Khamaz – The God’s Flood Way

Instead of having my players encounter and explore ancient Mesopotamia for the First Cities campaign, I decided I would make my own setting heavily inspired by the cities, peoples, and cultures of the Ancient Near East. Although in some ways more difficult when it comes to grafting historical and technological detail onto the new setting, it has the benefit of giving me flexibility in how I want all the pieces to fit together. For example, having iron-wielding Neo-Assyrian style armies running around fighting the Bronze Age Babylonian soldiers of Hammurabi would be anachronistic and ridiculous, but in Khamaz that disparity can exist, needing only to overcome my own desire for proper historical fidelity.

The capsules below provide some basic snapshots of the key regions and peoples of Khamaz itself, which is a collective term for the peoples, states, and societies that live along the great Mala and Puratta river valleys. True knowledge of the name’s origin has been lost to time, but learned scholars throughout Khamaz generally believe that it originally meant “the God’s Flood Way.”

Framed by vast deserts in the east, mountains in the north and west, and the Lower Sea to the south, Khamaz is a semi-arid region made up of a dual river system fed by innumerable tributaries and with a landscape peppered with lakes, lagoons, and mud flats.

The Land of Khamaz

The Land of Khamaz


Salmukar, “The Black Land” — A flat alluvial plain stretching along the lower reaches of the Mala and Puratta Rivers, Salmukar was where the estates of the gods first arose — legendary places like decadent Warka, holy Eridu, and mighty Bābilum. Using irrigation networks to channel the life-giving river water in a region with little rainfall, few natural resources, and violent, unpredictable flooding, the Salmukarans built a powerful and prosperous civilization out of mudbrick, reeds, and a bounty of food grown in nutrient-rich soil clawed back from the desert. Originally home to the round-headed and dark haired Salmukaran people, the region has grown steadily more diverse with the influx of the angular-featured Agadians from the west. All great religion, literature, and culture throughout Khamaz comes from the ancient estates of Salmukar, as well as most magicks and divination.

Ancient WatchmanNiŝir, “Land of Niŝ” — Centered on the middle reaches of the river valleys and framed by hills and steppe land, Niŝir is a prosperous region of merchants and military might, where rainfall not irrigation fuels farming and the rivers are less prone to flooding and shifting courses. With better access to natural resources and a strategic location situated between north-south and east-west trade networks, Niŝir has a stranglehold on all of Khamaz when it is able or chooses to exercise it. With a heritage that includes the ancient estates of Ninuwa and Kahlu, the great god Niŝ and his exhortations for expansion and conquest, and Enshakushanna, the only Khamazi priest-king to have ever conquered the whole region, the peoples of Niŝir are known throughout Khamaz for their military prowess, abject cruelty, personal wealth, and the distinctive blue-beards of their priest-kings. And having recently gone through many generations of infighting and decline, the newly-united Niŝiri people are once again keen to expand their influence up and down the river valleys.

Subartu, “Spring of the Wild Rivers” — This region is the hilly area along the upper reaches of the river valleys where the great Mala and Puratta Rivers have their origin. Home largely to the Khurrites, an olive-skinned, stocky people who were once nomads from the great eastern steppe land known as the Sea of Grass, it is the least developed of the inhabited regions of Khamaz, having only three estates worth any mention: Gargamis, Harari, and Dimaŝqa. As such, it is often the focus of raiding for slaves and other resources by the estates farther down the rivers. Recently, Niŝiri interference in the region has grown as Khamazi trade connections with the east have grown more important.

Qattara, “The Sparkling Hills” — Qattara was once a lush, tributary region of the Puratta River located just to the east of Salmukar. Called the Sparkling Hills because of the jeweled and mineral wealth easily dug out all over the region, the Qattaran people grew rich supplying raw materials and precious metals to the resource-starved estates in Salmukar. However, many generations ago, a ruinous cataclysm known as the Storm of Sand befell Qattara, scattering its people and laying waste to the region. Since then, Qattara and its chief city, the ruined estate of Bad-tibira (“Fortress of the Smiths”), are home only to howling desert demons, beasts of Tiamat, and the living dead.

