I’m gonna open this with a ridiculous admission, every word of which is absolutely true: I’ve seen the sitcom 30 Rock, front to back, more than 20 times. I don’t mean I’ve seen more than 20 episodes. I mean I’ve seen that entire series more than 20 times. I’m serious. Mostly nowadays I just leave it on in the background of whatever else I am doing, or watch it when I’m having a bad week and need a familiar pick-me-up to put me back in good humor. But regardless, I’ve still seen it over 20 times and, in so doing, wasted more than forty-four full days of my life. Don’t be like me.
With that out of the way, though, we can talk about a dumb idea that only two of you in the entire world will find funny, max, but which made me laugh when I started thinking about it: we’re gonna flat-out steal inspiration for a setting entirely from an episode of 30 Rock. Then we’re gonna add more dumb references. In the end I think we’re gonna come up with a totally playable setting. I refuse to apologize for any of this, but the weird part is: there’s something here. I’d play it, and not just because I’m apparently under the spell of some kind of gas leak orchestrated by Dennis Duffy. Stick with me, here. Humor me.
The inspiration comes from the fictional, Euro-style board game played by the characters in Season 6, Episode 12 “St. Patrick’s Day” (Hulu link here). The game bears a couple of passing nods to Settlers of Catan and other economy-centric games. Colonizers of Malaar is a strategy board game covering an entire conference table where a half-dozen players are vying for command of the fantasy realm of Malaar through economic dominance. It serves as an allegory for the career struggles of ambitious businessman character Jack Donaghy, but watching the players banter back and forth about it gives us a ton of stuff to work with:
- The Scepter of Thalbain is a possibly magical symbol of office capable of crowning a ruler of all Malaar and placing them on the Throne of a Thousand Kings – the highest post in in all the lands of Malaar.
- The desert wastelands of Kroth exist, and are disease-ridden places. Disease kills swiftly here.
- Yaks are common livestock in Kroth, and can suffer the effects of smallpox.
- The Karthian plains are fertile, wheat-bearing lands, a breadbasket of sorts. Karth is a prominent trade partner. Ruled by a lord, the Karthian plains are home to many unicorns which have marketable magical properties.
- Midgar is a desirable trading region overrun with violent orcs.
- There are at least two elf kingdoms, and desirable neutral land between them.
- Elves are powerful seers, and can speak to fates or other forces through oracle mirrors with magical properties.
- Theowyn Castle is a noteworthy feature in the world and holds wealth or location important enough to be considered valuable collateral.
- Pirates are widespread enough to hold court over an area – presumably a cape, harbor, or island? – and host a ball to celebrate their accomplishments.
- Gold is the standard currency of trade.
- Magic is powerful and valuable, and its high cost indicates it is presumably not used for petty things.
- Grand crystalline palaces exist.
Additionally, we can borrow some elements from Kenneth (the best character on the show) and his fictionalized rural Georgia hometown, Stone Mountain (which is, in reality, the utterly normal hometown of former writer Donald Glover, who is now a television and music industry darling). Through Kenneth, we learn much about the fictional version of Stone Mountain and its inhabitants, as well as the beliefs he was raised with:
- There, the “hill people” conduct raids on the villagers and abduct them.
- Albinos are present for strange mating rituals.
- Immortals are occasionally present, allied with the gods, and given names which cause madness when heard by mortals.
- Pig farming is a common livelihood, and the pigs are often savage and dangerous, necessitating as much defense against them as used to protect them from raiders and predators.
- The people of this locale believe in gods of harvest and plenty, venerating a god of deer, a god of vegetables, and so on.
- Witchcraft is practiced here, and punished severely when suspected; there exists also at least one mighty and fearsome hill witch whose power to slay and enslave children causes her to be used as a common fairytale to ward off bad behavior and gluttony.
From these two sources – the boardgame scenes in this episode and Kenneth the NBC page throughout the series – we can derive a map and much of the setting’s tone and details.
First, the map as we can see it in the episode:
Second, let’s try to piece together the cues from the episode and weave something of a story or setting from them:
- Since we know there’s at least two elf kingdoms, and there’s “neutral land between” them, let’s go ahead and start by presuming the elves suffered a grievous civil war at some point in the past and now exist in a state of great cold war tension. This is aided by the location they seem to point towards having a large castle ruin. That’s gonna be a shattered capital. So we now have the elves who worship the sun (the Alfur) and the elves who worship the moon (the Selnur); at some point the two sides became divided by their religious beliefs and split apart violently, culminating with the destruction of the storied elven home city, Terrefae. This was followed by swift, if contentious, peace talks that resulted in an ongoing stalemate. Both sides desire closure, but neither side is sure of the cost of another round of open warfare. The Selnur produce oracle mirrors, elven artifacts that can only be fabricated by the most gifted magical craftsmen; these mirrors possess the ability to peer into the fae realm and spy upon the threads of fate. They are highly valued by nobles, powerful crime lords, and sorcerers, all of whom seek the upper hand in their infinite machinations.
