Greetings SKALD-fans! I’m currently doing a lot of world building and design on the magic-systems and users of the SKALDiverse (more to follow). In that regard I wrote a very short fiction about what it feels like to cast a high-level spell that I though I’d share with you.
For next week I plan to do a world-building article about the different “courts” of mages and probably a project update as well.
As always, feel free to join our discord or follow me on Twitter if you want to engage more closely with the project.
Stay safe and have a great day – AL
Her voice was hoarse from exertion, but the thin line of soldiers that surrounded her obeyed without hesitation. The guards’ polished, silver-inlaid armor and crested helms marked them as among the finest soldiery of the Constellation.
Alryna grabbed the officer by his pauldron and bellowed into his ear over the din of battle.
“We must buy more time for the garrison! I need two minutes. Your men must hold!”
The man’s face grew ashen. She held his gaze, unwavering, until he set his jaw and nodded determinedly. The line would hold – it had to.
Two sharp notes sounded from the officer’s flute. The signal pierced the low rumble of heavy, marching feet and snarling beasts that surrounded the beleaguered rearguard. Reacting instinctively, the soldiers adjusted their left flank.
Alryna unclasped her cloak, and the rich, crimson fabric was whisked away by the canyon’s howling wind. She adjusted the cords of her mage-harness and closed her eyes as another wave of flesh-eaters smashed into the thin, silver battle-line.
As she drew a breath, the chaos of battle grew muffled: as though perceived from deep beneath calm waters. Becoming a battle-magos took years of training – and it had been hard for Alryna – but she had persevered and now the shadows of her doubt had been almost completely washed away by the raging force of the Reticulum. Almost.
Here it came! The now-familiar feeling: first like brushing a finger over an enraged and icy river; then the sudden shift of perspective as if stepping off an unseen ledge in the darkness or feeling your mind expand in that instance when you fall asleep and begin to dream.
Then the stench of charred hair and flesh flooded the battlefield – wait – not yet! These were pre-memories! The Reticulum felt unpredictable and dangerous: Like a wounded beast.
A storm brewed – not one of rain or lightning – but a maelstrom of heavy light and thrumming harmonics that refracted into unnamable colors. And Alryna at its eye – willing the maelstrom of Reticular energy to infuse her very being.
The chains of her harness began to crackle, the energy arcing towards the silver plated armor of the men around her. Common men would flee in horror at the touch of that terrible light – burning them without heat. Even the hardiest of veteran would relent under the maddening howls that rose during great manifestations of the Reticulum.
But these were not ordinary men. They were elite legionaries, handpicked to fight alongside, or even against, those who wielded the forces of the Reticulum. And so they did not break. Not as rank upon rank of flesh-eaters had their flesh scoured by Reticular light. And they did not break, chanting their hypno-indoctrinated litanies as the howls drove the flesh-eaters insane with fear.
Though Alryna could no longer feel her legs, she was aware of the ground shaking. She stood now at the threshold, her self-hood slowly peeling away like white petals of the orchids that grew in the Imperial Gardens. Suddenly there was a lull in the carnage. The enemy’s charge faltered. A brief moment of respite, perhaps? Alryna knew better than to hope – no, this was the eternal doubt – but her steel heart would not yield.
“Hold the line!” She forced the order from behind grinding teeth. She could only hope the officer heard her over the din of chants and wails.
Their foe began to reorganise. The flesh-eaters who had fled from the first charge were trampled to death by the onrush of fresh monstrosities. The thin, silver line could not hold them back. But she hoped they could slow them down.
“HOLD!” She cried again. As much a prayer as a command – she needed more time. Three sharp notes from the officers pipe signaled the assault and the dozen remaining silver ghosts charged against the oncoming horde. A hopeless charge but Alryna would spend the precious seconds their lives bought well. She cried out in pain and rage, and the sky turned inside out.
For a brief glimpse she saw golden spires rise above lush primordial forests.
The ragged column of men had retreated well beyond the canyon. Now, they stopped in their tracks as the ground heaved. The captain’s horse reared in panic and a second later he saw a blinding flash cut through the canyon far behind them, like a rend in the sky. He gasped in awe as the canyon walls shrugged and then crashed down into the valley, causing another violent tremor. His stunned men cowered in terror.
Then the stench of charred hair and flesh flooded the battlefield and the men began retching.
