Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fallen Empire - Rules of Setting Creation


Thinking about settings and the generic assumptions of fantasy games and where I want to place "Fallen Empire", my current online game, within those constraints made me realize I need more than just a vaguer sense, I need some ‘rules’ or ‘truths’ about how the setting works at a high or conceptual level. I visualize the setting as my version of 'vanilla' fantasy, a sprawling world of jumbled faux-medieval, classical and renaissance bits where dragons and unicorns exist (likely in a twisted form - but still there).  In order to make the setting consistent I want to create some core ideas, and I want them to be interesting, ideally running against some of my least favorite fantasy archetypes.

This is complicated by a couple of factors, first I abhor vanilla fantasy settings, and second classic settings are already ably represented by numerous products, many of them far, far slicker then anything I could ever deliver.  Consequently I want a setting that is high fantasy, but not derived from Tolkien, Greyhawk and The film Excalibur. Even dispensing with the obvious influences, high fantasy settings come with their own problems – principally really high fantasy is sprawling, better suited for heroic games of conflict between great forces with players acting to pursue world changing adventure.  The titanic conflict between forces of good and evil, order and chaos don't really work well with the rule sets I like, which are at their best providing when a game is about exploration and trickery and picaresque adventure for personal gain. An open world is therefore essential, with room for the players to scheme and explore but there is very little open world left in many high fantasy settings. High fantasy games of great empires, kingdoms and might wizards logically leave very little of the map to explore – there problems aren’t on a human scale, they are epic: ancient evil awakening, barbarian invasions from the realm of nightmare or conflicts between stately pantheons of deities.  OD&D doesn’t really support that sort of game, and while running a version of Journey to the West about reformed demons and pagan gods fighting back against the bureaucracy of heaven and sometimes on behalf of an upstart populist religion has an appeal – it’s not the game I want to run right now.

I find having high level setting truisms helpful keeping my setting and adventure design focused, for creating expectations and building a sense of how the game should works.  One traditional way of doing this is to focus on a monster manual for the setting - what are the common creatures encountered?  A world where goblins are on every random encounter table is radically different than one where dragons are.  An abundance of either implies something about both the world and the goblins or dragons involved.  I want to do this for fallen empire - define its singular monsters (I’ve been doing this in my Monster Archeology posts), but more I want to create a few other ‘truths’ that define the setting.  While it's likely these setting constraints will grow and change in play, it seems useful to set up specific guidelines for everything I produce for Fallen Empire so that it has a distinct look and feel.

While a good chunk of that look and feel is purloined art from Roger Dean and other 70’s/80’s progressive rock album cover artists, I want that to be a bit more than an aesthetic draped over a standard D&D game.

Rodney Matthews (Not Roger Dean) - so smooth

No Untrodden Land

The Empire is over 6,000 years old and its best days are long behind it.  That means that while there are plenty of distant, hard to reach, mysterious places there's no pristine wilderness.  Every acre of Imperial land, or what once was Imperial land - from the Northern valleys blanketed in alchemically potent blue flowers to the blasted crater lands that were once the Imperial center was once domesticated and tamed, part of a magical economy that exploited and warped everything – a landscape that is as tamed as modern Europe, only gone terribly rotten with magical pollution instead of thriving.  Whatever desolate spot the party find themselves in there's a ruin within a mile or so, even if it’s just some bump under the grass and an echo of a near incomprehensible history of human endeavor.

There's something of an inverse colonialism about this. I think because the basis Fallen Empire is the idea that the colonies or hinterlands (The Resurgent Kingdoms) are flooding the decrepit ruins of the once all powerful Empire to steal its wealth, technologies, and land, while what remains of the Imperials themselves stink ever deeper into decadent stasis.  I'm not trying to make a political point here, but find this a useful setting fiction, and a nice inversion of the typical tabletop setting of the lawless frontier.

