The Revenant of Davokar

It has become somewhat of established wisdom that The 13th Warrior is the best oldschool Dungeons & Dragons movie ever made. Which is probably in fact true.

Turns out that The Revenant is the perfect Symbaroum movie. Aside from it being about a single character who is all on his own, the story could play out exactly as in the movie somewhere in the depth of Davokar. And look just the same.

Make the muskets crossbows and the bear a blight born bear, and you’re done. That’s it.

Adventures in the Dark World

This really should have been part of the first post. In the end, a setting is only a framework that supports things happening and gives them a context. Settings build with a specific type of stories in mind are always much stronger in my opinion. And really, who needs another generic Northern European fantasy setting?

At the very heart of the setting is the idea of hardened warriors stalking through dark forests and misty swamps, being on constant watch for savage eldritch beasts and treacherous cutthroat villains. This casts them in the role of monster hunters, mercenaries, or enforcers of the various competing factions. Iron and blood are their business, but they also have to be investigators if they don’t want to become disposable pawns to people smarter and more ruthless than themselves.

The setting is a world in which the important players are the various occult and esoteric societies that are the center of religion and are pulling the strings behind the scenes. There are four things that people are craving for: Political power, eldritch power, spiritual enlightenment, and wealth. And in this world these four things are always going hand in hand. Arcane knowledge and religious revelation are the same thing. An understanding of the nature of the supernatural forces that shape the world and are the source of life. And those who gain insight into it have control over people and wealth. While their motivations may be very different, the means to achieve their goals are always the same for all the different factions. Eldritch knowledge and relics. Like in the adventures of Indiana Jones or countless wuxia plots, everyone is hunting for magic items, the tomes of great sorcerers and witches, and captured spirits that hold the key to greater power.

A lot of this perpetual struggle takes the form of political plotting and diplomatic finesse. But more often than not there will be some need for violence. Which is where the Player Characters come into the picture. They can either be the ones who are doing the dirty work, or the ones hired to protect against it. But in the end, this is not a setting for players to take the moral high ground and be virtuous defenders of peace. All the factions have some shady dealings going on and some tollerance for the more questionable deeds of certain more abitous members as long as they are keeping it out of sight. At the very least, players won’t be able to entirely avoid making deals with people of highly dubious reputation.

There are a couple of adventure frameworks that I see working really well for the setting as I imagine it.

  • Competing factions are fighting over a relic that is in the possession of one of them. The task of the party is to either get the relic for their own faction or to prevent it being stolen by a rival group. This is a good setup for a town based conspiracy adventure. Think The Maltese Falcon.
  • Competing factions are trying to get their hands on a relic before another group does. This is a setup for a classic straightforward trip to a ruin, tomb, or wizard tower and the exploration of its dungeons. But instead of orcs and giant spiders the players will have to deal with rival search parties and hostile guardian spirits.
  • Villages are being threatened by bandits. This is not directly related to the specifics of the settings, but it’s a problem that is thematically very fitting for a setting of this style and honest mercenary work to mix things up a little from time to time.
  • Villages are being threatened by hostile spirits. This is the simple setup of such classics like The 13th Warrior, Beowulf, and Princess Mononoke. How this ends up playing out can differ imensely, even when dealing with this setup multiple times. It can include anything from investigation to big dragon hunts and always includes the big question of why the spirits are tergeting the village in the first place.
  • Spirits are abducting people. This setup is more of an investigation type that can become highly complex and involve the various esoteric factions having their fingers in it somewhere. It will likely lead the party into haunted woods and the lairs of horrific beast or evil witches, but it might also involve complex conspiracies.
  • People are cursed. Another great investigation setup in which the players have to find the source of the curse and the method by which it can be broken, and then have to actually pull it off in the face of possibly very great danger.

Each of these setups can take the form of relatively simple oneshots that are wrapped up in a few hours, or turn out to be huge affairs spanning months. They are also very flexible and can play out completely different depending on the specific circumstances and how the players are approaching things. This should easily provide enough adventure ideas to last for years.

The Winds of Magic

On further reflection on the works that serve as inspirations and references for my new setting I have noticed that my unspoken assumption of immortal supernatural creatures coming from another dimension is really something that comes mostly from the context of Dungeons & Dragons, but is otherwise actually quite uncommon. Much more often you find magical creatures living in remote or hard to reach places in the very same world as the mortal peoples, such as below the earth, on top of mountains, or inside great forests and swamps. The idea of a separate spiritworld is not that uncommon in mythology, but in traditional hero tales the land of immortal spirits are usually reached simply by walking there, even though the journey can be very difficult. I actually find that much more intriguing and I feel that it meshes better with the northeastern European style I want to go with and the noir feel that dominates most of my favorite works. It’s at the same time more low magic and also more deceptive and ambigous.

