Almost a year ago, I made up a list of great villains from fiction that I want to use as direct inspirations for my own antagonists. Even though this setting is very different in style and tone, I found that this list is still representing my top picks for great antagonists to emulate. They need to be human in their desires and limitations and failings, but also absolutely dispicable. This is what great enemies look like.
Work on the Ancient Lands setting more or less ended early last year because I just couldn’t get my dreams for a fantastic world fit together with the needs of fantastic adventures. Last winter I tried putting my creative energies somewhere else and started working on the medieval Baltic Sea dark fantasy world Dark World, but I lost interest in that pretty soon. Instead, I went back to making my alternate timeline for Knights of the Old Republic a reality. Which actually went quite well.
The idea of Bronze Age warriors riding on great reptiles through an endless forest dominated by strange magical beings just never completely faded from my mind.
And how could I? Once you’ve seen perfection, how could you ever be content with less?
The problem was never with the elements I wanted to include in such a setting. The reason things never really worked and came together was that I had painted myself into a corner with what I wanted characters and adventures within that world to be like. Somehow I got that idea in my head that I don’t wannt to run campaigns that are about such banal things like permanently chasing after piles of gold, or seeking glory in killing piles of enemies. Which is a valid aesthetic choice, but it turned out to just not work when you still approach characters and adventures with the mindset of Dungeons & Dragons.
Originally, my idea to make some kind of wilderness warriors campaign started with a fascination for the E6 variant of D&D 3rd Edition that cuts the 20 level progression down to 6 and then has characters gain more low-level abilities instead of becoming increasingly more powerful. Later I moved on to Basic/Expert and from that to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and finally to Barbarians of Lemuria. with a short detour through Symbaroum. But even though the later two are classless systems with more flexible systems for experience, they still come with very similar assumption about what a fantasy hero is and does.
But this summer, I finally managed to understand Apocalypse World. I had to read the whole book end to end probably five times, but even when I first read it a year before, I immediately became aware that there’s a really fascinating game hidden in the unorganized heap of rambling and unexplained game terms. At some point I had looked into Dungeon World, which is based on the same mechanics adapted for fantasy settings, but it tries to use the mechanics to recreate the style of Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, it loses what makes Apocalpyse World feel different.
Last year, Mick Gordon gave a great presentation at GDC about how he created the soundtrack for the new Doom. His instructions were that he had to create music that nobody had ever heard before, that fit the game perfectly, and that would be instantly loved by fans. Which he actually did, with huge success. And one of the big lessons that came out of that work was “to change the outcome, change the process”. And since I started to really dig into the rules of Apocalypse World and working out how it is meant to be used, I discovered this to be a really significant realization. For several years I had tried to create something that is unlike D&D, while still approaching like creating content for D&D. When put like that, it really doesn’t seem surprising that the whole effort repeatedly bogged down, even though I tried to start over again several times.
To get a different result, you have to use a different approach. And Apocalypse World is indeed a very different approach. Without getting too deeply into the specifics of the rules, one difference that impressed me the most is the approach to the different character types that players can play. Character classes are defined primarily by a set of abilities, very often in combination with a narrow set of equipment. These are all in turn based on tasks. Fighters do the frontline fighting, thieves do the locks, traps, and scouting, clerics do protection and healing spells, and wizards do the artillery spells and various support spells. In Apocalypse World, the various playbooks all have their suits of specific abilities, but for most characters all there’s a free choice from all optional abilities, and pretty much all abilities can be learned by any other characters as well. (Though you’re limited to a total of two abilities from other playbooks in addition to four abilities from yours.) And all characters can use all equipment equally well if they get their hands on it. Instead characters are defined by their role in society. There’s a character who rules over a small settlement or compound. A character who leads a cult, one who leads a gang, and one who runs some kind of bar. One character is an artists with a captivating personality, another has access to abilities that goad players to stir up trouble any time they run into important or dangerous people.
