That is not dead what can eternal lie

…and with strange aeons even my Kaendor setting may be finished.

As far as I am able to trace back, I first started working on Kaendor in February 2011. It’s undergone so many overhauls and revisions in the 11 years since then that I don’t even recognize many of the things I wrote about back then. Some elements I had discarded at some point but then had come back again in a later version. But overall, the general broad strokes concept has remained very much the same. A low-ish level D&D setting set on a forest world with small Bronze Age populations, abandoned by the ancient fey, and with sorcery being a demonic power that corrupts the people it touches and the lands around it.

There’s been many times I started to get tired of always working on the same concept, and it never turning out quite as I wanted, and so after some months of not really doing much with it, I sat down to start working on something completely new from scratch. But always I keep bringing back old ideas for places and creatures from Kaendor, until the whole place starts to look just like the one I just left behind.

I think I’ve now accepted that I am destined to keep coming back and working on this world forever.

And that is fine.

Because it’s a really cool concept.

A Timeline of the Shattered Empire

I originally wrote this as a history of the Six Lands, but after a while thought that it was really terrible in that function and went back to rewrite it. History is one of those aspects of worldbuilding in general and for campaign settings specifically that I find highly overrated, or at least greatly overemphasized. What it is good for is to help establishing an internal logic for a world and serve as a useful reference frame when placing important locations and establishing a plausible pace for gradual changes that have happened in the world. It helps when you want to have a consistent order of the ruins of different civilizations that have been build on top of another, so that players can actually try to make sense of their discoveries.

The following is all stuff that players really don’t need to know, and probably even shouldn’t know. It’s stuff that I won’t be putting into any campaign guide or setting introduction. The purpose of this timeline is to provide me with some reference information on when a site would have been originally build, by who, and for what purpose, and what the overall situation was around it while it decayed up to the present day. This is meant as a gamemaster tool to assist with creating specific dungeons for actual adventures. I thought it might be interesting to some people to see how I am doing this, and maybe get ideas for how they could do a similar thing for their own campaigns.

Map for reference. (Click to embiggen.)

A General Timeline of the Shattered Empire

  • 1: The city states of Aktaras are united under the rule of the Emperor.
  • 59: The Emperor’s White Host conquers the woodlands of Western Miskoiya, north of the Red Sea.
  • 112: The Golden Host conquers the plains of Vaikar and their vast grain fields on the river Hakemes, establishing the Aktarans as a true Empire.
  • 157: The Iron Host drives the asura from the eastern reaches of the Miskoiya woodlands, but never fully subjugates the small clans of Miskovai barbarians.
  • 204: The Green Host defeats the giants of the Korenya highlands and drives them higher into the mountains. The Empire enslaves large numbers of Kozai barbarians to mine silver and iron for the imperial hosts, both in Korenya and Aktaras.
  • 238: The White Host crosses the Mistwoods from western Miskoiya into Venlat to begin the conquest of the Kuri clans, but their progress always remains slow.
  • 281: The Black Host is established in the south of the Vaikar plains to prepare for an invasion and conquest of the forests of Mangal.
  • 321: The General of the Iron Host kills the Emperor in the imperial capital and declares himself to be the new emperor. The other five generals unite to turn against him, beginning the Wars of the Successors.
  • 320: After a long siege, the Golden Host of Vaikar, the Red Host of Aktaras, and the Green Host of Korenya completely destroy the imperial capital with terrible sorcery, turning it into the Gray City. The Iron General is killed and the Golden General declares himself the rightful successor of the Emperor. The Red General, Green General, and Black General refuse to accept him as their new ruler and recall their hosts to their provinces to create their own kingdoms.
  • 335: Even though the Golden Host is fighting a war against the other remnants of the Empire on three sides, it manages to destroy the small Black Host, that never managed to gain control over significant portions of Mangal.
  • 351: Without any support from the Empire, the White Host is driven out of the southern regions of Venlant that it had manged to conquer by an army of Kuri warriors led by the newly appeared immortal Witch Queen Meiv of Halva, and is driven back towards the Mistwood at the norther edge of Miskoiya. Some of the people people from the White Hosts main stronghold in Elwai flee east instead and become the Kaska of the Witchfens.
  • 362: After fighting both the Red Host of Aktaras and the Green Host of Korenya for over 40 years, the Gold Host is finally destroyed and the False Emperor killed. The two victorious armies continue to fight each other over the control of the Vaikar plains.
  • 429: In Miskoiya, the White Host is annihilated in the Mistwood by another Kuri army led by Meiv, and reminding imperial soldiers flee south to Aktaras to join the Red Host, completely abandoning western Miskoiya.
  • 430: Taygur nomads from the east begin migrating into the plains of Vaikar, and take control over most of the land south of the Hakemes, which have been almost entirely depopulated by the continuous fighting between the Red Host and the Green Host.
  • 472: The large port cities of Aktaras rise up in rebellion against the General of the Red Host and overthrow him, reverting back to independent city states and signifying the final end of the Shattered Empire. One of the generals most trusted lieutenants claims to be his rightful successor, but only claims the title of King of Ateia. Taygur clans increasingly cross the Hakemes with their herds and slowly start to establish settlements of their own in the empty ruins of imperial farming towns.
  • 521: What has remained of the Green Host in Korenya by this point is destroyed by hordes of Kozai barbarians who establish their own small tribal kingdoms in the highlands.
  • 683: The present year.