As a setting idea this allows the Resurgent Kingdoms to remain lightly sketched varieties of traditional fantasy medievalism, which in turn allows me to make the Fallen Empire a bit less standard and a bit more science fantasy without forcing the (seemingly endless hordes) players and GMs who prefer vanilla, Tolkien pastiche, Forgotten Realms style pablum to struggle with too many new ideas.  The endless army of lighting eyed beardy wizards, fake Scottish beer dwarves, moody elves and midriff baring ninja/assassin/thief ladies are recast as the rapacious invaders from the backward Resurgent Kingdoms. Waterdeep can be just over the Empire's Eastern borders.
By inverting the 'lawless' frontier trope of typical D&D (and the Western genre) I can do some interesting things with Fallen Empire, and have no need for bands of humanoid raiders that replace either the 'Bad Men', 'Bandidos', or 'Renegade Indians' the Western.  The Empire is not a land suffering without laws, or uncivilized, it's a place crushed under too many contradictory laws, where civilization has grown so specialized and complex that its citizens can no longer even recognize each others' culture or humanity.  This is literally true in the case of the three (and only) demi-human races that I propose to add to the setting: Imperial Nobles (like elves), Hive Serviles (ghouls/ogre/dwarves), and Domestics (halflings, talking animals) whose lineage is so filled with magical manipulation that they aren't really human anymore.

No Apocalypse too Big

Another common trope in game settings, (right after borderlands and untamed wilderness perhaps) is a game world has recently been through a cataclysm, an apocalypse - something to explain all the ruins, monsters, tombs and such.  Now I suppose Fallen Empire (it's in the name after all) is of the same ilk, but the key here is thinking about apocalypses.

The Apocalypse in 'Revelations' or the various pagan end of the world events described before it (Ragnarok is an especially good one), and even the late 20th century 'nuclear apocalypse' are such overwhelming, total and sudden things.  Historically nothing like this has occurred in several thousand years of history, at least not on a large scale.  It's easy to argue that this is because until recently humanity hasn't had the tools to unleash extinction style events on itself, or the cohesion to notice when one people or another collapses - but I'm an optimist, I think people, society and the world are more resilient and smarter than culture likes to give them credit for.  Collapse is a slow thing, worse roads then the generation before, poorer education, less trade, ever more opportunistic leaders, more inequality and strife.  When one calls the fall of ancient Rome an apocalypse, that makes sense to me, but it took from perhaps the year 9 (Teutoburg Forest) or maybe the 400’s (the Great Migrations) until the 15th century (The Turkish conquest of Constantinople) for the 'Roman Apocalypse' to finally run to completion. Like Europe at the end of the first millennium, the apocalypse in Fallen Empire is much debated, the forms of ancient glory are preserved without the technical or political knowledge to make them function.  Fallen Empire, like early medieval Europe, is a place where the historical narrative, the clear obvious direction of human existence, is one of decline leading to barbarism and destruction, not the story of civilization and progress that our own society has told since the Renaissance.

The Fallen Empire is in the midst of a slow collapse, crumbling, cannibalizing its functional parts to eke out a longer existence, plundering its own patrimony to squander on frivolities, and so inward gazing that it can't even fully grasp its decline.  The current Emperor is the scion of the Successor Empire, meaning that he traces his lineage (debased, inbred and corrupted) back to the first Emperors and their divine allies - but the original Imperial Capital is gone, and the citizens of the Empire live on the shadows of its greatness - long, deep shadows.  The excitement of the setting comes from the conflict between the decadent and collapsing Imperial center and the Resurgent Kingdoms (traditional fantasy, medieval pastiche sorts of places) as well as from the exploration of the Empire's lost glories.

Magic is Technology

There's standard Vancian style magic in Fallen Empire, of the more classic D&D setting variety - rare, dangerous and used mainly by creepy folks with odd hats and nefarious schemes.  This sort of thing isn't 'real' magic according to the denizens of the Empire, it's the corrupt magical fumbling of a fallen age. To prove these points the remnants of the high magic world of the past are everywhere as ruins and magical items.  Yet once every day ubiquitous high magic is worn out, broken, used up and mostly gone.  The evidence remains everywhere - architectural wonders that are too tall, too big and too empty to use properly (the hundred story tower palaces of the Imperial nobility are largely empty now, dust and spider filled spires with top levels are sealed off now that the chained elemental lifts and arcane portals connecting the high places to the ground are unreliable or missing.)  It's an entire world where the cities are a collection of Ghromenghasts - sprawling in slow decline and infested with feral pets and mad servants who run things based on fragmentary institutional memory.

