Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Worldbuilding – Mythic Golarion

One of the reasons why I love Golarion (besides its pulp roots) is because it’s such a charming kitchen-sink campaign setting. You have the usual – lost worlds, realms of barbarians, a land of good crusaders facing a Big Bad Evil, a fantasy Africa, a fantasy Egypt, a wild frontier, a land of unruly and chaotic barons/dukes, a demon-infested wasteland, an almost steampunk realm, a super-science! realm, a land of mists and classic terror… there’s a little of everything here. Ironically, this trait is also one of the reasons why many hate Golarion. I admit that I’m not (too) worried with verisimilitude for basic fantasy settings (and if I want it I can always go back to settings like Harn, Valus or Kalamar).

Anyway, I’m (as usual) digressing. One of the cool things about kitchen-sink settings like Golarion is that you can approach it with different lends, thereby creating campaigns that highlight one style of fantasy over another. In fact, I’ve been doing that – here’s Sword & Sorcery Golarion and Science Fantasy Golarion. Now it’s time of Mythic Golarion.

The idea for this setting variant came from an article by Mike Mearls where he suggested that you could make a campaign more exciting by making its cosmology more “personal”. The given example was to take the Abyss and change it from a plane to a physical location (like the Shadowlands from Legend of the Five Rings).

This reminded me a lot of cosmologies like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or even classical Greek (Mount Olympus, the Tartarus etc) and Nordic (Yggdrasil, the Bifrost, Asgard etc). In many ways it’s a lot cooler to know that things link Mount Olympus, the Abyss or the Nine Hells are “real places” in the player characters’ own campaign world. Imagine that, if instead of using plane shift to visit the Outer Planes, the PCs delved in the depths until they reached the Nine Hells and freed their comrade soul from a devils’ hold.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that this mythical flavor mix wells with many classical pulp aspects – like the existence of other planets, solar systems, alien races and a more “realistic” physical universe. Settings with a mythic flavor work best as their own closed microcosms. There may exist things “outside”, in the Void (like Ungoliant in Middle-Earth), but these are always exceptions. Another trait of mythic settings is that the various races and powers origins are always fixed (even if not clearly).

Thus, the first step in making our Mythic Golarion is throwing away conventional/scientific aspects of the cosmos. Golarion can still be a globe, instead of a flat disk floating in the Void. Actually, given some aspects of its legends, it makes more sense. After that we need to fix its origins and establish roughly how the main powers/deities were involved. I’ll leave aside, for this post, any references to pantheons outside the Inner Sea Campaign Setting. You can either make the Greater Gods of the that book universal, or instead rule that they’re just one of the original divine families that witness the Beginning (other pantheons could be the oriental one, described in Dragon Empires Gazetteer).

The most important event of Golarion’s myths is undoubtedly Rovagug’s imprisonment by the gods. With this event we can establish all kind of cool mythological themes and explanations for why Golarion is the way it’s now.

First of all, let’s establish a clear division: Gods and Demons. Creation and Destruction. I also quite like the idea that Demons are the original inhabitants of Existence. At the Beginning there was only the Endless Night of the Abyss. In this realm of infinity and darkness came the Gods (or the Creator, or the Proteans… actually, maybe the Proteans were here before even the Demons). The Gods “buried” (metaphysically speaking) the First Creation of the Demons (the Abyss) and built a Second Creation over it – a world of exuberant immortality, vitality and life. Paradise. However, let’s say that they exaggerated and spent the next eons fighting their unruly and passionate subjects. This is the so called “First World” of the Fey. In the end, incapable of ever ruling and controlling such powerful and almost sentient realm, the Gods decided to “seal it beyond time and shadow”. This event marked the beginning of the Second World – the known Mortal realm of Golarion.

Those primordial wars against the Fey made the Gods forget the Abyss. Eventually It stroked back. The Abyss sent the greatest (so far) Demon known to God, Mortal or Fey – Rovagug, the Rough Beast.

The resulting battle changed completely the face of Golarion and probably extinguished entire races of Mortals (it also reopened various gates to the sealed First World). The Serpent Folk and the Aboleths are one of few pre-Cataclysmic races that still survive, although the later are reputed to be actually the spawn of something from Void.

In the end, after many casualties, the Gods sealed Rovagug deep in the most powerful and feared prison ever built – the Nine Hells.

The Nine Hells are made of nine layers, contained inside each other, built deep below the Darklands.  Asmodeus holds the Key to the Bottomless Pit and is the Divine Jailer of the Gods – a role that he never lets anyone forgets. The devils are the Nine Hells’ wardens, legitimately authorized to punish the souls of those that worked against the Gods – including the faithless, the demon worshippers, the heretics, the excommunicated and the servants of the fey lords (among others). The Nine Hells is also a prison for other powerful entities, particularly outsiders and immortal beings.

While Asmodeus heartily denies it, the Nine Hells aren’t infallible – some fragment and blood of Rovagug eventually leaked out and tainted the Darklands, giving birth to abominations like the neothelids and tainted races that went to the depths, like the drow, morlocks and duergar. The Spawn of Rovagug (like the Tarrasque) are another symbol of shame to the devils (who strongly hunt and help those that try to defeat them).

