Planes for the Ice Ages and some History

I’ve been thinking more about my ideas for a Pleistocene inspired setting and how I can combine it with the general outline I’ve already drawn out for my new mystical wilderness world. And I really like where things are going.

The world consists of three primary realms. The natural world of Earth, Water, and Air sits at the center as the home of humanoids, animals, and various nature spirits. It’s the realm of the elements from which druids draw their magical powers.

Above the natural world exists the celestial realm. It’s the world of stars and moons, home to strange and elusive beings that are pure spirits with no physical substance, and the source of the magical powers wielded by mystics (clerics).

Beneath the natural world is the underworld. It’s the realm of demons and infernal fire. The infernal fire is found in the essence of demons and volcanoes. Sorcerers and warlocks gain some of their magical power from the infernal fire, but also draw on the energies of the celestial sphere.

In addition to the three main realms, there are also the forces of elemental fire and elemental cold. They are the driving forces of the seasons but also the cycle of the ages. The elemental fire is manifested in the sun, while elemental cold seems to come from both everywhere and nowhere. Nobody really knows for sure if fire and cold are equal but opposite forces, or if cold is simply the natural state of the world that will reassert itself whenever the warming influence of the sun is waning. But some people believe that there is a counterpart of the sun beneath the eternal ice of the north pole.

Ancient myths shared by most temples and cults tell that for most of the existence of the world, all the lands were covered in ice and snow, cast in eternal darkness without the warming light of the sun. But like the changing of the seasons, there is a cycle of the ages, and after hundreds of thousands of years, the sun will reappear and the world awaken from its long sleep. Glaciers melt and forests grow back, and new animal life returns to the world. But eventually, these ages of the sun will end, and the world return to its natural state of lifeless cold and darkness.

The oldest tales of known history begin with the end of the last Great Frost. This world became inhabited by the fey, giants, and serpentmen who made its wild forests and plains their home for many thousands of years. However, their world ended with the beginning of the Long Winter some 10,000 years ago. The Long Winter was not a true Great Frost that would end all life on the surface of the world, but the sun became dim and the great glaciers in the far north began to grow and expand south, covering much of the known world under their ice. During the Long Winter, the fey went to slumber in burrows under the earth. The giants survived in small nomadic clans roaming the cold tundra at the feet of the glaciers. And the serpmentmen fled far to the south where the warmth of the sun allowed for forests to survive. During this time, even the gods went to sleep, with only the celestial goddesses of moonlight and darkness watching over the frozen world.

The Long Winter lasted for 6,000 years until spring finally returned to the known world and the great glaciers began to melt. Plants and animals returned to the warming lands, but this time they were also accompanied by people. As they explored these new lands, they came upon old ruins of the elder races and discovered in them the secrets of magic. These first sorcerers became the first mortal kings, establishing both the Western and the Eastern Kingdoms, which became the centers of the newly rising civilizations. Not all barbarians were happy with the rule of kings, and many clans continued traveling further north into the expanding forests to evade their reach. With the Western Kingdoms and the Eastern Kingdoms regularly fighting among themselves, with each other, or against the ancient Serpentmen Kingdoms that have survived in the South, there are always people looking to the wilderness in the North to seek a new life among the barbarian clans. A vast land promising freedom and adventure.

Magical Pleistocene

After spending a month with a really deep dive into The Savage Frontier and having recently started playing Skyrim again, I am currently having a lot of subarctic environments wandering in my mind. My first thoughts for a new setting had been to fall back on trying something in an Indo-Iranian Bronze Age style with perhaps some Mediterranean elements again, since I really don’t think anyone needs yet another Viking setting. But I had also set out to start something new and fresh instead of just stirring around the same pot of ideas that had gotten somewhat stale after ten years. And I did tinker around a bit with Baltic and Slavic setting elements in the past, though ultimately nothing really came from that. Instead of doing more Bronze Age stuff, which I still think is greatly underserved in fantasy, I think doing something more influenced by late Iron Age and Migration Period Northern and Eastern Europe could also be really cool. Also a pool of ideas for fantasy that barely anyone ever seems to go fishing in.

I already had the idea for the new setting that there was a fairly recent Ice Age that erased all the ruins of the Ancients from the surface, leaving the few remnants of their empires hidden away in underground caves. And I really love the common thing in lots of old Sword & Sorcery art to have human barbarians alongside long extinct animals from much more ancient aeons. The idea of having a late Pleistocene environment combined with broadly 4th century Baltic and Slavic people actually does sound pretty fun to me.