- Theowyn Castle is implied to be of value and character gestures on the show seem to indicate it is the castle north of the tower in the lower right side of the map. We’ll decide it is the last great standing kingdom of man in Malaar and that it is a corrupt, money-hungry place which uses its resources to extract favors from the nearby wizards of the icy shelves; these favors are generally used to oppress their serfs.
- On the left side of the board we see the mountains and a small village enclosed by walls. That’s clearly Stone Mountain, where the villagers raise pigs; the savage hill people descend from the north regularly to abduct more slaves and concubines. The town is controlled by a puritanical religious group who enforce strict arranged marriages and child-bearing laws on their people, using the threat of hill people and witch craft to keep them compliant. The town elders are albinos; this is the result of “great piety” but never explained to outsiders. Occasionally, “angelic beings” are said to speak in tongues through the mouths of newborns, and their names are never to be uttered for they cause instant madness in the minds of mortals – locals do not question this, but it is very troubling to outsiders. In the mountains, the queen of the hill people resides in a cave. She is a tremendously powerful witch whose hatred of the world of humankind is exceeded only by her loathing for the wizards of the crystal tower.
- The Midgar territory separates the north from the hill country and is full of forested mountains. Animals and lumber are in tremendous supply here, leading to a burgeoning timber industry and fur trade. Rumors even abound of incalculable wealth in the mountains, where veins of gold are said to run wide and deep. However, this is dangerous work, as extremely violent orc tribes consider this territory to be theirs, and will slaughter any they catch encroaching on Midgar lands. Still, the lure of gold is strong, and many try to establish forts and trading posts here. Half-orcs have been spotted here, leading to speculation that not all expeditions have been eradicated by the orc tribes.
- To the northeast of wooded Midgar lay the neutral lands, where men and elves live in close proximity to each other and lucrative trade potential exists for those capable of braving the dangers of bandits, coastal pirates, haunted elven ruins, and the Broken Fields – where the red-hot lava left from the elven spell war runs freely and dragons are said to roost. Many have vied for control of this territory since the elven stalemate ended open warfare in the area, but none have successfully held sway over the unique and extremely free-spirited peoples of the neutral lands.
- The Karthian plains are fertile farmlands roamed by rough, hardy horsemen. Though the Karthians have largely settled into an agrarian lifestyle, sowing broad fields of wheat and trading in grains to enrich their people, they were once nomadic steppe riders and remain capable archers. The Karthians wrangle wild horses, and are lucky enough to occasionally stumble upon the native herds of glistening, resplendent unicorns, whose silvery manes and distinctive horns are valued by magicians. These unicorns are considered holy creatures, to be tended and bred and reared lovingly by the most trustworthy and proven of all the Karthian riders. The oldest of the unicorns, past their mating years, are kept until the arrival of a wizardly delegation; then a hecatomb is carried out in accordance with ancient steppe rituals and the magical aspects of the sacrificed unicorns are presented to the sorcerers in exchange for blessings upon the Karthian crops and people. Karthians are generally distrusting of foreign influence, as their arable land has been highly sought after by empires past and present, but necessity keeps them in good trading graces with all their neighbors for the time being. It is said many still fear the bows and arrows of Karthian archers, the most accomplished of whom are the tall, Amazonian women. These accomplished archers form the ruling caste, a tradition dating back to the distant past of Karth where the nomadic people relied on swift hunters, scouts, and warriors to win their food and freedom. Karth is therefore largely matriarchal.
- The desert wastes of Kroth are dangerous badlands where only the strongest dare to tread. For centuries it was used as a natural prison in which to exile those sentenced to banishment and death. Those who survived have established desperate towns of vicious, fearsome people. Here, yaks are bred as common beasts of burden and as a source of meat; their specialized horns allow them to feed on cacti and their iron stomachs let them digest the harsh scrub brush of the ruined landscape. These people are used to hardship, but are still victimized by plagues and illnesses that sweep across the landscape on the backs of the mole rats that burrow under every inch of sand and rock of Korth. The rock wargs are merciless hunters and their name in the barely-literate mother tongue of Kroth translates to common as “child-thieves”. Sand worms bring devastation periodically; water is a valuable resource for which villages have wiped each other out. Those who can make it in Kroth are able to survive nearly any hardship, and there is an adage that a Krothian is the finest alchemist of all, capable of making something out of nothing.