This is about as much detail as I think I want to put into this aspect of the setting. It provides some decent guidance for how old the ruins that scatter the various regions of the Shattered Empire are, who build them, what their original purpose might have been, and who might have used them later.

Shadow Magic

As mentioned in an earlier post, the Shattered Empire does not have an Ethereal Plane or Astral Plane, and instead their functions are added to the Plane of Shadow. Changes like these require a few adjustments to the rules of the game, and I also want the Plane of Shadow to have a prominent role in the setting. Mostly this affects a number of spells, and the Way of Shadow monk. Given the setting does only have characters up to 10th level, I’m only covering abilities within that range.

Shadow Arts: This ability allows monks to use 2 of their ki points to cast the darkness, darkvision, pass without trace, and silence spells, and the minor illusion cantrip without any limit. Since I also want to limit the amount of cantrips that can be cast between short rests, and monks regain their ki points at a short rest, the simple solution here is to simply make casting minor illusion cost 1 ki point. A monk’s minor illusions always look dull and faded or sound faint and distant. They can not be brightly colored or loud.

Shadow Step: This allows teleporting from one area of shadows to another that is within sight and 60 feet as a bonus action. When you enter the plane of shadow, you normally move around in it just as in the Material Plane, with every point in each plane having a corresponding point in the other. But since the distance of this ability is so short and the duration of the movement almost instantly, I am happy with going with the interpretation that each transfer between the two planes is slightly fuzzy and corresponding points don’t line up exactly. So what a Way of Shadow monk does is to begin a move into the Plane of Shadow but then stepping back into the Material Plane before fully crossing over, and having some control about in which spot he reappears.

Misty Escape: This ability for Archfey warlocks basically does the same thing as Shadow Step, but works as a reaction and only when the warlock takes damage and does not require shadows. The explanation for what actually happens is the same, with the warlock disappearing and reappearing in a cloud of black mist.

Armor of Shadows: When casting mage armor, the warlock’s clothes appear like covered in tar black grime and dust.

Light Spells: All spells creating light need a spell slot one level higher than normal to be cast on the Plane of Shadow. Just like any other light sources, the range of the light is reduced to half.

Armor of Agathys: The magical energies that make up the armor come from the Void in the deepest reaches of the Plane of Shadow and look like whirling swirls of blackness.

Arms of Hadar: The spell’s tendrils of energy are inky black and also come from the Void.

Banishment: This spell banishes a creature to the Plane of Shadow, to a spot corresponding to where it was on the caster’s plane. If cast on the Plane of Shadow, the target is banished to the Void instead.

Black Tentacles: The tentacles are made of shadows.

Darkness: When cast on the Plane of Shadow, light spells up to 3rd level are dispelled when they overlap.

Dimension Door: This spell sends the targeted creatures along the barrier between the Material Plane and Plane of Shadow, just like Shadow Step and blink. The targets disappear and reappear in a swirl of black mists.

