Tag Archives: Setting

Magic of the Elves

handsquareThinking a little bit more about the elves. I haven’t got a good hook for the gnomes yet, so their status is in limbo. They may just be mixed in among the halflings, but that’s a little bit too easy.

Dragonborn (along with kobolds and others) are created races, made by the dragon princes as servants and ambassadors. I figure each dragon prince rules a small realm, which the elves respect, partly because the Dragon’s have a mutual alliance against invasion, partly because they’re at a fair remove from the elvish proper holdings, so most of the conflicts with the dragons are with the human or dwarf nations. Exactly who and what people live in a given principality is a reflection of the particular dragon prince. Some them are definitely island nations, because the prospect of dragon born pirate captains with a ship full of kobold crew absolutely appeals to me. The upshot of this is that dragon born are rare but not unheard of, usually traveling as merchants, messengers or ambassadors from their respective principalities. Occasionally you find one who goes looking for “freedom”, but that can be a messy business, since the people most interested in a rogue dragonborn are elvish flesh crafters.

Speaking of which, it is well known that most monsters of the world are results of elvish efforts, whether through experimentation, breeding, summoning, transformation or other means. Among the elves, this is a fringe hobby, unless your creation is particularly compelling, in which case its terribly popular. The kennel that produced the first blink dogs is still renown, while the creator of displacer beasts is still bitter about being labeled a “creepy weirdo”.

Of course, not every elf has stopped with animals, and there have been attempts to breed servants and soldiers in the past, and the consequences of this have been problematic enough that the practice is now strongly discouraged. But its legacy remains, and in the darker corners of many elvish cities, you can find brutes, misshapen humanoids bred for war, and discarded.[1] They are not actively persecuted, of course – it is not their fault that they were born monstrous abominations – but no amount of sympathy makes them suitable for polite company.

With the races out of the way we come to the issues of magic and religion. There’s a temptation to give the elves a clear gap in their magical acumen, such as saying they don’t practice clerical magic, because reasons. That could be fun, but it’s a bit too on the nose, and more, given the value the elves place on their lives, clerical magic would be too big a deal to leave in anyone else’s hands. [2]

Perhaps even more critically, religion as a whole is an important topic and one which is part of elvish culture. The elves certainly have many gods. They have, in fact, the full suite of gods, enough so that they barely merit mentioning.

Other peoples within the empire largely worship the elvish gods, though there are a handful of racial gods as well. The dwarves still worship their golden king, and the humans have shrines to Rounus Knight and Farl the Traveller, and they reinforce the greatest human virtues (Strong, loyal service for Rounsu, trade and flexibility for Farl).

Of note is also Cuth, the human god of cleansing. The story goes that Cuth was the bloody god of the humans before the elves ascended, and now he seeks nothing less than the death of all non humans. Cuth cultists are something of a boogey man in elvish realms, and the elvish response to signs of Cuth worship is so severe that human nations treat it as harshly as possibly in order to head off any elvish action. It is possible the priests of Cuth might tell a different story if you could find one, but even looking could cost you your head.

Among the elves themselves, matters of faith follow a pattern, but not a strict one. Broadly speaking, the drow tend towards clerical magic, the wood elves to druidism, and the high elves towards ancestor worship. But while those are certainly generally true, exceptions abound.

A wag once described the drow as “farthest from heaven, closest to god”, and the description has long since outlived the speaker. The drow would tell you that spending lives surrounded by the world gives them greater appreciation for the divine touch in all places. “Only in the darkness, can you see the light” is a common drow aphorism. Cynics point out that there are a lot of drow aphorisms, and that it is not that the drow are particularly devout, just that they seem to relish the trappings of religion. From ceremony to cathedrals to scripture to pointy hats, the drow really go all in on their faith. Faith fills the role of government as easily as it does local sports team. Almost every element of drow society ties back into religion, and it remains an open question whether this is the most profound faith or the most profound cyncism.

The druidic traditions of the wood elves offer less interesting fodder for the gossips, if only because they are largely practiced in isolation. As with the drow, their faith is nearly ever-present, but it is simply part and parcel of living in the wild places. To outside observes, the druidic tradition is largely monolithic, but within its confines it is incredibly fractious. There are dozens of druidic sects, each with a different focus and set of priorities, all claiming to speak most purely for nature. More, the wood elves are more than happy to test their hypotheses out in real world conditions, and more than few adventurers have found employment cleaning up after (or causing) some deliberate ecosystem disruption.

By contrast, the high elves seem far less religious than their brethren, but one need only scratch the surface to put the lie to that. The high elves are organized into great houses, each of which was founded by a great hero[3] from which the house takes its name. Not every high elf claims membership in a great house, but those who do not are usually only one or two steps removed by blood. The houses have little formal power in any direct sense, but the law gives them greater leeway and the nature of collaboration translates into very real power.

What is not discussed openly with outsiders (not because it’s shameful, but because it’s deeply private) is that house members are ancestor worshippers, offering prayers to their founder o their house. They still give honor to the other gods, and even enter the priesthood, but to be a member of a house is to have a straight line to something akin to a guy on the inside, someone to intercede with the gods on your behalf. This is pretty valuable, since gods are pretty busy.

If this sounds matter of fact, that’s because it is – the house founders actually do answer the prayers of their followers (at least sometimes) and can offer advice, and even power to those willing to enter into pacts with them. Note that while others might consider this a bit warlock-y, to the elves, it is a matter of faith, and warlocking is something else entirely.

Speaking of which, warlocks? Tacky. Tacky tacky tacky. Elves value patience and the appearance of effortlessness (they have about a dozen words that expressed differently nuanced versions of that last idea) and becoming a Warlock is largely an admission that you couldn’t hack it with real magic, and had to get help. Which is fine if you’re one of the lesser people – one can hardly expect much more of you, can hardly hold it against you – but an elf who goes this route is not getting many party invites. He or she won’t be punished or shunned or anything, but will be treated like they have a problem. Overt mockery and bias can happen, but condescending help and pity are more common. There have been exceptions of course – famous warlocks who have overcome this stigma, but they are largely held up as the exceptions that other Warlocks can’t live up to.

Now, wizardry? That is the true art in all its infinite diversity. It rewards patience and deep thought and allows those virtues to be expressed in concrete ways. It’s a popular metaphor for almost everything that elves value, and it is an absolute bedrock part of their culture. Magical societies, academies and salons are the places to be found, even among non mages (though most elves have at least some magical schooling, unless they’re a complete hick). Naturally, there is no shortage of fierce academic and personal conflict within this community, but that is half the fun.

Sorcerers rest uneasily in this space. On one hand, a natural talent for magic feeds into the elven respect for effortless grace, but on the other hand, it seems like cheating. As a result, sorcerers are often viewed as curiosities – a welcome addition of spice and art to more serious circles. Now, outsiders view this tension as something akin to artists (sorcerers) and craftsmen/scientists (wizards) but that ignores the fact that to elves, wizardry is art. A closer comparison can be found in the history of art between any established school and the new upstart school. Sorcerers who buy into the established model can do well for themselves, but those who try to express new ideas or present sorcery as somehow equally valid of respect will find themselves laughed out of every party that matters.

  1. While this is a placeholder for half-orcs, obviously it has a potential for explaining almost any monstrous race. This is the tip of its own rather gigantic iceberg, given how messed up the idea of monstrous races is, but how consistent it probably is with the elvish perspective of the world.  ↩
  2. Unless clerical magic is something new to the world. if one wanted to go that route, then elves are all ancestor worshipers (that is, warlocks) or Druids. In that case, clerical magic might be underground magic.  ↩
  3. The process of being recognized as a hero is similar to canonization – it has a high bar and is also profoundly political  ↩

The Elvish Throne

A little bit of setting noodling that has been rattling in my head. It may go too far, but it’s proving a curious experiment on a particular hypothesis.  Nominally it’s for a D&D style setting, but most of it is pretty much generic fantasy.  Very incomplete for now – just races.  Classes and gods will need their own noodling. 

At some point, the elves grew tired of all this and took over. Stop and consider that their average lifespan is something in the order of 2000 years if they don’t do much of anything about it. If they want to spend some of that time looking into ways to extend it, then that’s no great problem. Then adopt the D&D logic behind XP and levels and it’s not hard to end up with Tolkein-esque elves where is it largely a race of badasses, with only the very young coming in anywhere below 20th level.

So, start with that – the elves are not in decline. They are not in retreat. They are not teetering on the edge of collapse. They are strong and vibrant and their hand extends to cover much of the world. Those parts that they do not rule are largely those they have deemed unworthy of the effort, either because the cost would be great (as with the Dragon Princes’ domains, or the Maddest Depths) or the because the prize seems unworthy (as with the Bleaks). Some of the old kingdoms still stand in a recognizable form, but their kings bend knee to the Elvish throne, and have for generations.

Even the divisions among the elves are no great source of tension. The drow, rather than maligned outcasts bound to a monstrous goddess, are the lords of the underworld in all its splendor. The wood elves are lords of the wild, while the high elves rule over the civilized races. There is rivalry and tension, certainly, but open warfare between elves is something only the mad would propose. All things come in time, and only a fool would risk so much rather than be patient.

That is, of course, what the little people are for. For all their power, elves are also very conservative about any risk to their lives. The lifespan of an elf is a treasure, and the idea of wasting it is repellent to most any elf. This does not mean they are necessarily fearful – even a single elf is a mighty combatant, and willing to fight to show it – but when dealing with matters of risk, they are more than happy to let others do the dirty work.

An extension of this is that elvish conflicts are almost always through third parties. The greatest rule of elven society is that elvish life is sacrosanct, but that does not somehow make them better people. They just find other ways to play out the petty rivalries and conflicts that we all recognize.

As a result, there are plenty of adventurers in the domains of the elves, and it is a highly regarded career. Some elves have stables of their own adventures, but there is always great demand for freelancers, and it’s a good (if dangerous) living. The work is familiar, but the reasons for it may less so. To the elves, and ancient, forgotten dungeon that has sat untouched for centuries is roughly the equivalent of the attic that they stored stuff in years ago, forgot about, and just don’t want to touch. It’s just that where you might be worried about wasps or raccoons, they’re concerned about goblins and hags.

After all, consider how much crap you accrue in just a few years. Elves do this for centuries and there is nothing so crass as “U Store It” facilities to put these things in, and you can’t have them cluttering up the place, so a well secured little cave somewhere (spruced up, of course) with some basic security precautions is really the best option for those things you just can’t bring yourself to throw away.

And, of course, if you have a rival you want to stick it to, a little looting is a wonderfully indirect route to pursue it. Nothing says “screw you” like showing up at a party in your rival’s former favorite hat, after all. There can be a bit of an arms race to this, so some “dungeons” are real deathtraps, but they really run the gamut.

The lifespans of elves also means that there’s some element of sport and entertainment in playing adventurers against challenges (and each others) as it’s own sort of game. But it is not just for play. Adventurers are dangerous individuals granted a lot of leeway, and even freelancers must be accountable to some elf. While some elves maintain private household adventurers, others effectively support guilds of freelancers for their own purposes.

All of this may suggest a very callous attitude on the part of elves towards the short lived races, but that is a gross simplification. The elves assume a position of superiority, certainly, based on their lifespans, but that does not equate to indifference. Elves may become very emotionally attached to other peoples, and the idea of being needlessly cruel to them is largely frowned upon, but the relationship is largely at arms reach. No matter how attached an elf becomes to a human, that human is unlikely to live more than 70 years or so, and for much of that time they will be old (something elves have no real context for, and can be put off by). It will end in tragedy.

Obviously, in a game like this, elves are not a playable race. Any elf that might be an adventurer is going to be so young that it would be outright irresponsible to send them into the field. Certainly some elves enjoy “going on adventures” but in that case the rest of the adventuring party is something more like a retinue.

Humans are by far the most numerous and varied people. They still have many cultural and political distinctions, but over time those have altered to reflect elvish patronage. Certainly some elves maintain entirely human households, but more often things are more indirect – it is rare that a large or powerful human leader or institution not have some manner of elvish patron, sometimes more than one. And, of course, “elvish” equates to power and prestige, so many of the trappings of elvish culture have been adopted by the upper tiers of human society. Sometimes this is blatant sycophancy, but more often it is unthinking – that certain elvish rules of conduct are simply how things are.

As a people, humans are well regarded by elves, and the very best of them are “almost elvish”. This sometimes goes to far, as evinced by the half elvish. Half elves are rare and precariously placed. To a human family, the birth of a half elf is cause for celebration, as it will almost always improve the fortunes of the family, and to humans, the half elf is seen as something exciting and exotic. To an elf, it’s a profound embarrassment, a point of shame for the parent. There is effort not to blame the child too much for the union, but the taint is hard to shake. Half Elves frequently end up in trusted service roles – messengers, majordomos and such – in elvish households if they are willing to behave appropriately elvishly. Those less willing to do so often end up as adventurers or in positions of prominence in human communities. Often, humans will treat half elves as proxies for their elvish parent, offering gifts to the child that would be too little for the parent. While half elves benefit from this, it is rare that the parent look to favorably upon this.

There are two great dwarven kingdoms, each occupying both surface and underworld. They are far enough apart that they interact very little. Both kingdoms are very stable, almost to a fault. The elves have propped them up, helping deal with underworld menaces, but have also established the limits of both kingdoms. Dwarves are greatly respected by the elves, but not necessarily well liked. Elven political language gives great respect to Dwarven title and rank, speaking glowingly about millennia of alliance, and in almost any situation involving the lesser people, the dwarves voice is the first heard. But for all that, there is a hollowness to it. For all the show of respect, the words of the dwarves carry no great weight, a fact that the dwarves either accept (as a sign of how in alignment the two peoples are) or resent.

The little folk of the south are barbarians, plain and simple. Some few of them trade with the elven nations, but the further it is from the bleaks, the more of a novelty they are (something that cunning little folk have used to their advantage – mysterious halfling magics can command a great price from the cullible). There was a time when the elves went to war upon the Bleaks, and they did not once lose a battle, but neither did they hold the land they took very effectively. The little folk were tenacious and decentralized, unwilling to commit their forces to battle. The elves determined that the harsh land of the Bleaks was hardly worth the trouble, and in a grand treaty, ceded it to the khan of the little folks. This was curious because there had not previously been a khan – rather, the Elves simply found a local ruler who was willing to take elvish aid and use it to fight his neighbors. Since then, there have been many khans, and the elves have a habit of backing winners in order to maintain the peace and keep the halflings fighting among themselves.

The elves still have a few holdings in the Bleaks – mines and other useful resources – and there are occasional conflicts, but nothing major. Cynics suggest that the main purpose for the elvish presence is to make sure there is always a worse job to threaten people with.

The Touched were a nation of humans who sought to rise up against the elves, turning to dark powers to do so, powers which twisted their bodies unnaturally. They failed, of course, and it is only by the infinite mercy of the elvish court that they still live today. Their nation has been erased from the histories, its lands given to loyal kings, and its people scattered to the wind. Tradition (and law, in many places) demand that they be covered at all times, that the marks of their abomination be hidden from the eyes of the world, and now that covering is one of the signatures of their people, usually very ornate and colorful, but also conveying rich information to those who know how to read it[0]. Many people do not even know what they look like beneath their hoods and veils. They are not well regarded, and many unwelcome jobs of society fall to them, including waste handling and certain entertainments. By extension, they have a reputation for criminality (one which has become somewhat self-fulfilling) . But their reputation far exceeds the reality, as every Touched community knows that they are only a well placed accusation away from the drowning pits. Many Touched communities are nomadic, traveling as migrant labor or entertainers, in hopes that the ability to keep moving will keep them safe.

[0] Visually, I’m thinking of Mass Effect’s Quarians here.

Setting Architecture

For many years, my white whale was to design a good game specifically for capers. I loved the idea make it difficult, but in the end Leverage was the game I wanted it to be, so I laid that to rest. For a while I was adrift, but I have settled on my next whale – a setting as playable as Feng Shui.

Feng Shui is brilliant (this is all predicated on some familiarity with FS – without that it may not make much sense) for a lot of reasons, but the setting in particular is friggin genius for reasons having nothing to do with its badassness. Structurally it allows:

  • An infinite diversity of potential backgrounds (from one-off junctures)
  • Modern day setting which is not disrupted by extreme events in play
  • Isolates characters who are “in play” from the rest of the setting (via timeline shifts)
  • Incredible diversity of supporting characters
  • Clear objectives for action (Feng Shui sites)
  • Complicated problems which can be solved with fighting
  • Trivally addresses transportation issues
  • Setting can be changed by players non-disruptively
  • Player accomplishments have a concrete impact on the setting, but that impact does not depend on the setting details.

Note that none of these are specific to the details of the setting – you could swap out the Lotus and the Architects with Vampires and Werewolves if you wanted, and it would not change that. Those are details poured into the magnificent architecture above.

Let’s contrast that with a generic supers setting. Such a setting certainly allows a similar diversity of characters, and it probably addresses transportation and isolation issues. It might offer clear objectives for action in a limited way (stop the bad guy) but that’s not super robust. But the setting probably doesn’t help much with disruption – either players don’t really change the status quo, or they do change the status quo, and that makes for a lot of work. If the setting is well thought out (say, something like Abberant) or has a mythology that underlies its superheroics (like a unified source of powers) then it might fill in those structural gaps with specifics, but those require details and buy in. If you can solve those problems on a structural level, it’s easier to get buy in.

This is not to say you’re goign to get a better game with Feng Shui. It just means that Feng Shui’s setting makes certain parts of your game’s job easier (in much the same way that, say, the xistence of dungeons makes runnign your D&D game easier). And easier is pretty appealling.

Anyway, I’ll be noodling on this for a bit.

On the Topic of Dwarves

I was talking about halflings and concrete and it lead to this rattling around in my head.

The locations of dwarven cities rarely make sense on human maps, but on dwarven maps their positions tell the same story as human cities growing up around harbors and river forks. A dwarven city is carved out from stone, underground, in a location which is stable and strong, but also rich in the minerals and magics that Dwarves use to sustain themselves. Dwarven cities are vast, ordered metrolpolises where every space has been meticulously carved out an accounted for, and has its uses planned and detailed for the next hundred years. This precise balance allows for them to be virtually self-sustaining, requiring negligible contact with the surface. And that’s how they like it. Mostly.

The rub is that when most other folks think of dwarven cities, they have a very different image, one of a more traditional city, with magnificent stonework ruled by gruff, orderly folk. What most outsiders do not realize is that the city they see is, to the dwarves, the slums of the city below. It is where the outcasts and placeless are sent, to scratch out an existence, building their hovels (by deep dwarven standards) from the stone pulled out during the construction of the real city[1]. The upper city will often take on the trappings of nobility of its surroundings, establishing a king and a court, but these are not dwarven titles, and they carry carry authority, but little respect. Even in the slums, order is an aspirational value for most Dwarves, so they buy into this model of rulership as an improvement over the alternative.

Despite this division, nothing truly exists in a vacuum. While there is usually only a single connection between the deep city and the upper city[2], some trade goes through it. The trade is solely between dwarves, and wrapped in ritual and rules, and it is all under the auspices that only “true” dwarven goods may change hands this way. In reality, it often turns out that the the upper dwarves provide a patina of legitimacy to goods from other nations by reworking them to be suitably “dwarfish”. As such, the most powerful of the lower dwarves enjoy luxuries forbidden to their citizens under the auspices of legitimate exchange, and the leaders of the Upper city keep a hold on the wealth that comes up from the lower city.

While it is a rare thing, a dwarf of great talent or virtue may earn a place in the Lower City, rejoining the “true” dwarves. This is a great honor, the golden ticket, and almost every dwarf (especially those who remember the Lower City fondly) dreams that someday they will make the cut, if only in death.[3]

It a dream that inspires a lot of compliance among the populace, because a family’s status is part of the calculation, so the young dwarf who stains the family name is a real problem. The fact that this golden ticket is in the hands of the same folks propping up their power through their channel to the Lower City only helps reinforce this need to support the Status Quo, which has a lot to do with the dwarven reputation for being dour sticklers for the rules. A dwarf who isn’t a stickler will be socially punished by friends and family for fear of harming their chances, so most comply, though there are always a handful who leave.

These arrangements are sometimes problematic, and there have been schisms and disasters, these cities are largely very stable, lasting centuries at a time. However, every Dwarven city has an expiration date – at some point the lower city will simply be done. Resources will be tapped out, the reason for its existence with be gone. The currents of the earth may change. Assuming the expiration is not a violent one, the dwarves set out to find new steadings, places that may become cities someday. Much of this work is done underground, but upper dwarves may be called upon to scout the land above the steading to judge its readiness. In time, a steading will grow, and the populace of the lower city will migrate, abandoning the old city, and sealing off its connection to the upper world (often collapsing large parts of the city behind them).

This creates an interesting situation for the occupants of the old upper city. Losing the connection to the lower city is a blow to the dwarves living there. Practically, the loss of the support of the lower city weakens the leadership of the dwarves. Spiritually, it is a blow to the morale of most of the dwarves in the city, as there is no longer that lower city to aspire to. Politically, it means that a lot of the leverage that the leadership held has just slipped away.

At this point, things can go a couple different ways.

The first is civil war. This is exceedingly rare. Of the three documented occaisions of this, two ended in mutual destruction and the third resulted in the founding of the “wild” dwarven nation to the northeast.

The second and slightly more common is reclamation. Sometimes the dwarves of the upper city seek to claim the lower city for themselves. When this happens, it often takes on the characteristics of a crusade. To date, this has never been confirmed to go well. Usually it ends badly for the reclaimers – sometimes dramatically, but usually simply due to logistics. The Lower City was evacuated for a reason, and it simply can no longer support a populace. Of course, some reclamations have never been heard from again, so it’s possible they turned out well.

The last and most common outcome is the fading. The Dwarves remains, but their numbers dwindle with each generation. Usually, they go from being the dominant group in a city to being one among many, to being hardly there at all. Some of the empire’s greatest cities started out as Dwarven cities, though there is no record of those origins today (at least among humans). These are the dwarves most often encountered by other folk, and they are much of the basis for the idea that Dwarves are a race in decline.

Dwarven heroes come in many types, but they often have a strong relationship to their origin city, though the nature of that relationship may vary. Some have left the stifling order of it, others have been kicked out, still others seek to make a name for themselves in hopes of earning a place in the lower city.

  1. the lower city is usually the source of water for the upper city as well (directly or indirectly), usually via wells or other plumbing. The lower dwarves view most exiles as unfortunate necessities, not a death sentence, so they have no reason to be cruel.  ↩
  2. Many upper cities have substantial undergrounds, but they stop well before the lower city begins. That said, there is no real reason for outsiders to be aware of this distinction, and dwarves do not make it in languages other than their own. it is not truly a secret, but the nature of the division is not widely known.  ↩
  3. Burial in the Lower City is also a great honor in the upper city, though it might be less so if they were aware of the fact that the Lower City simply views it as “recycling”  ↩