Monday, December 19, 2011

Points of Light

From a Rich Baker article on the Wizards of the Coast website, describing the implicit setting assumptions for D&D 4e:
The Dungeons & Dragons game assumes many things about its setting: The world is populated by a variety of intelligent races, strange monsters lurk on other planes, ancient empires have left ruins across the face of the world, and so on. But one of the new key conceits about the D&D world is simply this: Civilized folk live in small, isolated points of light scattered across a big, dark, dangerous world.
Most of the world is monster-haunted wilderness. The centers of civilization are few and far between, and the world isn’t carved up between nation-states that jealously enforce their borders. A few difficult and dangerous roads tenuously link neighboring cities together, but if you stray from them you quickly find yourself immersed in goblin-infested forests, haunted barrowfields, desolate hills and marshes, and monster-hunted badlands. Anything could be waiting down that old overgrown dwarf-built road: a den of ogre marauders, a forgotten tower where a lamia awaits careless travelers, a troll’s cave, a lonely human village under the sway of a demonic cult, or a black wood where shadows and ghosts thirst for the blood of the living.

Given the perilous nature of the world around the small islands of civilization, many adventures revolve around venturing into the wild lands. For example:
• Roads are often closed by bandits, marauders such as goblins or gnolls, or hungry monsters such as griffons or dragons. The simple mission of driving off whomever or whatever is preying on unfortunate travelers is how many young heroes begin their careers.

• Since towns and villages do not stay in close contact, it’s easy for all sorts of evils to befall a settlement without anyone noticing for a long time. A village might be terrorized by a pack of werewolves or enslaved by an evil wizard, and no one else would know until adventurers stumbled into the situation.

• Many small settlements and strongholds are founded, flourish for a time, and then fall into darkness. The wild lands are filled with forgotten towers, abandoned towns, haunted castles, and ruined temples. Even people living only a few miles away from such places might know them only by rumor and legend.

The common folk of the world look upon the wild lands with dread. Few people are widely traveled—even the most ambitious merchant is careful to stick to better-known roads. The lands between towns or homesteads are wide and empty. It might be safe enough within a day’s ride of a city or an hour’s walk of a village, but go beyond that and you are taking your life into your hands. People are scared of what might be waiting in the old forest or beyond the barren hills at the far end of the valley, because whatever is out there is most likely hungry and hostile. Striking off into untraveled lands is something only heroes and adventurers do.

Another implication of this basic conceit of the world is that there is very little in the way of authority to deal with raiders and marauders, outbreaks of demon worship, rampaging monsters, deadly hauntings, or similar local problems. Settlements afflicted by troubles can only hope for a band of heroes to arrive and set things right. If there is a kingdom beyond the town’s walls, it’s still largely covered by unexplored forest and desolate hills where evil folk gather. The king’s soldiers might do a passable job of keeping the lands within a few miles of his castle free of monsters and bandits, but most of the realm’s outlying towns and villages are on their own.

In such a world, adventurers are aberrant. Commoners view them as brave at best, and insane at worst. But such a world is rife with the possibility for adventure, and no true hero will ever lack for a villain to vanquish or a quest to pursue.
How does the DARK•HERITAGE setting coincide, and how does it differ from this point of view?  First off, that's largely true of my setting.  The Terrasan Empire, the main force of civilization in the lands of the Mezzovian Main and surrounding areas, is a decrepit, rotted, and ineffective excuse for an empire, and honestly, calling themselves an "Empire" was perhaps more grandiose wishful thinking rather than accurate labeling in the first place.  Overland travel is increasingly dangerous, and increasingly avoided, hence the "loss" of entire provinces like Calça or Baix Pallars.  The major city-states that are the core of the empire, on the other hand, are connected only by sea.

Even that route is plagued with problems, though.  While the Mezzovian isn't known for its tempestuous nature, making it an ideal road for travel, sudden storms aren't unknown either.  More importantly, the shipping and travel lanes are more and more plagued by pirates, corsairs and raiders, and Terrasa's navy is completely unable to rise to the challenge of detering them.

Strange kingdoms, races, tribes and peoples have lived in the area.  Although the terrasans and their allied peoples are ascendent (if only just) still, they are the last in a long litany of former inhabitants.  Many of the inhabitants are, in fact, mysterious.  The most recent kingdoms, particularly the so-called balshatoi kingdoms of the North Coast are reasonably well known, and descendents of those proud ancient peoples still live throughout the area.  But before them, only the vaguest rumors, legends, ghost-stories and crumbling, mouldering ruins of often mysterious purpose still linger.

Where DARK•HERITAGE most notably differs from the D&D assumptions, as spelled out by Baker above, are in two major areas.  First, in my setting, there is no assumption that the protagonists will be heroes.  In fact, given my recent (although years long now) infatuation with darker, grimmer, "fantasy noir" tropes and conventions, it's a pretty good bet that my protagonists aren't heroes at all.  At best they're anti-heroes, although they could frequently be likeable rascals and scoundrels or even complete and utter villains entirely.  The the second way in which it differs dramatically is the incidence of monsters.  In this older post of mine from about 13 months or so ago, I mentioned my preference for tropes and characteristics of supernatural horror over that of high fantasy.  What that mostly means is that monsters are never disposible; they remain monstrous by being rare and frightening, never routine or commonplace.  That requires a more careful touch; Baker can cheerily populate his wilds with all kinds of crazy monsters.  That's what the high fantasy genre (which more and more D&D starts to resemble, despite it's sword & sorcery roots) calls for.  However, my game has slightly different genre requirements.

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