This leads to another important distinction: cosmologically speaking beings like Lamashtu and Rovagug are Demons, not Gods. Calistria and Desna are mighty Archfeys – probably one of the Eldest. 

The Gods, deeply wounded and permanently diminished by their battle against Rovagug, retreated to the Crown of the World and built the most wondrous, impregnable and might fortress ever seen – Gilded-Walled Axis, City of the Immortals. From there they send their dreams and commands to their clerics and wait for the fated Doomsday, when the Rough Beast shall rise again. The truth is that the Gods deeply fear leaving Axis, for in Golarion they’re still vulnerable – another reason is the Divine Covenant: it’s forbidden for a deity to strike against another inside the gilded walls of the City of the Immortals.

Only a few deities ever leave Axis, and then always for good and very specific reasons. Seranrae and the other Six Solars (there’re only seven of them) live on the top of the holy Mount Elysium, the highest mountain of Golarion – somewhere in the continent of Casmaron. Legends hold that the Dawnflower holds vigil over the tomb of a forgotten deity. Some whisper that this deity is the brother of Asmodeus, slain by the Rough Beast.

Pharasma lives in the Moon, which I is where her Boneyard is located and where the souls of the dead Mortals go to be judged before journeying to their respective places of rest, in the cold, mist and silent vaults of the Moon (the exception are those souls sent to the Nine Hells).

There’re myths that preach the existence of a dark and unseen moon called Abaddon, dwelling of the Wrath of the Gods – the Four Horsemen and their legions. While devil are forbidden from leaving the Nine Hells (unless summoned by fools or the priests of Asmodeus), the Four Horsemen (and their servants) have leave to scourge peoples and nations that offend or displease the Gods. Pharasma and Seranrae are, however, opposed to Abaddon and suspects that the Horsemen take advantage of the Gods’ fear of leaving Axis and secretly raid Golarion for mortal souls, building armies inside the hollow moon of Abaddon (I’m tempted to make Urgathoa the Horsemen of Famine).

In Mythic Golarion the Starstone is the ultimate mystery. The Gods don’t know that the Starstone is, only that it is impervious to their power or influence. They know that It came from the Void, but nothing more. They watched, in fascination and horror, the ascension of Aroden, the Living God, and never accepted him inside Axis. His mysterious death, on the other hand, cemented the Gods’ fear of the Doomsdays and their own End. After Aroden’s death, no God ever left Axis again, while Seranrae secluded herself at the hidden pinnacle of Mount Elysium.

The so called Age of Lost Omens marked the return of the Abyss, the Eternal Foe, which devoured the nation of Sarkoris and created the Worldwound. The Gods, through their priests, give the knowledge of the Wardstones to the Mortals, to contain the abyssal taint.

And that’s the main myth of Golarion. Now, a few more details…

As you can guess, the Elves are natural from the First World, from the ancestral and time-locked realm of Sovyrian.

The Aboleths are another mystery, being the spawn of the Void. The only God who tried to peruse the spaces outside Existence returned as Zon-Kuthon, the Stranger, the Midnight Lord, who now leaves segregated from the remaining deities.

The oceans of Mythic Golarion replace the Elemental Plane of Water. This is an idea stolen from Tanith Lee’s Tales from the Flat Earth (I do recommend it very much!). The oceans’ surface is “normal”, but if anyone dives deep enough he’s considered to be in another realm, with its own rules and magic.

The Airs Above are likewise divided in a myriad of realms, each stranger than the former. The Lower Airs are home to floating islands of the Azatas, the Middle Airs are the Elemental Plane of Air, abode of the Djinn. The elusive and distant Upper Airs are the domains of the Angels and Archons, who watch – in the starts – for any menaces from the Void. Legends hold that Mount Elysium’s top reaches the Upper Airs.

Deep below the Darklands, and conterminous to the Nine Hells, are Golarion’s Divine Forges, ex-abode of Torag, the Smith of the Gods, and now the home of the Efreet and the Salamanders (this is the new Elemental Plane of Fire).

At Golarion’s borders, beyond the farthest lands and oceans, lies the World’s Barrier. Imagine Golarion as if it was a stone bowl. It’s surrounded above by the Lower, Middle and Upper Airs; below and at the borders by the World’s Barrier.

Beyond the World’s Barrier lies the leftover of Creation, flotsams of unfulfilled potentials and probabilities – the Maelstrom, home of the Proteans.

Finally, one last topic to really tie up this Mythic Golarion – the land of Numeria. I don’t think that a technological realm fits with this theme. I’m tempted to leave Numeria “open” for now. But, if you still want to add a strange flavor it, just changed the type of “technology”. Maybe a Silver City of Inevitables, coming from the Void, crashed over Numeria. This way you still get the strange metals, the “automatons” and maybe even mad alchemists and half-golems – all without radiation, cybernetics and Golden Age robots (although nothing can really stop you from using them).

I know there’re a lot of missing topics to address, but I’m just making broad assumptions here, not writing a new Golarion campaign setting (and this post is already too long that I fear anyone will read to the end).

Have nice (mythic) games! 

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