Tuesday, June 21, 2011

City on the Ice-Choked Sea

I've been thinking about yet another, this time final, revision of my old Wounded Gaia setting over the last several weeks. My original intention was to move the setting into a hard-line post-apocalyptic milieu, with tiny communities of survivors living underground while the surface is frozen and wild. However, I discussed this with my principal player, my beloved spouse Hani, and she remarked that she has already seen enough post-apocalyptic and/or wilderness and/or underground settings in our last RPG campaigns, and that she'd like to try something different for a change. The two ideas we raised together were either a pirate campaign or an urban campaign. We choose the urban one.

This got me thinking, like conversations of this type with Hani usually do. And here is the rough idea that I have developed over the last few days.

My main sources of inspiration are Thief: Dark Project, my second all-time favorite computer game (the overall all-time favorite is of course the immortal System Shock); Michael Scott Rohan's Winter of the World saga; Slavic and Nordic Folklore (especially faeries); Lovecraft's Shadow Over Insmouth; Tony DiTerlizzi's and Holly Black's Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You; Age of Sail Britain (especially in the 16th-17th centuries); Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magic Obscura, another computer game; and possibly also Balzac's Le Père Goriot and Restoration-era France with all its attendant corruption.

My preferred rule-set for this would be Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Grindhouse Edition.

What I want is a campaign set in a major city, a major port city in the Kingdom of Zagadur. The Kingdom, as well as the City, are in the state of social flux as the old nobility decays while the new merchant class rises in power, creating vast rifts in the social fabric. Technology is also rapidly advancing, and the conservative nobility is slow to catch the latest innovations. It is a city of extremes: sprawling slums filled with newly-arrived displaced peasants in stark contrast to the brand-new expansive mansions of the rising merchant stars; crumbling noble castles in contrast to the modern factories; rational science as opposed to old occultism and to the much newer mad science; and the Old Faith as opposed to the iron-fisted New Faith.

The city's harbor is excellent in the spring, summer and autumn, but ice-choked (though not completely frozen) in the cold winter.

For the resident of the slums, this is urban hell; for the enterprising thief or thug-for-hire, this is heaven.

Technology is more advanced than in a typical fantasy setting, and is an anachronistic mix of Renaissance, Age of Sail and early Industrial Revolution tech, with mad scientists creating completely fantastic clockwork and steam devices. Firearms have replaced bows and crossbows for the most part, while not yet rendering armour, swords and pole-arms obsolete; firearms would use very similar rules to Crossbows, but be much, much noisier (so hunters and other people who wish to be silent would still use bows, crossbows and blowguns).

The dominant religion is the New Faith, a monotheistic religion (inspired by Thief: Dark Project's Hammerites) who worships the Mastersmith and who sees its duty to crush Chaos (and the heathenly Old Faith) with a sledge hammer. The Old Faith, which worships the Triune Goddess (modeled after Hecate), still lingers in the countryside and the slums, as well as in the hidden chambers of some of the nobles. Both of these Faiths are Lawful in game terms, as they seem to smash (New Faith) or safely contain (Old Faith) the Fey and worse unnatural forces; both have, in game terms, Clerics. Most cultists and witches who do not belong to either Faith are Chaotic, consort with Fey or with worse beings, and are, in game terms, Magic Users.

The climate is very cold. In the past, approximately 1,500 years ago, the Northern Empire (to the far north from Zagadur) was a shining beacon of civilization and magic. But the Empire's mages made pacts with Chaos, and, some say, have injured the Triune Goddess herself. This brought about the Great Winter, which still lingers, and the fall of the Northern Empire to Chaos. The climate and ecosystem now resemble Europe in the last Ice Age, megafauna included; mammoths have been domesticated and used for labor, while beasts such as sabertooth cats and wooly rhinoceroses roam the wilderness where civilization does not hold sway.

The Fey are an active, and potent, force on this world. They are Chaotic and not part of the natural order, though not all of them are malevolent. Their magic is Chaotic, and many rural Magic-Users learn their magic from the Fey. Elves (which are Fey in this world) sometimes kidnap babies from their cribs - even in the City as long as a New Faith temple is not close by - and replace them with Changelings of their own kin. These Changelings, when raised by Humans, still retain some of their Faerie heritage, and, in game terms, they use the rules for Elves and replace them. Changelings have a negative social stigma, as do Magic-Users who do not keep their abilities in the shadows (or masquerade as alchemists, scientists, apothecaries and similar respectable professions); most noble or rich families will abandon Changeling babies in the Slums to their fate (most die; some are adopted by poor families).

(as far as I've thought about it, I think that there is no need for Dwarves or Halflings in this world, though you might convince me otherwise).

There should be some dark secret for the Nobility; my current idea is that they are other Deep One Hybrids or Snake Men Hybrids. Vampires are probably out as I've used them enough in previous games and want something new.

Note that both City and Kingdom are crumbling. The monarch has little control of the deep countryside (far from the major cities); and the city is an armed camp, with almost any noble or rich merchant having his or her armed private guards, some of which are better trained and equipped than the corrupt (and often drunk) City Watch. Crime thrives, and so does intrigue.

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