OSR: Iron Gates Draft Content: The Arena of Rhen

The Iron Gates is an Alexander Romance / Dark Souls setting guide. After years of (vague and unfocused) development, it's finally reached the point where I can start writing actual content.

If you want to see six pages of very early Iron Gates content focused on the Arena of Rhen, sign up to my Patreon.

This map is a placeholder, as is all the art in the PDF. It's an edited version of these maps from 1532. Names are currently real-world references to help me design the locations, but will be switched to in-setting references.

Layout and Writing

The Monster Overhaul (which is now available, in case you missed it) was written and designed entirely in a layout program. Since monsters followed a standard template, this let me cram every page full of content without worrying about splitting a paragraph over two pages or cutting content. I could choose my words to fit the rows of a table or the width of a column, and design spreads and tools without worrying they'd be mangled in the transition from raw text to final PDF.

This approach had a few downsides. Dai Shugars can produce astonishing and skilful layouts like Moonlight on Roseville Beach and Gangs of Titan City. Forcing Dai to work with my spartan requirements for the Monster Overhaul's layout was like demanding an award-winning chef cook plain rice. Sure, it's possible to screw up plain rice, and if you do you'll really notice, but it doesn't allow much in the way of showing off.

For The Iron Gates, while I'm still creating the book in a layout program, I am not sticking to strict templates. I'm deliberately leaving lots and lots of room for graphic design, art, and revisions. The layout program is a map, saying "I want this information on this page", but the how, the where, and the format will all be left to an expert. This means the current draft pages are hideous.

While the book will still be aggressively utility-focused, I feel that a setting like this requires evocative layout. It can't present the world in a crisp manual-like manner. It needs to ooze secrecy and decay, evoke grandeur and wonder, and generally get the GM into the correct mindset. Washing machine manual layout will not do! 

I can also put zone and theme coding in the background. The pages for Rhen could have a different theme than the pages for Meridia, etc.

Very early world map from 2018.


I'm designing the Iron Gates as a series of nested pointcrawls. There's a continent-scale city/landmark based pointcrawl, but each city is a pointcrawl, and some locations within each city will be pointcrawls or 1-2 page dungeons.

Currently, the plan is to embed unique creatures within their chapters, instead of putting them in a catch-all bestiary chapter. Gladiators, for example, appear only in the Arena of Rhen. To minimize page flipping, it makes sense to put their stats near the Arena map, in the Rhen chapter.

This choice does run the risk of creating duplicated statblocks. Elephants, for example, show up in the [Carthage] section and/or [India] section in happier circumstances. Where this occurs, the plan is to include a smaller local statblock, with a reference to larger half/full page spread elsewhere for cultural details, extra tables, etc.

Putting the monsters in the middle of location chapters does limit the number of monsters I can use in any one location. I can squeeze 4 monster statblocks onto one page, but two or three gives me more flexibility in layout. The Arena, as one of the major combat-based locations in Rhen, has four monsters and two boss fights.

Obviously, not every location can have 6+ pages of content, or the book would be 700 pages long and hopelessly unwieldy. 

In the draft pages, some words or items are placeholders for thematic links that don't yet exist. I know I want to do something with this concept/item/location, but the other end of the link hasn't been fully developed. 


I'm testing a new format for items. Loot is important in a Soulslike game. Every item has to have some symbolic weight, some purpose or hint at the nature of the world.

I'm planning to embed loot within a bestiary entries. Some enemies, but not all, drop capital-L-Loot. Some only drop gold. Some drop nothing of value.

Items have a:

  • Material (Gold, Iron, etc.). If it just adds 1 to that character, it's not numbered. If it adds more than one, it's numbered. E.g. Iron II adds 2 Iron to the PC's total. Gold and Iron totals have mechanical effects.
  • Slot / Function (Head, Arms, etc.)
  • AC or Damage.
  • Extra rules.
  • Flavour text.

Items can have a set bonus. You can mix and match Gladiator items and still get the set bonus.

In a perfect world with an unlimited art budget, every item will get a unique non-public-domain illustration. In the real world, we'll see.

Ideally, the items will be printable on cards, like Dave Arneson's original magic swords in Blackmoor.

