Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Hinterlands of Empire

"Men make their own history, but not as they please, not out of the conditions he chooses, but under existing circumstances - transmitted from the past; the traditions of past generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living."

The Successor Empire is sadly reduced by secession, war, conquest, depopulation and decline. 

The Central Provinces of Empire, the only ones loyal to the Emperor, and not claimed by naval mutineers, rogue dux, plague cults, Resurgent Kings or the Solar Popes are top heavy with the accretion of the past.  Every foot of ground has been a field, a home, a barracks and a grave at least once, and almost every mile contains some ruined magnificence - tumbled blocks showing the forgotten master-work of a long dead sculptor lay in a field of alchemically altered flowers, poisonous, but in the perfect jeweled tones to celebrate some ancient Emperor's jubilee.

Even in their wounded grandeur, nibbled at the edges by betrayals and crusades, the Central Province alone is larger then most kingdoms, stretching from the polluted crater lands South and West of the Capital to the Blue Meadows in in the North.  Canals and imperishable high-roads radiate from the Capital to run ruler straight across the provinces, surrounded by tumbled stones and monumental arches of bonewhite that still gleam for past victories -  appreciated only by jack rabbits and sparrows for the shade they cast.  Even fertile regions such as Green Hive are beset by internal feuding among their noble magnates and invaders from without.  Pirate princes from the Province Maratime sail ever Northward, penetrating the rivers and canal networks in brazen plundering expeditions while local militias rob traders and each other.  Everyone know that The Empire is sick, collapsing from the decadent weight of its own glory, but the fall has been so long coming that even those who care put off hard choices for years or generations while the Empire dies in nearly geologic time.

Some regions of course are more vibrant than others, and some divisions, cantonments, wards, departments, demesnes or shires are even growing while the Imperial world fades. 
The Successor Empire and its Rivals

The Blue Meadows:
Once a Legionary Border Canton, shielding the Empire from the Ice Kingdoms and the worthless lands of the Pine Hells, Blue Meadows is a wilderness of alpine idylls and howling storms that thunder down from the glaciers. Canals can only penetrate so far into the mountain fastness, and where they stop the trade roads begin.  Amber, furs, lumber, tar, wax, copper, iron and hard dusk grain still pour from the North while the salvaged treasures of past flow north on the backs of shaggy mules.  The Blue Meadows are a growing concern, the ruling Tilpady family having crushed their rivals in trade two generations ago through fortuitous marriage of one of their 2nd sons to a silver haired, pink-eyed and ambitious princess from the Ice Kingdom of Bone and the Resurgent forces she brought with her to secure the marriage.  Perhaps its the influence of corrupted blood, but Imperial lassitude and noble insouciance have been entirely lacking since the other families of the North were cowed.  The altered flowers of the meadows themselves are once again being properly distilled into medicinal blue tonic, exported both North and South, while resurrected Jaeger orders protect the distilleries and fields from alpine menaces such as unicorn and owlbear.

The Blue Meadows are harsh and clean, with fewer magical sinks and corruption then most other cantons.  Jagged ice and rock peaks dominate, but scattered among them are the meadows - places of cold beauty and lush highland grasses where small hamlets cluster close to the rock, grazing hearty sheep, and tending to the flower fields.

A popular destination for treasure hunters, as the Blue Meadows are well managed by a noble order that, for however merciless and hard-dealing it may be, keeps the peace and pays its debts. The maze like mountain fastness still holds many ruined factors and other unspoiled, unplundered remnants of the ancient world.  The Tilpadys encourage freebooters, both to supplement the dopplesoldat mercenaries that protect trade roads and as a supply of ready pawns in their schemes against both internal and external threats: cults, noble remnants, Pine Hells' warchiefs, jealous Ice Kings, greedy trade lords and snow beasts.

Dawn Rill
The most highly developed of the cantons within the Central Province, Dawn Rill is a land of canals and large estates, given over to the pleasure and eccentricities of its overabundant nobility.  The lands themselves are carefully manicured, resplendent with delicate alchemical hybrids, and better cared for then the rest of the Empire - pump stations still function, monumental statues stand and travelers' rests are often still manned, if only by a single inbred family.