He had been terrified of her from the moment she arrived. Terrified of what she represented. Now they were alone. Even if they managed to hold the city until reinforcements arrived, the High Court would surely scapegoat him for the loss of the priceless Battle-Magos. But that would have to wait. She had bought them time to take that chance, and he swore to reserve his final blessing for that terrible woman in the crimson cloak.
He tore his eyes from the distant carnage: “Make haste for the city-walls!”
The last time we spoke you implored me to assist you in your study of pre-Imperial history. I refused then. Please forgive me: I acted only with regards to your safety and health. In this age, truth itself has become a precious commodity, and even an Imperial scholar such as myself, must be wary. Some things are simply too terrible to bear, yet too dangerous to speak off.
However, things are now afoot that makes me realize I must share what I know lest they be lost forever. The “smiling man” came to me again! Dressed as a beggar. Nay – a fool! And you would think of him as such with that moronic, terrible grin. But he knows things. Things no man should know. And he asks questions no man should know to ask.
Baldwin, I am not well. My mind is not what it was. The dreams are worse than ever and my thoughts don’t feel like my own anymore.
Enclosed are my notes on the subjects you requested. Have tried as best I can to give an accurate outline but I find I do not even trust my own mind anymore. Make of it what you will, and burn the notes afterwards lest they fall into the wrong hands.
Farewell dear friend,
Principal Scholar of History, Imperial College at Vaaul
The Dawn of History
Our world is old. Much older that they would have you believe. In fact, it can be said that our Empire is but a flicker in the great fire of history. Empires have risen and fallen before and they will do so again.
The dreaming oracles of Shaddu-Wa tell of beings that sometimes whisper in their dreams: Ancient beings who the oracles call the altheryn*.
The oracles talk of visions of how the altheryn were already ancient when they found our world. How they constructed their marvelous, white towers. How they bent the very fabric of space and time to their will.
How, in their folly, they drew the attention of nightmares and madness given form: The Hashitan Titans, the Sleeping Old Ones, the Ur-Dragons. Whatever the name, it was chaos incarnate and it had come for the altheryn across gulfs of space and time.
* We would call them “starstriders”.
The War of TITAns
Perhaps the oracles had grown addled by their love of the poppy. But there are other sources as well: Certain tablets of immeasurable age, found on the plains of Vahari, that are covered in images both fascinating and terrifying.
I have seen them myself: They show the altheryn, tall, ivory-skinned beings with terrible black eyes, waging war with beasts too grotesque for words. Behemoths of pure chaos that tore down their white cities, ground their bones to dust and feasted on their souls.
Alygon of Yrr* once claimed to have preformed a ritual so powerful, it tore her mind out of time. She claimed to have seen with her own inner-eye how the altheryn retreated through great gateways to lands beyond the stars and how the High King of the starstriders remained behind to seal the gateways from the titans.
She also tells of how, when the writhing mass of chaos fell upon the High King, his death unleashed so much energy that it lay the mountains low and created the reticulum itself: An intricate, magical lacework that enveloped the world and drove the titans back into the voids **.
*Alygon of Yrr was driven quite mad by the experience and we must be careful in placing too much trust in her accounts.
** The reticulum is also the source of all Imperial magic as we know it.
The First Age: THe long dark
Following the altheryan exodus, millennia passed: Ice-ages came and went and continents shifted. How many lesser races and empires rose and fell one can only speculate.
What is know, is that at some point, humankind arose into a warm and damp world covered by jungles and ruled by the cruel lizard-like saurans.
Humans was hunted for food and sport by the saurans and were forced to cower the polar regions where it was too cold for the saurans to follow them. It was through the crucible of the saurans reign of terror that the great human tribes formed in the First Age.
Mastering steel and magic, the first great kings and queens of men led their people in the first great war – driving the saurans from the land and establishing the Second Age.
The Second Age: Rise of an Empire
The Second Age marks a period of expansion for humankind. Spreading from continent to continent, petty kings and warlords fought, conquered and built.
Though it was an age of growth, it was also an age of mysticism, ignorance and war. The strong enslaved the weak and the ground ran red with blood. The cruelty of the men of the Second Age had come to rival that of the saurans they had driven from the land only centuries before.