Hunger of Hadar: The spell connects to the Void in the depths of the Plane of Shadows.

Mislead: This spell is added to the warlock spell list. When the spell ends, the illusion fades away into black, shadows mist.

Misty Step: The mist is black instead of silvery, and the spell works just like Shadow Step, blink, and dimension door.

Unseen Servant: The servant is faintly visible as a swirl of shadows when in bright light.

Shadow Walk

5th-level conjuration
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Components: V, S
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour

This spell allows you to travel through the Plane of Shadows to cover great distances quickly. When casting this spell, you must be in an area of dim light or darkness and designate a specific direction and distance that you want to travel. The spell transfers you and up to eight willing creatures you touch to the Plane of Shadow, where a faintly visible trail indicates the path to the destination. While traveling along the path through the Plane of Shadow, you cover 6 miles for every 10 minutes of travel, regardless of your movement speed. At the end of the trail, a faintly bright portal leads the targets of the spell back to the Material Plane to a point within 3 miles of the designated destination point.

If your concentration on the spell fails, the trail fades away and the portal disappears, leaving everyone stranded on the Plane of Shadow. Casting the spell again while on the Plane of Shadow creates a new trail from your current position and a portal to return to the Material Plane. It is possible to simply continue moving through the Plane of Shadow to discover an existing stationary portal without following a trail, but maintaining a straight path is impossible and any creatures traveling though the Plane of Shadow without a trail become immediately hopelessly lost.

Beyond the Six Lands

There’s probably some great, witty title for this, but I can’t think of any right now.

One of the lesser known, but really common effects of ADD that isn’t much talked about, is a significantly delayed development in people becoming functioning, independent adults, even if they don’t show any other apparent mental development issues. From what I’ve heard from other people, it is widely seen as something that will eventually work itself out, it just takes noticeably longer than for other people. (I think I recently saw a study that some 60% of university students with ADD drop out at least once.) I finally started my first regular, full-time and full-pay job, that isn’t some kind of occupation training or work integration measure, at the start of this year, now being in charge of quality control and inventory maintenance at a major online retailer or pond and garden plants.

Last Thursday, at the end of my fourth week, I was quietly working away on some regular busywork, when I had the sensation of having arrived at my destination, after wandering aimless in the wilderness for some 15 years. And to me surprise, the place where I arrived looks just like where I originally started. Having recently combed through my whole music collection to fill my phone with as much stuff as I can fit on it for my car rides to work, I rediscovered a lot of old music that I’ve been playing up and down back when I had finished school but hadn’t listened to in years, and I’ve also been playing a lot of my old favorite videogames from back in the day. And just in the last two months, since I started working on my new Shattered Empire setting, I’ve been rereading various old D&D books that hugely inspired me back when I first started learning the game in the early 2000s. It really feels a lot like my life is just like it was back when I set out to see where life would take me, except that now I got a much better grasp of my life, I’m a trained professional in a field with severe labor shortage, and got a decent income.

This man knows where it’s at.

It currently feel a lot like picking up back where I left off all those years ago. Turns out you can go home again!

Which finally brings me to my actual point. This book.

Somehow this completely slipped my mind when I made the list of reference sources to use as inspirations for the Shattered Empire. The Manual of the Planes is the only 3rd edition book that isn’t a setting book that I still own in print. This book came out very early in 3rd edition’s run, only a year after the three rulebooks, and was hugely influential to me. I had played some Planescape: Torment before, which certainly was a very memorable experience for me, but also a game that’s really hard to get into. (I still have not completed it to this day.) The Manual of the Planes was my first comprehensive introduction to the planes of D&D. While it shows all the planes and describes many of the locations from the Planescape setting, its version of the planes is deliberately made much more generic, to easily plug into any campaign and appear more streamlined with the other 3rd edition supplements. For example, Sigil is only mentioned in a short paragraph, and the Factions aren’t covered at all. Which back then I found somewhat frustrating, but I now think really made this book, and the concept of planar adventures as a whole, much more accessible.