Bogdan Rezunenko

Minimal Text, Maximum Lore

It's easy to churn out page after page of setting lore. It's much more difficult to get anyone to read and digest your work. The Iron Gates will have as few paragraphs or pages of lore as possible. I intend to ruthless edit the book down to a bare minimum. Can this paragraph be a sentence? Can this sentence be an entry in a table? Can this table be thrown out entirely? 

I may also include real-world quotes, provided they don't contain any information that contradicts the setting.

"Closing his eyes, he forbade his spirit to participate in those evils. And would that he had blunted his hearing! For when he was smacked by the whole crowd's huge shout at some fall in a fight, he was overcome with curiosity and as if prepared to despise and overcome whatever was going on, he opened his eyes and received a more severe wound in his soul than the gladiator received in his body, and fell more miserably than the man at whose fall the shouting happened.... For when he saw that blood, at once he drank up the savagery and did not turn away, but fixed upon the sight and sucked up the madness and lost his senses and was delighted with the crime of the contest and grew drunk on gory delight. He was no longer the man who had come, but one of the crowd, and a true companion of those who had brought him. In short, he spectated, he shouted, he blazed with emotion, and took away with him an insanity by which he was incited not only to return with those who had brought him, but even taking along others in their place." - St. Augustine

Details and Accuracy

The Iron Gates is not a historically accurate setting. It can't be. It's based on the Alexander Romance and In Cath Catharda, and both texts bear only a slight resemblance to reality. 

You know what the Colosseum looks like, but the author of In Cath Catharda doesn't, or when it was built, or why. While writing the setting, I try to imagine what a poorly travelled and mildly credulous 14th century Irish monk would picture Rome or Byzantium, based on the available texts, and work from there.


OSR: The Mystery of Uriah Shambledrake Session 21 & 22 - A Castle in the Air

In the previous installment, the PCs:

  • Exploded a photograph.
  • Experienced horrible sobriety.
  • Participated in Endon's first ever car crash.

The PCs are:

Tom Shambledrake
Electric Wizard and heir to the bankrupt Shambledrake estate. Inventor of the Lightning Accumulator, the Lightning Inverter, and the Iron Spike. Currently afflicted with a troll arm and eye thanks to emergency trollblood healing.

Jonty Earl
Dandy. Assistant Professor at Loxdon College. Deeply enmeshed in stock-jobbery and financial chicanery.

Dr. Augustus Hartwell

Biomancer. A foreign doctor and self-described "quack", currently employed at Blumsworth Hospital. Ally of speaking rats, workers, and other vermin.

Lizzy Ramchander
Potion Wizard, former cook, former brewer, and current secretary to Doyle Wormsby. Can duplicate herself. Currently part troll as well.

Doyle Wormsby
Civic Wizard, Private Investigator. Broke his arm in Endon's first automobile accident.


Conor Nolan
Tom rushed off to visit George Miles, creator of the flying Mira, and member of the defunct Amateur Aeronautics Society. Miles, terrified by Tom's appearance and vague threats, told him all he knew. It wasn't much. The Society was a club of ambitious wizards. At the dawn of the Magical Indstrial Revolution, they'd seen a future for systematized magic beyond textiles and waterwheels. 

Though intially united by a vision of a utopian magical future, the Society splintered immediately. Miles suspected the Shambledrakes were merely using the Society for their own unstated ends. He didn't know what Tom was, exactly, but knew that the three Shambledrakes had used some sort of time magic in the Society's last tumultuous days.

Edward Konivov and Professort Tallerand left to create The Project. Miles remained noncomittal. His goal was flight and reaching the moon, not immortality, but he appreciated The Project's goals... if not their methods.

Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl had provided most of the funding. He was the mysterious figure who'd vanished from the thaumograph. Miles hinted at some form of truce. Lord T-on-B was opposed to The Project and their goal of universal immortality through time travel and memory extraction. Miles hinted that Lord T-on-B was no longer entirely human. He was the Society's first attempt at world-changing magic... and the experiment, whatever it was, worked too well. The truce let the Project pursue their goals, with only mild interference, because Lord T-on-B expected The Project to fail.

