In the 5 years or so in which I have been working on a Sword & Sorcery setting I have learned a lot about worldbuilding and the genre, and recent revisions of my previous work have lead to great changes in the geography and wildlife of the world and a slight shift in focus and general approach. Learning more about the inclusion of mystery and the weird in fiction got me to rethink my approach to magic and the changes that resulted from that have made the Ancient Lands different enough to think of the world as a new setting. The Old World is not a snappy title, but it will have to do for now.
In the previous setting, magic worked very much like the Force from Star Wars and was mostly about directing the flow of energy within all things with your mind. It’s a good magic system, but not one that would allow for the contemplation of the mysteries of reality, and certainly not one that goes into the weird. This new magic system builds on those previous ideas but is designed to have much more room for the exploration of spiritual mysteries and Lovecraftian madness.
The Nature of Reality
In the minds of ordinary people the world consists of the normal world in which they live their everyday lives, and the Spiritworld, which is a separate land where spirits live. But this is not at all the case. There is only a single world, but one that consists of multiple overlaping layers. The world that mortals think of as their own consists merely of the layers of touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste, but in reality there are many many more which they can not perceive with their senses. The spirits are not just watching them from another world, but are actually physically around them everywhere. They are merely existing in layers that are invisible to ordinary mortals and as such can not be touched, seen, or heared. But perhaps the greatest insight made by shamans and witches is that even mortals as themelves do not only exist in the five layers of their senses, but that their bodies and minds also extend into several other layers of which they are normally completely unaware. People who have been cursed are being affected in those other layers but are only aware of the effects on their bodies in the layers of touch and sight. All such things in which there is a visible effect in the layers of the five senses but the source is something that is happening in other invisible layers falls into the realm of magic.
As witches and shamans have discovered, mortals are not completely blind and deaf to the other layers of reality, but their senses of perception in those layers is usually extremely weak. Intuition and premonitions are the result of things perceived by these underdeveloped senses and common in all people to some degree. But trough years of meditation and the use of strong potions these senses can be greatly improved, allowing a person to see spirits and to see the presence of curses, spells, and sources of great magical power. And it is not only possible to passively perceive this Spiritworld, the parts of the mind that extend into those layers can also manipulate it. People who have acquired this rare skill are called shamans, witches, or sorcerers.
As everything that exists in the layers of touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste also extends into many other layers, the potential powers of magic are possibly infinite. But in reality the full forms of people, animals, plants, mountains extend only into some of the many layers that exist and not all of them can be learned to be perceived, regardless of training and commitment. And even the greatest sorcerers and most ancient witches have a perception that is very hazy and blurry and their powers of manipulation are clumsy and feeble. Spirits see much sharper in those layers and their abilities of manipulation are much finer and often much stronger. The most powerful magic is never the work of witches or sorcerers performed with their own power, but that of great powerful spirits who have made pacts with mortals who have pleaded for their aid.
As not only mortal people and animals exist in more than the five layers of the normal senses, but everything that exist, seemingly mundane substances can be of great use for the practice of magic. Salt has many important uses in everyday life, but in some layers its presence forms an almost impenetrable barrier for spirits even in small quantities. While a circle of salt is no hindrance at all for beings in the layer of touch or all those layers in which mortals exist, it is an extremely powerful substance in some of the layers inhabited by spirits. Iron is an ordinary metal to touch, and one of low quality compared to bronze, but being stabbed by a blade of either material hurts just the same way to mortals. To spirits it’s a completely different story and while bronze does very little to harm them, iron hurts them much more than simply cutting their shapes. Like salt, iron has effects on spirits much larger than the extent of its physical shape. Just as the heat from a large fire can be unbearable even considerable distances away from the flames.
The Truth of the Underworld
While all these things are understood by all students of magic, the whole reality of the world is truly grasped only by few and missed even by many shamans and witches. Even with the enhanced senses to perceive additional layers of the world, mortals can never learn to perceive all of them. And as hard as it is for mortal minds, this is not just the case for a few layers but in fact for most. The true extend of reality is unimaginably vaster. Ordinary people see the world like the surface of an ocean while witches and shamans can see a hand’s length below it. The spirits of mountains, rivers, and forest live in the layers from the surface to perhaps an arm’s length below it, but below those there are many more miles of additional layers that even the spirits can’t fathom.
“Normal” magic takes place in the topmost layers that are close to the five layers of the senses and directly interact with them on regular bases. Creating fire, clouding the minds of others, or making a tree walk are all things that happen here. But the world of spirits extends further than this and those who attempt to see the gods of the land in their true form find them and their existance to be far stranger and more alien than what a typical village shaman ever experiences. And beyond that lie realms inhabited by beings that normally don’t interact with the five layers of the senses at all and they are the stuff of nightmare and pure madness. Those who are delving into the more remote realms are called sorcerers, and while their magical powers have the potential to accomplish things outside the powers of witches, shamans,and even spirits, the dangers that come with it are unimaginable. When you look too long into the abyss or too deep, it will also look back at you. And it might get curious and try to reach up to you.
When a mortal creature dies from natural causes, its existance ends in all the layers that it occupies simultaneously. When this happens it is gone and can not be returned by any means. However, there are ways in which only parts of a being are severed from the whole and the rest of it continues to remain in a state between life and full death. These are the undead. The most common kind of undead are ghouls. These are people whose bodies can still be touched, seen, and heard, but who have lost some of the parts that made up their mind and life energy. They are mad and feed on corpses and though their appearance changes they are still very much like living creatures. An even stranger creature is a wight, which has not only lost parts of its mortal self but also gained completely new abilities it did not have before. Sometimes the physical body is lost and the creature can no longer be touched but still be seen and continues to exist as a wraith. A shade is little more than that. A shadowy outline with barely any trace of a mind that somehow did not cease to exist with the rest of the former creature. As any aspect of a creature that has been destroyed can not be restored, undead can only be dealt with by destroying the rest of them. There is no way to restore them to the people they once were.