Passing_lion_BabylonHanigalbat, “The Beast Hills” — Known as a rugged hill country beyond the northern reaches of the river valleys that teems with wild and dangerous beasts, the Hanigalbat is the gateway region for trade between Khamaz and the exotic lands of Hind and Megarra in the east. It also borders on the desolate Sea of Grass, which stretches away to the north and the east. Once home to a powerful Khurrite kingdom centered on the city of Aranzahas that was destroyed by the Niŝiri king Enshakushanna, the region has only in the last several generations begun to see significant Khurrite expansion again. Today its chief settlement is the small Khurrite town of Agha situated along the western edge of Lake Kabira.

The Abominable Desolation — Also known as the Empty Quarter, this desert landscape of howling winds, savage sandstorms, and malignant demons is also home to the vicious desert nomads known as the Amurru. Despite these dangers, explorers and mercenaries continually try to probe the Deep Desolation for its secrets. What fuels this are legends that speak of strange spires jutting out of the sands in the interior and powerful artifacts of divine providence resting in hidden tombs, as if the expanding wastes had once swallowed up several ancient and forgotten civilizations in the unremembered past.


Design Annotations

  • The names I chose for the great rivers of Khamaz — Mala and Puratta — are ancient names for the Euphrates river (Mala is Hittite I believe and Puratta is a form of the Akkadian name Purattu). I would have used an ancient name for the Tigris for one of the rivers, but I didn’t like how any of them sounded. 
  • In terms of analogs, the historical regions I’ve mapped my regions to break down like this: Salmukar=Sumer and Akkad; Niŝir=Assyria; Subartu=Syria; Hanigalbat=Anatolia; Qattara=Elam; and the Abominable Desolation=the Syrian and Arabian deserts.
  • The name “Salmukar” is a made-up word. I’m pretty sure I was playing around with the name “Samarkand” and just changing syllables and the like until I found something that sounded good. A linguistics professor friend of mine says I was using phono-semantic analogy or matching to make the word, so I’ll go with that. The city names break down as Warka=Uruk (Warka is the modern place name) and Bābilum=Babylon (just an ancient version of the name), while Eridu was an actual Sumerian city, sometimes regarded within Sumerian mythology as the first city.
  • The name “Niŝir” is another made-up word, chosen mainly for its similar sound and structure to the ancient name for Assyria proper, Aŝŝur. The cities mentioned — Ninuwa and Kahlu — are just the Assyrian names for the cities of Nineveh and Nimrud. Finally, Enshakushanna was a Sumerian king mentioned on the Sumerian King List as having ruled over Ur in the 3rd Millennium BCE.
  • The name “Subartu” comes from a region in northern Mesopotamia believed to be located just north of the old Assyrian heartland along the Tigris or perhaps is actually an older name for the region of Assyria itself. The city names work out to Gargamis=Carchemish; Harari=Mari; and Dimaŝqa=Damascus, which are all actual ancient names for these cities.
  • The name “Qattara” comes from a small region in northern Mesopotamia as well, which you can find information on here if you so desire. “Bad-tibira” is the actual name of an ancient Sumerian city.
  • The name “Hanigalbat” comes from a region to the west of the Assyrian heartland in northern Mesopotamia. It is sometimes also associated with the Bronze Age state of Mitanni. I don’t recall where I ganked the name of “Agha” from, but it’s an ancient place name in the region as well.
  • Calling my analog for the Syrian and Arabian deserts the “Abominable Desolation” comes straight from Morten Braten’s Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia campaign sourcebook published in 2004 by Necromancer Games, which has been a great source of inspiration for my development of First Cities. I just like the way my players blanch whenever the name gets mentioned.


Featured Image: Sumerian Chariot Image from the Royal Standard of Ur, used by Creative Commons License from Wikimedia Commons.

Body Image #1: “Ancient Watachman” by Okko Pyykkö, used by Creative Commons License.

Body Image #2: “Passing Lion” from the Ishtar Gate, Babylon, used by Creative Commons License from Wikimedia Commons.


