“Your empire is now like a tyranny: It may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go“
The last couple of weeks I have been doing some world building for the fantasy setting I intend to use for a series of gamebooks (published with the SKALD game engine). Starting with the fundamentals, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the feel and flavor of the setting. I recently wrote a post concerning magic and world building and I intend to use the outline laid down in that post as a jumping-off point.
To begin with, I want to work with a human-centric, low-magic setting of slightly dark fantasy. That’s not to say I don’t want fantasy elements – I would just prefer to have the fantastic remain fantastic and rare.
Personally, I find that starting by describing the big picture first, provides scaffolding for the rest of the campaign. For this world building project, I’ll start by establishing a center of political power in my world: A large, human empire ruled by wizards.
I’m a huge history buff and, in particular, I am fascinated by Roman history. As historical drama goes, there are few things more dramatic than the rise and fall of empires. I, for one, am partial to the falling. No wonder then, that I use the late Roman empire for inspiration. Furthermore I adore Frank Herbert’s “Dune” so I’ll probably add a dash of that as well.
As a starting point for my setting I envisione: “The Gallian Empire”.
A Waning Giant
Founded millennia ago by the mythical first emperor “Gallian the Great”, the empire subjugated and conquered all who stood before it and, at the peak of its power, it spanned continents. Ruling from the imperial capital of Vaul, Gallian founded the lineage of wizards that rule the empire to this day.
After ruling for just short of 100 years, emperor Gallian simply disappeared. After him, a short line of wizard-emperors followed. Some were good – others cruel, and all had unnaturally long reigns. The Gallian Empire is now under the reign of its seventh and most long-lived emperor to date: Arrion the Gray.
The Gallian magocracy has grown increasingly obsessed with discovering the secrets of immortality and as a result Arrion the Gray has now ruled for nearly a century. Longevity, as all magic, comes at a price however: the Emperor and his ruling council of elder wizards (resentfully called “the husk lords”) has become mere shadows of men – caring less and less for the lives of ordinary people.
As a result, for the last two decades the Gallian Empire has been waning. Along its vast borders, once servile neighbors now challenge Imperial dominance. Internally, alienation by the wizard-class and ruthless taxation by decadent nobles, has caused strife and civil unrest to grow among the imperial citizens.
An Empire of Magic
Magic had always existed in the world but it was primitive, volatile and difficult to control. Gallian’s genius was that he shaped magic into a tool of political and martial power and created social structures for the teaching, refinement and control of magic.
The source of Gallian the Great’s understanding of magic has long since become the stuff of legends. It is, however, believed that he gained his knowledge from the studies of arcane texts so ancient that their origin lies in pre-history.
Since its founding days, magic in the empire has been esoteric, mystical and wrapped in secrecy. The reality portrayed to the citizens of the empire has been that of wizards being god-like and omnipotent. The reality however, is far from it: The use of magic comes at a terrible cost to both mind and body and long-term use turn all but the most powerful wizards, into dried-out shells. As a result magic is a far more limited resource then anyone outside the magocracy realizes and much of the wizards political power come from maintaining an outwards appearance of being all-powerful, combined with the martial strength of their fiercely loyal knightly orders.
Furthermore, there has always been a sense that the wizards from the age of Gallian himself have yet to be matched in power. In fact, one of the most fiercely guarded secrets of the magocracy is that the wizard’s powers seem to be slowly, but certainly, fading. Those in the know have speculated as to the cause and suggestions range from astrological phenomenon to the effect of years of moral corruption and decadence.
As the wizard’s powers fade another, equally strange phenomenon is beginning to appear: All over the Empire, the number of children born with so-called “wild magic” has risen sharply. Wild magic typically manifests in the early teens as very limited and volatile, yet often powerful, magic abilities that the user may find hard to control. Fearing their power-monopoly is being shaken, the wizards zealously persecute wild magic user, thus adding to the feeling of fear, oppression and xenophobia that has begun to permeate the Empire.
By using the Gallian Empire as a starting point I, hopefully, have a lens with which to view the rest of the campaign setting. I’m quite pleased with having created an empire so shaped by magic while still not making magic seem mundane or common. I also like the dark undertones and moral ambiguity that comes with the overly authoritarian regime of the magocracy that, despite its failings, is still relied upon by millions of citizens.
We’ll see where it goes from here. Next up in world building is probably the role of demi-humans in the setting. But you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for that. I’m currently working on a review for Tanya X. Short and Tarn Adams’ book: “Procedural Generation in Game Development” and hope to get that out first!
Have a great week!