I found this and thought it looks like a fun idea. While my new setting has been taking a pretty clear shape now in my head, I’m not sure how well I’ve been able to communicate it so far. This list might help with that.
The Witcher has clearly been the greatest influence on how things look and feel in the mundane world and the tone of how the various big actors are interacting with it. Dark Souls is perhaps the main inspiration for how characters will experience the magical world where things appear magnificent and horrifying and are barely understood or explained.
Other important influences are Morrowind for the organization of society and the aesthetics for the Southlands (for which I am drawing on Byzantine visuals), Hellboy for it’s representation of spirits, Thief, and I am still chasing after recapturing the atmosphere of The Empire Strikes Back.
- Cities carved into the sides of mountains.
- A giant tree casting a whole glade in shadows while illuminating it with the glow of bright blue veins running through its bark.
- A ruined city of massive square towers rising from a swamp.
- Giant stone bridges with tunnels running inside them, large enough to hold entire towns.
- Giant volcanic spires rising high above a sea of trees with castles carved inside of them.
- A large stone castle, eternally on fire.
- A cave large enough for dragons to soar in circles, with tunnels stretching deep into the mountains forever.
- Large stairs circling down into the Earth, with tunnels branching off to the sides and the bottom of the shaft hidden by dark water.
- Ancient wooden walkways leading through mist covered bogs for miles.*
- A ruined city with vast underground tunnels filled with a poisonous mist that clears out every few years for a couple of weeks, the bones of men and beasts still undisturbed by scavengers.
- Heavily armored knights wearing the colors of the Moon Mystics, each with an entourage of men at arms.*
- Nomadic clans, whose warriors ride across the land hunting for both food and silver for their families.*
- Witches who rule the barbarians of the barren and swampy lands of the fog covered north.
- Merchants so rich they own their own ports.*
- Pirates from all the lands crewing fast small ships that roam the seas of the north and the south.*
- Societies of war widdows, orphan girls, and freed slaves who form highly influential crafts guilds.*
- Northern mercenaries serving as elite cavalry for the cities of the south.*
- Deceiving, treacherous, and pacifistic Priestesses of Life.
- Noble families of a southern city who all have many sorcerers among their highest ranks.
- A network of wealthy criminals who use bribery and assassination to break the power of the great merchant lord guild.
- Polished iron helmets reaching down to the nose, with the rest of the head covered by a mail collar.*
- Scale lamelar over mail hauberks for the fully armored warrior.
- War paint in bright blue, red, yellow, and black for those not fighting in heavy armor.
- Forests of spears and walls of round wooden shields.*
- Straight backed knives for every adult.*
- Towns and whole forts made from solid wooden logs.
- Carved amulets of wood or bone or cast in silver or iron to be carried for protection against spirits.
- Pelts of giant beasts with stark patterns to wear as cloaks or decorate wealthy homes.*
- Four Winds Hats. The most stylish way to keep your head warm in winter.*
- Stocky, short-antlered deer used as steeds.
- Large, bulky cargo ships transporting pelts, cod, and timber across the northern sea.*
- Long and sleek galleys and shooners with red and green sails racing across the southern sea.
- Camel-sized, herbivorous reptiles carrying heavy loads through the forests.
- Huge goats carrying packs and riders over the rough mountain passes.
- Winter storms.*
- The grim and unforgiving cold of winter.*
- Bottomless pools that never release what has disapeared into their black depths.*
- Thick, persisting mists that make wanderers endlessly walk in circles.
- Lands of Death that drain the life from all living things that stay for too long.
- Markers of sticks and bones on the border of the lands of some spirits and witches.
- The collected heads of slain enemies.*
- Wooden poles carved with the faces of spirits to mark their holy places.
- Magic horns.
- Magic skulls of powerful sorcerers, witches, and spirits.
- Amber decorations.*
- Iron nails to ward against spirits.
- Powdered black petals of a southern flower that cause a painless dilirium.
- Coins with holes in them to lace them together into bars with a knotted cord.*
- A great fireplace in the center of every great hall.*
* These are all things taken directly or inspired by medieval culture of northeast Europe.