Designing a Civilizational Hexcrawl

When originally designing First Cities, I knew right away that I wanted to structure the campaign as a hexcrawl. For those unfamiliar with the term, a hexcrawl is a RPG campaign approach where the DM builds a setting; maps it to a large hex map; keys the hexes with locations, lairs, and encounters; and then let’s the players go wherever they choose — like playing in a sandbox really. There are a lot of great resources on the Internet for tackling your own hexcrawl, including a series of posts at The Alexandrian and a round-up of Old School Fantasy Hexcrawl Resources at Gnome Stew, both of which I found very useful.

However, I also knew that I wanted to do more than a straightforward hexcrawl. I wanted to add a twist that gave the players something more to accomplish than merely discovery for discovery’s sake. What I settled on is a campaign structure I’ve taken to calling a civilizational hexcrawl. In it, I’ve merged the traditional planning, procedures, and game play of an old school fantasy RPG hexcrawl with a goal-driven resource management component one typically sees in digital games like Civilization or the Total War series.

As I noted in my previous post (“First Cities Campaign Premise”), I’ve structured First Cities around a tribal exploration dynamic where the players run the Sakas tribe as it moves into the river valley of Khamaz, home to the First Cities of Humanity. The players engage the premise on two levels: 1) they control the elder moot, made up of various tribal elders who make the key strategic decisions for the tribe (e.g., how are new resources divided up, where should the tribe move for the season, where should the tribe’s rangers and outriders explore this season, etc.); and 2) they control the key rangers and outriders for the tribe that carry out the objectives determined by the elder moot.

Now the rangers/outriders component is pretty straightforward; it’s the D&D PC play time — dungeon crawling, wandering monsters, chaotic combats, and all that. Thus, at the moment, I don’t need to focus too much on this part. What I want to explore more fully is the elder moot component.


During game time, the elder moots have usually been great excuses for the players to flesh out the personalities and relationships of their tribal elders as they shoot the shit and decide what the tribe will be doing for that evening’s session. However, there is a more structured role for them as well; they must manage and develop the tribe’s material wealth and prosperity. It works as follows.

There are two main metrics for measuring the prosperity of the tribe: Resources and Assets. Under Resources, there are three sub-categories (Food, Tech, and Security), which are represented by abstract points measured against a tiered-scale. Under Assets, there are also three sub-categories (Wealth/Material Goods, Military, and Herd), which are represented by actual items and traditional RPG conventions (e.g., we recovered ten lion pelts and eighteen goats from that Gutian camp we raided).

While adventuring, the ranger/outrider PCs find rewards that include not only mineral based wealth and magic items, but also technology, food resources, mundane items, and so on. If the PCs turn this material over to the tribe, it’s converted into points using simple conversion rates I deveoped and added to the appropriate resource category. Conversion is also one way, meaning that once some item has been converted to Resource points, players can’t use it later as a tangible item during game play. Other wealth and material goods not converted into Resource points, along with herd animals and human military assets gained by the tribe fall under the Assets category, which serves as a pool of wealth the elder moot can use for trade, gift exchange, or whatever.

The Resource points, which can range from zero to forty-five, represent the tribe’s growth or decline in a particular area vital for its survival. As the numbers change, they fall within a series of tiers, which break down as follows: 0 / 2.5 / 5 / 15 / 45. Each tier has a benefit or penalty attached to it, which affects the tribe depending upon which Resource category point total is in which tier. The first two tiers represent sub-optimal conditions for the tribe; the middle tier is subsistence; and the last two represent advanced development.

Mechanically, the benefits and penalties are attached to die rolls, ranging from a -2 penalty in Tier I to a +2 bonus in Tier V. For Food Resources, this modifier affects all physical ability checks, skill checks, and saves. For Tech Resources, the modifier affects all knowledge-based skill checks, including mundane and magical crafting. For Security Resources, the modifier affects all combat attack rolls.

In terms of the goal for this strategic resource management component, the players need to develop their tribe enough for them to change from a nomadic tribe to a permanent settled community in Khamaz. To do this, they must reach Tier V in all three Resource sub-categories. After that, they can permanently settle their tribe, and the campaign shifts into a more traditional D&D campaign (either with the same tribal PCs or new characters from a different area). Conversely, if the tribe’s Resources all fall to zero in Tier I through disaster, disease, and/or bad decisions, the tribe collapses and disbands, with the remaining PCs becoming a troupe of adventurers.