- To the east of Malaar is the Malaarian Sea, where mighty trade caravans ply the ocean’s waves to trade up and down the coast and far beyond the realm itself, carrying trade goods and valuables such as treasure and spices. This great blue expanse also plays home to the so-called pirate kingdoms, where the strongest captains claim to rule and consider their plunder to be legal taxation of the land empires. These pirates squabble and war amongst themselves only slightly less than they wage war back and forth with the coastal powers that fund the great sea trade; sometimes the pirate battles result in the emergence of a Captain of Captains, or Commodore, who is considered the master of all pirates (such as there can be, anyway) until they’re eventually dethroned by a challenger. During these times, the Commodore will attempt to broker agreements amongst the various fleets, usually with underhanded motives and layer upon layer of backstabbing. When a Commodore takes control of the seas, a grand pirate’s ball is declared, and takes place on the next full moon in the harbor of Skull Bay – here, all pirates are sworn to peace, as are outsiders, and none dare break the covenant. Often, the land empires will send ambassadors or even the noble court itself to attend in hopes of brokering deals and currying favor with the various pirate factions to ensure the success of their own sea trade routes.
- The crystal tower is a massive, sky-piercing tower built near a lake amongst the glacial mountains of the southeast. Its biome defies reason and is believed to be the cost of the incredible magical energies racing through the region, wielded by the wizards who reside in the crystalline palace. The tower is incredibly tall, with branching spires and serpentine networks of stairs that endlessly rearrange themselves. It is said to have been carved from ice so perfect it became glass, shaped by the first wizards of the sorcerous order. The tower is incredibly secluded and the wizards with in are secretive and generally hermetic; some residents of the tower haven’t seen each other in decades or longer. Once in awhile the wizards send delegations to the Karthian plains and Theowyn Castle to make trade arrangements for valuable reagents, students, and other mysterious things they require in exchange for magical spells. Wars have been won, uprisings silenced, crops ruined, fortunes changed – all by way of a rare and furtive trade between warlock and mortal man. Rumors abound that the wizards cast out one of their students hundreds of years ago and forbade her from practicing magic, fearing her gifts and necromantic leanings; rumors also abound that she defied them anyway, established a mountain kingdom of her own, and holds sway over legions of savage wild folk in the west.
- Central to Malaar is a small lake, much shallower than the frigid lake bordering the wizard lands in the southeast. This small lake was once a moat, and its depths house the magically-sunken Hall of Thalbain, the most amazing castle of all Malaar, home of the Throne of a Thousand Kings. Legend says only a righteous hero who lays claim to the lost Scepter of Thalbain can break the curse of the Hall of Thalbain, raise it from its watery prison and restore it to glory, uniting the lands and people of Malaar in the process. The ancient legends of Malaar say that a powerful sorceress absconded with the Scepter and the Malaarian crown jewels in the middle of a grand ceremony and has hidden them away deep within a cavern complex that descends into the hellish heart of the world itself.
So now we’ve made sense of all the key boardgame ideas and slipped all of Kenneth’s weirdness into the mix as well. That brings us to step three, the map we derive (with some liberties taken):
We’ve got a key and a political overlay to help make sense of it all. The process of making those disparate random tidbits and jokes into a reasonably coherent concept gave me basically infinite fodder for tiny story hooks and gimmicks. That means we’ve taken a throwaway B-plot designed to help a character envision new avenues of business success and made a pretty functional campaign setting out of it. They really did offer a ton for us to work with, to be fair, so hats off to the writers of 30 Rock for yet another reason. I’d play a B/X open table game in this setting. Add a bunch of side entrances, a couple villages as player needs dictate, wilderness points of interest, and a lot of encounter/travel roll tables, and you have yourself a game. It worked out pretty well!
And there you have it: a massive blog post with no point whatsoever, except to indulge my own weird love for a sitcom no one else has cared about for years. If you read this far, thanks for sticking with it! If you found this funny, somehow, or you have any thoughts and inspirations of your own, or you plan to waste actual table time playing in this ridiculous setting, please hit me up on Twitter where I post way too often as @dungeonspossums or here in the blog comments. And if you work for NBC, please don’t sue me (and also please send me autographed memorabilia; my love for this show is clearly debilitating – think of it as a Make-A-Wish for a really weird, very large kid).