Dawn of a Dark World

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.

The Peoples

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.

The Supernatural

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.

So what is going on?

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.

Refocusing

Building on my post from last week, I have made some more significant insights into the telling of fantastical stories. I had my start in creating fantasy material with drafting up a campaign setting of my own after I had become dissatisfied with the world of the Forgotten Realms, and the Ancient Lands literally had their origin as the realms of the High Forest 4,000 years in the past. It quickly grew into more and more of a unique thing as I made changes I considered improvements and artistic upgrades and added ideas from other sources that I found very appealing. However, I have to admit that I never was really satisfied with the Ancient Lands as a campaign setting. In the several campaigns that I ran, I always had the feeling that I wasn’t really able to showcase it’s creative features and make it feel to the players as something more than a pretty generic D&D world. I had great ideas that I still really like, but was never really able to work them into the active game.

When I started dabbling at writing, I took a lot of the aesthetic ideas and concepts from the Ancient Worlds, but for this purpose they turned out to work even worse. And I think I am starting to see why. The style I refined and the worlds that I designed are tailored to what I consider interesting, inviting, and attractive. But at the same time they are completely different from the many works that I find really inspiring. Asthetically, the Ancient Lands style takes a lot from Warcraft 3, Morrowind, and the Tales of the Jedi comics. But I don’t really enjoy any of these for their stories and they are actually pretty bad in that regard.

When I want to tell a story that I find compelling, or set up an environment that funnels players into creating stories of that kind, I need a setting that is designed for such stories. A quick look at my favorite stories that inspire me to be creative makes it very easy to discern a pretty specific shared style and tone: There’s movies like The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Princess Mononoke, Blade Runner, and Ghost in the Shell. There are the Witcher books and the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics. There are videogames like Metal Gear Solid, Thief, Legacy of Kain, Mass Effect 2, and Mirror’s Edge. None of them are set in vast wildernesses inhabited by barbarian tribes. I find it a culturally fascinating environment and aesthetically very pleasing, but these works are all dark and set in quite advanced societies with complex political environments.

Bronze Age tribes are a very fascinating environment, but I am starting to see that I don’t really have a good idea what kinds of stories would fit into such a setting that I find compelling. This is not where my creative capital is located. I don’t have the toolbox to craft stories for it.

So with the creation of the Kaendor setting I want to go all the way back to the start and refocus on what the essential elements are that I want to and can work with. With the Ancient Lands I put some considerable effort into not doing what has been done a hundred times before, like going with Dark Lords, demonic invasions, lost Golden Ages of magic and technology, a good and evil duality, an intelligently designed universes (that is about to break down), and a generic medieval European setting. But in hindsight I think I went a bit overboard in some of it and ended up designing a world in which there isn’t really anything to replace these things as big background sources of conflict that force characters into action. Right now, I think I might be able to salvage the idea of small clusters of civilization separated by vast stretches of uninhabited wilderness. While a tribal Bronze Age society and settlements don’t look like they would work, I can take the asthetic styles of various Bronze Age empires to create a style that is distinctively different from the medieval European Standard Fantasy Setting. And the ambigous and unsettling spirits could become more actively prominent with a big Lovecraftian boost of weirdness.

In a way, I could see many of my ideas work in a setting that is actually more similar to the fantastic world of Morrowind. More great houses, more tongs, more daedra, and more living god kings.

A Wanderer on Kaendor – New writing project

As I’ve been hinting at over the past weeks, I have once again turned to trying my hand at writing fantasy. I am still very early in the process and just started working on a first outline, but so far a pretty solid concept has already formed. To a large extend it’s an updated version of my ideas I had two years ago, which ended up going nowhere because I was never able to transform my ideas for characters and setting into plot. But a while back I figured out that you actually can write action adventure tales that are character driven instead of plot driven, and that opened up a whole new space of ideas to me that really has me want to get something down to paper.