I came up with this mechanism after reading a pretty cool, post-apocalyptic RPG called Other Dust by Kevin Crawford, or more specifically the rules for developing and managing Groups and Enclaves in that game. As should be obvious to anyone familiar with Other Dust, I loosely adapted elements of those rules for First Cities. Prior to stumbling across Other Dust, I was having a hell of a time trying to figure out how I was going to integrate resource management into the campaign. Other Dust helped me break through the conceptual logjam and slot everything into place.

Thus far, after nine game sessions of the campaign, this mechanism for tracking the tribe’s macro progress has worked pretty well. Those players who are into Civilization-type games have taken to it, while those not so interested seem content to let the others take the lead in managing it.


Featured Image: “The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and Surroundings, 1000 AC” Hex Map by Thorfinn Tait, used under Creative Commons license.

Building Characters for First Cities

The following is a list of the various character creation rules sent out to my players, lightly edited to remove a few asides:

System Modification
We will be using the E6 (Epic 6) rules modification to the 3.5 system. What that means is that characters only progress by level through level 6th with further experience resulting in additional feats, personal magic capped at 3rd level spells, magic item creation capped at 6th level for creation feats, and some curtailment of monster power in the campaign (you won’t be fighting any titans unless I’m a horrible dick). By the way, there are mechanisms within E6 to give 6th level characters access to some higher level abilities through feats, ritual incantation rules, or whatever; some of this will have to be adjudicated when you reach that point if the E6 rules don’t already cover it, but it is part of the charm of the system.

Core 3.5 Classes Allowed
Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Fighter, Ranger, Sorcerer

*Variant core classes and alternative class options (e.g., from Unearthed Arcana) will be considered on a case by case basis.

Other 3.5 Classes Allowed
Beguiler (PHB II), Binder (ToM), Duskblade (PHB II), Factotum (DgSc), Healer (MH), Hexblade (PHB II), Scout (CAd), Shaman (OA), Spirit Shaman (CD), Warlock (CAr)

*After the campaign starts and as you advance in level, you may discover others in the world w/ backgrounds in other classes (e.g., cleric, rogue, wizard, etc). Depending on in game circumstances, you will then have access to those additional classes for your later progression if you wish.

Allowed Races
Human only

Starting Level
Start at 1st level w/ full HD and 0 XP

Starting Languages
Each character starts with Steppe Common, which you can speak but not read/write. Leave any extra language slots empty; you will fill them as the campaign progresses, and you discover new languages to learn. During our first session, I will be awarding three additional language/script competencies in Agadian, Khurrite, and the wedge form Im’sarra script to two different characters, depending upon background.

*Language Exception: if your character background is not from the tribe (e.g., you originally came from Khamaz but exiled yourself into the Sea of Grass for some reason), you will have access to other languages to fill at start. Drop me a note ahead of time.

*Here are some sample names for the Sea of Grass region. If you want further verisimilitude in your names without using this list, poke around on the Internet for ancient Turkic, Scythian, Tocharian, or Urartian (i.e., Armenian) names, as that’s what I’ve been using.

Sea of Grass Name List























































Starting Equipment
All PCs start with the following standard Equipment Kits:

*Adventure Kit: Backpack, bedroll, belt pouch, flint & steel, trail rations for 7 days, sack, a traveler’s outfit, 3 torches, waterskin, and whetstone.

*Weapons Kit: 1 suit of light armor (if allowed by class); 1 simple weapon (melee or ranged, not both – if relevant, weapon material is copper); 1 martial weapon (melee or ranged, not both, if allowed by class and or feats – if relevant, weapon material is copper); and either: 1) a light wooden shield; or 2) a ranged weapon of your choice (note: ranged weapons using ammunition come automatically with 1 standard ammo set at start).

*Please Note: As a campaign using a transitionary Bronze Age/Iron Age technology level, there are a number of different metal types that weapons can come in. The metals, ranked in order of strength and frequency, are: stone/bone; copper; bronze; iron; steel. All weapons with metal that you start with during character creation are copper weapons, which have neither bonuses nor penalties.