I think it’s quite fair to say that together with the Monsters of FaerĂ»n, the Manual of the Planes is my favorite D&D book that I ever read. I was young and impressionable, and there is something about this book that really made it stick in my mind ever since. The whole art direction and presentation is an advanced glimpse at what would become the dungeon punk style that really takes off in the revised 3rd edition a few years later, and in my opinion had a huge impact on the perception of what D&D is ever since, but I think in this book it feels very appropriate and really works.

While the Great Wheel arrangement of the planes from Planescape is of course a classic, the Shattered Empire is very much meant to be just another generic D&D setting. Informed and inspired by D&D, but not a representation of D&D. And I’ve been on record that the alignment symmetry of the Great Wheel actually leads to it being crammed full with really boring stuff. (Whose ever been on adventures to Bytopia or Arcadia in a non-Planescape campaign?) I played around in the past with the idea to run a campaign that only uses some of the less popular planes that I find the most compelling, but nothing ever actually came of that. But now that I need to figure something out to do with the other realms of reality from which warlocks gain their powers, this feels like another great opportunity to take out that old idea again.

The Shadows

One thing that has always bugged me about the planes in 3rd and 5th edition is that the Ethereal Plane is just so damn boring. The concept is interesting, but by it’s very nature, the plane is completely empty. There’s been some attempts over the years to at least populate it with monsters, but those bizarre weirdos never got any traction, being just too weird while also being too bland. In contrast, the Plane of Shadows is a much more interesting place, that has actual terrain in it. For the Shattered Empire, I made the decision to combine the two planes into one, called for simplicity The Shadows.

The Shadows behave mostly just like the Plane of Shadows does. (Or the Shadowfell, exactly the same thing.) It’s a dark world without color whose terrain almost mirrors the world of the Material Plane, but not quite. It’s subtly distorted and not a completely perfect match in where everything is and how its shaped. It’s an imperfect reflection that can slowly and gradually morph into slightly different shapes and arrangements. One cool idea, that I’ve never actually seen much done with, is that there is only a single Plane of Shadows that connects to all Material Planes, not just the one the PCs are from, and that you can simply keep walking through the shadowy landscape and eventually come out in areas that correspond to completely different worlds.

To this baseline, I am adding the trait of the Ethereal Plane that you can actually see from the Shadows into the Material Plane and observe the living creatures moving around in the other world. Looking through the Player’s Handbook for 5th edition, it seems like any magical effects that target the Ethereal Plane can simply be redirected  to the Shadowfell without causing any meaningful changes or complications. The aspect of the Ethereal Plane that you lose with this setup is that the Shadows have a ground and gravity, so you can’t simply fly around by the force of your will. Having buildings exist in corresponding locations in the Shadows also means that you can’t use the Ethereal Plane as a means to move through walls or doors. However, if the Shadows are only an imperfect and warped reflection of the Material Plane, there can still be large enough gaps and holes in the Shadows that allow passage through barriers that are impenetrable in the Material Plane. And I believe this only really becomes a factor with etherealness spell, which is at a level way beyond the scope of the Shattered Empire setting.

The Void

The Ethereal Plane also happens to be divided into the Border Ethereal, from where you can see into the Material Plane, and the Deep Ethereal, which is just a vast void of nothingness. This actually corresponds very well with the concept that you can travel through the Plane of Shadow to reach other Material Planes. This Shadow version of the Deep Ethereal is called The Void in the Shattered Empire. Though without the ability to float through the emptiness, things get a bit more wonky. My idea is that there are patches of darkness found throughout the Shadows where the reflected environment of the Material Plane fades away rapidly, and as you keep moving forward into the blackness, the whole concept of a ground beneath your feet becomes increasingly abstract, until you eventually find your feet no longer making contact with anything solid and you no longer need to even move your leg to continue moving forward. With no more visible landmarks to follow, finding your way in the Void by ordinary means becomes effectively impossible. It’s easy to become lost in the Void forever, and even if you happen to eventually reach the Shadows again, it might very likely not be the Shadow of your own world. And even if it is, there is no way of telling which area of the Material Plane your new position corresponds to.

