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.
It’s no secret that I’ve been running the D&D Encounters game at my local game shop. At first I was motivated to learn what I could from the program to promote the indy games that I enjoy a lot, especially Tunnels & Trolls and Sorcerer. I even ran a demo of T&T when the other players expressed interest in it, and we might come back to it again sometime after the current adventure concludes— I don’t know. But I’ve also come to really enjoy playing with this group, even if D&D is all they’re interested in playing.
So this Wednesday I picked up a copy of Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, one of the core books of the Dungeons & Dragons “Essentials” line. Although this supplement is meant to be used as a companion to Heroes of the Fallen Lands, it suggests a world starkly different than the standard pastiche of fantasy tropes associated with D&D— if we take it in isolation. Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms presents character creation rules for playing Druids, Paladins, Rangers, and Warlocks, with kindred templates for the Dragonborn, Drow, Half-elves, Half-orcs, Humans, and Tieflings.
The text assumes that all of these character types live together with the options presented in Heroes of the Fallen Lands: those familiar Fighters, Clerics, Rogues, and Wizards; Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings that are routinely battered into insipid clichés by fantasy fiction. But that needn’t be the case! Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms provides a sufficient foundation for building a complete setting without trotting out the same tired stereotypes and assumptions.
Part of my reason for abandoning the stock T&T kindreds for my Yggsgraf setting is that I have no interest in the careless pastiche of fantasy races and cultures that has become the default offering in fantasy role-playing. For a gonzo-style game, I don’t mind having the Dwarves who speak with an inexplicable Scottish brogue— heck, I’ve even run games for my daughter in which she played a Moogle, a Shih Tzu warrior named Fluffy, and most recently a Goron. I just think that the character options should be carefully selected with respect to the setting, situation, and tone of the game you want to play.
Right now I don’t want to clutter my game with the same old stereotypes— if I include a kindred or character type, it should be an interesting and exciting part of the fiction. That’s why reading Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms unexpectedly sparked my imagination: What would the world be like if these were the only character options available? No wizards or clerics, just wild druids and Chaos-bound warlocks. Now that could be interesting! The setting notes above present just one possibility, but it’s a possibility that makes D&D interesting to me again: dungeoneering that confronts, unshackles, and embraces the Weird once more!