Dawn Rill is governed by a squabbling parliament of noble families who aggregate the wealth and strength of the dying Imperial order to themselves to squander in their foul feuds and bloody honor duels.  The blood of the Empire's soldiery waters mazes of elaborate topiary and the flower gardens of ten generations of eccentrics. Tericos and squadrons clad in irreplaceable bonewhite panoply and armed with lighting lance, schioppi and dancing blade - forces each capable of turning back a Solar Crusade from the fields of Green Hive, or destroying flotillas of Blackmash sea raiders out of hand - clash and destroy each other over the piques of spoiled children and to test the theories of doddering old martinets in the shadow of architectural follies. Beneath the noble gloss of pointless honor and indulgence forces of an older harsher order grow bolder: backstairs tyrants grow their own legions of under-servants, the cast off retainers destroyed families tattoo their faces with the red skull of the revenger and turn brigand, while the gardeners' league grows in power with each blood sacrifice to to forest gods imported from the East

To the East of the Rill are the fractured marchwalds - dense tangled forests teeming with bison, elk, monstrous boar, woodwose, dying thirsty gods, and petty barons. Beyond the Solar Papacy Looms, but the cunning Pope prefer to flatter the Rill's petty princes and spend their armies of fanatics and third sons for a greater return to the South.

For the bold deceiver or flashy rake Dawn Rill has no equal.  A successful robbery on its garden paths and perfumed highroads can set up a band for life, while the ruins of lost houses are still filled with wealth.  The greatest prize in Dawn Rill however is the hand of an heir, marriage into one of the great families and assurances of sybaritic ease.

Green Hive

Rolling hills, pastures, meadows, vineyard, and bee hives the Hive is pastoral perfection beneath a blue sky -- curdled with rot.  Beneath fields of arcane mono-culture even alchemically treated and sorcerously preserved soil must eventually succumb to neglect.  The yields that feed the Empire decline each year as nutrients are exhausted and pacts with the spirits of the earth expire without possibility of renewal due to the fallen state of the Empire's thaumaturgy. Worse, the Solar Empire's crusades clash against the Eastern border of Green Hive two Summers out of five, burning fields, plundering storehouses and blinding those they don't steal off to a life of serfdom.

To cope with the armored cavaliers and deadly horse archery of the papal varlets Green Hive's elderly Dux has unleashed militia conscription stealing workers from the land to expand her armies and tax farming syndicates to supplement to treasury - trapping the lesser nobility and freeholder alike in debt peonage.  Green Hive is beset by war, enclosure, brigandage and strife with refugees, deserters and mercenaries who flow outward or lurk in the hills as robbers and revolutionary clubmen.  All leave their own trails of destruction and slaughter spiraling out from the great burnt swaths that the mark Crusader sacrifice to the glory of the Dawn, Noon and Sunset Popes. 

Ruin lurks behind every neat hedgerow and both syndicators and petty nobles seek bold mercenaries in their struggles over fertile land, while militia armies under the flag of the emerald bee pay steadily for scouts, agents and training captains. With the constant invasion and internal wars the fields of Green Hive are now also home to bands of brave scavengers, explorers and plunders who delve the ruins created by generations of bloody rapine.   

To the East of Green Hive are the fertile plains of the Solar Papacy, under the flag of the red, yellow and orange discs.  Horse people, once Imperial puppets who have taken to harsh religion of fire and light and now a Resurgent Kingdom of great power, perhaps the Empire's most likely rival and some say the catspaw of the ancient enemy -- Vehisu.  To the South beyond dead hills, pony tribes and bone signers are the still burning ruins of the Great Empire's Heart Provinces - now a demon haunted waste of glass, bones, fire and crumbled marble.

Umber Reach
Marsh, dry hills and rich sunny islands between hard mountains - the Maiden Tombs to the Marble Range to the South East, Umber Reach, also known as the Umber Quays, Umber Havens or simply Umber, is a much battered but defiant Province, a mercantile and naval power rising again after devastation and war.  The century old mutiny of the Imperial Navy's Expeditionary Fleet, it's conquest of the breakway Province Maratime and the dependencies in the Sapphire Isles struck Umber hard. Provincial Capital drowned, the undermanned Home Fleet scuttled, levees shattered and croplands reduced to poisoned salt marsh, the Havens still fought the Pirate Princes to a standstill one land and sea.

While majority of the Provence a lawless but surprisingly productive landscape of hill, marsh and mangrove exports cattle, leather, fruit, rices, dried fish, intoxicants, iron and gold the great port of Aurum Ferro, where the canalways meet the sea expands as the wealth of the Empire bleeds out in exchange for its populace's necessities and luxuries.  Aurum Ferro is a frenzy of wealth as the Merchant nobility grow ever more prosperous, and even the Demes of dock, boat, and warehouse, cover their dungarees in silver conchos.

A beacon of exotic riches, Umber has many breeds of disreputable and desperate fortune hunter: wreck divers, beast hunters, privateers, the leviathan men who fill it's whaling fleet, rich man's hands, agents of foreign powers, the hired assassins of the black syndicates, swamp renegades and bandits.  Yet even this burgeoning populace of unsavory delvers cannot take advantage of Umber's opportunities: the half sunken ruins of its original capital - now called "Angel Reef", the wreckage of mines and plantations in the interior, the wyrms' waste to the South, abandoned fortresses and trade depot on the Pyre Sea, and most of all the wrecks of generations of warships and trade vessels.

To The East across the Maiden Tombs is the arcane anomaly of the Crystal Frontier and beyond the Resurgent Bull Kingdoms, currently content to stagnate and sacrifice its peons to demon gods under the hand of an ineffective and distracted Witch Emperor.  To the South the great High Roads strike through the dusty hinterland of the Pyre Coast, a tiny abandoned land of drovers and cattle wars that bleeds into the Desolation of Zurab, where the Sanguinary Wyrm Zubrab the Everhungering Wind holds sway and spawns brood after brood of foul children - sea wryms that add another hazard to the Pyre Sea. 

Where the Blue Meadows descend to a great grey sea plain, and the marshes of the Umber Reach rise to a wooded plateau is the harshest of the Imperial Provinces - Blackmarsh.  A land of cold sea fogs, rocky inlets, slate shingle and sucking grey mud that slowing transforms into dark tangled forest. Less touched by ancient magics, wilder and less populous Blackmash has long been refuge for dissenters, criminals, and misfits who chaff at Imperial rule.  It's population center clusters around the shore fortress of Blackacre, and the equally forbidding prison monastery within The Iron Light where a stern sub-pantheon of Imperial Saints transforms miscreants into the warrior monks of the Mirrorwatch. To the North is the Black Mirror, a channel between Imperial lands, the Mud Isles, and the semi-mythical Ifreann Glas - the 'green hell'. To Mirror's East the Hellsea, which disgorges bone drakkars and shadow knarrs from the Pine and Ice Hells, traders who turn to raiding the moment it seems advantageous.  Worse is a constant flow of painted men from the Mud Isles, waves of leather coracles packed with huge hounds and wode splattered head hunters armed with flint arrows, clubs and hide shields who speak only in a language of canine barks.

While monks and hardened mercenaries keep seaborne raiders from the fishing villages, dye factors and lumber mills of the coast nothing protects the forest dwelling Marshers, source of much of the province's wealth, lumber, except own bows and axes.  In the deep forests, some still primeval and untouched, the lumberjacks and hunters dwell in small hamlets, behind thick log palisades -- suspicious that any stranger is a loup-garou scouting for the great packs of the forest heart, or a denizens of faery, wearing the skin of one of the multitude lost to the forest. The only means of survival in the forests of Blackmarsh is to reach an accommodation with the redcaps, hungry spirits and woodwose of the place, and the woodsfolk have done so long ago, with spirits of place and blood poured on ancient black stumps replacing the temples and hymns of the Imperial Cult.

At first glance Blackmarsh is perhaps an unappealing region for treasure hunters, dangerous, but unrewarding.  However, within the forest's depths stand forgotten castles, abandoned villages and burnt halls while along the grey store are ancient barrows, drowned Imperial towns, and labyrinthine caves winding into the chalk cliffs.

The Capital
At the center of all is the Capital, a gluttonous belly crying for the wealth and industry of it's surrounding children. A waste region of ruins: mortuary suburbs, industrial outskirts, military cantonments, and magical sinks that surround the ruinous city, slowly being overtaken by nature, pierced by lily choked canals. A few towns and trading depots linger, rough, insular places filled with inbred lineage obsessed townsmen and ruled by absent nobility or corrupt councils under extinct charters or fictitious laws. Most are little better then bandit camps, persisting on "tolls" levied at spear point from tradesmen foolish enough to wander from the established routes, unlicensed tomb robbery, and subsistence farming. All energy, activity and hope have contracted to the great city itself, so vast and ruinous the it takes a week to walk from the undermanned gate fortresses of it's thousand foot walls to the mile high spire of the Imperial Palace at its center remotely reflects the glory of the Empire. The Capital is still a place of marvels, majestic and ponderous, bedecked in the plunder of worlds, bustling and alive with scholars, soldiers, bureaucrats, merchants, priests and criminals within the sea of the urban Demes - neighborhood, labor, and sporting organizations that organize around a colored flag for mutual defense and assistance by the masses of ordinary insula dwellers. Three fifths of the Imperial population still resides in the capital and in places: near the Foreigner's Market, by the Wall of Follies, among the flower shaded streets and alleys of the Apiarist's District the Capital seems whole, vibrant, secure, powerful and active -- but this is an illusion. It's size and the imperishable construction techniques of the past hide the decline, abandonment and decrepitude of the majority of the Capital. Most of the spire palaces on Noble's Hill are empty, the Factors between the wall and the Great Pool are abandoned except for the feral animal headed descendants of the thralls who once worked there and at night the city offers miles of trash strewn darkness of every well lighted an orderly block.

Foreigners and mercenaries still flock to the Capital, most sell their grain or other staples for ancient treasure and quickly leave - the Capitals deep sedimentary layers of deadly intrigue, faction politics, private armies, forbidden areas, and contradictory laws make it especially dangerous to outsiders. A few stay, mercenaries who have squandered their pay on the city's sophisticated debaucheries or merchants willing to tolerate great risk for greater return. Scavenging, freelance or hired violence, monster hunting, and robbery are all well rewarded in the Capital.

Province Maratime

South of Umber cut off from the Empire's body by the Pyre Coast and the Desolation of Zubrab in the West and wastes of the ever-burning, demon haunted Heart Provinces in the East the Maratime Province is an Empire of it's own.  A nautical nation, founded by the mutineers of the Expeditionary Fleet, which declared their droungarios the secret emperor, descended from a hidden and uncorrupted branch of the ancient Imperial Dynasty and commenced a doomed war to claim the rest of the Empire.  While both the Home Fleet of the Umber Havens and the Expeditionary Fleet were ravaged, squadrons of irreplaceable stone ships run aground and sunk the war was inconclusive.  Exhausted at sea, and interrupted on land by the arrival of the wyrm Zubrab the Hungering Wind, the Sea Kings of the Maratime turned their fleets and ambitions South and West, conquering the tropical Sapphire Isles and turning to trade.

The Pyre Sea and world ocean beyond are deep and hide humanity's efforts to corrupt them, the islands and shores of the Province Maratime teem with life and industry.  Its sailors are thought the best in the world, its weather witches and Leviathan priests the most erudite, and its harbors, most built only with the new sciences of device and careful architecture, produce an endless armada of fast, weatherly vessels made of wood, canvas and brass. Perhaps the Province Maratime is not a part of the Empire at all, perhaps it is itself a Resurgent - a loose confederation of merchant and naval princes unconcerned with what the world has lost, and ready to make the best of what it has yet to provide.