Oldschool Sword & Sorcery

To probably nobody’s surprise, the style I want to write in is Sword & Sorcery in the style of ConanElric, Kane, and Hyperborea. Modern Sword & Sorcery is generally thrown together with Dark Fantasy or the completely unironic and akwardly oblivious Grimdark. But while Kane does match the stereotype of the dour cold-hearted killer, the style as a whole is probably best described in the opening ofThe Phoenix on the Sword, which became the work that led to it’s establishment as a distinctive type of fantasy:

“Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

In my view, Sword & Sorcery is all about tales of encounters with the supernatural. About remarkable individuals who have brushes with vast realms that lie beyond the world of ordinary existance and behold things not meant for mortal minds. And they are also tales of great emotions and passions with great senses of wonder and exhilaration. It is very much a style that has grown out of the tradition of Romanticism. Yet passion and wonder are things that I find missing in most works that I see released as Sword & Sorcery in the 21st century. A niche that has been seriously lacking attention for a good while now, even with hushed wispers of a Sword & Sorcery revival making their rounds for close to a decade now. But by now we have to realize that we won’t be having such stories unless we write them.

My take on it

Sword & Sorcery is a style of stories that lends itself really much more to shorter self contained tales rather that big multi-volume doorstoppers. Yet there is barely any market for short length stories outside of obscure magazines that nobody seems to read, and none at all for stories of medium length. And I can very much see why there is little interest in short stand-alone one-shots where the world and characters are over barely after they have been introduced. But all the big classics of Sword & Sorcery – Conan, Fafhrd & Gray Mouser, Elric, Kane – are not like that at all. When we read them today we get collections of many stories often spanning multiple volumes. They were not written like that back then, but it seems to me the perfect approach to write them now. Instead of one story in three books, we can write three stories in one book. (And of course expand to nine stories in three books.) All set in the same world and sharing the same cast of characters. Very much like TV shows were being made in the 90s. This way you can write stories using the well established and tried structure of Sword & Sorcery while providing the requirements of the contemporary market.

As the saying always goes, “write what you would want to read”. And there are so many things in contemporary fantasy that I think have great potential for so much more than is being done with it, as well as a lot of fascinating themes and elements that I never see covered in fantasy anywhere. The one thing that motivates me most to write is the types of heroes that are common in the action and adventure genres. They are heroes without fear, who are undisturbed by violence and death, and who never question the whole business of constantly fighting hordes of enemies. And they are also almost always more than capable of dealing with seemingly overwhelming opposition because they are just that great and special. You could easily say that I have a great fascination with violence, but it’s far from the heroic glorification of action movies and games. Depictions of violence tend to greatly tone it down to make it entertaining fun, but I am much more interested in treatments of violence as horror in itself.

A major influence in this regard to me is Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid series. Snake is an extraordinarily dangerous fighter and skilled master of stealth, but he is also a pawn who keeps getting used by others who outsmart him, and while he always wins in the end, he usually is left with regrets about having been tricked into furthering another villain’s goal. Snake represents a very unconventional form of heroism that is much more about being of honorable character and regarding violence as a means of last resort that holds no glory. Perhaps an even greater influence on my idea of heroism is Indiana Jones, who is constantly being beaten and outsmarted and doesn’t really have any superhuman strength and power. But his heroic nature lies in his determination and courage, which makes him come back and try again until in the end he comes out on top. A third character I love is Geralt from The Witcher, who like Snake is a superhuman warrior with a very unique insight into violence and a very critical view of himself and his work. As we have a rather unique outlook on militarism and heroism in German culture, Snake, Indy, and Geralt are heroes that resonate with me much more than the average action hero who enjoys his violent deeds. I am with Yoda when it comes to “great warriors”.