Into the chaos of the second age, a child was born. Some will have it that he was born to three mothers or that he was descendant from the stars or perhaps that he was the last descendant of a lost line of kings dating back to the first age*. No matter his origin, the boy was named Gallian.
Whether he studied the arcane arts or simply was gifted from birth, the boy grew to become a wizard of immense power. The young man also had an uncanny charisma that drew people to him.
Fanatical followers quickly flocked around Gallian, and it was not long before he drew the ire of the petty wizard-kings and warlords of the region. Whether he ever wanted it or not, destiny was thrust upon the would-be Emperor.
The struggle that followed is well documented in the Imperial canon and though heretical tongues may have differing views, we all know the result: The founding of the Gallian Empire and ushering in of the Third Age.
* Heretics will have it that he was born in a field to simple goat-farmers. They would be flayed for claiming as much.
THe Third Age: The Gallian Empire
With the foundation of the Gallian Empire came a period of unparalleled stability, growth and prosperity. The so called “Gallian Miracles” turned deserts into farmland and glaciers into gardens. Imperial armies conquered all of the known world and the Empire spanned continents. All at the behest of the magnificent Gallian the Great.
For nearly a century he ruled, first among the great wizards. Then, as Imperial orthodoxy will have it, without warning Galling the Great disappeared. The canon will say he transcended his human form and rose to the stars in a flash of light.*
Following the disappearance of Gallian the Great, the Empire has seen seven Emperors. For two millennia they have guided the Empire: some competently, others less so. Though non could rival the power of Gallian himself, they were all spell-casters of formidable power, drawn from the Emperor’s ruling council of High Wizards. They were the “husk lords” of the Empire.
It is posited in the great Edun-Wahit texts on the nature of magic, that all magic in the Empire (or the world for that sake) flows from the altheryan reticulum: The magical lattice that drove the Hasithan titans from the world. There can be no doubt that the Empire’s dependency on the reticulum is like that of a babe to its mothers teat.
Drawing their power from the reticulum, mages can call forth fire and arcane energies, they may bind flesh or bend mind. Mere conjurers tricks! The Edun-Wahits will warn that the reticulum offers even more arcane mysteries: It is not simply a construct that exists in space, but also in multiple dimensions of time. Drawing deeply from the reticulum a magic-user may experience prescience and even the gift of an unnaturally long life.
Have you noticed how the Emperors have longer and longer reigns? Gallian the Great ruled for nearly a century. Arrion the Gray has ruled for nearly five centuries.
* Before he was burned alive, Brendon of Othar, former Imperial Chamberlain, claimed that the Emperor was meditating in the garden of the Imperial palace when “one moment he was there, the other he was not”.
The Final Imperial COnclave
They will burn me alive for writing this, so I beg of you: Read no further! Throw these notes in the fire – It is the ramblings of a mad man! Carry on your life as if you never knew me and enjoy what worldly pleasures your home and family can offer you!
If you must read on, this is what I have shall pay so dearly for: Every seven years the High-Wizards convened with the Emperor himself in a great conclave. Sealing themselves in the Imperial Palace for seven days and seven nights they convende and when they re-emerged, the course for the Empire would be laid out for the following seven years.
But there is more. There say there were rituals. Rituals older than Gallian himself, spoken in the ancient sauren tongue on those conclaves! The saurens understood how the reticulum “blessed” those who drew deeply from it – the long life it offered.
You too must remember the Great Rending 13 years ago? When great tremors toppled castles and giant waves crashed into cities all across the Empire? A common, but powerful earthquake the scholars said. It took my sweet Caryna from us, killed thousands, yet no one will talk about how those sensitive to such things suffered unnaturally gruesome nightmares for months afterwards. For some of us, the nightmares persist to this day!
And the Miracles are failing too! The Cloudspires of Aldon spew black smoke now and the Canals of Garomma flood with foul ichor instead of water! They say even the great Forges have gone out. Deserts are returning, crops fail and hundreds of thousands flee their homes to avoid famine. Worse yet: It does not flow the way it should anymore. The magic! It has become dangerous and unpredictable and the disturbance only seems to worsening.
I have done the calculations Baldwin: The day of the Great Rending fell on the last day of the last Imperial Conclave. Don’t you see: They must have torn it! The High-Wizards, in their greed, must have drunken too deeply from the reticulum! Gallian bless us, now they stir in the dark. The smell of terror has awoken them!
In fact, I fear they are already here.