Because of this, you completely avoid the situation of the characters sitting in a bar and waiting for an opportunity to use their swords or spells to appear. Many of the characters come with NPCs who depend on them, who have expectations of them, or who just don’t like their presence. This is a game that just doesn’t do lone wanderers without connections looking for other people’s problem to fix. In Apocalypse World, you’re always a prominent somebody and problems come to you. To make this work, Apocalypse World is designed as being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of dangers, where there’s always a scarcity of somethhing that makes people do stupid and dangerous things. Even if you don’t seek riches or glory, staying put in a quiet place isn’t an option. When you have no food, you have to get some. And when you have it, you have to keep hold of it. This really is not a radically new idea. But it’s a very different one from the D&D adventuring party.
My ideas for an ancient forest world have never been post-apocalyptic. But it has always been about the treacherous wilderness on the frontier, beyond which lies a vast unknown home to strange beings and phenomenons. It is in many ways and environment with a great deal of structural similarities, and I found that all the character types from Apocalypse World translate very well to a fantasy wilderness. You live in an insolated stronghold surrounded by hostile wilderness and it is up to you to take steps to keep the mundane and supernatural dangers that are lurking out there from getting in. I had actually considered something along this line some years ago, but still thinking about adventures in terms of dungeons, monster stats, magic items, and experience point I just couldn’t figure out how to make this work.
Learning how Apocalypse World approaches campaigns, player characters, and NPCs was a very fascinating and inspiring process. And all the while, I couldn’t help but think how all of it would translate to Bronze Age warriors riding dinosaurs through a vast forest ruled by strange beings. At some point, I had this image in my mind of “Dark Sun, but in a giant forest”. And with the default assumptions of Apocalypse World, this seems like a really good starting point for a redesign of that ancient forest that always keeps calling back to me.
I started a new website dedicated to my attempts at writing Sword & Sorcery stories set in the world that has come together over the last couple of years.
Spriggan’s Den has always been primarily a site about RPGs and various often random ideas about worldbuilding. For the Kaendor stories I want to make something that is more focused and tidy, with content directly related to the stories, setting, and general thoughts on writing and storytelling.
Because of this shift of attention, I am probably noy going to keep up my goal of at least one post per week. But as of now, I don’t consider this site to be anywhere near to closed yet. We will see how this all turns out in the long run and I can very well see myself getting deeply invested in RPGs again in the future.
At the very end of the run of Dungeons & Dragons’ 3rd Edition, someone came up with an idea to turn the game from one that covers heroes who start as complete nobodies to become practical demigods into one that emulates a more grounded style of fantas with a single very simple modification. In Epic 6, player characters can only advance up to 6th level, instead of up to 20th level and possibly beyond. Characters can still advance, but instead of getting new levels with everything that includes, they only get further customized through gaining one additional feat in place of additional levels. Numbers remain relatively small and within a range that has proven itself to work really well in practice, and most of the powerful spells remain outside of the players’ hands. It’s about getting characters to the level that is considered to be my many the one where they best represent the common image of a proper fantasy hero and then staying there. No new rules need to be learned and all the existing material of the game that is available to 6th level characters can still be used just as it is. As a rules hack, it is incredibly neat and elegant.
But to me, the really amazing consequence of E6 is not on the side of the players. In my own experience, very few games ever had characters reach 7th level and beyond. The great power of high level characters never became an issue in any of the games I played and ran. The reason I got so fascinated with E6 back when I still played 3rd Edition is the many implications that it has for the world around them. It’s not just that player characters are limited to 6th level, the same limitation also applies to NPCs as well. This means you can’t simply go to a big temple or wizard school and pay someone to cast 4th and 5th level spells for you and you won’t be able to buy scrolls of these spells as well. A considerable portion of magic items also can no longer be crafted by either PCs or NPCs either. Even if magic is as widely available as the game seems to assume by default, the limitations of what spells are available to the wizards and clerics of the setting lead to a rather different “high magic” setting with a lot of low-power magic and an almost lack of high-power magic.
