Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Worldbuilding – The Kingdoms of Man



This idea originated from a (for me) very common situation – the dissociation between the players’ expectations and the typical Pathfinder/D&D campaign setting’s reality.

Most players (and a few GMs) play D&D with the intent of being immersed in a medieval world, even if by “Medieval” what they really mean is “Hollywood Medieval” or “Young-Adult Fantasy Literature Medieval”.

The problem is that D&D is its own genre; a genre that is considerably detached from most cinematic, electronic or literature sources known nowadays (yeah, even MMOs).

Before going on, I must stress that I’m not saying that people expect to play in a true historical European-like feudal setting (in fact, most people would be a little shocked/surprised by such settings). What I’m trying to say is that the usual kitchen sink/mash up of obscure literature, old pop culture and niche gamisms that make up D&D go against what your typical player think as “Medieval Fantasy”.

In case you’re wondering – what exactly does players expect in regard to Medieval Fantasy?

I believe they want a paradox.

They want “A” – a world created by a romantic/modern view of Feudal Europe: farms, small and peaceful villages, imposing castles with nobles and knights, city-states filled with merchants and intrigue, a few kings and one or two (distant) autocratic empires, one or more Catholic-like churches (but dedicated to pagan deities), ruins of fallen realms, barbarians at the map’s borders etc.

But they also want “B” – a dark forests filled with every type of folkloric monster, Tolkien-based elven and dwarf races, mountains filled with yet more dangerous monsters, large evil and antagonistic religions, various types of evil humanoids enemies, all-powerful gods bent on destroying/corrupting/conquering the world, planar menaces of all kinds (infernal rifts, bizarre manifestations, heavenly incursions) etc.

Now try to mix “A” and “B” in a way that it makes sense.

Apparently this isn’t hard, but when you stop to think about it most types of villages, farms, castles and usual feudal/ancient organizations or defense systems from “A” are completely ineffective (or blatantly illogical) in world where “B” exists.

As an addendum, in my experience (as a GM in Brazil) the typical gaming group sees Medieval Fantasy as a synonym of Tolkien-based Fantasy or one of its rip-offs (like Dragonlance or even Salvatore).

At most you can anticipate players to desire something that just resembles (visually) Tolkien, but that in reality works like Middle-Earth on steroids + Dark/Metal Fantasy. Curiously, in this regard, you can say that the common brazilian fantasy role-player would love and readily understand Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

D&D, which it’s “Vancian” magic system, Crusade-based priests, Gygaxian vocabulary, unique monsters, all sorts of mechanical idiosyncrasies (mostly the way Attack Bonus, Levels and Hit Points works) and – most important – high amount of spells and magic items, makes up for a truly different experience, and one which can hardly be described as “medieval” (especially in regard to the players’ expectations).

How to solve this? (That’s, if you want to solve, as for some people there’s nothing wrong with this light gonzo-feel do classic D&D games)


The common solution is to go is the Low Fantasy approach. While this works just fine, you eventually get the feeling that you aren’t playing “full” D&D.

One way to settle that is with the “special PCs” concept – the PCs here really are above the magical/expertise level of the setting. For example, the party’s magic user is one of the seven apprentices of the last great archwizard of this age; and the group’s paladin is actually guided by the spirit of the greatest saint of the Church etc. However, by using this rote you run a considerable risk – character death. How do you replace “unique” heroes without forcing the setting’s verisimilitude?

Thinking about that I came with a short campaign idea – the Kingdoms of Man. Actually, this is more a meta-setting or idea. You can either use it in a homebrew setting or take the model and apply to a world of your choice – like Forgotten Realms, for example.

The Kingdoms of Man is low fantasy and very mundane for D&D standards. Think of A Song of Ice and Fire. In rule terms, the big difference is that the innumerable human cultures have access only to NPC classes.

You have dangerous and forsaken regions, nasty places where fell things are trapped or sleeping, due to battles that took place in the last Age of the world, but they are nonetheless rare. The problem is when these old mythic beasts or powers are freed or awoken by a mad adept, an ambitious king or your usual dim-witted emperor. Then all hell breaks loose.  And the job of cleaning the trash (or avoiding altogether) belongs to the PCs.

 
Who are the PCs? Here they’re the Elder Races.  The Elves, Dwarves, Giants, Numenorians, Valyrians, Melniboneans,  etc.  Their home is the typical mythical land that PCs never manage to reach before 12th or higher level.

Melniboné is a perfect example. Think of the Kingdom of Man as Moorcrock’s Young Kingdoms – historically new cultures, founded by a young and primitive race, in a world that was ruled in previous eons by D&D-level civilizations (in regard to magic and power).

What do they do? The PCs are sent from their far homelands to the Kingdoms of Man first (and openly) as ambassadors, to gain the trust of the young human race. However, secretly they’re to make contacts, to research and retrieve lost lore, eldritch artifacts and items of power from the previous Age. With more experienced they’re eventually charged with fostering and shaping those human kingdoms that can best manage the balance of supernatural forces in the world. At higher levels they also are the elite forces aimed against other Elder powers manifesting in the Kingdoms of Man.

The idea is that, in previous Ages, the PC’s Elder Race ruled the world; but the unrestricted use of high magic doomed their civilizations to the present vestigial stage – living at the world’s fading borders and dying slowly. In their absence came the younger race of Man (humans); still feeble, weak and inexperienced (therefore only with access to NPC classes). Although Man has potential, they’re also easily corrupted by the Fell Powers and if a new cataclysm occurs, the entire world will perish this time (including the much diminished Elder Races and their far lands).

Why?