But at least for my own peace of mind I can’t let it simply stay at that. For my own sense of believable plausibility, the world needs to have some kind of underlying structure that provides a credible reason why magical creatures don’t simply sweep away the mortal peoples and why civilization isn’t forever expanding into every last corner of the world. (The later is of course completely arbitrary. I’m simply not a fan of the traditional convention that civilization and progress make spirits into a dying race of helpless victims.) Central to my approach is the old Hill Cantons concept of Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird, which I think I’ve been references a couple of times in the past already. The idea behind it is that there are regions in the world where the forces of magic are very weak and regions where they are very strong, and between them lies a region of intermediate magical influence. Spirits and other magical creatures are at their strongest in the Weird, and it’s a place where mortal sorcerers are at their most powerful as well. In contrast, Corelands are very weak in magic, which decreases their power significantly and makes them much more vulnerable against the weapons and overwhelming numbers of the mortal peoples. Spirits exist and magic is possible, but their strengths are a far cry from what they are in the Weird. This all leads to a natural balance where both mortals and spirits have nothing to worry from each other within their own domains yet are mostly unable to expand their influence.

Butobviously, this does not apply to the Borderlands. In Borderlands, spirits are of sufficient strength to pose a real threat to settlements, but they more often than not lack the power to overcome the wards and resist the rituals that village shamans and witches use to protect them. Life in the Borderlands is much more precarious than in the Corelands, but villages and even small towns still thrive when they can come to arrangements with the local spirits that inhabit the land.

A weak ago I was watching a documentary on the Little Ice Age and how sudden, relatively minor changes to the climate had a huge impact on European history from the late Middle Ages for centuries to come. In many places it was like the land and the weather where slowly but steadily forcing people from the homes they had inhabited for generations. It has quite interesting storytelling potential, and applying it to the situation at hand I’ve decided to not have the confines of Corelands and the Weird being eternally fixed, but to slowly shift and change over the course of centuries. Regions that have been home to great cities for over a thousand years might find magic growing stronger and local spirits gaining in power, leading to a collapse of civilization in the matter of a few generations and returning the land to a sparsely inhabited wilderness filled with supernatural wonders and horrors. Similarly, other regions can become safe to settle and as the first people are entering the new Borderlands they find the ancient remains of civilizations from ages past.

But climate is the patterns you have over the course of many years. Weather is what you have today. While general levels in magical energy increase or decrease only very slowly over time, short and sudden surges of supernatural power rolling in from the Weird can happen much more unexpectedly. Sometimes these magical surges can swell up and recede over the course of several weaks, while at other times they come and go within only a matter of hours. Borderlands are the most vulnerable to such sudden temporary expansions of the Weird, but in more extreme cases they might even reach far into Corelands. To sorcerers in the Corelands these are great opportunities for the performing of powerful rituals, but for everyone else they are often catastrophic. Not only do attacks by emboldened spirits become much more common while their power grows to new heights, the surges in magic can also be accompanied by actual storms of supernatural power. Often they take the form of great thunderstorms or blizards, but can also appear as floods, volcanic eruptions, or series of earthquakes. More often than not, such natural disasters are accompanied by surges in magic, though sometimes the effects are much less obvious at first.

Other potentially disastrous consequences of a magic surge are the sudden growth of hostile vegetation or the dead rising from their graves. And there is always a great chance of spirits from the Weird following in the wake of such magical storms. The most famous example is the Wild Hunt, a horde of fey riders who chase after snowstorms to ride deep into the Borderlands and raid for slaves to be taken back to their realms.

While mortals are usually not sensitive to surges of magic in the environment around them, there are several warning signs that point to immenent trouble comming to their lands. The earliest warning is the appearance of tiny glowing sprites that come seemingly from the ground or underbrush at sunset in the days preceding a magical storm. These are a common sight in the Weird but are only seen in the Borderlands in times of increased magical energy. When the magical powers are at their full strength they lighten up the night sky with the green and blue glow of auroras. These are no more common in polar regions than in tropical ones but are consistently present in the skies above the Weird.