But where it gets really interesting is the fact that these limitations on the powers and abilities on PCs and NPCs don’t apply to monsters, as those don’t normally have levels. Many people seem to prefer to adjust the world of their game accordingly by limiting the monster population to creatures that are considered appropriate challenges for 6th level parties by the rulebooks, but I’ve been much more a fan of keeping all those big critters around as they are. This way you get a world in which even the most powerful mortal heroes are incapable of taking on directly. If an older dragon or greater demon needs to be dealt with the players will have to work out different strategies to face than other than straight up challenging them to a fight in their lair. At the same time, powerful magical creatures are the only source of access to higher level spells which they have as inborn abilities rather than learned through advancing in levels. If you need powerful magic, you need to find a powerful magical creature and convince it to provide it for you. A world in which “high level” PCs stand head and shoulders above the common rabble but are still dwarfed by magical monsters is something I’ve not really seen much in fantasy. Something that I find very fascinating from a worldbuilding perspective. While I like the mechanics of Symbaroum, the way it is written it only makes advanced PCs vulnerable to common soldiers and bandits, but at the same time it also lets them take out the most powerful monsters just as quickly. Limiting the possible strength of monsters the way they are feels somewhat disapointing to me. There is a space for fantasy in which fights can take almost the form of Russian roulette by making engaging a powerful foe a great danger. But setting things up in a way that a head on assault isn’t really a viable option strikes me as much more interesting.
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.
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.
But obviously, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s starting to take shape. It’s still all very vague but writing these things down always helps me turning wild collections of general ideas into concrete design decisions and finding the spaces where there are still elements that need to be filled in. This is as much work in progress as it gets, but I really like how things are going so far with the design of this new setting.
The Basic Concept
The world takes many inspirations from the Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age, Ancient China, and Morrowind. It’s an age where civilization is relatively small but already highly sophisticated. There are large fortified cities with grand castles and temples, institutions of administration and learning, organized armies, and complex international networks of trade. Yet at the same time, civilized lands make up only a very small part of the huge land masses of the world. Beyond them lies a vast expanse of oceans and wilderness that stretches far beyond the edges of any maps. There are barbarians living in the wilds, but they can be thought of more similar to Iron Age Gaels and Slavs than savages wearing furs and bones.
The geography consists of five great kingdoms, mostly located on the coasts of a large central gulf that opens into the ocean. The climate is generally temperate to sub-arctic, with stretches of sub-tropical and arctic lands on the very borders of the maps. It’s based somewhat on the Baltic Sea region, Northern China and Japan, and the American Pacific Northwest. As a native of the Baltic Sea, I can tell you that you can’t reach the highest degree of dreariness if it isn’t wet, foggy, and cold. There’s a reason that Scandinavian fiction is the way it is, and that Lovecraft and Steven King set their stories in their native Rhode Island and Maine.
When it comes to the darkness, I am leaning strongly towards the intrigue and decadence of Noir than savage wilderness. As the common people are concerned, their world isn’t really that bad. There is hardship and the occasional calamities, but overall it’s a life worth living and they are content. To find the darkness, you have to descend into the underworld of the occult and journey into the forbidden lands beyond the borders. It is no secret that monsters and arcane arts exist, but most people chose to stay away from this world whenever possible, and it is generally a wise choice.
I’m a big fan of more exotic settings far removed from worlds based on medieval Central Europe. But for a Dark Fantasy world you can’t get too colorful and varied either. So I decided that the people inhabiting the setting are somewhat related races of semi-humans. Similar to the Melniboneans, the Red Men of Mars, or the Dunmer of Morrowind.
This is still very much unspecified, but I am leaning towards not giving any of them any significantly usual traits and abilities. It’s mostly an aesthetic choice.
The God Kings
The world is by nature a wild and savage place. There are many spirits that have great power over the environment and its creatures and they don’t apppreciate people making too much of their own mark on the land. Out in the wilderness, people are limited to living in small scattered clans that survive by hunting, fishing, and relying on some low intensity farming in forest clearings. They have to make regular offerings to the spirits of the land they live on and even then they are still frequently plagued by natural disasters and attacks from other clans. But such is the life in the wilds and the way things are meant to be.
The five kingdoms are an aberration and they exist only because of the power of the god kings. The god kings draw great supernatural power from the natural energies of the lands they rule, which grants them a great degree of control over the weather and the elements and leaves the power of the spirits greatly reduced. Under the rule of the god kings, the people are enjoying an unprecedented degree of prosperity and security, being able towork the land, build great cities, and raise large armies to protect the realm from hostile neighbours or barbarian raiders. But this prosperity and security comes with a price. The people are forced to obey the orders of the god kings and their priests and governors, pay taxes in grain and serve in the armies and build their palaces.