I’ve been thinking for a long time that the typical European lineup of animals in Fantasyland is pretty boring. Wolves, bears, horses, cows, and wild pigs are just so everyday pedestrian for someone from central Europe. There is nothing really fantastical about it. But you don’t really have to go that far back and you have mammoths, ancient bisons, and sabre-toothed cats in the same places. Which are still perfectly realistic animals because they were real, but also much more foreign and exotic.

Growing up in Northern Germany, pretty much smack in the area where the massive glaciers of the last three ice ages reached their greatest extend, Ice Age stuff popped up quite a lot in my childhood. Often in school, but of course natural history and archeological museums around here usually had Ice Age exhibitions as well. I thought that stuff was pretty cool, but when you’re seven years old it’s not nearly as interesting as dinosaurs. Way more awesome than fluffy elephants. Back then at such a young age, I had no frame of reference for the time scales involved. But looking into these things now, I find it really fascinating that all the lands around here and to the north were nothing but bare rocks and sand under hundreds or even thousands of meters of ice only 12,000 years ago. And had been in that state for some 100,000 years. Everything that exists north of the German central hills and the mountains of Czechia is less than 12,000 years old. Even all the wilderness of Scandinavia that seems as ancient and untouched as anything can possibly be in Europe goes only back that far. All the plants and animals that exist there migrated to these lands only very recently from warmer lands to the south. And the Ice Age wasn’t a short temporary exception that disrupted the natural environment. The last three Ice Ages each lasted for about a 100,000 years each, with the periods between them only some 20,000 years in length. The fact that Northern Europe has an ecosystem right now is actually weird and not typical for this part of the world. I find this hugely fascinating and a great source of inspiration.

I am now considering stepping somewhat away from having the main civilization of the new setting consisting of warring city states ruled by immortal sorcerer-kings like Dark Sun or Morrowind, and instead putting the focus squarely on the wilderness beyond the border of civilization. The lands in the largely untamed wilderness where the clans that rejected the new structures of civilized kingdoms retreated to, and where people fleeing the reach of the current kings attempt to find refuge.

Studying The Savage Frontier in much greater detail than I ever did before has given me a lot of insights about how that region of the Forgotten Realms is structured and how its map can be a great inspiration for adventures that are not spelled out in the texts. But it also made me notice various aspects of where the design falls short and things could have been set up in much more interesting ways. So at this moment, I am very much considering to take the ideas I already came up with for a new setting and turn them into something that could be regarded as my own take on the overall concept of the Savage Frontier and Skyrim. But more alien and more weird like Hyperborea. And without Vikings.

Two more maps of the Savage Frontier

The ancient borders of Eaerlann, Netheril, and Delzoun are fairly well described in the material. In contrast, the borders of Illefarn and the Fallen Kingdom are only mentioned very vaguely and the outlines here are purely my own personal guess.

One discrepancy in the description of the elven realms is  with the inhabitants of Eaerlann. “For millennia, gold elves dwelt in Illefarn (where
Waterdeep now stands) and Eaerlann (along the River Shining).” This sentence seems to state that the people of both Illefarn and Eaerlann were gold elves. However, it is stated in other places that the half-elven renegades of the High Forest are descended from moon elves. It is also stated that the only known group of elves still living in the North are moon elves in Ardeep Forest. And Ardeep Forest is one of the explicitly mentioned places belonging to the Fallen Kingdom, which was founded by elves from Earlann long after the elves of Illefarn had all left for Evermeet. I believe this to be a case of editorial error and that Eaerlann was in fact a realm of moon elves. Wood elves are never mentioned at all in any of the 1st edition sources for the region.

I have never actually seen any maps showing the areas that the Uthgard tribes are calling their homes. All we’ve ever been given explicitly are the locations of their holy ancestor mounds and the towns of Griffon’s Nest and Grunwald. However, the descriptions given on each tribe in The Savage Frontier does provide quite a bit information to work with, which resulted in this interpretation of where the Uthgardt would commonly be encountered. Not much information is given on the way the Uthgardt live, but it appears that they do not practice any kind of farming, and so probably rely on a combination of hunting, gathering, and possible some herding.

When comparing this map with my earlier map of the areas where towns are located and most farming would be done, the areas where the two overlap happen to be the ones of the Grey Wolf, Griffon, Elk, and Blue Bear tribes. Which also are just the tribes that most commonly come in conflict and attack the new settlers. Which makes me think that there really was some thought put into the placement of towns and tribes, and gives me more confidence that my interpretations are pretty good.

How big is the Savage Frontier actually?

Knowing that the distance between two given cities is 800 miles generally isn’t very helpful in regards to really getting some degree of intuitive understand how big the area on a fantasy map really is. So to get a better impression, I overlaid the map of the Savage Frontier with the outlines of Northern Europe.

