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.


  1. Amazingly excited for this, I'm always checking for new Iron Gates posts. Can't wait to see more content!

  2. I can't speak for everyone, but personally I find this setting fascinating as a real-world thing drawing from real-world sources using real-world places and would find it completely uninteresting if it weren't based in the actual historical figures and places (even obviously changed by both their original interpreters and by the requirements of being a game).

    I also think it's a LOT easier to get a handle on when real world reference points are involved. And in some ways heightens the oddness and surreality of the piece - it's demonstrably the real world, but a very odd view of it.

  3. Oh wow. This looks like a really great project. Looking forward to seeing more.

  4. Absolutely giddy with joy that you are working working on a Dark Souls inspired project (which is one of my favorite settings of all time). Would some of the romance involve the ravishing and thorough passion for fair world mending maidens and naked feet (with art to boot?)? I'm really liking the direction that you seem to be taking, by telling a story through evocative to the point quotes/lore, a sort of show don't tell way of exploring the setting and understanding your part in it (and that of others).

    On an unrelated topic I wish a double taboo could be done : first cloning you, second having you eventually work on your GLOG recipe (adding all the crazy classes you posted about since) and making that into a complete product (that is the second taboo, or so it seems to be in the GLOG community).

    In any case, may you enjoy this project! Looking forward to it!