For most people of the kingdoms, this is a price they would gladly pay many times over to be safe from angry spirits, earthquakes, floods, and famine. The god kings are rarely beloved by their people, but in their eyes the loss of a god king would plunge the realm literally into hell. To the barbarian clans such a life is unthinkable. They are used to make important decisions by consensus and elect their leaders and the thought of being slaves to a ruler who ursurps the power of the true gods of the land is abhorrent.
In the five kingdoms, the presence of the supernatural is greatly reduced and often obscured. The people are performing their rites to the god kings, say their prayers of protection, wear their charms and carve runes into their houses, and don’t go outside during ovrcast nights. And most of the time it works. There is little influence of the spirits felt in the villages and towns and those that do make their presence known generally don’t cause much real trouble. However, while the power of the god kings seems absolute, there is a dirty little secret that the priests would like the people not to think about. The god kings are not divine and their abilities are not unique. Magic is a skill that can be taught and learned and there are a large number of occult and esoteric societies, orders, and cults that practice their arts away from public sight and scrutiny of the priests. However, none of them possess powers that come even close to those of the god kings and how they managed to transcend the limitations of mortal sorcerers is one of the great mysteries. Despite of what the priests claim, god kings are also not immortal. There are ruins of previous civilizations below many of the great cities and palaces and scattered in the wilderness. Who they were and how they disappeared is another great secret presumedly known only to the god kings and their highest priests.
The power of the god kings over their realms is also not nearly as complete as the priests are teaching it. The strength of their influence varies from place to place and there are large numbers of holes in their realms where spirits still roam mostly unrestrained. These places are considered to be haunted by the common people and it is often forbidden by the priests to enter them under any circumstances. Occasionally something manages to slip out of these forbidden lands and the low ranking priests serving in these remote parts of the kingdom are often poorly prepared to handle them. And of course there is always the vast unclaimed wilderness beyond the border where neither god kings nor priests have any influence at all.
Sorcerery and witchcraft in the world is generally a rather low-magic affair. Most occult knowledge deals with potions, protective charms, and the means to harm and repell spirits. The binding of spirits is the greatest form of sorcery and gives a sorcerer access to powers far beyond mortal capabilities, including divination and shapeshifting. There is no throwing of fire and lightning, creation of matter, or teleportation though, or any similarly flashy forms of spells.
As with the people, the world is inhabited by many exotic fictional creatures, but for the most part they are simply ordinary animals. Monsters are always some kinds of spirits or undead and there is a very clear and unabigous distinction between what is an animal and a monster.
Despite the powerful presence of the god kings and the paranoid fear of barbarian invasions, the setting is not actually about them. What it really is about are the various secret societies that exist within the kingdoms. While the common people don’t notice much going on, there’s actually a huge bustle going on out of sight. Everyone is hungering for every shred of occult knowledge like the writings of past and rival masters, the means to bind spirits, artifacts from overgrown ruins, the locations of sites of power, and of course any hints towards the secret of the god kings’ power. And as in the criminal underworld of Noir stories, most sorcerers will use any means neccessary to get their hands on these invaluable treasures before someone else. While in the background there are always the priest trying to maintain the priesthoods monopoly on supernatural power in the society. As priests are often incapable to deal with hostile spirits that break free of the god kings’ influence, it frequently falls to sorcerers, witches, and their disciples to take care of it.
The typical heroes of the setting are not usually reclusive scholars spending their days over scrolls and cauldrons. Most are warriors first and possess a collection of charms and potions to help them deal with spirits. Magic is of little use in a fight against mortal opponents and those are the ones that stand in the way to occult secrets and esoteric relics. With characters I am drawing heavily from the wuxia genre as well as the world of The Witcher. Think of heroes as kung-fu masters, taoist monks, witchers, or sorceresses.
Overall I am quite happy with the state of things so far. I still feel that it’s a bit bland, but that’s not too surprising at this stage where everything is pretty much placeholders and there exist no information about any specific kingdom, god king, or secret society. I am very much looking forward to how this will be working out as I keep going.
What if The Witcher were wuxia and set in Morrowind?
I have a strong hunch what it would be: Awesome.