My Lord High Wizard,
The above letter was intercepted en route to a certain Baldwin of Hawkwind in the Freymark Hinterlands. Due to the “sensitive” nature of the letters content I found it best to inform your excellence of its existence.
The author was found dead by his own hand (self-immolation), and I have dispatched agents to track down, and deal with, the letter’s would-be recipient post haste.
Senseless ramblings of a mad man no doubt, but I feel it is still prudent to strike swift and hard in such cases.
For me writing posts like these is a nice way of fleshing out the setting for the upcoming game. Thus, everything I write is a work in progress and prone to change down the line. I’ll try to keep it spoiler free and I’ll keep the big plot twists to myself.
I don’t allow the use of the SKALD universe and setting in other commercial products. However, I would love it if anyone used it in their own homebrew tabletop RPG campaigns! If you want to discuss the setting with me directly, join us on the SKALD Discord!
The following is a macro-level overview of the greater region in which “SKALD: Against the Black Priory” is set. I also recommend having a look at this post about the Gallian Empire before reading on.
The Freymark and the Outer Isles
The northernmost province of the Gallian Empire. Independent and rich in natural resources, the region is now being torn apart by conflict as the land-owning Thanes attempt to secede from Imperial dominion. All the while, at the fringes of the region, a terrifying corruption is slowly creeping into the land.
History of the Freymark
Legends say that when the first pre-imperial tribes wandered into the Freymark from the south they found the land free of other humans. Only the ancient and menacing stone ruins found deep in the forests hinted that they might not be the first people to set foot in this land.
As the Gallian Empire arose in the south, the Freymark with it’s grand wilderness and unlimited natural resources quickly became a target for Imperial expansion. Countless unsuccessful attempts to subjugate the people of the north followed over the ensuing centuries, with the result that the Empire adopted a stance of relative self-rule for the region. The Thanes (heads of the local nobility) were formally recognized as kings in their respective territories – answerable only to the Emperor himself in exchange for providing taxes and soldiers for the Imperial armies.
Perhaps the reason for the regions relative independence is that the Imperials were terrified of the deep darkness of the wilderness at the edge of civilization.
Unlike many other parts of the Empire, the Freymark was never the site of the so called Imperial “miracles”: Large scale magical terraforming efforts that turned deserts into gardens and barren wastes into wineries. This also means that as the miracle throughout the Empire collapse, the Freymark remains largely unaffected.
The result is a significant rise in relative wealth as the Freymark is fast sailing up to become the breadbasket of the Empire and a haven for refugees fleeing from the failing ecological “miracles” of the south.
This new-found strategic importance is not lost on the Thanes and their “Freythen” followers (northern nationalists). The people of Freymark see this as an opportunity to establish themselves as a sovreign nation free of the Imperial yoke.
And as the Thanes and the Imperials squabble, something dark is creeping into the lands of the Freymark. Wild magic users are on the rise despite the Empires fervent attempts at purging them and even the ritualized arts of the chartered Imperial mages has grown terrifyingly unpredictable.
Worse still, those who rove deep into the wilds whisper stories of unnatural lights in the sky, strange stone structures and grotesque creatures roaming the land. There are even rumors of unborn children being stolen from their sleeping mothers, and farmers or even whole villages, disappearing without a trace.
It is as if a something is clawing at the sanity of the people of the Freymark. Some would say it’s the threat of war that is taking its toll. Others might suggest that it is in fact this latent, low-grade terror that is causing the surge in political violence in the region.
Geography and Climate
The Freymark is a rugged land where deep fjords give way to wooded hills and steep alpine mountains. The winters are long and dark, and the summers are all too brief. It’s forest teem with bandits, wolves and worse dangers still. Many a fortune-seeker or frontiersman has lost their mind, or life, in the vast wilderness of the Freymark.
The Freymark can be roughly divided into five regions:
A grand bastion of stone and steel, Alder’s Helm is the center of Imperial power in the Freymark. The city is home to roughly 100.000 souls and lies strategically placed between the Mark and the Hinterlands. It’s marvelous, all-year ice-free port, makes it the hub through which all trade in the region flows. It is also the seat of the Imperial ruler of the Freymark: The High Wizard, Othonaric.