Even small bits of magic are largely incomprehensible, broken or dangerous, and yet they are still items of unfathomable power that speak to a time when humanity was in command of its own fate.  So potent were the powers of the ancients that most magical artifacts are entirely mundane in purpose, though many of the same artifacts, intended to make domestic life easy may be turned to violence and depravity.

The sciences of Alchemical Fabrication and Arcane Academics that were used to mold the Empire's great works (including the bloodlines of its nobility and numerous servitor species) are mostly lost - certainly the great practitioners are all gone, a few having left their towers and fabrication hives to untrained apprentices - few of who survive now, and most of whom are insane.  Most Imperial wizards are noble dilettantes (who may at least have Arcana or Engineering skills allowing them to better understand and use archaic devices) taught by incompetent tutors with crumbling texts from ancient libraries.  Other Magic-Users are either self-taught hedge mages, operating with clumsy manipulations of the arcane currents and by rigorous rote memory, or practitioners of  barbarous traditions of magic using the intervention of outsider forces: The solar necromancy of the Red Sun Hierophancy (To the West) or the shadow magic of Pine Hells Shamanism (To the North) or any other of the primitive practices within or without the Empire - all of which fail to approach even a clumsy understanding of the basic magical principals once learned by the Empire.  Only in far Vehissu with it's walking Volcanoes and Ash Legions is there any inkling that the systematization and scholarship of magic is possible, but Vehissu is a strange and alien land that uses its power to deny its own existence.

A Parliament of Owlbears & and a Surfeit of Men

The signature monsters of the Fallen Empire, the horrors players will always encounter on wilderness tables and crawling about abandoned underground places, will be Owlbears and men. Owlbears are magical sports that breed quickly and feed on magic, and hence can be found almost everywhere in the Fallen Empire, swarming magical sinks and even haunting the ruined districts of the Capital. The creatures aren't a secret, they are an open pest and menace and every town of any note will have a standing bounty on Owlbears. Owlbears come in a wide variety of plummage and fur, from the small mundane black fur with dirty white pigeon feathers and a tendency towards mange to creatures with majestic plumage and a fine pelage.  Even though they are magical nightmares of fury and claw, owlbears are animals, and while territorial they are not inherently aggressive, unless they sense food in the form of magical artifacts or the flesh of a spell caster. 

Humans are really the only race in Fallen Empire, though many subspecies of humans exist to replace the standard fantasy humanoid races.  Mermen like lobster centaurs originally warped by magic as marines and underwater workers, small fox-faced people designed to be adorable household servants and harboring all manner of secret grudges and lanky pale hive thralls who live underground in the elaborately carved tunnels of ancient salt mines warring among themselves and protecting their brood mothers. Yet even these strange offshoots of humanity are still fundamentally human, usually at cross purposes with the party, but varied, sociable and cunning.  Bandits are everywhere, both the traditional kind (usually local peasant militias or noble bands supplementing their income), and hereditary clans of Imperial tax collectors/road wardens/game keepers who's efforts at taxation are robbery.  There's little distinction between the forces of order and those of disorder as the entire Empire has sunk into a sort of kleptocratic frenzy with hundreds of different competing hierarchies and claims to sovereignty.  In addition to homegrown robbers and grasping nobles there's waves of invaders: unscrupulous merchants, tomb robbers and crusaders pouring over the shattered borders of the Empire and taking whatever they can get.  Then there's cults.  Lots and lots of cults, most of them millenarian and messy. Humans make the best monsters, both because their motivations and thoughts can be easily understood by players and GM alike, and because it’s very easy to find an intriguing basis for a monstrous ideology or insane cult from a few minutes of reading history.
There are other monsters of course - I intend to use the entire set of foes provided in Monsters & Treasure, with some editions (like the owlbear) but at the core the Owlbear and the bandit represent the dangers that will be omnipresent.