Another topic that greatly fascinates me is failure and defeat. Mainstream American media do not accept failure as the final outcome. “Failure is not an option.” But my own take on existentialist philosophy (influenced by Buddhism) is that failure is always an option. “Never give up” is possibly one of the worst advice that I’ve ever heard. I love stories in which the protagonist eventually grows to be more by dropping the commitment to a goal that no longer seems to be worth pursuing. Finding peace always seems more important to me than winning or being right, which is something that I find very much missing in current and recent adventure movies in general and also fantasy books specifically. Giving up and running away can be a form of personal greatness that can be a satisfying conclusion to a story, which is something I really want to write about. There is obviously a strong Noir influence in everything.

The third thing I want o feature heavily in these stories is a strong mystical element. The treatment of religion in fantasy is often superficial at best and the supernatural reduced to an alternative form of physics. I’ve been taking classes on existentialism, spirituality, mysticism, and Asian and African religions for four years in university and there are huge psychological and social elements to them that have incredible storytelling potential. I see the Encounter with the Supernatural as a core element of Sword & Sorcery and want to make it the center of my own stories. And not simply encounters with fictional beasts and wizards who can throw fire, but by making the adventures spiritual journeys to a higher reality. There are some really incredible lines in Mass Effect, that sadly the series did not really follow up on, but which quite well describe the sense of wonder I want to pursue:

“Rudimentary creatures of flesh and bone. You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. There is a realm of existance so far beyond your own you can not even imagine it. You can not even grasp the nature of our existance. We have no beginning, we have no end. We are infinite. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”

I admit that all of this is very ambitious to say the least. Especially for a first serious attempt at writing. But if you have something fresh and different to say, I think it does not matter that much how polished and refined it is. I am very exited to see how this will work out for me. I think there’s real potential for it to be great.

The Wanderer

I intend Kaendor to be a series that covers the adventures of several different heroes. But for the beginning I want to focus on one character in particular, who has been constantly on my mind for years, even though I have not decided on a final name yet.

The Wanderer came into being as a reaction to typical fantasy heroes who regularly tend to be or become the most extraordinary people of their world. Individuals of remarkable talent and potential who end up with unmatched skills and perform the most amazing deeds that become the stuff of legend. Over the years I have developed a great love for the smaller stories. Of characters who are not the best at what they do and who don’t have the skill and power to fight enemies that greatly outnumber them, and who are not assured victory because they are the hero of the story. The Wanderer is a woman without great skills or special powers, who doesn’t have great fame or any significant influence. Nor is she on any mission or quests. What drives her is her curiosity and the search for answers to questions she can’t specify herself. She travels the lands as a seeker of enlightenment, similar to how Conan was wandering the world to gain greatness. In a world full of strange wonders and mysteries, she often joins groups of treasure hunters and mercenaries or travels on her own, with a temporary companion or alone. As she is often on her own and no master of combat, fighting is usually not an option and so her adventures into strange places are more about wits and bravery.

The Lands of Kaendor

Kaendor is a world very similar to my past work for RPGs and is made up of many of the same building blocks, including peoples, creatures, and landscapes. They are my favorite cool things that I have scavenged from other fantasy worlds for years. But below the aesthetic surface it’s a quite different world that is’t tailored to the specific needs of campaigns or build around game mechanics. Instead it’s a world that is mostly about culture, society, and elaborate manifestations of the supernatural and the mysteries of the cosmos.

Kaendor is a forest world covered almost entirely in trees or water. The known lands consist of a long stretch of coast and nearby islands that reach from the arctic to the tropics but still make up only a small fraction of the full size of the world. The sky is dominated by a huge moon covered in changing bands of blue and beige clouds, which causes regular eclipses lasting for hours every spring and fall. The forests are dominated by conifers and ferns and home to many great beasts, including giant reptiles and insects.

The cultures of Kaendor are consist of various nonhuman peoples and are based on a wide range of civilizations from the Bronze Age, a time period that is surprisingly underused as a source for fantasy. There are a small number of city states ruled by regional kings, but most people are living in small clan holds deep in a vast wilderness. Armor consists of simple cuirasses of bronze scales and the weaponry of heroes consists of spears, shields, bows, axes, and small swords. I have a very clear and distinct aesthetic in mind for this world, which is very strongly influenced by The Empire Strikes Back and Morrowind, following my idea of Baroque Fantasy.