Stretching from Adler’s Helm in the north, to the frontier of the Imperial heartlands in the south, the Mark is a series of interconnected dales transversed by the Great Northern Road. The rough hills are dotted with farmsteads raising crops of barley and herds of goats and sheep. The Mark answers directly to the High Wizard of Adler’s Helm himself.
Maintaining control of the Mark is critical to Imperial power in the region since the Great Northern Road provides one of only two lines of communication between Adler’s Helm and the Imperial heartland (the other being by sea).
As a result, the Mark is kept relatively safe by Imperial knights patrolling the highway and the Imperial garrison of Adler’s Helm keeps a watchful eye towards the north and the lands of the Thanes.
North of Adlers Helm, the land grows wild and grand. This is the land ruled over by the Thanes and it is the true northern frontier of the Empire. Fraught with both peril and great opportunity, this is a land that forges strong men and women.
The Thanes keep their holds in the deep mountain valleys, fjords and forests of the Hinterlands, from Adler’s Helm and all the way to the icy glaciers of the northern Skywall.
The Outer Isles
Off the northern mainland lies an archipelago of windswept, gray islands. Though they are far from the rest of the Freymark, the port of Horryn on the isle of Idra is strategically situated between Adler’s Helm and outlying Imperial holdings. Serving as a hub for shipping and trade, the port connects the Freymark to a greater network of trade routes.
The islands are therefore considered part of the domain of the High Wizard in Adler’s Helms and is ruled in his stead by an Imperial governor.
At one point the islands were home to several prosperous fishing villages and ports. As of late, these have been reduced to a scant handful and the islanders grow poor and desperate.
The Skywall and beyond
To the north of the Hinterlands, a near impassable wall of glacial ice marks the far northern end of the Freymark. Known as the Skywall, the icy ramparts conceal a platau upon which, no citizens of the Empire has set foot.
Many are the fabeled tales of what lies beyond the Skywall: From peaks that reach impossible heights to giant ice-covered cities. What is certain however, is that the changing climate is causing the Skywall to melt. Each year new rivers form as ice and water is carried towards the sea from the crumbling glaciers.
Politics and Economy
Though it may seem a harsh and unforgiving place, the Freymark is also a land of plenty: fjords teem with fish, the hills are full of ore and the forests are full of timber and game. It’s said that northern ore and coal fuel the Imperial forges.
In fact, the unlimited natural resources and endless tracts of land were always a prime motivator for Imperial encroachment into the Freymark.
Despite being an early addition to the Empire, the central Imperial court has never held much direct control over the Freymark.
Particularly in the vast Hinterlands, the Thanes have a long tradition of relative autonomy with relatively little interference from the High Wizard of Adler’s Helm. Imperial influence has instead been maintained by political manipulation, strict trade monopolies and frequent penal expeditions rather that an established military presence far beyond the walls of Adler’s Helm.
Now, as the Empire begins to crumble, the rich natural resources of the north are finding their way to new ports and providing an influx of wealth and political power to the holds of the Thanes.
Combining a newfound internal unity with their rich holds and well-equipped armies, the Thanes now stand poised to challenge the Empire itself for control of their ancestral lands and untethering the Freymark from the dying Empire.
Fearing that the secession of Freymark would be disastrous for the Empire, the Emperors fist tightens around the province as armies are mustered to march north and suppress the fledgling uprising. Taxes are collected even more fiercely and any sign of rebellion in loyalist areas are met with swift Imperial justice.
The vast expanse of the Freymark has always been a land of opportunity, fresh starts and potential wealth. Citizens from all corners of the Empire have heard it’s siren song and as a result the people of the Freymark are a diverse lot.
What they have in common however, is a spirit of industriousness, self-reliance and independence forged by the harsh environment of the north. Be they soldiers, farmers, woodsmen, merchants or sailors the people of Freymark are hard-working and no-nonsense.
As the Thane uprising escalates, the people of the Freymark are increasingly forced to pick sides between the Imperial loyalists and the rebellious “Freythen”.
Factions of the Freymark
The Gallian EMpire
The Imperial ruler of the Freymark is the High Wizard, Othonaric. He rules from the Imperial Citadel in Adler’s Helm and answers only to the Emperor himself.
Though he has lived an unnaturally long life, the high Wizard is secretive in the extreme and little is know about him. His total disappearance from public life lately, has even led to rumors that he is in fact dead and has been so for years.