Other Worlds

The number of other worlds that can be found by traveling through the Void could potentially be limitless. But a few of them are known, which are the homes of aberrations and fiends. I don’t think I’ll be using the concept of layers for planes. Instead every such other plane is only a single layer, just like the Material Planes. I’m not even sure if the distinction between material plans ad outer planes has any meaning in this kind of planar setup. I’m also not sure what really becomes the difference between aberrations and fiends, and what’s the difference between supernatural creatures from the Material Plane, such as lamias or unicorns. Maybe there won’t be any. Before 3rd edition, there really weren’t any such distinctions and classifications to begin with, and that worked just fine for decades.

The worlds of fiends and aberrations are a great place to finally make use of some of my favorite places from the Great Wheel. Gehenna, Carceri, and Pandemonium all fit quite perfectly with the kinds of horrific hellscapes that I have in mind. But Ysgard and the Beastlands also make for good places that could be found by traveling through the Shadows and passing through the Void, which are not quite as hostile but still home to strange beings not normally found in the Material Plane.

What I think this setup really doesn’t need is either an Astral Plane, as this function is already well covered by the Void, and any elemental planes. I like the four elementals as monsters, but creating a whole new class of planes just to justify their existence really doesn’t seem necessary. I like this basic setup quite well as it already is.

Maybe there will be a more detailed update on this in the future. But I see it as very possible that the future parties exploring the Six Lands will never make it any further than short diversions into the Shadows of their own world, and as such these things might never actually need to be made more specific.

References for the Shattered Empire

This version of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting was the first one I got when I started learning Dungeons & Dragons when the 3rd edition came out in 2000. While I still think the 1st edition version is the better campaign setting, this one of course had a huge impact on me. It has an interesting art style that I don’t recall seeing anywhere else and that colored my first perception of what the Forgotten Realms look like outside of the videogames that were around at the time. It’s a bit quaint, but it doesn’t have quite the renfairification that is bugging me about later 2nd edition material. The books released for 3rd edition of course had a completely different style, making me soon forget about the aesthetic that is presented here. But now I am feeling like trying to recapture some of the overall feel for a fantasy world that I got from this box.

Unapproachable East might perhaps be the best of all the sourcebooks for 3rd edition that was released, and I think it comes as a pretty solid second in my own personal favorite setting sourcebooks, right after The Savage Frontier for 1st edition. In addition to a really good combination of character options, regional information, factions, and adventure hooks, this book does an excellent job with the art direction. It gives the area it covers a very distinctive feel, and I am more than happy to mercilessly butcher the sections about Rashemen, Narfell, the Great Vale, and Thesk for parts. I think this book easily ranks as the number one source for reference material for the Shattered Empire.

As a kid, I’ve been growing up on fairy tales and seen lots of kids’ shows that you’d clearly classify as fantasy, but I never really had high fantasy on the radar as a wider genre. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings once, thought it was nice, and never thought about looking for more of that kind. When I got into playing videogames, the games magazines I read had plenty of both fantasy games and roleplaying games, but I think I never actually read any articles covering them. I was only into sci-fi stuff and some historical RTSs and economy sims. I got Baldur’s Gate for the sole reason that I was terribly bored in the summer of 1999 and looked up the highest rated games in my old magazines to find something that might be worth getting to entertain me for a few weeks. And the ratings for Baldur’s Gate were through the roof, which made me actually read a CRPG review for the first time. It sounded interesting, mentioned how much easier it was to get into than other RPGs at the time, and so I got on my bike and here I am 23 years later.

Overall, the setting that is presented in Baldur’s Gate is quite pastoral and sub-urban in many places, with the dreaded renfairification of the Forgotten Realms in full swing by that point. But I still really love the look and feel of some of the more remote areas, particularly the Nashkel Mine and Cloakwood Mine, Firewine Bridge, and Balduran’s Isle. I’m totally gonna rip off those places without any mercy or shame.

Icewind Dale is a rather different beast from Baldur’s Gate, and while the graphics and interface is essentially the same, it has a very distinctive look and completely different atmosphere. This one is probably going to have a much greater impact on the Shattered Empire as a whole. Kuldahar, Kresselack’s Tomb, the Dragon’s Eye, and the Broken Hand still remain some of my favorite sites in fantasy as a whole.

