and Foci in your SW game then here are a few suggestions and thoughts:
- Make sure that Essaence effects are included in your random encounter tables. If you are using tables that aren’t SW specific or don’t have Essaence effects included, than replace a category with them. Or if there is a “No Encounter” result than use Essaence effects instead.
- If you aren’t using random encounter tables than make it a point to include at least 1 effect per day to reinforce it’s presence to the players.
- Remember, not all effects have to be serious. A faint odor of ozone, a “tingling” or a slight power surge remind players that they are dealing with an unpredictable and dangerous power.
- The more Essaence Flows appear in your game the more helpful Navigators will appear. While “Jumps” might be prohibitively expensive, the PC’s will probably need to hire a Navigator to bypass an Essaence Wall or traverse a particularly dangerous route. This also a great money sink to keep excess wealth from accruing!
- Many notable places (temples, fortresses, holy sites etc) are found at or near Essaence Foci. The Foci could have beneficial, harmful or unpredictable effects on magic within its radius or even different magical “rules”. (ie no Force spells, or double power Elemental effects) This can make an “ordinary” dungeon crawl into a unique adventure experience!
- Essaence Flows also impact local and regional weather. Use that in your games–changing environment conditions can affect combat and travel, but also add significance to Animists, Druids, Magicians and Rangers that have outdoor and weather related spells!
Those are just a few ideas for maximizing the use of Essaence Flows, Storms and Foci in your Shadow World campaign. One last thought. I would recommend a book that came out in 1977 that I feel gives a small taste of what Essaence Flows could be like in your SW campaign. Check it out: Time-Storm by Gordon R. Dickson.
I’m curious how other SW GM’s are maximizing their use of the Essaence Flows?
Another blog post on the Essaence Flows: