Sunday, 27 December 2015

Religions of Erce, pt 2: The New Order

This is part 2 of three parts. For intoductory notes on all three, see Religions of Erce, pt 1: The Old Faith.

The New Order

Unlike the individualistic mystery cults of the Old Faith, the New Order is strongly community oriented and wholly focused on the rise and betterment of mankind.

Over 1700 years ago, just prior to the founding of Nydecia, the Nine Gods of the New Order joined to make something wholly new: A unified pantheon working for a common goal: The  undeterred growth and expansion of civilization.

Where the Old Gods were satisfied with their co-existent hegemony over Chaos, the Nine proposed a new world order: To altogether drive Chaos from human lands and establish realms where denizens of Law could do more than just exist; where civilization could grow, prosper and develop entirely free of the threat of the monstrous forces of Chaos.

Thus were the Dominions of Law born, with Nydecia the first and mightiest of its kind. With the rise of the empire, the New Order likewise spread to the furthest corners of the West, bringing with it an ordered and cultured society.

The Nine are a more civilized breed than the Old Gods.
The New Order mandates propitiation of all the Nine, though not necessarily in equal measure, and upholds a codified doctrine and worldview. People may favour one of the Nine over another, but it is with the understanding that one does so out of affinity for one part of a greater whole. The Nine represent the total sum of conditions for the  prosperity, stability and spread of human order - To forsake one is to forsake all of human order and prosperity.

Unlike the pious orders of the Hearthstone Church, the priesthoods of the Nine are intimately involved with society as active participants. Its initiates fill diverse cultural, political and mercantile roles to sustain the proper orderliness and welfare of the community – From the myrmidon schools of Corban to the judiciary courts of Orena; from the Lore Masters of Estaran and the Heralds of Elonis, to the current world emperor himself: Who is the high priest of Calanthe.

In return for this benevolence, the Nine demand regular and subservient worship, offerings and conduct – It is this very devotion that empowers the Dominions to be impenetrable to the forces of Chaos and facilitates their expansion.

Despite this, the Nine are not exclusive or jealous gods. Devotees can be initiates of Old Faith mystery cults, even supplicate the White Goddess, as they please, if only the Nine receive their just dues in prayer, offerings, conduct and view.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Religions of Erce, pt 1: The Old Faith

Ponderous Introduction

There are three major religious streams in Erce - The Old Faith, The New Order and the Hearthstone Church. Each represents an evolution (in the context of the setting, meant here in a neutral sense) of the human worldview and its relation to Law, Chaos, Others and Oneself.

Briefly, the Old Faith reflects the fragmentary tribal warrior societies where survival, personal glory and achievement and prosperity for one's nearest are at the forefront - It is a religion where Law is the strongest, but not necessarily dominant, hegemony that lives in proximity to the forces of Chaos and must need be flexible in its dealings with these.

The Nine Gods of the New Order are more akin the Roman gods - A state religion (though, rather than state-sponsored gods, it is a case of states sponsored by gods) whose devotion and spread is intimately connected to the welfare and prosperity of the realms it patronises. It is community oriented and seeks the greater good more so than personal glory, looking to the advancement of society moreso than the advancements of individuals in a community. Rather than co-exist with Chaos, it seeks to altogether exclude its influence from its domains (since Chaos is inimical to the orderliness of the society it promotes) and ultimately vanquish it entirely.

The Hearthstone Church builds on the evolution of the New Order, but adds a moral and ethical dimension to its worldview - To build not just a prosperous society, but an enlightened society, whose Raison D'etre is not just its own survival, growth and propagation but to advance something fundamentally nobler and greater than itself - The eternal liberation of all savable beings. Under the guidance of its Triune White Goddess it promotes a theology of spiritual awakening and an ethos of selfless compassionate service and protection.

This entry is Part 1 of 3, sketching out the Old Faith. 

The Old Faith

As frightening as they are beneficial, the Old Gods are less prayed to than appeased. More bargained with than idolised, they neither ask for nor require worship - Still, favours and boons may be asked for a price, sacrifice or service.