Finally there’s the strong supernatural element. The world as a whole really consists of two mirroring realms. The mortal world and the Spiritworld, which are always in close contact with each other and result in a strong presence of spirits in all places. Spirits are strange beings that normally exist outside of mortal perception, existing outside the familiar passing of time. Witches and shamans don’t really have magical powers of their own but possess great knowledge about the spirits and the ways to communicate with and manipulate them. By having access to the knowledge and abilities of spirits they become able to gain insight into the present, past, and also future and have some degree of control over the fortunes of people and settlements.

All in all, I feel like I have a lot of great ideas that are quite different from most fantasy that is out there today while also drawing heavily on classic Sword & Sorcery from the past that many people are wishing to see more of. While it’s somewhat daunting, I see a real chance to do something great with this.

Spell-less Magic

Fantasy in recent decades seems to have a big thing for magic systems, and I believe partly becuse of the success of Brandon Sanderson. When I see people talk about magic systems it more often than not seems to revolve around different types of spells and the method of their casting. To the point that it seems to be taken for granted as a basic premise for any kind of magic to appear in fantasy.

This week I was exploring the idea of converting Apocalpyse World to a Sword & Sorcery game. All in all, it’s a system that strikes me as a really good match right out of the box with the one major thing that is missing from it being a set of rules for spellcasting. But it’s not like the game is completely free of magic. One default assumption of the setting of an Apocalypse World game is the existance of a Psychic Maelstrom, which is the source of seemingly supernatural effects and phenomenons, but whose actual nature and trait are deliberately left completely unspecified to organically take shape during play. There is a single ability that allows one of the classes to use magical power in a somewhat direct way, but it is again very vague and open ended and does not really fit the image of casting a spell.

And looking at older fantasy books, this is actually very much like magic used to be portrayed in fiction. The oldest example of a straight up spell slinger I can imagine is Tim the Enchanter, who can summon up fire without flint or tinder. Gandalf, Elric, or Kane, or any of the sorcerers in Conan’s stories don’t say magic words and have stuff shoting from their outstretched hands. Instead their “magic” mostly takes the form of knowing things and being in contact to powerful entities otherwise invisible to the perception of regular people.

The spell in its modern form appears to be primarily a game mechanic. One that was carried over from RPGs to videogames and from there seeped out into the wider field of fantasy in general. While I am a big fan of fantasy games, I’ve always had reservations about the gamification of non-game fiction. Even with games I prefer mechanics to be as invisible as possible and maintain a more organic feel in the in-game fiction. (Which is why I find Apocalypse World quite appealing and always had a problem with D&D magic.)

With the Ancient Lands, I’ve always felt more like making a “game of the book” rather than a “book of the game”, even with the vast majority of my work over the last year being on game stuff with no actual book anywhere near to sight. But these days I feel once again more drawn to writing fiction, with my game development having reached a point where there’s not really much left to do other than playing it. And even with all the worldbuilding advice for writers that adresses magic systems, I find the idea of a spell-less magic to be a lot more interesting.

Raise Animated Dead

Resurrection of dead characters is a difficult topic when it comes to fantasy in general and to RPGs in specific. To make it short, I am not a fan of death being an effect on a PC that can be removed with the casting of a spell. Once a character in the party has access to this spell, players can mostly expect their characters to live forever. As long as the cleric survies the battle, everyone is probably going to be fine. If the time limits are generous, then it becomes mostly a matter of having the money and transporting the body to a high level NPC, which can become an available option much earlier in the game. This significantly changes the game and doesn’t really line up with pretty much any fantasy fiction. It just doesn’t seem right for my prefered style of Sword & Sorcery and so I created the aspect of life and death in the Ancient Lands around the assumption that resurrection is impossible. There is no soul separated from the body and once the life has been extinguished it is forever gone. Nothing there to bring back into the world of the living.