I think to have the best match for the environment and climate conditions, the map should probably be placed further north in Europe, but there’s not a lot of well known cities up there that would make for good reference points. Also, the large body of water of the relatively shallow Baltic Sea greatly moderates winter temperatures by storing a lot of energy during the summer. So when winter comes to the Savage Frontier, imagine it to be way colder than southern Sweden and Finland.

I used Hamburg as a reference point to place Waterdeep, and there’s a number of big European cities that line up quite nicely with various important towns in the North.

  • Waterdeep – Hamburg
  • Secomber – Szcecin
  • Llork – Kaliningrad
  • Yartar – Göteborg
  • Silverymoon – Stockholm
  • Citadel Adbar – Tallinn
  • Grunwald – Oslo
  • Luskan – Bergen
  • Gundbarg – Aberdeen
  • Ruathym – Liverpool

As said, climate-wise none of these would be good matches, but it gives some reference regarding the distances between places in the Savage Frontier.

The land area is about 420,000 square miles. That’s very close to Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark combined, or three Germanys. Or roughly comparable to either Ontario, Quebeck, or British Columbia in Canada.

Also, the Evermoors are gigantic.

The 7 Regions of the Savage Frontier

Even with the maps of this region certainly being the fantasy map I’ve been studying the most throughout my life, I was surprised at what details you can discover while drawing a copy of it by hand and thinking about the implications they could have for the various settlements and the people who inhabit them.

Volo’s Guide to the North divides the North into a set of five sub-regions, which I largely agree with as being an obvious system or organize the primary landscapes and patterns of settlement. I would make some changes to the specific boundaries, split the Coast into two separate regions, and also consider the islands of the Trackless Sea an additional region to be counted as part of the Savage Frontier. Concentrating only on the human and dwarven settlements, my classification looks like this:

The first very distinctive region is the Islands of the Trackless Sea. While geographically removed by some distance, Luskan, Neverwinter, and Waterdeep are the closest major ports on the mainland and the Northmen sailors of the islands are very important players in the maritime trade and warfare of the northern Sword Coast. The most important island by far is Ruathym, followed by the Gundarlun, Tuern, the Purple Rocks, and the Ice Peak. These are sub-arctic island similar to Iceland, the Faroes, the Shettlands, and the Orkneys with a very much Viking inspired culture.

Next is the Frozenfar, which Volo defined as the towns north of Luskan, but I think should consider this largest port in the far north as well. Besides Luskan, important towns are the great mining city Mirabar in the Spine of the World, the dwarven city Ironmaster, Fireshear, and the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale. Aside from sizable numbers of dwarves, the population here consists mostly of the same Northmen who are native to the Isles of the Trackless Sea. It is also the main hunting grounds of the Black Raven and Grey Wolf tribes of the Uthgardt barbarians. I do not believe that there is any meaningful agriculture happening in these parts and so food will primarily come from fishing in the sea and rivers and from raising sheep. With Mirabar, Ironmaster, and Fireshear being major mining towns, they probably trade much of their metal exports for food from cities further south. While the port of Luskan is certainly more famous, it’s population of 16,000 people is significantly exceeded by the 23,000 of Mirabar.

Continuing south, we come to the region that I uninspiringly call the Neverwinter Coast, following the Neverwinter Woods and surrounding the city of Neverwinter on the Neverwinter River. Aside from Neverwinter with a population of 17,000 people, it also includes Leilon to the south with 3,000 people, and the village Port Llast. The village got its name from being the northernmost human port on the Sword Coast at a time when the site of Luskan was controlled by orcs. Neverwinter is also always giving the impression of being much more similar to Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate than to neighboring Luskan, which makes me believe that it’s population is more closely related to the people of the South and that the Frozenfar region was settled by Northmen from the islands at a later point. This is the primary reason of why I consider this part of the coast to be a distinctively separate region from Luskan. Being flanked by the Neverwinter Wood instead of the Spine of the World, I also think that this region has much more of a logging industry than mining. The famously mild climate along the warm Neverwinter River also allows for agriculture of a type that isn’t possible in the lands further north.

