Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Dark•Heritage through the ages

I find myself at a forking point.  The DARK•HERITAGE setting isn't supposed to be seen as "complete" of course, but it's been "complete enough" for long enough that I've kinda wandered away from it, and have dabbled in other ventures, for the most part.  At the same time, I've gotten kind of unhappy with a few details of the setting, and thinking that they need updating.  I thought I'd do a quick retrospective first, and then at a very high level, give a brief for where I think DARK•HERITAGE will be going in the future.

Now, keep in mind that I've been homebrewing for as long as I've been involved in the RPG hobby.  Possibly even longer; although I think my discovery of the "modern" fantasy genre and RPGs happened really about the same time, about when I was in 5th grade.  This isn't strictly speaking true, of course, but in 5th grade, I was introduced to Lloyd Alexander and J. R. R. Tolkien (it took me a little longer to read the latter than the former) as well as the old B/X D&D sets.  I'd been flirting with both for years already by that point, but it wasn't until 5th grade that it really completely coalesced and I became a fan most especially of fantasy in literature (as opposed to all kinds of boys' adventure stories that I read prior to that) and of the RPG hobby, which was just coming into mainstream prominence at that point (but I'd been a fan of stuff like the Choose Your Own Adventure books and whatnot for years even before I heard of D&D, so I was well-primed to adopt it.)

In those days, especially after reading Lord of the Rings, I used to almost routinely doodle during class by drawing Christopher Tolkien style maps of fantasy settings that I was mostly inventing on the fly.  Of course, I had little understanding of the mythological underpinnings that made up even modest details of Middle-earth (I was more familiar with Norse Mythology at a higher level by then, of course, but wouldn't have been able to tell you much about the Eddas, or the the Nibelungenlied or anything like that).  But the notion of home-brewing came so naturally to me, even if I was doing little more than imitative pastiche, that I was literally doing it from the get-go as a little kid.

Of course, coming from a literary background (rather than a wargaming one, like Gygax and Arneson themselves did) there were all kinds of things about D&D that never sat well with me.  If it didn't allow me to recreate my own versions of The Book of Three and Lord of the Rings or the other fantasy stories that I was devouring at a rapid pace back then, then what was the point?  The whole notion of the dungeon itself I never liked, and although I can understand its genesis in theory, I've never liked spending much attention on them at all.  Over time, my fascination with high fantasy itself faded a bit as well; as anyone who's ever read this blog knows, I haven't focused on a high fantasy style game in, quite literally, many, many years.

Anyway, after the release of Third Edition in 2000, I picked up my old late elementary and junior high school hobby of messing around with fantasy role-playing games more or less permanently, and I've obviously been homebrewing that entire time.  My first forays after getting back into it were very standard plain-Jane vanilla D&D style settings, but it didn't take me long to start diverging significantly into stuff that was quite different.  For the following review, I'll be talking about any setting I worked on that contributed in any way to DARK•HERITAGE in a recognizable way—including of course, earlier versions of the setting that bore the name.

Bloodlines.  The first setting that I worked on that really ditched the standard D&D assumptions, after coming back to D&D, was Bloodlines.  It's amazing looking at it (and it's still available, actually, on an archive of Geocities) how much it paved the way for DARK•HERITAGE.  Not deliberately, of course—DARK•HERITAGE was supposed to be very different.  But as it evolved, it actually reverted in many, many respects to ideas that were pioneered in this setting.  A few examples:
  • It was the first setting where I really significantly ditched the rules.  Bloodlines was meant to be a d20 Modern setting, but modified to be... less modern, I guess.  I started working on Bloodlines before d20 Past was out, but much of what I was doing was deliberately designed to create from scratch the material that d20 Past provided.
  • The geography was based on the lands ringing prehistoric Lake Bonneville—a gigantic pluvial lake that filled up at least half of the square miles of Utah, plus some of Wyoming and Nevada on the edges.  The idea of a southwest desert setting surrounding by a big inland sea should, of course, sounds familiar...
  • I'd already deliberately hybridized the rules a bit with the d20 Call of Cthulhu book, specifically the way magic worked.  I think my influence was more from Warhammer 40k than CoC honestly, although it was the CoC rules that I mostly used.
  • I'd skipped 2e almost entirely, but early on in 3e, I got fascinating with the concept of the plane-touched races.  I decided that a magical catastrophe in the distant past had shaped the world, and as part of it, elemental magic seeped into the world, creating all of the plane-touched races (which, of course, I gave new names to.)  By the time DARK•HERITAGE came out, I'd kept only modified versions of the fire genasi and the tieflings, (although I later added aasimar back in) but my wildlings or woses have a similar origin.
  • Prehistoric fauna.  I toyed briefly with giving a late Permian fauna but decided to go with a Hemphillian NALMA fauna—not exactly the same as my Rancholabrean NALMA used in DARK•HERITAGE, but clearly you see the similarity!
  • A gritty, urban noir and espionage focus, with some steampunk elements and swashbuckling, Golden Age of Sail style firearms, which at the time seemed radical in fantasy to me (I know, right?  Not anymore.)
  • I even had an area where the sun never shone; the first time the seed of Tarush Noptii reared its ugly, undead head.
It's almost amazing, even to me, to see how much if you ignore the little details, that Bloodlines really is DARK•HERITAGE.  Ironically, DARK•HERITAGE itself looked a bit different for much of it's life...