Peoples of the Dark World

The peoples of the Dark World are different but closely related populations of the same overall species. They are all very humanlike in appearance and build, grow in height between 1.60 and 2.00 meter depending on population, and live between 120 and 160 years. Most people are lean of stature, but some populations lean more to broader builds than others.

As with many other things, I am reusing and recycling many ideas I’ve used or worked on before, so I already have pretty clear images of what they look and are like. Making all the mortal peoples very human like somehow seemed appropriate for this type of setting. Really not sure how I would work gnomes and beastmen into this (even though they are very cool) and I quite like the idea of different peoples being distinguished mostly by culture instead of being fundamentally different and separately evolved.

Wood People

The wood people are one of the three major population groups. They have brown skin and their hair ranges from light brown to chestnut red and almost black. They inhabit many of the forest lands along the northern coast.

Ash People

The ash people are the southernmost of the six groups and live mostly on the coast in a land of many volcanoes and earthquakes. Their architecture and weaponmaking is the most advanced and sorcery is widely spread among their magicians. Ash people have tanned skin and black hair.

Stone People

The stone people are the inhabitants of the mountains of the East. They are the tallest and by far the heaviest build of the six peoples. Their skin is a dusty ocher and their hair ranges from black to a dark stony gray.

Snow People

The snow people live in the forests and mountains of the distant North. Their population is smaller than that of the ash people and wood people, but their culture just as advanced and sophisticated. Snow people have pale skin and hair ranging from pale blond to white.

Fog People

The fog people are a small population living only in the swamps and moors of the Northwest. They are the most barbaric of the six peoples and considered to be primitive as their inhospitable homeland offers little resources. Fog people have fair skin often with a grayish tint, but deep black hair that clearly distinguishes them from the snow people. The fog people are not very welcoming of outsiders and don’t tollerate any magicians except for witches.

Sea People

The sea people are a tiny population inhabiting only a small handful of the many islands lying in the ocean to the west. They have slightly blue to purple skin and dark hair, but have the remarkable ability  to dive under water for unnaturally long periods of time. They have either been changed by spirits of the sea or even descended from them. The skin of the sea people is ill suited to withstand the heat of the sun and they are often easily recognized from a distance by wearing light hooded robes when out during the day.

A Dark World forming from the Mists

Having had a week to think about my initial concept and browsing for more and alternative ideas, theDark World is slowly starting to take on a more defined shape.

Dark Ages Northeast Europe and Bronze Age City States

The more I have been thinking about it, the more the idea has been growing on me to make the landscape and culture of early and pre-medieval Northeast Europe the primary stylistic reference for the setting. It really isn’t the sexiest part of the world for tales of great adventure. Or for pretty much any purpose. Summers and mild and wet, and winters too. There are some places that are quite pretty during a good summer or winter, but the landscape doesn’t really have majestic wonders of nature like you can find in Asia and America. On the North Sea and Atlantic you have at  least proper storms that have an invigorating energy to them, while the Batic Sea is the very definition of “meh”.

But as a native, I guess you just can’t help but have a certain affection for it.

And if there is one thing that a cold, wet, dark, and quiet is actually really suited for, then it is dark fiction of things living in the misty forests and swamps. It’s our thing! This is the one niche where we can shine in contributing something to the greater world of fantasy. Except that dull grey and murky brown don’t shine. Ghostly lights, swamp witches, and fair maidens dragging travelers into black pools are what we have to offer.

But simply following in the footsteps of The Witcher, Symbaroum, The One Ring, and Skyrim wouldn’t satisfy my creative drive and there isn’t really much point in rehashing something that has already been done very well by others. So I want to combine this influence with my interest in Bronze Age city states and priest kings. It’s easy to see that mediterranean empires don’t really feel like a fitting addition, but I think by reducing it to the kings and their palaces within confined cities could actually make it work. Some of these kings may claim to speak for a god or be chosen by a god, or even claim to be a god. And in some cases a city might prosper under the guidance of a powerful spirit.

The soggy cold and rot of the wild swamps and forests should be complemented quite well by cities that have an atmosphere of lethargic decadence. The aristocracy indulges in opulence and extravagance, but it’s not ennergetic and flashy, rather leaning towards the delirious and often gloomy. They crave majestic splendor, but it really is more of a distraction than an expression of exuberance. There is a lot of bronze and gold, but it often has an air of tomb treasures to it. A display of wealth, rather than an expression of prosperity. It seems more than fitting to make wine and opium the two main exports from southern lands.