  • This approach allows the Gamemaster to create a conventional medieval setting (or or one based on Antiquity, Renascence or even more modern) and thus to meet the player’s usual expectations about living in fantasy world like the one they see on movies and books. They know (generally) how it works and behaves.

  • The above assumption means that campaigns can be started with less preparation. In fact, the Kingdoms of Man can be a good frame for pick-up games.

  • Although most of the worlds operate on Low Fantasy, the PCs work by the usual D&D/Pathfinder rules. They are different and they have a good excuse for being above the mark.

  • Practically all humans met by the party will be of NPC classes – the exceptions will be named antagonists, usually assisted by artifacts, outsider influence or unique traits.

  • If a character dies, the group has a good excuse for the new PC. He’s just the new “envoy” fresh from Elvenland.

  • Because the party is exotic and from a higher (or legendary) culture you will finally have a perfect excuse for putting them on all kinds of weird adventures (especially dungeon crawling after magic items), quests and heroic actions in general. In fact, given the importance of the “super hero” in modern myth, it would be easier for the players to get the “feeling” of how they should interact with this setting. Even if they choose to side with Evil, it’ll be easier for the Gamemaster to adjust the campaign, putting the players against their native homelands and its powers.

  • Remember that the PCs’ enemies are also above average (although not all the time). Besides monsters from forsaken regions where no sane human dare to thread, they’ll face champions and legendary opponents that are seen as “supernatural” by the Kingdoms of Man. For example, in a world where practically 99% percent of all human man-of-arms are from the Warrior NPC class, a warlord with a few levels in the Barbarian or Druid class can be seen as a Chosen of some forgotten god, a mortal possessed by a wild spirit or even a half-god. All of these elements could be used even at low-level.

  • Because most of the setting is restricted to NPC classes and more mundane creatures, the players will get the impression that their PCs are clearly heroic (in the Homeric sense) and capable of greater deeds (instead of just a bunch of 1st level rogues).

Implementing it

Before starting a campaign with the Kingdoms of Man template, you should decide which “Elder Races” are available, from where they come from and how recently is their contact with the “modern” Age of the world (and Man).

The easiest solution is to allow Elves (and Half-Elves) and Dwarves. Elves can come from the “West”, a mythical archipelago, a giant unique forest protected by a magic barrier etc. Dwarves can come from some Olympus-like mountain in the far frozen north.

It’s easy to add Humans to this the options, simply treat them as a race of “Higher Men”, like Numenorians from Lord of the Rings or the Valyrians from A Song of Ice and Fire.

Gnomes could be added, but with more care (maybe as servant race of the Elves or Dwarves), as most players wouldn’t take seriously the idea of Gnomes as an Elder Race.

Halflings in my opinion could be used just as the remaining mundane humans. They’re good partner for a young human race. Maybe you could have a “halfling hero” or two, chosen by an Elder Race party because of some special trait, but this should be the exception, not the rule.

Actually, you could establish that a few rare mortals could be “Elven-touched” (or “Dwarven-touched”) – they traveled to the mythical Elder Realms and learned the secrets of steel (Fighter), the eldritch lore of old (arcane spellcasters) or were taken before the gods and anointed (divine spellcasters). Or they have elven (or dwarvish?) ancestors.

Finally, we have Half-Orcs (and thus Orcs).

Before deciding how they should fit with the Kingdoms of Man idea, you should first decide how Humanoids in general work for your campaign. If they’re used as the “barbarian menace” of the setting, then it could be established that they’re not only a new threat but also the main (or openly) reason behind the Elder Races’ return. If used in this fashion, then Half-Orcs are fair game. They’ll be rare enough to fit the idea.

Personally, I prefer a second option: treat Orcs (and Half-Orcs) as another Elder Race. This requires a little reskinning.

Forget the idea that orcs are stupid and savage barbarian hordes (or violent but benevolent shamanistic warriors). Use elements from The Hobbit (and some bits from the Lord of the Rings) – now Orcs are the only Elder Race that live in the Depths. This bold action cost them dearly in the distant past, which explain why they’re so few and why their culture and appearance are so frightening and warlike. In The Hobbit, Orcs are great blacksmiths, forgers, miners and engineers. Use those traits. Give a niche to Orcs. Make them cool.

Half-Orcs could be used in this option as spies and surface envoys from the orc realm to the Kingdoms of Man. While Elves and Dwarves desire to retrieve eldritch lore from the hand of the Kingdoms of Man by acting openly as counselors, the Orcs are a lot less subtle – they want to intimidate the Kingdoms of Man and to kill any human fool enough to meddle with these forces (taking whatever treasure they can get while doing so).  They’ll tolerate alliances with Elves and Dwarves because they’re facing common enemies (lie Drows or Goblinoids).

You can even allow Half-Orcs to be visually more human-like, lessening their “orcness” (to make them better spies). In fact, you can use the Pathfinder illustration of the Half-Orc race as the default appearance of true Orcs. Half-Orcs would then be humans with some unusual trait – maybe strange eyes, small prominent lower tusks or slight yellow/green skin.

If you use Orcs as the subterranean equivalent of Elder Races, place Dwarves as the quintessential Mountain Folk. Make dwarves tough, grump, honor bound and organized. Make Orcs chaotic, belligerent and sneaky, but also knowledgeable in the ways of the Depths and masters in the craft of weapons and engines of destruction.  Give distinct niches to the various Elder Races. If you just don’t want Orcs, a Ogre-like race would be excellent – like Wheel of Time’s Ogiers or Arcana Evolved’s Giants (based on The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever). You can easily change which Elder Races to use. Maybe you group prefer a campaign where all PCs are planetouched (like Aasimars and Tieflings).

The Kingdoms of Man template is just a way of running Pathfinder RAW, but in a more mythological,(apparently) low power and historical setting.