The Fellowship of the Ring came out right at the time when I had just been playing Icewind Dale and started getting into Dungeons & Dragons and the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, and as such had a big impact on my lasting perception of fantasy. What a glorious time to be alive. (And also 16, I’m sure that’s entirely coincidental.) In hindsight, I think the second movie is only okay, and the third one is actually kinda bad. But this one I still really like. Particularly the parts in Bree and the journey that follows, and then again the travel to and eventually through Moria, which all stand very prominent in my imagiation for what the Shattered Empire looks and feels like. The parts with the elves are a bit too fancy and dreamy for the style I want to aim at, but overall this really is one of my secondary reference sources.

Some years ago, oldschool D&D fans seem to have come to the collective conclusion that The 13th Warrior is the most D&D movie ever made. And I am in full agreement. The investigation of the raided farms, the night attack on the king’s hall, and then of course the great assault on the cave lair of the savages is all prime high adventure material. If there is any good point to strive to make something more “cinematic” in an RPG, this movie should be the gold standard. I really don’t want to return again to “that Northern Thing” with the Shattered Empire, and I really had enough viking stuff to last me for a lifetime, but I think the great inspirations in this movie work just as fine outside of a Germanic reference frame.

Thief Dark ProjectThief came out two weeks before Baldur’s Gate (around the same time as Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid), but while it was a game that I knew was hugely popular, I only got around to play it a few years later, I believe. Which puts it in that same timeframe when I dived into several of the other works mentioned above. This game is just amazing. The only things I can really think of that I’m just straight up ripping of are the Pagans, Victoria, and the Trickster, but the whole game is constantly popping into my mind when thinking about evoking a certain style with the Shattered Empire. It’s probably going to become more important once I start working on the coastal cities inspired by Westgate and Telflamm from the Forgotten Realms, and their supernatural thieves’ guilds.

I was a bit undecided if I should include Skyrim in this list, but I think it’s probably the best representation for the influence of The Elder Scrolls as a whole on the setting. While I’ll always maintain that Morrowind is the better game as a whole, I think I actually played Skyrim a great deal more, and it influenced my mental image of various of the aspects of the world to a much greater extend. There’s plenty about Skyrim that can easily be ripped off for the Shattered Empire. The overall architecture of Nord houses and tombs fits very well with my image for the Kuri inhabiting the northern lands of Venlat (which I lifted straight out of my Kaendor setting as they are, since I never got to use them in any campaigns). The Kuri themselves have several influences from the ancient Falmer, and I’ve pretty much copy pasted both Orsimer and Khajiit to inhabit my setting. One very important thing where I’m stealing shamelessly are various of the Daedra. Azura, Hircine, Nocturnal, and Harmaeus Mora are gods in the Six Lands with only superficial changes, as is Kynareth, who is one of the references for the major deity Idain.

Since I first played the second game, the first Witcher game has always been for me “that weird, janky one”. The effort is appreciated and the talent clearly visible, but in dire need for a lot more experience and polish. But now that I am thinking about the style I want to evoke with the Shattered Empire, this one game in particular from all the Witcher works is the one that I think I want to draw from. This game looks very grey, with flat lighting and few environmental effects, which makes most of the world it is set in feel rather dull, and the stiff character animations don’t help. But now in the context of the setting I am envisioning, that actually feels a lot more appropriate than the more vibrant colors, stunning environments, and more cinematic presentation of later games. Kaer Moren, the Swamp, and Lake Vizima in particular stand out to me as places that are quite evocative for what I have in mind. The society and culture of the Witcher has always been deliberately anachronistic, with pretty much every character being written with a late 20th century mindest, even though the world is supposedly very medieval. That’s completely different from the kind of society and people I am aiming for, but I still think that the dispassionate calculation and resigned acceptance of bad circumstances that many characters in the series display could also be a useful aspect to draw from.

Bloodborne influences the setting only indirectly, but in very important ways. Playing this game again recently and reflecting on the similarities between its magic system and warlocks in the 5th edition of D&D was what originally gave me the idea to start working on a new setting from scratch. The strange eldritch beings and their relationships with various human characters in the backstory of the game are a major source of inspiration for the nature of the supernatural in the Six Lands. The Kin of Bloodborne and the Daedra of Skyrim are the main reference points for demons.