Out of Place, out of Time

I am actually of the opinion that the most fantastic feeling fantasy worlds are the ones that don’t have a propper history and geography. Tolkien did it, so lots of people did it too, and Howard’s Hybrian Age was basically filling in the unknown period just before the beginning of recorded history. On the other hand you have worlds like the Young Kingdoms of Elric, the world of Kane, and the particularly hazy universe of Dark Souls. There are things existing in the present that seem clearly ancient, but there is no sense of past events that go back more than a few years. It brings a dreamlike quality with it that I really enjoy. You don’t know how you got here and where here really is, but you just go along with it and don’t question it too much.

As far as people in the Dark World are concerned, things aren’t really changing over time. The oldest people around tell tales of how their grandparents had already lived in the same towns and in the same way as they do and there aren’t really any accounts of how it had been before. History and mythology are both completely unordered fragments of isolated events. They don’t form any kind of coherent narrative and there is little in the way of hints in what particular order they happened, how much time passed between them, and even where they took place.

Maps are just as bad. There are pretty clear and reliable maps that show the routes between the major cities and the more prominent towns, but towards the edges of the map details become much more sparse and complete conjecture before fading out into blank space. Merchant sailors know how to reach some of the major ports in the south through which the cities trade with distant lands, but even they don’t have any real understanding where the exotic goods they bring north originally came from. Southern merchants take pelts, cod, and salt and give wine, opium, and spices in return. That’s as much as the captains need to, and care to know.

However, there is undeniable evidence that the world does change, at least over long stretches of time. While nobody remembers a time before the cities and their ruling dynasties or immortal god-kings, ruins of past civilizations can be found in many places. It is actually quite common to find burried (or even only partly burried) ruins below the streets and palaces of most cities. Where these ruins come from is of course as much a mystery as everything else to do with the past. But they often contain ancient treasures that are of particular value to magicians. Occult knowledge may become lost, but magic doesn’t change and these ancient rediscoveries are more valuable to them than silver and gold. Or lives.

The lack of a sense of the past also brings with it a lack of sense of the future. People usually don’t care to plan ahead for the future and certainly not any further than their own lifetime. Things appear to be the same as they have for as long as anyone can remember and they probably will remain for much longer than anyone can imagine. As said in the RPG Sorcerer & Sword, “No one has a single thought on about being socially constructive in a large sense”. If you want to have any kind of change, you can only change things here, and change them now. You can destroy a gang of bandits or dispose of an unpopular despot, but you can’t end banditry or despotism. You can change your position in the game, but you can not change the game.

The Otherworld and the Supernatural

The true extend of the world extends well beyond what ordinary mortals can perceive. A fish thinks that the river is the entire world, but there are many more places that it can never reach by itself, and that will almost certainly be its death. Every place that  exists in the mortal world also exists in the otherworld, but it is much bigger than that. There are many more places in the otherworld in addition to those in the mortal world, places that exist between places. Journeys through the otherworld are normally considerably longer than in the mortal world, but there are also some routes that end up being much shorter, though these are among the most well guarded secrets known to witches and sorcerers. In many places the otherworld very much resembles the mortal world, but it follows very different rules. The passing of time and the normally experienced chain of cause and effect have little meaning in the otherworld. Instead the otherworld is entirely govered by the thoughts and whims of spirits. The dominant spirit of a domain can change the environment of the otherworld in whatever ways it sees fit. Depending on the spirit’s power, trees and rivers can change position, castles crumble to dust within moments, and shrines be eternally on fire. Strong minds can resist the changing of reality around them which limits the power of lesser spirits, but no mortal stands any hope of resisting a true god of the wilds.

The sky of the Dark World is dominated by a huge moon shrouded in a haze of beige and blue clouds, which orbits the planet once every 16 days. During each new moon there is a chance of an eclipse, particularly during spring and fall, which tend to last for half an hour. During an eclipse the borders between the mortal world and the otherworld dissolves and spirits are freely roaming the lands. Anyone who is wandering around during an eclipse is at risk of finding themselves trapped in the otherworld when the sun returns so people lock themselves in when an eclipse approaches and don’t move from the spot until it ends. Travelers avoid making journeys shortly before the end of the month and the third day of the month tends to be a day of particularly high activity on the roads and in inns.