The Imperial garrison in Alder’s Helm is well trained and equipped but relatively small. If it comes to war it will not be able to hold the city for long against the armies of the Thanes. The city also has a contingent of the “Order of the Silver Knights”: An elite knightly order tasked with exterminating wild and unchartered magic-user.
Though Imperial support is vaning in the Freymark, there are still large groups of loyalists in Adler’s Helm, and to a degree, in the Mark. The loyalists believe that the Freymark must remain part of the Empire and that the Thanes’ uprising is an act of high treason.
THANES and The Freythen
The Thanes of the Freymark have united under the banner of Queen Erryan of Hawkwind. She rose to become first among the Thanes following a short but bloddy internal power struggle and has begun using the title “Queen of the Freymark”
What internal animosity may have existed between the Thanes, has put aside (for now) as their holds in the Hinterland have begun preparing for the coming war of independence.
The Thanes have broad support among the population of the north from the political movement known as the “Freythen”. Freythen are nationalists who see the Empire as an oppressive, occupying force who must be driven out so Freymark can gain sovereignty.
“Rovers” is a term used for the increasingly large group of people who shun society to live deep in the wilderness in an attempt to escape the harsh taxation and brewing war.
Whole communities exist, either in small hidden farmsteads or as nomadic groups, subsiding on what nature has to offer whilst waiting for the coming storm to pass. Rovers are considered bandits and outlaws by the Empire and disloyal cowards by the Thanes and perhaps not without good reason: As hunger sets in, some groups of rovers may certainly turn to highway-robbery and theft to survive.
The Tradewind Mercantile League
The Tradewind Mercantile League is a powerful, private merchant league that has taken root in the Empire. Renown for it’s cadre of magically enhanced navigators, excellent ships and private army, the league is said to be powerful enough to rival entire kingdoms, and perhaps, even the Empire itself.
In general the league is distrusted and despised, but the factions of the Freymark are both fully dependent on them: The Empire for shipping supplies into Adler’s Helm and the Thanes for giving their goods a rout onto the greater trade market.
Adventuring in the Freymark
Be it exploring the wilderness and the back-streets of Adler’s Helm, smuggling arms in the Outer Isles or siding with either faction of the Thane uprising, there’s plenty of opportunities for adventure in the Freymark.
The feel of the region should be an area in which the status quo stands on a knifes edge as political tension rises. The players should have a feeling of events unfolding around them and yet they should also feel that interacting with events will have an impact on the conflict.
All the while, there should be a distinct feeling of terror as something dark and terrible is slowly enveloping the region. It should remain mostly unseen and intangible for now and yet be a distinct presence.
I’ll include some adventure hooks to get you started:
The king of foxes
After the power struggle that put Erryan of Hawkwind in charge of the Thane uprising, several of her opponents fled the Hinterlands. One of them is currently hiding in the Mark and has taken up the moniker “the King of Foxes”. He currently leads a band of rovers that has turned to preying on Imperial convoys as highway men.
The Imperials will not tolerate any threat to their overland supplyroutes and the Thanes see that the King of Foxes could be a strategic ally with his guerilla army in potential conflict. Either way, the characters are tasked with tracking him down.
They must not only find the band’s secret hideout, but also get close enough to the King of Foxes that they can either assassinate him or convince him to join in the Thane uprising.
Against the Rocks
A smuggler vessel is lost as it runs aground on a barren rock island in the outer Isles. The ship was carrying cargo essential to the Thane uprising and the heroes must mount a rescue operation. The problem is that even navigating this stretch of ocean is a challenge and the Imperial navy is also out to recover the cargo.
Perhaps the heroes must attempt to bargain with (or burglarize) the Tradewind League to gain access to sea-charts that can help them reach the wreckage before their Imperial counterparts?
No doubt this ends in a showdown at the site of the wreck. As a final twist, the island might not even be completely deserted!
In the ice
Two hundred years ago an Imperial expedition attempted to traverse the Skywall. Two weeks ago a man wanders into a Thane hold and claims to be the last survivor of that expedition. Though he refuses to reveal what they found there, he is convinced he has spent no more than two months in the ice.
Then heavy snow begins to fall, the hold becomes isolated and people start turning up dead.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more of the SKALD universe, please let me know on twitter or join the SKALD Discord!
“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 five centuries. 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!