Tom, by investigating the thaumograph and targeting Lord T-on-B's origins, had activated some sort of defensive countermeasures. The truce was over. 

"What sort of countermeasures?" Tom asked, as a seven-foot-tall steel golem on a column of flame smashed through the window of Miles' office.

After an eventful chase and some hasty spellcasting, the two wizards managed to dispatch the fire-filled golem while piloting a Mira over Endon's streets. The damage the golem managed to inflict resulted in Endon's second ever car crash, on the same day as the first.

"Some sort of fire elemental in a suit, like a Gel Knight but on fire," was Lizzy's professional assessment. Tom, scorched, battered, and windblown, was not comforted.

After retrieving three amulets of featherfall from George Miles and calling him a cab, Tom set off for Loxdon College. The eclipse had thrown the faculty into a state of almost frenzied apathy. Leading theories included "cloud moths", "a new moon or minor planet", and "an optical illusion", but the leading theory was that the eclipse was a thaumic lens. A precursor to the magic accumulator, a thaumic lens was a spell that focused raw magic from sunlight into a condensed and useful form. Most were the size of tea saucers and similarly fragile. A lens thing large could accumulate a megathaum an hour, or more, and Tom thought he knew where all that magic was going.

The iron sarcophagus he'd created to trap the body and soul of his twin, Uriah Shambledrake Junior, was a perfect magic barrier. Nothing could get in or out... in theory. But if Uriah Shambledrake Jr. had cast a titanic thaumic lens before fighting Tom, the lens could still be dumping magic into him. Gentle repose and the sarcophagus kept Uriah Shambledrake Jr.'s soul tethered to his body, so any spells he cast in life might still be working.The sarcophagus could contain several megathaums of raw magic, enough to turn most of Endon into a smoking crater.

Tom asked Professor Bazzard, a specialist in abjuration, to come to the Iron Spike and consult on the problem. Prof. Bazzard agreed, but was unable to determine what was happening inside the structure. She suggested Tom move the whole thing outside the city as fast as possible, but that teleportation magic would be a bad idea. While Jonty rounded up every geomancer and elementalist he could find, Tom, Lizzy, and Dr. Hartwell prepared for a high-altitude excursion. Doyle declined, pointing out that his arm was still broken.

If they couldn't defuse the bomb, they could at least prevent it from getting stronger, and bring some peace of mind to Endon's citizens at the same time. Chastity Flintwich had modified the group's remaining Mira, as part of a plan to escape Endon with her loot and back pay before the explosion. She reluctantly agreed to turn the vehicle over to Tom, but quit the Iron Spike company, bought a fast horse, and left town.

Chastity had modified the Mira with a sphere of gravity snail shells. By rapidly spinning the sphere, the direction of local gravity could be changed from "down" to "forwards". Properly aimed, the Mira could "fall" forward, or nose-first into the sky. Tom, Dr. Hartwell, and Lizzy launched themselves at the eclipse, stopping only to retrieve Uriah Shambledrake Jr.'s broomstick.

The faculty of Loxdon College estimated the disc of the eclipse was "somewhere in the upper air" and could be destroyed by "a solid blow or strong magic." Bundled in warm clothes, the three wizards fell upwards. At the last possible moment, Tom realized the eclipse wasn't a thin disc of magic, but a solid stone structure, hanging impossibly in the air. He pulled Chastity's emergency brake, which spun the gravity snail shell device even faster, and converted it into what wizards call a "gravity oops" and causing the third Mira accident of the day. The imploding singularity spun the Mira around and sheared the bottom off the vehicle, including the soles of Dr. Hartwell's boots. The three wizards bailed out of the vehicle, clinging to the broomstick like deranged sloths, before landing in a shadowy stone courtyard.

The Order: 1886 concept art

The eclipse wasn't caused by a thaumic disc. It was caused by a gigantic gothic castle floating in the air, with its own gravity, currently at around 90 degrees to the world below. Skulls, bats, hooded statues, and other morbid decorations covered every available surface, in defiance of logic and taste. 