Further down lies Waterdeep. While also part of the Sword Coast, the large Mere of Dead Men and the Sword Mountains create a large gap of rugged wilderness between the city and Leilon on the Neverwinter Coast. The city itself is one of the great oddities of the Realms. Despite being rather remote and isolated from the Heartlands and the very last outpost of what could generously be considered the civilized world, Waterdeep is widely considered to be the largest city north of the Sea of Fallen Stars with a population of over 100,000 people. The reason for the city’s prosperity is that all the trade from the Savage Frontier has to go through it’s port. Even most caravans traveling south along the road through Daggerford have to pass through it. How far the Waterdeep region stretches to the North is very debatable. There are good reasons to count Goldenfields, Rassalantar, Amphail, and the Bargewright Inn as being part of the Dessarin Valley, but their proximity to Waterdeep surely makes them economically and culturally much more oriented towards the great city than to distant Yartar and Nesme. Their proximity to the coast should also result in much milder winters than the rest of the North is seeing, allowing for a more efficient growing of grain and other crops. I see this region as being a northern outpost of the Western Heartlands and settled by people from that region.

Going up the great river towards the North, we have the Dessarin and Surbrin River Valley. These are part of the great water transport system that connects most of the interior Savage Frontier. The main settlements in this region are Yartar and Nesme with both a population of only 6,000 people. Next comes Triboar with 2,500 people and after that it’s really only a scattering of villages of various sizes. With maps showing the area mostly as just blank land, my interpretation of the landscape is that of the northern parts of the North American Prairies. With Greenwood being Canadian and TSR being located in Wisconsin, it seem likely that this is what the creators had in mind. The Savage Frontier has a map that clearly shows that this is cattle county. Endless expanses of grass from horizon to horizon is perfect for raising grazers, which make for a great food source to feed this otherwise harsh and inhospitable land. You’ll be seeing enough beef and cheese to last you for a substantial part of your remaining life. As with most of the coasts, I see this region as being settled primarily by people from the Western Heartlands. The plains east of Yartar are the lands of the Elk tribe, while those between Neverwinter Wood and the Evermoors are home to the Griffon tribe. Both are widely considered to be among the most hostile tribes towards the other peoples of the North. I expect there to be a lot of cattle rustling going on around these parts.

On the other side of the Evermoors lies the flow of the Rauvin River, which Volo calls the Interior. The Rauvin connects the cities Silverymoon, Everlund, and Sundabar, and an old dwarven road continues further east to the great dwarven stronghold Citadel Adbar of King Harbromm, the last true dwarven king north of the Sea of Fallen Stars. This region is dominated mountains, hills, and various forests and should experience brutal winters, but also potentially quite hot summers with warm winds blowing from the Anauroch desert. While this land does not seem well suited for any kind of agriculture, it is still home to many of the region’s largest cities. Sundabar at 36,000 people (including many half-elves and dwarves), Silverymoon at 26,000 people, Citadel Adbar at 14,000 people, and Everlund at 12,000 people. The Moonwood and Cold Wood to the north are the home of the Black Lion and Red Tiger tribes, and the northern edges of the High Forest to the south are the territory of the Tree Ghost and greatly feared Blue Bear Tribe.
The humans inhabiting these remote city are distinctively different from both the Northmen and the people from the Western Heartlands. Like the Uthgardt barbarians, they are one of the surviving peoples from the ancient magical empire of Lost Netheril, as seen quite easily by their black hair. Other than legendary Halruaa many thousands of miles in the far away South, Silverymoon is the last heir of the great magic of Netheril. (It bothers me that this region has no apparent food source to supply four major cities. This is something for which something needs to be cobbled up together at some later point.)

Finally, there is the Delimbyr Valley south of the High Forest. The river itself continues north for several hundred more miles, but the lands between the High Forest and the Greypeak Mountains is barely explored wilderness uninhabited by humans or dwarves. The lower Delimbyr valley is even more sparsely populated than the Dessarin valley, with the largest settlements being Loudwater with a population of 4,000 and Llork with a population of 2,300. There has been some mining going on in the Greypeak mountains, but this has been in decline since the dwarves of the region have increasingly come into conflict with the Zhentarim. The economy of the Delimbyr depends almost entirely on trade caravans from Zhentil Keep that go all the way from the Moonsea around the southern edges of the Anauroch desert and towards Waterdeep. Llork has essentially become a Zhentarim town over the years and more of a caravan stop than a mining town. The location of Loudwater close to the High Forest and Southwood makes it a good candidate for logging, especially for the shipyards of Waterdeep, and the lower parts of the valley should be suitable for both cattle raising as in the Dessarin Valley and growing crops as in the vicinity of Waterdeep. Like the people of the Surbrin river to the North, the native inhabitants of Llork and Loudwater have the dark hair of Netherese descendants, but no other signs of that great ancient civilization still exist. As one moves down the river to the west, these native people begin to blend together with the new settlers from the South.

The Sinister Machinations of the Kraken Society

Part 2 in my series about expanding on the original The Savage Frontier setting.