Dark Heritage Mk. I.  When I first used the name, it was because of a shift in thinking applied to a setting very much like Bloodlines, which of my early post 2000 homebrews had been my favorite.  I still used a hybrid of d20 Modern and CoC as the rules.  I had moved into a more overt sword & planet rather than fantasy approach, although that's best seen as an alternate route to get to the same place rather than a radically different approach.  What started that was thinking more and more about the prehistoric fauna and deciding that another world should have actually alien fauna.  Rather than borophagine dogs and barbourofelids, why not something like thoats, zitidars, calots and banths?  And if I'm going to do that with the animals, why not with the people?  Instead of elemental magic suffusing the world, what if the various races were bred by an ancient race of slavers for various functions, which had then disappeared for whatever reason?  The world also changed slightly; I started actually implementing geographic features from Mars; Valles Marinaris and the Tharsis volcanoes, specifically—although I rearranged them to suit.  In general, Barsoom became a much more overt influence as I migrated into a semi-science fiction approach.  Other than that, though, it's actually a little surprising now little this changed.  A lot of details did, but at a high level, this isn't really super different than Bloodlines except now with more pseudo-science and steampunk.  Probably the latter was the influence of the Iron Kingdoms setting, which hadn't yet been published, but we did have the Monsternomicon and the original modules to give us an idea of what to expect.  Heck, I'm pretty sure Warmachine hadn't even been released yet.  I also spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about a pseudo-scientific explanation for magic in the world of brane cosmology.  I very briefly ran an online game in the setting, but it fell apart when most of the players ended up being kind of AWOL.

Dark Heritage Mk. III.  I'm skipping Mk. II because it was basically just Mk. I with a radically restructured geography—an experiment that I decided I wasn't happy with after all.  For Mk. III I de-emphasized the pseudo-science again, and used a completely different geographical model based loosely on the ancient Silk Road Tarim Basin—Kucha, Karasahr, Turfan, Khotan, etc.  This was rather heavily developed, although after all was said and done, I ended up ditching most of the ideas that were unique to this version, although I did develop a lot names of places and persons, and I even had a fairly complete novel outline that I could still turn out today that was to be set here.

DarkDND/Leng Calling.  I took a break from my signature setting to develop one that was specifically meant to use D&D elements, albeit maybe in a way that would look really radically different than most D&D settings.  Shockingly, this ended up becoming the basis for much of what DARK•HERITAGE became, not because of the rules, races, magic system, or any of that stuff, but because of the geography especially.  Leng Calling was originally meant to be a Jupiter-sized world but of lower density so that it had a surface gravity the same as Earth.  This was just a little trick to make the surface area as big as I could possibly ever need it to be, which turned out to be ridiculously over-fluffed, because I never really did develop that much material for it.  What I did, develop, however, was the Terrasan Empire, which was the "star" polity that I would feature for the setting.  Not that the Terrasan Empire was't already heavily influenced by the oasis city-states from Mk. III already (because it was) but this actually put them into a completely different political framework.

Modular DnD Setting.  This is where I first developed Tarush Noptii and Kurushat; originally meant to be modular elements that could be used in any setting without much fuss.  Later, I added Baal Hamazi and Terrasa, but honestly; at some point, this just evolved seamlessly into DARK•HERITAGE Mk. IV when I decided to hang them together into a geography that was based on...

Pirates of the Mezzovian Main.  I was asked to run a game without much prep time for my group, and I needed a custom setting right away.  I took the geography of Leng Calling, mostly, which already resembled the Mediterranean a great deal, stuck Terrasa on a pseudo-Italian peninsula, stuck Kurushat in a psuedo-Egyptian location, stuck Cryx (from the Iron Kingdoms) on Crete, more or less, etc. I actually named the big inland sea for this setting; the Mezzovian Sea.  This geography got a few minor changes, but by the time we get to here, we're pretty close to where Mk. IV was—I mostly borrowed the geography from Pirates as is, and just added to it.  Pirates was a D&D game, though, and used D&D rules, D&D races, etc.  The tone was more Warhammer FRP or "Fantasy Cthulhu + X-Files"—a common theme for me, but it was definitely a D&D game.  I had enough fun with it that I was convinced that I needed my big inland sea and pirates back in Dark Heritage.  I played around with it for a while before completely ditching my Barsoom feel for the DARK•HERITAGE details that are pretty much as detailed here on this blog.  Of course, a few other homebrew elements had an impact too.