Tom assumed the castle was the lair of his twin brother Uriah, pulled into this reality or perhaps created from scratch; an inverted tower to match the Iron Spike. Tom assumed he could pass for Uriah in dim light, and set off to explore "his" castle.

Behind a pair of stone doors, inside a great hall, Tom discovered six animated skeletons in servant livery setting a table. They beckoned the group inside. Tom introduced himself as Uriah, said that Dr. Hartwell and Lizzy were his guests, but did not sit at the table. Lizzy opened a cloche to discover her own severed head on a platter. The illusion screamed at her. Lizzy screamed back, slammed the cloche shut... then stuffed the whole thing in her handbag. 

"Take me to the Inner Sanctum," Tom commanded, and a liveried skeleton dutifully lead the party up a flight of stairs and into a shadowy study. Huge windows gave them a view of Endon's distant lights from above. A claw-footed stone desk and a high-backed chair faced the windows. Lizzy flicked back the drapes to bring a bit more light into the room, turned to see what was in the chair, screamed, stumbled, and fell through the window.

Tom leapt onto the broomstick, charged through the falling glass, snagged Lizzy by the coat, hauled her onto the stick, managed to aim back towards the window, and crashed into the room, all without pausing for breath. Dr. Hartwell tore down a curtain to try and cushion the impact. It didn't help.

"What was that!?" Tom asked, trying to unbend the point of his wizard hat.

"There's a man in that chair!" Lizzy said, pointing. 

The other two wizards slowly turned. There was indeed a man in the chair, rising slowly and graciously to greet his guests, despite their window-breaking and curtain-shredding shenanagins.

"Good evening," the figure said, bowing slighly. "Welcome to my castle."

Tom suddenly realized that this was not Uriah Shambledake Jr.'s castle. The figure resembled the mysterious disappearing figure in the thaumograph of the Amateur Aeronautics Society, the ellusive Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl, the group's nemesis from the very beginning.

"Fangs," Lizzy whispered to Dr. Hartwell, holding up two fingers in front of her canines. "Oily hair. Evening dress. Evil castle."

"I was expecting the other Shambledrake," Lord Tarrrigan-on-Burl continued, "but you will suffice." He drew a glowing green sword and swung it at Tom's neck.

Lizzy cast grease before the vampire's swing reached its apex. The sword slipped from his hands and sailed out the window.

From the Iron Spike, Doyle spotted the green flash on the eclipse, and the subsequent sparkling green comet. He decided to investigate on the ground, eventually locating and retrieving the sword.

Meanwhile, in the castle, Tom, Dr. Hartwell, Lizzy, and the vampire all watched the sword receed into the distance for a beat, then started fighting properly. Tom attacked with Uriah Shambledrake Jr's axe of black glass. Dr. Hartwell threw his lantern at the vampire, setting it on fire, and then covered the dapper undead in a curtain.

"You would use fire against me?" Lord T-on-B said, flinging the burning curtain aside and casting summon fire elemental. Lizzy cast cone of dense foam, soaking everything, including the rising flames, in a cloud of beer-scented liquid. 

The resulting confusion gave Tom enough time to retreat, dig out his spellbook, and cast light, dumping enough magic into it to ensure the spell had all the properties of natural sunlight. The vampire screamed, sizzled, and collapsed into ash. Lizzy prodded the remains with her foot. "Ooh look, a fang!" she said, and put it in a sealed vial.

"Do you hear that?" Dr. Hartwell asked. "I think this castle is collapsing."

"Must have been a load-bearing vampire," Lizzy said.

"All these books are fake!" Tom cried from the other side of the room. "They're just props! There's no forbidden lore here."

With a prop book stuffed in his pocket, Tom remounted his broomstick, helped the other two wizards clamber aboard, and flew out the window, aiming for the Iron Spike and safety. The castle crumbled and faded behind them, revealing, briefly, a complex magical instrument the size of a cottage, which also vanished in the light of the newly revealed sun.

"Could that have been a light-to-stone engine? Similar to the lightning inverter, perhaps, but instead of lighting to magic, magic to stone? Ingenious!" Tom said, squinting over his shoulder.

"Less talking more steering!" Dr. Hartwell cried.