However, resurrected NPCs can be pretty cool when used sparingly. The undead sorcerer. The returned hero of old. The helpful ghost. I don’t really want to have these completely banished from my campaign.

One possible solution, that I think could be quite fun, is to make it possible to return a body back to life but the resulting creature ends up being somewhat odd. It looks like the person and has the memories of the person, but ultimately it’s something different. A magical construct. For antagonistic NPCs this is good enough. They can still be villains without any special limitations. For helpful NPCs this would still allow them to perform some kind of task that benefits the PCs, but they can’t really return back to their old life. Of course, you can get endlessly philosophical about the question whether a being with the same appearance and memories would be the same person or an artificial fake, or perhaps a separate but still fully human twin. I think usually they would be, but I believe it should be possible to come up with ideas to make them sufficiently similar but different that they would not be welcomed back into their old lives. That’s another step to be figured out later.

But regardless of how the world reacts to such resurrected characters, the players might and will quite possibly have very different oppinions. Players might have no problem with playing a character who has all the traits of their old one but has only philosophically changed. To make it effective, resurrected PCs should be unappealling to play on a continous base. One quick and easy solution would be to make it impossible for them to gain any more XP. This might make it appealing to have the character complete his last quest for dramatic reasons while not really offering much incentive to keep going after that. Another nice limitation that might help in making the characters unnatural nature apparent would be to not make this return to life permanent. Maybe it lasts only a month or a year after the character is gone for good or it takes continual magical rituals to preserve this temporary return to the world of the living.

The Social Conflict of the Ancient Lands

Working on the Ancient Lands is always also a great process of learning for me. Even though it took me six years to get to this point, during which comperatively little content has been created, it doesn’t feel like wasted time as I don’t think I had anywhere close to the skill needed to make the world that I am refining now. But I still spot mistakes that were made and that hold considerable room for improvement.

While originality is overrated, I made some decisions early on about what fantasy stereotyps I don’t want in my setting because they are already everywhere (at least in the fantasy I was reading and playing back then): No Dark Lord, no demonic invasion, no lost golden age, no diminishing magic, and no default good PCs who kill default evil antagonists for no other reason than charity or to safe the world/kingdom. And I still really like those and mostly stick to them. Instead I came up with the idea that PCs are clan warriors who protect their village by fighting of monsters. But what first was a solution, and not a very well thought out one, gradually morphed in my head into a mandatory requirement. Not only do I now regard it as a dead end, it also made my pretty much completely ignore aspects of the setting that are actually pretty important. A major one of these is social conflicts and the main factions involved in it.

One thing I like so much about the Knights of the Old Republic series is their web of factions. In the Star Wars movies the Jedi and Sith are both actually really bland, but in KotOR they are more multi-faceted and you also get the Mandalorians as a third faction. And you don’t have that tunnel vision on the Skywalkers, which makes it all a lot more interesting. I know I want some of that. Other great examples of factions are the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, which really have them in the center of worldbuilding rather than the main stories, which serve more as framing devices to see the factions clashing.

I think that great conflicts are those that arise from specific circumstances unique to the world. Like the dark side of the Force in Star Wars, demonic possession in Dragon Age, or Defiling in Dark Sun. This results in conflicts that couldn’t take place in any other world as well and creates a real reason to play in this specific world rather than any of the dozens that are already around. If you want people to get invested in your setting, it needs to offer something that existing settings don’t. Again, you don’t need to be original in every element of the setting (which probably wouldn’t even work) but at the very least have one new thing, or new combination of existing things.

In the Ancient Lands, this original element is a natural world that is too powerful to be subjugated and makes large scale civilization impossible. Civilizations always stay small and are short lived, as agriculture is only sustainable with the blessing of the gods of the land. As there a few spirits that have both the power and inclination to create such havens where crops and herds are relatively safe from wild animals and the the severe elements, settlements always remain fractured and populations are unable to expand. How people are dealing with this situation is the basis for my current approach to the four main factions. Previously I had treated the factions as relatively small organizations, but I think the following ideas probably work best when almost all settlements can be associated with one of these factions, even if they have no unified hierarchies.