More Roger Dean - the unrealized promise of psychedelic drugs.

Ineffable Sadness, Not Evil

There's been a bit of talk lately about strains within the 'OSR' or table top gaming itself.  There's of course the heroic sort of adventure where noble wizards and ethereal elven queens send heroes to stop the Dark Lord's evil world conquering plans.  Then there's the grotty sort of Swords and Sorcery where everyone is a roguish scoundrel and the universe a bawdy quest for loot that always ends with plague boils and carousing.  More recently the 'nega-dungeon' and 'deathcrawl' have been identified, as forms of adventure that focus around survival rather than success and usually take place in very bleak settings.

Fallen Empire isn't a Deathcrawl, it's meant to be harsh and dangerous, but the point isn't creating a setting where characters die constantly and everything is horrible.  The idea is to make a sandbox setting with lots of faction play and where the players can change things that interest them. To that end it's important to me not to 'tell' the players what's good and bad in the world - any heroic efforts they wish to make are possible and will have consequences, but will never be anything other than player decisions or fixations.  Still, the world of the Fallen Empire is not one where redemption or greatness are possible on any large scale - characters and even communities may be saved, improved or benefited - there is room for positive narratives, but the entire setting is one of sadness and decline. Entropy will unmake it all in the end, and the engines of destruction are also only engines of progress.  That progress though will always fall below the threshold of what once was.

Only the monuments of the past will be permanent, untouched by decay, great slabs of incomprehensible white alchemy that for all their glory have the useless strangeness of Soviet monuments in a post-Soviet world.

To this end most foes are likely to be more pathetic then evil.  Spirits and undead abound, but most will be piteous leftovers despite the fact that most undead in Fallen Empire use wight, wraith or mummy statistics. Even ravening horrors like owlbears exist because of the mistakes and misguided desires of the past, creatures designed to clean up the magical pollution of the Imperial heyday, but for all their gluttonous malice, like the characters, even locust thick, owlbears insufficient to the enormity of the task of restoration.

To this end many adventuring locales, enemies or 'quests' are intentionally very very powerful.  I put a 9HD creature in the 0-level funnel adventure I've been run, because it makes sense that it's there, and because in Fallen Empire there are things that can't be overcome despite the most heroic of intentions.  That isn't to say these foes and dangers aren't insurmountable - it's just that as a GM it's not my job to figure out how to beat them, and how to assure player triumph through carefully challenging encounters.  Instead I try to place NPCs (there aren't really any monsters - just unpleasant or exceptionally brutish NPCs) in contexts that make sense for them in the setting, and look forward to my players surprising me by overcoming the things I thought were impossible to beat.


  1. I like this very much. It has the odor of a bad dream over it, the feeling of sad, drunken musings with a light dosage of hallucinogens. Nightmarish at times, highly interested to explore, and opening up all possibilities for interesting adventures.

  2. Sorry to be an awful pedant but that first picture is Rodney Matthews, not Roger Dean (I had an RM art book many years ago, 'In Search of Forever' - wonderful stuff). Glad to see you posting again.

    1. Thanks - fixed. Glad to know another name to search for when I'm looking for this style of glossy fantasy art.

  3. great stuff. your fallen empire with pernicious albion and wicked city makes one of the best parts of the rpg web.

  4. Totally blown away by this. Why aren't you writing books?

  5. Firstly, awesome stuff. I really dig the 'high-fantasy re imagined' vibe. I enjoy high-fantasy, but it is difficulty to find new perspectives on it that don't fall into the 'darker/grittier' trap. A graceful, aloof, and blood-spattered elf is just as cliche as a graceful and aloof elf. What I have found especially helpful about this article and the previous one, is your creative process. I have begun to play with the idea of producing my own game content. So, seeing the creative process of another person is very helpful. Great stuff!

  6. Really nice, you should publish some fluff pdfs for this