Then select one of the following Item Kits for your character to represent your starting personal wealth (if you wish to personalize some of the more esoteric items listed below, just ask me):

*Knowledge Kit: Light horse w/ bit/bridle & riding saddle; a small package of ancient knowledge handed down through your clan (choose either 1) 2 small clay tablets inscribed w/ Im’sarra script, contents unknown; or 2) 3 sheets of rolled papyrus inscribed w/ Kemetese glyphics, contents unknown); 1 weatherstone; and a small bag of lapis lazuli gemstones (A).

*Warrior Kit: Light warhorse w/ bit/bridle & military saddle; 1 bronze simple weapon (replace one copper simple weapons w/ a bronze one); and either 1) a small shell necklace (A), stained w/ blood, taken from the neck of a long dead enemy, handed down in the clan to the lead warrior; or 2) the preserved claws of a large, dangerous animal (your choice).

*Mysteries Kit: Light horse w/ bit/bridle & riding saddle; small lead case containing 5 clay bulla jars w/ alchemical substances (choose either 1) 1 Alchemist’s Frost, 2 Beastbane Salve, and 2 Firesnuff; or 2) 1 Alchemist’s Fire, 1 Firesnuff, 1 Purifier Drops, and 2 Snappowder); 4 glass ingots, weighing 2 lbs each; and either 1) a small mirror of polished bronze; or 2) a small bag of crystals and rocks (for mediation or rituals or just because they’re pretty, your choice).

*Enterprising Kit: Light horse w/ bit/bridle & riding saddle; 1 masterwork tool (choose one item from the Adventuring Gear sub-table of the Allowed Equipment Chart in Dropbox or a masterwork tool appropriate for crafting); 50 ft hempen rope; 2 blessed bandages; and either: 1) 1 small pair of carved granite dice (A); or 2) 1 small sack of freshwater pearls (A).


Featured Image: Untitled Image of the Ruins of Nisa, Turkmenistan by Justin Barton, used by Creative Commons license.

First Cities Campaign Premise

The following was sent to my players to introduce them to the structure of the campaign:

You are a member of a small, Bronze Age nomadic tribe called the Sakas, which has been eking out a livable but brutish existence for many generations on the vast steppe land known as the Sea of Grass. Recently, your tribe has made the decision to flee your ancient homeland in the steppe. Rumors of a vast warband of savage beastmen called the Turukku have become too pressing to ignore, so the elder moot decided the Sakas would join other steppe tribes in fleeing before the Turuk Horde reached the tribe’s grazing hills.

Your destination is the land of Khamaz, a fertile and populated river valley bracketed by arid and semi-arid desert lands, tall mountains, rugged hills, and vast swamps. Considered the original seat of urban civilization, it is a land of shining riches, strange magicks, exotic peoples, and dangers innumerable, but it also seems to be the closest safe haven from the oncoming Turuks. Despite many reservations, the elder moot decided to settle there.


The initial goal of this campaign is for you as the players to keep your tribe alive and intact while finding a new homeland for settlement. Within this broad remit, you are free to take this in any direction you wish. The campaign will operate on two different tracks: 1) strategic decision making for the tribe by the elder moot, which you will run at the start of every game session; and 2) tactical operations/adventures carrying out the directives of the elder moot by your PCs. Therefore, what you need to do to prepare for the first game session is this:

1) Create a clan/family within the tribe, which will serve as the pool from which your PCs come. For your clan/family, please sketch out an elder of some sort (e.g., a family patriarch). This is not a D&D character with stats; simply flesh out personality and other details as you see fit for role-playing purposes. This character is a member of the tribe’s elder moot, the ultimate decision-making body, which operates through consensus and discussion to arrive at the tribe’s strategic goals and actions (e.g. when to move, where to settle, how to handle threats, who to threaten, division of spoils and resources, etc). This track of the game will also be concerned with managing the tribe’s Resources and Assets metrics, which I will explain more fully during the first game session.

2) Create a PC that is a member of your clan/family (or more than one if you want). This PC is part of the tribe’s rangers, a group of adventurers/scouts/warriors who carry out the tasks assigned by the elder moot. The rewards for adventures on this track will involve obtaining Resources/Assets for the tribe and individual wealth for your PC and clan/family.