Druids are the mainstream group of shamans who serve as intermediaries between farming villages and the spirits of the land on which they live and work. (No longer the sorcerer hunters I treated them as previously.) In druid philosophy the current state of the world is the natural way of things and trying to fight nature can lead to no good and will always lead to premature destruction. Instead, the only way to find a life of peace and relative safety is to learn and understand the laws that govern nature and use them to your advantage instead of trying to work against them. In this regard druids are deeply conservative. This life is close to as good as it gets and any troubles are either the result of trying to defy nature or inevitable facts of the ways of the world. Accepting the limits of what mortal peoples can achive in a world in which they are not the masters and focusing on avoiding unnecessary clashes with the wilds and their spirits is the only way to a content life.

The Sakaya are a cult that accepts the dominance of natur and the greater power of spirits and gods, but rejects them as masters over their lives. Sakaya do not worship the spirits and turn for them for guidance and protection and instead draw their strength from relying on the cooperation with other people. Nominally they are a unified society of equals, though in recent decades the warrior companies on the coasts have increasingly reduced ties to the monasteries in the mountains. Sakaya will make bargains with spirits and occasionally agree to paying regular tribute, but they offer no devotions to them. Their strength comes from winthin themselves and their mutual cooperation to overcome the hardships of life. Striving for excelence in one’s skills and sharing resources for the greater good is the best way to support the community and create a peaceful life for oneself.

Wilders are generally small and remote settlements that share the belief with the druids that mortal efforts can not overcome the indomitable forces of the natural world. But they refuse to remain content with lives of hardship and permanent struggle and instead seek solace in an even greater power. Wilder cults worship the primordial gods of the earth and the sea that still rule these vast realms below the surface world as they have done since the beginning of time. Druids regard this as a worship of demons and the calling of powers into the world whose corrupting influence can only lead to disaster and suffering. In the eyes of most people, wilders are little different from sorcerers in the threat they pose to the rest of the world.

Sorcerers are witches who deny that the laws of the natural and spiritual world are unshakeable and refuse to accept that mortals can never be more than they are. They have turned to sorcery as a source of magic that is not bound to the natural laws and has the powers of primordial chaos to reshape reality itself. Sorcerers regard wilders as superstitious cults that have no understanding of the powers that they worship. The primordial gods of the deeps are simply spirits whose powers are open to mortals just as well. Sorcerers are very rare, perhaps numbering only a few hundreds in the whole world. But their attempts to reshape the world around them to their whims makes them an extremely dangerous threat in the eyes of all the other groups. Even sorcerers who seem like kind people and mean no harm to anyone warp and corrupt the world around them and leave behind areas of toxic blight in their wakes. They are all seen as madmen who risk dooming the world forever.

None of the groups are outright good or evil. Sorcerers are always destructive and wilders regularly play with very dangerous forces, but this does not mean that players can simply kill all of them and be done with it. Wilders often live in whole villages and while they may be particularly odd people they do not always directly threaten anyone else. Druids seem predestined to be good guys, but of all the groups they are the least flexible and tollerant. In their eyes the other groups are only making things worse for everyone and the Sakaya are foolishly risking their own survival at best. The monastic Sakaya are probably the ones least interested in confronting others but can be particularly stubborn against cooperating with demands that have them submit to spirits. The warrior Sakaya on the other hand are clear troublemakers, constantly looking for opportunities to improve and display their martial skills. This puts them in conflict with pretty much everyone, regardless of ideology. A sixth major group would be the naga sorcerers, who are very much like mortal sorcerers but regard all of those as inferior ursupers of their races ancient powers. Naga sorcerers never cooperate with mortal sorcerers and only tolerate them as personal thralls who are deliberately kept at a weaker power.