The Ancient Lands: A world of savage heroes and mythical beasts

Some may remember the name of the world from an RPG setting I’ve been working on last year, and which I used for a campaign this summer. With my interest in gamemastering significantly going back, I am now shifting towards trying my hand at writing stories. My current love in fiction is Sword & Sorcery, which conveniently focuses on a format of stories of shorter lengths and serial adventures instead of a single epic story arc, which personally suits me just fine. It seems much more practical for writing as a hobby instead of a profession. The more I looked into the craft of writing, the more it became apparent to me that worldbuilding for stories (be it book or movie) is very different from worldbuilding for a campaign. You can run campaigns in settings originally made for a book or movie, but that’s usually the most interesting for settings that have a lot of stories written for them. You probably wouldn’t run a campaign in the setting of Princess Mononoke, but Star Wars has everything a GM might ever want. In practice, a story setting, even an extremely detailed one, requires much less information on many things than a campaign setting. Even what Tolkien did was overkill, but writing The Lord of the Rings was really just the last thing he did with the world he had originally created just for the fun of creating a world. And in the end, 90% of all that material never gets even mentioned in the novel.

What I am planing to do here is to assemble a big toolbox of elements that I can use in stories and make references to, and also as a background that provides its own story hooks. I often find it a lot easier to come up with a story that involves the Sorcerer Kings of Dark Sun or the Priests of Set from Conans world, something that has to do with the Sith of Star Wars, or a plot dealing with the Daedra of The Elder Scrolls, than to come up with a story in a vacuum. I also find that it makes the stories feel more real. The plot does not just happen for a single reason and everything that is encountered or described in the story is in some way directly connected to the plot.

So what I am doing here with this series of articles is not about making an atlas and travel guide of the world, which enables a GM to pick locations a group of player characters can visit and how long it takes to travel between two points and what areas the journey would cross through. When you write a story, those are things you can just handwave. Maybe the journey took 10 days or 20, maybe they did have to cross a major river or mountain range, maybe not. In a game, those things are important. In a story you simply don’t mention what all happened between two scenes if it’s not relevant for the plot. Maps don’t matter. Instead, this is going to focus much more on the social and cultural side of worldbuilding. How do people from different population live and what is their relationship with each other. Where do they get there food from and what type of clothing do they wear. What technologies do they use in everyday life and what kinds of weapons and armor can they make or trade. These are all things that in most games really don’t matter or ever come up at all. In a story, they can be just as important as the plot, and in many cases have direct impact on the plot. And when a reader notices that there is a connection in a story between two things that have already been mentioned earlier, it makes the story feel a lot more realistic and unique. That’s why worldbuilding for books, movies, and videogames matters a lot. The Ancient Lands setting presented here is very heavily based on the Ancient Lands campaigns I ran in the past, but a lot of it has been shuffled around or been discarded completely, with a good deal of new elements being added to it, that make it a rather different world. Perhaps a bit like how the Forgotten Realms changed between the 3rd and 4th edition of D&D.

The name Ancient Lands has two meanings. The first one is that it is a world in the style of antiquity and prehistory and not based on the middle ages or early modernity as most fantasy settings. The second meaning is that the world is also extremely old. While the civilizations of humanoid people are very young, the world itself is ancient. The people of these young civilizations are not spreading out into an environment that is a blank slate for them to shape as they want, but they are newcomers in a world where lots of things have been going on for a very long time. The original idea for this world is probably close to 10 years old by now. Back then there was a book for the Forgotten Realms named Lost Empires of Faerûn, which was all about those early civilizations that left behind their ruins and artifacts all over the land. I liked many of the ideas so much, that it got me thinking that I would actually prefer to play games set in those ancient times when all those ruins where still being build and those great heroes of the past still were around. There are lots of fantasy settings you could call “generic”, and a lot of them share not only very similar presents, but also almost identical pasts: In these settings, the elves are leaving, the dwarves are becoming irrelevant, and the mighty dragons and giants are almost all gone and humans have taken over almost the entire world. Now when Tolkien did it in The Lord of the Rings, it was still original and also had a purpose. The whole story was about “the end of an age” and how magic is leaving the world. He meant it as the end point of a fantasy world, but somehow it has become the standard state. So the earliest version of my plans to create a setting was basically “The High Forest of the Forgotten Realms, at the time when the elves first taught magic to the human barbarians of Netheril”. I eventually dropped the idea of fleshing out that part of the Forgotten Realms and make it a stand alone setting, but otherwise that original concept is still at the heart of the Ancient Lands. (The name “Ancient Lands” consists of two almost-synonyms of Forgotten Realms for that reason.)

