Weird fantasy rekindled: DIY D&D in Forgotten Kingdoms

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In my last post, I began to sketch out a setting for DIY D&D, using Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms as my only rules reference:

Imagine a world similar to Tolkein’s Middle Earth, only in this world the Dark Power prevailed. A thousand years later the free peoples of the last age are no more, and their legacy lies in ruin. Humans barely cling to a barren existence in subjugation, the Elves having departed to havens beyond the earth before the cataclysm, the Dwarves having turned to stone deep inside their mountain fortresses. No one knows what happened to the tender halflings who once lived in a peaceful backwater of the empire, but their land is now torn by marauding horrors.

Gone are the independent warriors, the sagely wizards, the holy clerics, and the clever rogues who once stood— and broke —against tides of evil in ages past. They failed. The would-be heroes of this world are scattered, debased, and forgotten. Think of the rebelion presented in the original Star Wars trilogy— vagabonds, aliens, and bizarre hyrbids who confront and harness the Weird. They eek out tenuous life-styles in blasted landscapes that stretch across the shattered borderlands of ancient kingdoms, or ply their trades in sprawling labyrinthine citadels ruled by priests of the Dark Power.

Here are my current notions about the setting; It’s all subject to revision, especially as I get feedback from players:

Look & feel

The “Dark Power” in this setting is Ulhula Hekate, the goddess of the moon, transformation, and death. Her sacred bird is the owl, who ferries souls of the dead to the Silent City, the capital of Hekate’s Imperium.

The look and feel of the Imperium harkens most of all to One Thousand And One Nights, with traces of Aztec, Inka, and ancient Egyptian culture in the mix: sultry bazaars, great thronging cities with narrow twisting streets and minarets on towering spires, rich merchants, pious sheiks, penniless adventurers, and a blasted landscape churning with wild sandstorms, cunning Ifrits, and hungry Ghouls.

Toss in a soundless necropolis at the center of it all, and advance the society to a tenuous industrial age, with mechanized factories powered by ghosts. On the outskirts of the Imperium are a variety of small vassal states and barbarian territories—collectively known as the Forgotten Kingdoms—who give the empire souls for it’s factories in exchange for relative autonomy and peace.

Castes & kindreds

The Imperium is organized into a rigid caste system, with the soulless Drow on top, followed by Half-orks and other Ork-kin, then Humans. The Drow of this world are the most elite and refined of the Ork kindreds.

Orks themselves come from Elven ancestry, but they were bred for war, making them apex predators. As progeny of the Feywild, Orks and Drow cannot die of natural causes, and they have no souls to enslave when killed.

The Dragonborn, Tieflings, and Half-Elves are untouchables. They represent inhuman bloodlines that became mingled with certain families long ago. All of them can pass as human, but others can make a Perception vs Bluff check to detect their true natures.

Half-Elves are the last remnant of the once-noble Elves, who retreated into the Feywild from Hekate’s hordes. The Dragonborn are descendents of human-dragon hybrids, and they can transform from human to half-dragon form (or back) as a free action, but they must be in their draconic form to use any racial powers. Tieflings are the offspring of humans and chaotic Ifrits.

The Heroes

The players take the roles of champions in an underground movement called “the Returners” (an obvious homage to Final Fantasy VI). the Returners struggle to liberate humans and their hybrid kindreds from Hekate’s rule, create safe freeholds, and end the soul tribute that powers the Imperium. How they do this is up to the players—The Returners are a decentralized network with no chain of command, and each party sets it’s own goals.

This approach has several interesting advantages:

  • No obligatory tavern scenes: Each player can decide how her character joined the Returners and why, and what ties she has with the other characters, if any. We can get right to the action without having the awkward question of why these people are working together, anyway. The group provides a framework for collective action, even if the characters are strangers.
  • Short missions: Since each party of Returners is a small group with limited resources, their ambitions at any given time are likely to be pretty local in scope. By keeping the focus on short adventures, the players can enjoy a series of loosely-connected missions without committing months or years to a campaign of unbounded scope. That way we can play other games as we are led, and recognize and appreciate the end of the series when it comes.
  • The character stable: Players may wish to try out different characters for different adventures just to mix it up, or even play missions with entirely different groups of characters in different parts of the world. Some characters may develop their own plots that take them out of play temporarily, and others might disappear, retire, or betray the alliance. A loose affiliation like the Returners provides a ready stable of potential characters and adventure hooks so that players can take the roles of a variety of characters when it suits them.
  • Autonomous, self-directed missions: With a group like the Returners, it’s easy to toss out a variety of opportunities, problems, threats, and other hooks and develop adventures based on what the players want to play. I have ideas for an introductory adventure just to shake things up, but future quests might be derived whole-cloth from the specific goals of individual characters. Is this what the kids these days mean when they talk about the “sandbox”? I’m interested in running quests that come from what the players care about, and a decentralized group like the Returners gives them the chance to follow their ambitions rather than be puppets of some GM mouthpiece.
  • Scope for long-term play: The short missions create a kind of pulp adventure format, and a good run might be just a few adventures, or even just one. But if the players come back, there’s scope for greater challenge as the characters step on up, even including a climactic grand finale with the Goddess of Death. But who knows?

I think the fact that there are no Wizards, Rogues, or Clerics in the Forgotten Kingdoms will have a big impact on the style and focus of play. The Returners can’t count on the scholarly, formulaic magic of the Wise, nor the self-assured miracles of religious leaders, nor even the legerdemain of the specialized burglar skulking in a cloak with dagger drawn. Their ranks are filled instead with the Druids, Rangers, Paladins, and Warlocks, whose powers are more mysterious and fickle.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the house rules I’m currently considering.

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