*Special Snowflake Exception: You have the option to create a PC that does not originally come from the nomadic tribes of the Sea of Grass (but rather an exile of some sort from Khamaz itself). In that case, you would still create a clan/family with an elder, representing the tribal group your outsider has latched onto. I would then work with you to craft a PC with the appropriate background and class details. That said, only 1 player at the start of the campaign is allowed to use the Special Snowflake Exception. If more than one player wants to create an outsider character, you’ll either need to work out amongst yourselves who gets the exception or you’ll have to dice for it.

This is a campaign built around hexcrawl exploration, gritty adventure, and a broad but individual scope. Time between game sessions will pass as seasons (with no more than two game sessions taking place in one season), which means characters will actually age and progress in the larger scheme of things. Your initial goal is to safely settle your tribe. Once you complete that, we’ll continue exploring Khamaz in a more traditional D&D format.


Featured Image: “Peretz and His Noble Steed on the High Steppe” by Peretz Partensky, used by Creative Commons license.

The Epic of Blog Creation

Welcome to He Who Saw The Deep, my blog dedicated to archiving various writings about my current homebrew 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Conceived in the fall of 2012 and launched as a regular campaign in January of this year, the First Cities campaign, as I call it, takes its inspiration and cultural motifs from the societies and cultures of the Ancient Near East, a period of human experience that birthed the world’s first urban civilizations in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys in what is today Iraq.

Designed as an exploration-based hexcrawl, First Cities is a campaign emphasizing the discovery of vast riches, ancient knowledges, and exotic peoples; of mighty cities built to serve the needs and desires of the gods; and of the dangerous monsters and strange beastmen that roam the wild frontiers of the civilized world. He Who Saw The Deep will serve as the main repository for this campaign, serving as both an all-purpose player campaign aid and an open-access, general resource for the public at large.


So what exactly are my reasons for doing this? Well, I have a couple of motivations. In the first place, I’ve taken my inspiration from the writing my friend Rich Forest is doing on his blog, Superhero Necromancer, regarding his current homebrew campaign setting, the Rainy City, which I am playing in (we trade off DMing duties every few weeks). A mixture of campaign documents, play reports, and player-generated content, Rich is offering up on the internet an intricate look at the campaign setting he has been building in his head for a few years now (you can find all of Rich’s posts on the recent Rainy City campaign collected here). As much fun as it is to play in the campaign, it’s just as awesome to see other peoples’ reactions to the campaign materials too. I hope to capture that same sort of dynamic on this blog with First Cities.

However, I also have a semi-academic goal in mind for this blog. In past writing I’ve done for Play the Past, an academic group blog about gaming and cultural heritage, I’ve focused my attention largely on tabletop role-playing games (when most of the blog’s excellent output skews toward digital gaming) and the intersection between good/fun game design and historical fidelity in the construction of these tabletop RPGs (you can peruse some of my postings here). In choosing to harness First Cities to the historicity of the Ancient Near East, I’ve found that I’m actually engaging in the very process I’ve been studying and writing about lately. As such, I hope to use this blog to pull back the curtain a bit on my campaign design process — to show my work, as my math teachers used to say, while I am appropriating and adapting the history of the Ancient Near East for use in my D&D game. I am by no means a professional game designer or anything, but as an academically trained historian, analyzing systems of thought, cultural heritage, and historical narratives is my bread and butter.


My plan is to mix in First Cities campaign materials (including crafted encounters and locations) and play reports with design-focused pieces that explore how I built this campaign — my sources, my methods, my design decisions, etc. As it moves forward, I may also include pieces on broader issues related to gaming and the Ancient Near East — reviews, news, inspirations, etc. I might even try cross-posting a few items with Play the Past, we’ll see I guess…

I’m not entirely sure what sort of posting schedule I’ll be able to adhere to, but tentatively I can see material dropping at least once a week, at least in the early going. I’ve generated a lot of written material for this campaign, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to adapt that for publication on the blog.

I’m looking forward to you all joining me as we explore the foundations of the ancient and venerable land of Khamaz, home to the First Cities of Humanity!


Featured Image: Ishtar Ziggurat Concept Art by David Revoy, used under Creative Commons license.