Once on the ground, the group immediately started to move the iron sarcophagus out of the city. According to Prof. Bazzard, whatever magic was happening inside it was still happening, eclipse or no eclipse. The group's hired elementalists cast control earth under the sarcophagus, and, with a great wailing and gnashing of teeth from the residents who lived along the route, sent it out of the city on a tidal wave of soil and stone. The PCs followed behind in a hired carraige. 

Half a mile from Endon's newest suburb, the sarcophagus started to smoke and crackle. "Bury it!" Tom yelled, pointing down, and the elementalists dutifully tried to sink the strucutre into the earth.

The sarcophagus disintegrated in a burst of light and sizzling droplets of iron. A pair of draconic wings of golden light emerged from the wreck, carrying Uriah Shambledrake Junior upwards. He was alive and, even at a distance, visibly furious. "Finally free!" he roared.

Tom sighed, hopped on the broomstick, and flew closer. "Hello," he said politely. "Look, this is all a bit silly can we talk?"

"Talk?! Pah! You trapped me in this fiendish device! Do you know how difficult it was to return to life?" 

"I didn't know you could return to life!" Tom said. "How did you manage it?"

"How did you manage to end the eclipse?" Uriah replied.

"Oh, that? Went up, fought a vampire, blew up a castle," Tom said.

"You... fought Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl? And won?" Uriah said, shocked.

"I am a very powerful wizard, you know," Tom said. 

"You shouldn't be. By all rights, you shouldn't be."

"What do you know about my, err, our origin? Because I am very confused, and a bit worried, and things are clearly spiralling out of control. Now we should either fight this out," Tom bluffed, as he had no spells remaining, "or establish a truce. I vote for a truce."

In the distance, Lizzy shouted that she also voted for a truce.

Uriah sighed, climbed down the heap of stone and rust flakes, and accepted. "But I want my axe back," he said.

"The axe... will be discussed soon," Tom said, clutching the weapon protectively. Wizards rarely give up magic items willingly.


Yuri Hill

Over a very tense and unusual dinner, Uriah Shambledrake Jr. revealed that he and Tom were, as suspected, time clones. Since time immemorial, the Shambledrake family owed fealty to The Shambledrake, a diseased or misbegotten dragon that lurked beneath Shambledrake Manor. It claimed the firstborn child of each generation as its champion and mouthpiece. Uncle Uriah was one, and so, currently is Uriah Shambledrake Junior.

Tom's parents did not want to give up their only child, and used Edward Konivov's time magic and an eighfold mirror to create two children, and raised them on opposite sides of a mirror. When The Shambledrake realized it had been duped, it arranged for an accident to claim Tom's parents on both sides of the mirror, the famous hot air balloon disaster that initiated Tom's fascination with lightning. Konivov's time magic allowed both parents to spend a bit of time with their children, but could not avert their fate.

But before that, filled with zeal and ambition, the Society had tried to circumvent the limitations of the human body. Magic is taxing; spells that could be attempted, in theory, will, in practice, explode a wizard's soul or shred their flesh. But a creature that is already dead, a soul empowering a corpse, can avoid some of the side-effects. The Society attempted to "perfect" vampirism, usign an ancestor of Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl kept in the family vault as a test subject. This was blatant necromancy, but, according to Uriah Shambledrake Junior, they hoped to turn Lord T-on-B into a living vampire, or something even stranger. He wasn't sure if the experiment was a success or not, but in any case, Lord T-on-B was a potent foe.

"Time wizards, dragon wizards, death wizards," Dr. Hartwelll said, "Fucking around and finding out." It was an apt summary of the Amateur Aeronautics Society.

"So the vampire in that castle wasn't the real Lord T-on-B, but his distant ancestor?" Lizzy asked.

"Possibly. You destroyed it, correct?"

"Yup!" Lizzy said.

"And you tracked it to its coffin, staked it in the heart, and cut off its head, preventing it from rising again?"

"Y... maybe," Lizzy said. Dr. Hartwell sighed. "Oh wait," she said. "We have his fang! We can use that to track him. It's been rattling inside this vial for the last hour. I bet it wants to join up with the rest of him. I can make a vampire compass!"