As makers of the Great Seal, they are the original benefactors of mankind and their rune seals are found in every village to ward off the creatures of Chaos. Yet they do not always favour mankind, who take care not to fall afoul of the doings of their gods as often as they rely on their benediction.
Nor do those of the Old Faith elevate their gods unduly. The Old Gods are powerful protectors, tutors and aides, but also capricious, temperamental and often tragically flawed.
Some, called priests, form a special bond with some of these gods. Such an arrangement is never something one can aim for or train for. Such people are chosen by the god in question for his or her own reason for this sort of attention. And if they reciprocate, they may form a so-called 'godbond' - They do not follow any written doctrine nor are bound to strictures of devotion, but are more akin to two people uniting due to common cause and mutual benefit. Such a bond is more akin to a warrior who has sworn loyalty liege lord he counts as an admirable friend than that of a servant and master. His will blends with that of the deity's and he becomes a partial extension of the deity in the middle world. In return, the deity's power likewise blends with that of the mortal. In its most powerful expression, such mortals, though still their own person, are for all intents and purposes living avatars of the deity they have bonded with.
Some of these priests congregate in “mystery cults” in private groves to exchange knowledge and work together on projects of mutual benefit related to their bonded deity. But that generally is the extent of organised religion in the Old Faith and little hierarchy exists. Some have traditions of newly god-bonded priests undergoing training with a more experienced priest for a number of years. But once his training is complete, so are the pupil's hierarchical obligations.

One of the forms of Belyz the Dancer.

The Old Faith is practised primarily in the Borderlands, where the wilds encroach upon civilization more often and Chaos must be navigated, negotiated and sometimes even embraced, as often as it must be fought back.
In the Dominions of Law, the mystery cults of the Old Gods can be found individually as filling certain roles in society but never as primary deities or welcomed into the established pantheon of the Dominions.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Ponderous Notes on Gods, Religions & Similar Creatures

There's a special conceit in Erce concerning gods - They are strictly for humans (and their related lawful races such as Dwarves and Halflings).

In D&D, it is common to find racial pantheons - The elves have their own pantheon, the dwarves, orcs and oozes and jellies all have their own racial deities.

I am not going that direction, because it's not what I am observing in European mythology as being the case and I think running with this a bit not only plays well into the themes I have set out for Erce, but also makes for some interesting angles for a game world - Curiously, given that I am cripping earth mythology here, I haven't seen much of this in fantasy.

So anyway, in places mythologies like the Nordic and Celtic ones, we see that gods is generally something connected to humans. Other beings like trolls, elves, dwarves, etc don't enjoy their favour or patronage. The supernatural races are as often, if not opposed, then subjugated to the gods. Moreover, some of these races are in fact beings of similar stature to the gods and in direct competition or conflict with them. Ie, the jotuns, though generally on the losing end, are often of similar power to the Aesir - But they are not gods and a big part of that is that they have no real relationship with humanity. Likewise with the Tuatha Dé Danann vs the Fomorians.

A god.

So in Erce, there are classes of immortal beings and gods are just one of a handful of these.  What sets the gods apart is that they are the only Lawful group and, having ascended from humanity, also have a special relationship with humanity.

The Sidhe Lords who rule the wilds are another group (and they are many), as are the Demon Princes of the Nether Realms, the Angels who live in (and as) the Stars of Heaven, the imprisoned Elder Horrors of the Underworld, the Dragons in Erce and even the transcendent, though little-understood, Elemental Elder Gods who made the world.

Not a god.

Also  worth noting is that, save for these Elemental Elder Gods, the gods of Erce are not transcendent beings in the way gods are often envisioned in fantasy. They are, like the Olympians and Aesir, quite fallible and not at all above liasoning with mortals out of petty human desires. You can stumble across an old god in the woods just on a walkabout - If you should happen to cross or insult one when so met, they will fuck up your shit. But equally so, if you are an epic high level adventurer, with just the right kind of bane, a clever strategy and some mythic magic items to amp your lucky dice rolls in the right setting - You might just fuck up the god's shit instead and exact a powerful boon from him in exchange for letting him off the hook. 