Any good setting has some ongoing conflict that shape what is going on in the world and how people are responding to various situations and enncounters. More than anything else, this is what makes adventures feel different and not like they could be happening exactly the same way in any other generic setting as well. And in that case, what would be the point of making a new world?
I have come up with three sources of conflict that are currently putting pressure on the people and are causing disruptions of the expected status quo.
Deer People Migration
200 years ago one of the Wood People cities was abandoned and fell into ruin, the remaining people of the realm resettling in the lands of other wood people cities or continuing a meager life in poverty by joining the Deer People clans that have been roaming the eastern lands for many generations. But eventually the Eldritch Wilds that had crushed the city spread to the hunting grounds of the Deer People as well, leading to many of the clans to go searching for new lands to live on. One large group migrated south and crossed the mountains of the Stone People into the lands of the Ash People, where many of them swore allegiance to the great cities to serve them as mercenary cavalry. Other groups took their herds west into the lands of the Woood People and Snow People. This inevitably put them into conflict with the local farmers and the lords of the cities are not happpy about the presence of foreign armies near their lands either. The Stone People are also weary about the increased presence of foreigners grazing their herds on the lower slopes of their mountains.
Ash People Rivalry
50 years ago, the Fire Mystics of the City of the Sun had a fierce power strugle with the sorcerers of their city and eventually turned to the Sorcerer Lords from the City of Sorcerers to recruit them as allies to crush their common rivals. The Sorcerer Lords were looking forward to destroying their rivals, looting their libraries, and absorbing the survivors into their own ranks, but when the conflict broke out into open violence the Fire Mystics went way overboard, causing the Sorcerer Lords to abandon their entire support of the power struggle. By the end of the year the City of the Sun was only burned out ruins and the Sorcerer Lords did end up absorbing most of the surviving sorcerers who brought many of their arcane secrets with them. The suvivors of the Fire Mystics went to the City of Flames where they continued to gather support from the local fire temples against the treacherous sorcerers. While the Fire Mystics are not in charge of the City of Flames, its relationship with the City of Sorcerers has been worsening for decades and both are constantly looking for opportunities to harm each other’s trade and alliances.
Moon Knight Settlement
The arrivial of the Deer People in the north put some considerable pressure on many of the outlying towns and large numbers of the poor farmers have packed up their things to seek better lives to the west. The Moon Knights, seeing themselves as protectors of the weak and the poor, saw it both as their duty and as a great opportunity to take charge of an organized settlement of the Northern Penniinsula, which so far had been almost entirely uninhabited. Almost. The Snow People to the east and the Ash People fishing colony on the Northern Islands are not very pleased about a new rival appearing in the region who is making attempts to get into their very profitable business of trading pelts and cod. But much more worrisome to them is that the Moon Knights are making a concentrated effort to push the Fog People north and stirring up the clans that have never been good neighbours even at the best of times. The Ash People fear a disruption of trade along the western coast, while the Snow People are seriously worried about an increase in raids by Fog People into their lands. The Moon Knights know very well that they are not welcome and that most powers in the region greatly wish to see their attempts to establish a new realm fail. Because of this they are seeking trade agreements and alliances with the Wood People in the east and the Ash People of the south. To many of the Snow People they are still seen as heroes protecting them from monsters and witches, but the highborn families see them as a major threat and have the support of most of the Moon Mystics.
All the various mysic and occult orders are existing on top of this political environment. Many of them are deeply involved in the politics of the great cities, which adds a great degree of importance to their efforts to keep magical knowledge out of the hands of the other faction and claiming it for themselves.
Or maybe better call it a doodle.
The dots are marking cities, which are all unnamed yet. White is snow people, green wood people, red stone people, grey ash people, and blue sea people. The fog people and deer people don’t have any real cities.
As a scale reference, the countries of northern and eastern Europe happen to line up really well.
However, keep in mind that the parts represented by Russia and Scandinavia are almost completely uninhabited. That makes the central populated part of the setting actually rather small, but that suits me just fine actually.
The story of King Valdemar of Demark and his daughter Margrete has all the stuff for a Nordic Game of Thrones. Someone should write it. But not me, at least not for now. Big politics is not really my thing when it comes to fantasy. But there is plenty of other really inviting material from the 13th and 14th century Baltic Region that is just asking to be adapted into fantasy settings. Where else would you find German crusaders, pirates, Mongols, and (Byzantine) Romans mingling in one place?