The Kranken Society is one of the main groups of villains described in The Savage Frontier, alongside the Hosttower of the Arcane, the Knights of the Shield, and the Zhentarim. However, their description and particularly their short-term goals and activities are kept very vague and unclear. We are only told that they are very secretive and trade in information, and that their real purpose is to collect and provide information about the surface to the Kraken of the Purple Rocks, which is plotting to establish an empire of its own in the depths of the Sea of Swords. While later editions spend much greater amounts of words on their descriptions of the Kraken Society, they never actually provided any more information on what its agents actually do that would get them into conflict with parties of adventurers. Gathering and selling information is not particularly villainous or a threat to the whole region. But as it turns out, as with so many things in The Savage Frontier, there is a lot of great potential for memorable villains once you comb through all the pieces of information and start connecting the dots.

The founder and leader of the Kraken Society is the ancient Kraken Slarkrethel, which discovered the ancient ruined city of Ascarle deep in the frozen waters of the Trackless Sea, off the shores of a small and remote group of islands known as the Purple Rocks. Later sources reveal that in the ruins, the Kraken discovered ancient magical secrets that inspired in it the dream of conquering for itself a great aquatic empire beneath the waves. Since nothing about that contradicts the statements in The Savage Frontier or reduced the possibilities for adventure, and gives us a bit more to work with, there is no reason to use that for this interpretation of the original setting. How the Kraken’s underwater conquests would bring it into conflict with the coastal port cities like Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep, Neverwinter, and Luskan and the island of Ruathym is not exactly clear, but this is given as the reason for why it established a great network of spies and informants across the surface lands. Before it risks to expose itself by launching its conquests of the undersea races, it is biding its time learning as much about any potential rivals that might try to oppose it.

The first target of the Kraken were the small fishing villages on the Purple Rocks right outside its new lair in the ruins of Ascarle. Here are the headquarters of the Kraken Society, and its agents are effectively in control of the islands, their remoteness and isolation allowing them to keep their activities secret from the rest of the world. On the mainland, the main base of operation of the Kraken Society is in the small towns of Yartar and Triboar in the Surbrin Valley. For an organization created with the purpose of gathering information about the major naval powers on the coast, establishing their main foothold some 200 miles away from the sea and far from any major city seems a very odd choice. But the collection of information is only one of the tasks of the Kraken’s agents, and the specific location of Yartar actually opens up the door for much more sinister activities.

Surroundings of Yartar. Click to embiggen.

Yartar is located on the banks of the Surbrin river where it flows into the Dessarin that continues all the way south to Waterdeep. Through the Surbrin and further up the water through the Rauvin, boats and barges can travel to Nesme, Mithril Hall, Silverymoon, Everlund, and eventually Sundabar, from where the road leads to the city of the last dwarven king in the North, Citadel Adbar. From Yartar, an overland route extends east towards Everlund, and to the west a road leads to the great highway from Mirabar to Waterdeep. Yartar may not be a large town and located seemingly in the middle of nowhere, far from any centers of powers, but it is the main hub of all trade that is passing through the Savage Frontier. If for some reason the port cities were unable to transport supplies and soldiers on ships up and down the Sword Coast, because of a powerful enemy in the water attacking and sinking any ships that leave port, the highway from Mirabar to Waterdeep and the Dessarin would become the fallback route of transportation, far away from the sea and beyond the reach of the creatures of the deeps.

In the event of a war between the Kraken of the Purple Rocks and the port cities of the Sword Coast, the Dessarin valley would become the new lifeline for the surface dwellers. But the tentacles of the Kraken are numerous and reach far, and it already has its agents in place to cut Luskan and Waterdeep off from the interior of the North.

The agents of the Kraken Society are collecting information for their master about what is going on the surface. But they don’t simply keep everything they learn to themselves, they also trade in it. And while the common agents who know nothing about the true nature of either their society or its master use their knowledge to gain personal wealth and power – as much as there is to get in such a remote backwater – the leaders are trading information for more information. Specifically such information about who could possibly a threat to the conquests of the Kraken and who would be in position to interfere with or undermine any resistance, and of course any information that could be used to blackmail them into compliance once the day will come.

For the time being, the Kraken Society continues to lay low. Agents use information they come across to extort money and personal favors while keeping their hands of people who could potentially threaten their operations, such as the Harpers or the lords of the powerful cities. However, should someone start prying into their activities or take notice of the true extend of their operations, they will resort to assassination to deal with the situation quickly and quietly. And while the leaders of the society in Yartar are waiting for the day when their master commands them to strike at the cities of the Lords’ Alliance where it will hurt their ability to interfere with the Kraken’s conquests the most, they are actively engineering seemingly unrelated and minor conflicts to steer more victims into their debt and ensnare them in their tentacles.