Magic is an art that comes naturally to spirits but can also be learned by mortals. However, delving into the occult knowledge and eldritch powers of the otherworld does profoundly change the mind and the very essence of a magician. As their power and knowledge increases, practitioners of magic become more and more like the fey. Ultimetely they can lose all of their humanity and becomes eldritch beings that wander off into the otherworld, rarely to be ever seen again. Many magicians believe that at lease some of the god-kings are former witches and sorcerers who somehow returned to the world of mortals to rule over their lesser subjects. To maintain a hold over their humanity and sanity, magicians have developed a number of traditions that incorporate philosophy, forms of meditation, the extracts of certain plants, and other means. (I’m thinking of running a Symbaroum campaign and this is an adaptation of the game’s mechanics.) The dominant traditions of theurgy, witchcraft, and sorcerey have developed in quite different ways, enabling their followers to focus on certain elements of magic with little risk of eldritch change, but still many find it tempting to delve into areas beyond those that are considered safe. Particularly among witches and sorcerers many are wondering if the changes are actually something to be avoided. Witches are often venerated for their closeness to the spirits and sorcerers frequently find the prospect of transcending their mortality highly attractive. Witches and priests more often find the discipline to practice restrained in their commitment to serving their people as spiritual leaders rather than abandining them for a quest into the unknown.

Monsters

The Dark World has no real distinction between civilization and nature and spirits are not seen as beings from another age or domain. People and spirits are both just as much part of the natural world as animals, though spirits are standing on the top. People living under the rule of a city are mostly left alone by spirits, but this doesn’t have anything to do with civilization having driven them out. Spirits in civilized lands stay out of sight because the power of the priest-kings and god-kings forces them to behave. They have to obey the overlord just as the people do. Those spirits that are not bound to any specific landmark usually tend to wander off and avoid the proximity to settlements. But people know very well that spirits are roaming out there beyond the ends of the fields. Out in the woods encountering them face to face becomes significantly more likely. Some spirits are merely curious while others are outright hostile, but all of them can be extremely dangerous. Even though some of them can look suspiciously like mortals, they are drastically alien beings whose minds are much weirder than almost anyone can imagine. Predicting their behavior is always very risky and all of them have the power to inflict great harm, even if they don’t really intend to.

Like spirits, undead are also simply a part of the way the world is. While most religions have no concept of an afterlife, and the remaining ones never could really prove the existance of one, those who die don’t always stay truly dead. Ghouls, wights, shades, and wraiths rise under various circumstances, though I have not yet fully decided which ones these would be.

Other fictional creatures are normally nothing more than ordinary animals. The wildlife of the Dark World is in many ways very different to that of Earth, but they are natural beasts with the same limited abilities and mental capabilities as wolves or bears. The exception are spirits that come in the shape of animals, but these are fully supernatural creatures with no true overlap between the two.

I love it when a plan comes together

While looking for good ideas for my new Dark Fantasy setting, I remembered a couple of interesting concepts that had come to me some time back but which didn’t seem like something that could be worked into the Ancient Lands. And going through my old posts, I also found a couple of ideas I did intent for the Ancient Lands, but never really implemented in the way I wanted to.

Much of my growing unhappiness with the Ancient Land seems to trace back to me having to actually quite different ideals for a fantasy world based on strange magic. Many of my ideas didn’t work in a barbarian forest setting as I wanted to, but now that I am aiming at a dark city state fantasy world they are once again looking really inviting.

Is The Witcher Romantic Fantasy?

Working on a new setting that draws heavily from The Witcher and considering starting a new campaign in the forseeable future, I was remembered of how Joseph and Trollsmyth defined Romantic Fantasy and it’s application in RPGs.

And all of them really lines up very well with The Witcher. It’s not actually wrong to describe Geralt’s story as him trying to save the last true heir to the throne of Cintra from being murdered in a struggle between ruthless monarchs. But it’s much better described as the story of an aging warrior who stops at nothing to rescue an orphan girl he has taken in his care from impossibly more powerful foes. And despite being the protagonist, he’s not doing it alone but is always a part of a greater circle of friends.

I think it’s actually one of the best examples around for what Joseph is talking about.

Friendship is Magic.

In related news, I just learned that the Witcher RPG by Talsorian Games is still being worked on, and from what scraps of information have been released recently, it appears to be very far in the development process, already dealing with the layout of the book. It was announced well over two years ago with barely anything heard since then, so I don’t know how soon we can expect it, but it’s nice to see that it hasn’t completely faded off the world.