The Hansa are the megacorp to end all megacorps. The East India Company might have come close, but both of them left the Japanese Zaibatsu or any currently opperating conglomerate in the dust. The Hansa were an association of merchant guilds from various trading cities in Northern Europe, particularly the Baltic Sea,which turned out so succesful that they gained a complete shipping monopoly in many major ports of the region and were able to gain huge concessions from the rulers of these places. With time they became so ridiculously wealthy and powerful that they turned their major centers of opperations into independent city states, effectively becoming their own country. Their private security forces grew into an army that at one point declared war on Denmark and Norway. And won.
I don’t plan on giving the setting a large numbers of cities so I am probably not making them a major power in their own right, but I definitely want to have a ridiculously powerful and influential merchant guild that fields a considerable mercenary army.
The Teutonic Order
Everybody knows about the crusades for the Holy Land. Much fewer people know about the Baltic Crusade. Which isn’t just a figurative term. When the pope declared the Second Crusade against the Abbasid Caliphate, he also gave the go ahead to the North German and Polish nobles to conquer the pagan slavs of the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea and convert them to Christianity. (And preferably Catholic, not Orthodox.) The Teutonic Order had been founded in Acre, but when that didn’t quite work out for them they returned north to help out the Livonian Brothers of the Sword who were in dire need of support. The Teutonic Order carved out its own crusader kingdom covering all of the southern coast east of Mecklenburg, that lasted until the Reformation when it was converted (pun intended) into the Duchy of Prussia. The Teutonic Order was a major military power of the region in the 13th and 14th century and got into several wars with the Poles, Russians, and Mongols.
The Black Death
The 14th century also happens to be the time of the Great Plague, which took it’s toll on the Northeast of Europe just as everywhere else. Which is to say, at apocalyptic scale. Legend has it that the plague came to Scandinavia on a ghost ship washing ashore in Denmark, which I think is a really cool story when you try to picture it.
The Cossacks have not really appeared on the scene in 14th century and they never inhabited the coasts of the Baltic Sea. But they are still a fascinating element of East European history and I’m drawing from the Byzantines as well, which were even further south. The origin of the Cossacks is rather unclear, but they first appear in historical records as a people of horse warriors from southern Ukraine. There is a widespread belief that they originated from an assimilation of Tartars from the Khazar Khanate into local Slavic people and rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Mongols wrecking any existing political order in the Region a few centuries later.
Since I am not trying to write historical fiction but to create a fantasy world inspired by history, I want to take all the best pieces and combine them into something new. I don’t have a name for them yet, but my idea is to have a seventh ethnic group that evolved from scattered groups of survivors from fallen Wood People and Stone People city states that adapted to a semi-nomadic culture to survive. They have no cities of their own, but numerous small villages scattered over a vast range of otherwise unclaimed wilderness where spirits roam in large numbers. Because of their familiarity with the Borderlands, they are highly sought after mercenaries by any city states trying to expand into these regions.
The Christian Schism
Long before the Reformation, the Christian Church had split into a Western and Eastern church, now commonly best known as the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Germans, Danes, Swedes, and Poles that pushed into the pagan lands from the west were all Catholics, while the Russians in the East were Orthodox. Relationships between the two were far from good and the Fourth Crusade never got to Jerusalem because along the way the the Catholic crusaders decided to make it a crusade against the orthodox Byzantines. For this setting, I can imagine the Mysteries of Fire and the Mysteries of the Moon to have a similar relationships, with the former being represented by Ash and Stone people, and the later by Wood and Snow People.
14th Century Russian Armor looks really cool
I mean seriously. These helmets are so much more badass than the prissy Western European aventails.
It has become somewhat of established wisdom that The 13th Warrior is the best oldschool Dungeons & Dragons movie ever made. Which is probably in fact true.
Turns out that The Revenant is the perfect Symbaroum movie. Aside from it being about a single character who is all on his own, the story could play out exactly as in the movie somewhere in the depth of Davokar. And look just the same.
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.