Demons in the Mist.  This was an online game I ran, really on the fly.  I made everything up on the fly, almost, which means that I liberally stole it from somewhere else.  There's actually a lot of it that's stolen specifically from Edgar Rice Burroughs, including Opar, fighting gorillas, and a much more swashbucklery tongue in cheek rather than horror tone.  The success of this approach eventually seeped into the development of Dark Heritage until I decided that significant tone changes and a lot more wahoo wasn't necessarily a bad idea at all.  You can actually see that change here on the blog if you read enough posts with the DARK•HERITAGE tag, though.

There was a sequel to Demons in the Mist that used yet another geography and was meant to take place in Green Ronin's Freeport (or at least that was the starting point.)  I stuck it in a geography that was basically the East Indies, with at the northern edge, Thailand, the Philippines, and the encroaching Han, and at the southern edge, the blasted wasteland of what was kinda sorta Australia.  Again, as these settings developed, they all started converging onto each other to a very great degree, so that lots and lots of details are repeated, and they really cross-pollinate and influence each other.  By this time, DARK•HERITAGE Mk. IV already existed, but it still had a rather immature level of development compared to today, so lots of stuff made it over from these games.

Mammoth Lords.  Meant to be a stand-alone sword & sorcery setting that does for the New World what Robert E. Howards' Hyborian Age did for the Old.  I've talked a fair bit about this one here, but there are obvious convergences between this and Dark Heritage already, especially given the faunal elements featured, and the gradual shift of my setting into becoming a bit of a love letter to the wild landscape of the American West.  

Where to now?  I actually threw Mammoth Lords in there, because I see the next development of Dark Heritage to come as a fusion with that setting.  One thing that I deliberately did with early Dark Heritage was leave alone too familiar cultural ties; anything like the Anglo-Saxons was to be ignored.  The balshatoi ethnicity (later the Kozaki) was meant to be more like the Scandinavian Rus; a combination of early Medieval Russia and Vikings.  That was the closest thing to your typical northern European Hajnal Line traditional fantasy ethnic group that I had.  Now, I didn't do this because I dislike the Anglo-Saxons or other northern Europeans; quite the opposite, as a descendant of Anglo-Saxons (including the heavy Viking influence on their language, culture and politics prior to the Norman Conquest—and of course, the Normans were mostly just Vikings who moved to Normandy and started speaking French) and Scottish people myself, they are my favorite historical peoples.  But, I just wanted to do something a little different.  In the years since, I've really had my eyes opened quite a bit more to the contempt with which much of the so-called "mainstream" science fiction and fantasy community has for our culture, and I now feel like deliberately going somewhere else is now the mainstream that I need to break away from rather than the reverse.

So, DARK•HERITAGE Mk. V will be geographically redrawn yet again, to look like a distorted and compressed version of North America (although in size probably more comparable merely to Greenland.)  I'll have Terrasa take the place of Nueva España in the south.  I'll have Porto Liure be similar to a Tortuga.  Baal Hamazi and the various tribes that now over run much of it's territory (the Untash, Haltash and Tazitta) will be similar to the Indian Nations, with more specifically Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlements encroaching from the east like the spread of America across the continent.  I'll have a north-south mountain range that will probably be the western edge of my map, a large red rock desert area, northern boreal forests, vast grasslands, and a subtropical southern forest.  The Anglo-Saxons and Scottish area will be more or less equivalent to the South, expanding westward with settlements not unlike that of Texas.  The north will be more Viking-esque.  The rivalry between these two white nations will at times intense, but at other times, they'll see each other as necessary allies.  I'll have hints of Chinese settlement somewhere far in the West (the West Coast Fusang, essentially, using the New World interpretation of Fusang).

The al-Qazmir nation actually doesn't really have a place in this setting anymore, I realize.  But, I think I can still rescue some elements of it.  Located smack dab in the middle of the continent, will be a big red nation.  Not red as in "Injun territory" (that'll be more to the west still) but red as in the red men of Barsoom.  Sorta.  I mean, I've already got the Indian Territory being somewhat reimagined as my Baal Hamazi, so it won't be so exotic as to be out of place.  Besides, I've always, always loved exotic red-skinned people, ever since reading the Barsoom books for the first time.

Anyway, I'll sketch out the new geography, scan it and post it here in the next day or two.

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