In the meantime, please follow Scape-IT and SKALD on Twitter for all things RPG and geeky!
Spanning the entire breadth of the fantasy genre, from literature to movies and games, magic is nearly ubiquitous. Magic adds mystery, convenient plot devices and the fantastic and, is such a staple of the genre that it can be hard to imagine fantasy without it. That being said, magic is also exactly that: Magic! Used carelessly, it becomes an endless “deus ex machina” and unravels any internal consistency in the setting at the speed of a “magic missile”.
So, how can you write magic into your fantasy world in an awesome way?
I have no idea, but I have been pondering this for some time and I would like to share the reflections I have made thus far for my own world building project.
First of all, when I say “magic” I’m not just thinking about magic in the narrow sense of “what a wizard does”. Instead, I’m considering it in a broader sense that contains most (or all) of the supernatural tropes found in fantasy.
So why even start with magic this early in the world building process? Magic (in the extended sense of “all supernatural phenomena”) is where so much of the “fantasy” in a fantasy setting comes from. In other words, magic should influence every part of the game world and is a great way to lay the foundation for your fantasy world building.
In general, I find that there are different challenges for different fantasy mediums. Specifically between literature and movies on one side and games on the other.
The first category is much more vulnerable to having its internal consistency broken by poorly written magic with no suspension of disbelief as a result. How many times have you heard “why didn’t just Gandalf use more magic” or “why couldn’t just the eagles take Frodo all the way”? Don’t get me wrong – I love Lord of the Rings, but they do kind of have a point.
For games, on the other hand, there seems to be a tendency for magic to be much more prevalent and nearly always accessible to the player(s). I assume this stems from the notion that it is very poor game design to have players see cool things without being able to DO cool things. In other words, the need for player agency very quickly outweighs the need to have the game world be internally consistent.
The result is often a world that is so saturated with magic, that the game world simply stops making sense. How does the Forgotten Realms still look like late medieval Europe despite magic being so prevalent?
So, what does it even mean to have the game world be internally consistent in regards to magic? Well for me, this means that the world-builder addresses the socio-economic-political implications of magic’s existence.
Consider something as simple as a “create water” spell. In an early agrarian civilization the consequences of this would be monumental. Consider how much effort has been spent (even to this day) to provide water for crops in the form of irrigation systems. The result would be dramatically more effective agriculture, which in turn, means that more citizens can perform specialized labor, become soldiers, scientists, artists etc. This would accelerate the development of the civilization by centuries. Just from a “create water” spell.
Currently I am doing world building for a fantasy setting in which I intend to set several gamebooks (using the SKALD game engine). I’m basing the setting partially on an old pen-and-paper RPG campaign I ran years ago and one important characteristic of this setting is that it’s a human-centric world where magic exists, but is rare, poorly understood and powerful but unprecdictable.
As a starting point I’m picking some of the following fundamental design tenets of magic:
Magic is rare but powerful and is recognized as such in in the world.
Magic is poorly understood, esoteric and shrouded in mystery.
Because of its perceived power, magic attracts either political power OR paranoid persecution.
Therefore, magic is a fundamental force in shaping history. Think the role of religion in medieval Europe. Now imagine in the Catholic Church had fireballs.
Magic comes at a personal cost to the user. It corrupts both the mind and the body.
The use of magic in the world is restricted and reserved only for the very rich and powerful.
So far, I can see myself building a setting around this somewhat restrictive view of magic. I especially feel the “magic corrupts” part adds some checks and balances. Also, I find the view of magic being restricted and unsanctioned magic being persecuted to be interesting. I feel I’m beginning to see the outline of a central political entity in my campaign setting: Perhaps somewhat like a magic-infused, late period Roman Empire.
This starting point might be somewhat on the path of magic being so esoteric that it’s effectively inaccessible to the player characters. Thus falling in the trap of letting the player see, but not do, cool things. However: Since I intend to use this setting primarily within the scope of gamebook-style RPGs, I suspect that the tolerance for inconsistent magic is lower than in most games (more akin to books and movies). This means that at this point I would prefer to err on the side of making magic a bit too scarce whilst maintaining an internally consistent game world.
I’ll start scribbling away and try to translate this into a workable setting of sorts. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll be posting the result here shortly! Stay tuned and feel free to get in touch (with Scape-IT and SKALD on Twitter) if you have questions or comments!