"That is a distressing thought, but yes, please do," Tom said. "In the morning, we'll hunt a vampire."

"When I said to pack stakes, Lizzy, I meant the wooden ones, not..."

"Oh I know," Lizzy said, opening the second compartment of the picnic hamper. "But I thought to myself, 'Steak sandwiches would make this expedition much more fun.'" 

"This is a vampire hunt," Uriah said humourlessly, "not a picnic."

"It can be both."

Jonty took one look at the vampire fang compass and suddenly remembered he had an urgent appointment elsewhere in the city. The clattering fang lead the rest of the PCs to Old Endon Cemetery. The warden took one look at the group's assorted weapons, shovels, lanterns, mallets, stakes, and silverware (as they hadn't had time to locate proper silver weapons) and refused to let them enter.

Tom correctly pointed out that Dread Necromancy was afoot, and that as a distinguished wizard of Endon, it was his duty to destroy it. He also provided a generous donation to the upkeep fund. Shovels in hand, the group approached the mausoleum of the Tarrigan-on-Burl family. Doyle cast knock to smash the iron gate open and the group piled down the stairs and into the small stone room. Four lacqured coffins, their copper labels corroded beyond legibility, rested in alcoves in the walls.

"I bet if we pull this wall sconce a secret door will open," Lizzy said.

"That sort of thing only happens in penny dreadfuls," Doyle said dismissively, but Lizzy pulled the sconce anyway and a secret door dutifully creaked open. 

"I think this vampire reads penny dreadfuls," she said. 

Inside the secret room, a suitably gothic coffin stood alone in a small room. The group gathered around it, miming their actions and nodding in silence. Tom pushed the stone lid off the casket, revealing an awake, alert, and very murderous vampire. As the lid crashed to the floor, the iron door to the mausoleum began to rattle and flow, slowly sealing the only exit. All four of the other coffins started to rattle. And the entire structure began, slowly, to sink into the earth.

The next few minutes were filled with confusion, spellcasting, and terror. While Uriah fought the vampire with the axe Tom had generously returned to him, the other wizards fought the creatures that emerged from the coffins. They were hideous necromantic creations, wire-bound ghouls with ticking clockwork hearts, and their grasp not only paralyzed victims but seemed to drain their vitality. In the cramped mausoleum, Tom couldn't deploy his lightning spells, Lizzy couldn't use cloudkill, and Doyle couldn't use his drain-cleaning Thomas Gun.

While Dr. Hartwell's wave of mutilation spell, Doyle's dueling pistol, and Tom's rubberize spell helped a bit, Lizzy was badly wounded by a ghoul before the last monster was slain. Uriah sawed off the vampire's head, noticed a strange crystal object embedded in its neck, and began messily disassembling its head.

"Priorities!" Tom said angrily. "We're sinking!"

Uriah sighed and cast triple doorway, binding the secret door to a workshop door in the Iron Spike. "Run!" he said. Dr. Hartwell dragged Lizzy through.

 "We'll cast gentle repose," Tom said, examing Lizzy's body. "We've gone back in time to save her once. I guess we'll do it again. Or maybe we can use a golem body to..."

"No," Dr. Hartwell said. "No more necromancy. Lizzy is dead and she is going to stay dead."

Doyle took off his hat. "I agree. I don't like it, but necromancy is what started this mess. We have to do better. And I don't mean come up with a magical solution that's not technically necromancy," he continued, catching the glint in Tom's mismatched eyes.

"The Project will save her," Uriah Shambledrake Jr. said, though with a hint of doubt. "Paradise cannot be reserved for the elect. It must be for everyone."

"At least she died fighting our nemesis," Tom said. "And with Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl dead..."

"Is he though?" Doyle said.

"Stake, decapitation..."

"But was that vampire the real Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl? I think Lizzy was right. This felt theatrical. A distraction, a stage show, or what?"

"I'm sure we'll find out," Tom said bitterly.


Who, or what, is Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl? Is Uriah Shambledrake Junior a trustworthy ally? What is a Shambledrake? Who is really behind the Revolution? And, after all this time, who killed Uriah Shambledrake Sr?