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At first, the concept started out as pretty normal High Fantasy, but in recent years I’ve come to have huge appreciation for Sword & Sorcery. Even now there are many works that revive ideas and styles that where popular in the 80s, which in turn were a revival of ideas from the 30s. Now there are films like Riddick and games like Mass Effect, which emulate movies like Conan the Barbarian, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars, which are directly based on 30s pulp literature. It’s a style that is admitedly a bit silly, but if you are willing to roll with it, also incredible cool. It’s a style of fiction that is always larger than life and completely unapologetic, but also avoids being preachy or over-glamorizing things. It can at times by hyper-violent and gloss over terrible injustice, but nobody is perfect and even the greatest heroes often get to pay as much as they gain. It doesn’t neatly separate the good things from the bad things and make the protagonists paragons of virtue, and I think that’s where a great part of the appeal comes from. Things are never perfect in the real world, so any meaning that might be in a black and white High Fantasy story would have few if any relevance to the audience. How much can a hero be an example if he always finds himself in situations that could never happen in reality? A flawed protagonists who still manages to do some good and keep himself from turning all bad has actually a lot more to say.

Interestingly, most of the movies and videogames that inspire me for this setting are futuristic high-tech worlds, while the Ancient Lands are very low-tech. But a story in which the characters use futuristic technology is very different from a story that is about futuristic technology. Alien, Blade Runner, The Thing, Star Wars, Mass Effect, and Metal Gear Solid really are stories about monsters and traveling warriors; all the guns and space ships are just cosmetic. How is an archeologist different from a sage, a space marine different from a mercenary with a sword, or a super-computer from a demigod?

When it comes to specific cultural styles, I have decided not to copy over any specific cultures from human history. There are no fantasy-Vikings, no fantasy-Romans, and no fantasy-Egyptians, and so on. Instead, the setting is much more of a blend of elements from different cultures. One of the two main sources is my native region of the Baltic Sea and north-eastern Europe. The city were I grew up was right at the border between ancient germanic and slavic tribes, and there is so much more than bearded warriors on longships. The second big inspiration is halfway around the world from East Asia, including China, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand (among others). In many ways, these two worlds are completely different, but in many other aspects there are many similarities as well. A third influence would be the huge open land between these regions, the ancient home of the Turks and the Mongols, which also includes Scythians, Huns, and Tartars. A huge horde of horse warriors shows up in many fantasy setting, but other than that, these are cultures that almost never show up at all in fantasy. The humans of the Ancient Lands are neither white Europeans, not East Asians, but a fictional race that blends elements of both. It always stikes me as ironic how we tend to picture a default human as white, even though if seen globally, we are really just the one group that looks really odd and until recently was confined to one very small area of the world. So in the Ancient Lands, most humans and elves have brown skin and dark hair. Only in the very far north exist a tiny race of humans with pale skin and brown hair, that in many places look just as exotic as lizardmen.

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As a major part of the concept for the world is it being set in ancient times, humans are not the dominant humanoid people. The vast majority are elves and lizardmen, who make up about two thirds of all humanoids. Humans are relative newcomers, having migrated from another part of the world only three centuries ago, and in numbers are comparable to the skeyn and the kaas, a race of tall beastmen from the mountains and highlands. But it’s not that the elves and lizardmen have any real advantage over the other races. The only thing they have going for them is a head start and numbers, but in a fight between groups of equal size, it all comes down to individual skill and courage.

As worlds go, the Ancient Lands are a relatively small region. It’s a strip of coast comparable to the coast between Alaska and California, from Korea to Vietnam, or perhaps the coast of Argentina. Still a huge area of land, but only a rather small fraction of the whole world. The population of all humanoids is only about 20 million (roughly about the world population in 3,000 BC or a bit over that of the Netherlands today) and concentrated almost entirely along the coast and nearby islands. Just about a hundred miles from the coast, civilization is found only along the major rivers. Beyond that, the world is basically unexplored and completely uninhabited. However, humanoid civilization is still young, only 4,000 years having passed since elves and lizardmen still lived in caves. But before that, many castles and palaces had been build by several fey races native to the Spiritworld. Nobody knows why they created these fortresses in the world of mortal beings, or why they left again after countless centuries. But once they were gone, their humanoid slaves were left to their own devices and the abandoned ruins free to be explored by primitives that would dare to approach them, and through them the basic ideas of farming and working bronze came to the cave dwellers and nomadic hunters.

For over a hundred generations the spreading of that knowledge and new developments were very slow, but over the last centuries skeyn have discovered the secrets of forging steel, while elves produced the food required to support the first cities and established trade with human peoples of the plains far to the west. With these changes came an increased interest in knowledge and magic, and more and more chiefs and kings worry about getting their hands on the ancient secret that are still burried in the giant forests and jungles that cover the world before their enemies do.

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