Note:  This blog isn't coming back anytime soon, but with Grognardia resuming posting, I decided to post this setting overview which has been moldering, nearly complete since 2018. Go check out what James M., one of the original bloggers who resurrected classic games, has to say about Mork Borg, one of the newest and more interesting products in the now splintering space.


  1. Even if this is only a one-off, glad to see Dungeon of Signs back available for reading the archives...

  2. Marvelous stuff as always. I found this setting very evocative, so I'm glad to hear more about it.

  3. Ye gods! Welcome back, friend!!

  4. Oh man, Gus, it's good to see you post again. I missed seeing the simmering stew of your imagination at work!

  5. WTF...Grognardia's back up?!

    1. Yup - at least a few posts in the pipeline? I guess J. Mal just figured he had the bandwidth again and had something worthwhile to say about Mork Borg. Cheered me a fair bit.

    2. I checked out Morg Borg. Unfortunately, none of the bands on the “inspiration” list were any I’d heard of. Consequently, I decided not to buy.

      Glad to see JM blogging again...thanks for letting us know. Um...is that part of the reason for deciding to reopen DoS? Just curious.

    3. It was indeed the impetus behind this blog post. Hearing James explain his reasons for posting again made me feel encouraged about the direction of the scene, and right to commemorate one of the original old school blogger's return this way.

      Mork Borg looks interesting to me, I can't find a PDF only option though, so I haven't picked it up yet. It strikes me that it's a very fashionable entry into the "ultra-light" genre of neo-classical games, along with say Into the Odd, one of the post OSR splinters that seems quite interesting.

  6. This setting is pure gold. Also Dungeon of Signs, HURRAY

  7. Thanks for posting this. It'll come in handy whenever my groups play in this setting.

  8. Oh wow. Christmas in August. What a fantastic things to wake up to. SO great to see you posting again. I unfortunately came across your blog after had ceased posting and it absolutely changed my world. Every word,every post GEMS! Thank you so much for such an amazing blog it has been inspirational and a constant source of motivation to see the least. So awesome to see you posting again. Reading your posts over a cup of coffee is my idea of a perfect day!

  9. Glad to see you posting again. This setting is easily one of my all time favorite settings.

  10. It's gratifying to see so many names I recognize (especially the G+ folks I don't know how to find these days) excited about this post. Sadly I think this is a one off post, or at best an example of a rare return to DoS. This blog is an OSR blog, and I'm not an OSR hobbyist these days.


    I do have another blog "All Dead Generation" (taken form the same quote above and linked below) which is largely theory about running dungeon crawls, the occassional examination of 5E products, and the practical application of it's theories in the Fallen Empire setting (an exploration for both B/X and 5E of the fevered mangrove swamps South of Umber where the Home Fleet was Immured and scuttled) - Plague Ships.

    Better (or worse) I expect that within a few months I'll have 'published' two projects:

    A) A rewrite of Prison of the Hated Pretender, improved from 2012's clumsy usability to a more polished level, illustrated, properly laid out, professionally edited (I know with my writing this could be HUGE)and supplemented with advice on how to run the thing/classic dungeon crawl adventures. The Prison of the Hated Pretender will be released as a PDF from my friends at Hydra Co-Op.

    B)Beneath the Moss Courts -- a full sized adventure that's supplemental and published in (and with the enormous help of) Ben L.'s Wishery setting. If you haven't checked out the Ultan's Door Zines (I've proudly provided a bit here and there for them) - do it fast. The adventure is about Sewer Pirates and corrupt lawyers, a natural combination. This one also has all the professional 2020 TTRPG touches.

    Both adventures should as far as I know be PWYW in keeping with this blog's ethos of sharing high quality hobbyist content.

    Thanks again for the heartwarming amount of appreciation and joy at this posting.

    1. So good to see a fresh post on Dungeon of Signs!

      I actually just ran Prison of the Hated Pretender a couple months ago using Mork Borg rules.

  11. https://alldeadgenerations.blogspot.com/

  12. Hi Gus, really happy to see a sign of live. I just loved and love the fallen empire setting! As you've moved to 5e (which I also like): Any chance of compiling the FE material into a 5e Sourcebook? I see that you already have a map ^_^ Having your Fallen Empire Setting in my bookshelf would be a dream ;)

    1. Seems unlikely. While I've been playing some 5E, the system isn't what I might wish - it's not really practical for dungeon based adventure. Most likely, any future projects will be in my own version of OD&D. You enthusiasm is appreciated though.

    2. Thanks for the Feedback; so let me rephrase that ;) Any Chance of a Fallen Empire Setting Book, as there is already so much Material existing? Definitely would also spend some money on a Falling Empire Sourcebook using an iteration of OD&D rules. Always found your posts and the way you described the setting very inspiring. Created myself a summary PDF of all your Fallen Empire Posts as a reference to go back to, but again having the setting compliled by the author as an official publication, maybe even in print would be great. Could even be material for a Kickstarter imho...

    3. I mean I'm not likely to kickstarter anything...

      The Successor Empire isn't really meant as a complete setting, it's a canvas that I can paint standard D&D fantasy on which skews it slightly towards the elegiac and strange. It's really about making adventures that can be used in other standard fantasy settings, but have enough uniqueness to interest me. I can't promise anything more, but most of the new and old projects I'm working on relate to it in some way.

      A full gazetteer is unlikely however.

  13. Happy to see this blog posting again, even if it’s just a one off :)

  14. Welcome back, even if it is for only a day.

  15. Yay! My favorite OSR blog is back!

  16. Thank you for the post. It's lovely to see you back.

  17. Great to see more Fallen Empire! The original Fallen Empire posts were what pushed me to really dive into the DIY realm of RPGs and start tossing my content on blog.

  18. Welcome back, Gus. Your settings and tone has inspired me for years.

    1. Oh I'm not back - I just figured I put this up in honor of James' return to blogging. My stuff is on another blog now DoS is remaining shut down.

  19. Your blog is my favourite 'book on my bookshelf' and you could do me, and I suspect many others, a huge favour and have it published in it's entirety with the PDF version being the entire blog itself. Has anyone ever done that before?
    When it went offline I went into mourning.
    Don't worry about perfecting it... it is that already.

    1. Thanks Every Comment, I don't think that will be happening anytime soon - time passes and our works are transient. There is nothing on DoS that others can't do for themselves in ways that are better for their games. I do appreciate the flattery though.

      Plus it looks like a Prison of the Hated Pretender revised version will be coming out through Hydra in the next few weeks!

    2. flattery (countable and uncountable, plural flatteries)
      1.(uncountable) Excessive praise or approval, which is often insincere and sometimes contrived to win favour.
      2.(countable) An instance of excessive praise.

      No not flattery and I have pieces of paper that suggest my informed opinion is more than probably correct.

  20. Hey man, welcome back! I am currently hacking Along the Road of Tombs for my Carcosa campaign and would love to see more of your takes on the latter. Keep up the good work.

    1. Brock,

      I am still writing about the Successor Empire at my new blog, but I'm not sure it's especially Carcosa friendly. Carcosa is it's own weird thing that I never really know what to make of - the psychedelic fantasy genre of mutants and dinosaurs is great, and I like the mechanics, but there's something empty about the setting, unfinished, a lack of detail and care. Too much hex map and not enough adventure perhaps? The crayola people are all too similar? A lack of character variation? I much prefer ASE, but I still love the look of Carcosa -- unless you're talking about an entirely different Carcosa?

      A Robert Chambers dead/doomed city beneath the black stars and ruled by the ragged king seems pretty gameable.

  21. I love that map.
    No hex map [they are for wargames really]
    Just cartographic narative beauty.

  22. I love your Blackmarsh. It makes me happy.