Gods may be immortal, epically larger than life and have cosmic world spanning spheres of influence over metaphysical themes - But they have hit dice, AC and personality flaws. And there are definitely beings in the Monster Manual, like the most powerful dragons on Erce (some who have their own cults and territories), that most of them would like to avoid meeting in a fight.

All this also means there are no real 'evil' gods in Erce (with a few insane-in-the-membrane exceptions) - That role is reserved for other cosmic groupings like demons and elder horrors. This also nicely circumvents the question of why a community would ever worship a god that openly self-identifies as 'evil'. They don't, cause those guys don't exist (of course, underground demonic cults and chaos clans abound, but that is not quite the same).

Guys like Morgoth are hard to find in Erce.
In general, playing up lawfulness vs Chaos and setting aside good/evil for a long stretch means I can play with the gods I do have in interesting ways. Some, especially the Old Gods, are not necessarily friendly to humanity. They can be egotistical, demanding, cruel, callous, vain and all the things humans are - and have goals that have little relevance to humanity and vice versa. And certainly some of them can show up as the antagonist of adventures. But 'evil'? Nosirree. These guys are all on the side of Law after all - A man may make war on his lawful human neighbour, but if chaotic trolls showed up, they'd join forces to defeat them first before returning to their own dispute. And so it is as well with the gods.

Up next - A blurp on the three different kinds of pantheons, how they are worshipped and how each pantheon and its adherents interpret the conflict between Law and Chaos.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Alignment in Erce

Being a write-up of how alignment works in Erce and a few ponderous notes on said write-up.

Pic unrelated.


Alignment in Erce runs on either a 2 or 4 point axis. The most fundamental and unavoidable one is Law vs Chaos – This is an either/or disposition. If you are not Lawful you are, by definition, Chaotic – There is no in between. This alignment axis is more of an allegiance, or even obligation, than an ethical or philosophical outlook that dictates ones actions – It is most fundamentally choosing sides in a cosmic battle. An adherence to a metaphysical, but very much tangible, faction.

The other polarity is an ethical one: Good vs Evil – Unlike Law and Chaos, most people are not strongly aligned with these to be truly considered either. Though good is known and valued all across the West, the notion that people ought to be guided wholly by ethical choices is not a universal one. Being morally upright is a value that must be weighed against other values like honour, bravery, social standing and reputation as the weights on the scales of what is good in life. Many acts are committed that might not be considered morally 'good' but can be justified according to other acceptable values and as such can not be considered “evil” either.

For example, killing a person who attacked your honour in public might not be “Good”, but it would not be considered evil either, since you had good reason. Nor would killing for profit (though you could well be punished for the latter). Having someone murdered covertly for a public slight on your honour, or enjoying killing outside the battlefield for the sake of killing, would be considered reprehensible and “Evil” in most places. 

For many outside the Hearthstone Lands, a moral paradigm such as good and evil is something relative to conditions, subjective and fundamentally worldly in nature. Praiseworthy perhaps, but not an absolute value. Whereas Law vs Chaos represents more primordial values, a paradigm of cosmic import. The very nature of the Middle World, and maybe all existence, depends on the balance of power between these two forces.

When "good/evil" are secondary concerns, pretexts to do stupid shit, like fighting each other, are easier to come  by.

Lawful: A lawful person follows, or at least pays lip service to, the Conventions of Gods & Men. Oaths are something significant and breaking them is likely to result in divine retribution. Names have power, and 

A lawful person is generally opposed to Chaos of all kinds.

Chaotic: A Chaotic person has either forsaken, or never adhered to, Lawful convents. Concepts like truthfulness are secondary, or even meaningless, compared to results, 

Personal power. Freedom. Individuality. Outlaws.

A chaotic person is not necessarily opposed to law – though he could well be if it stood in the way of what he feels he should be free to have or go to. But then, the same could be said for many forces beyond Law in this world….

Good: “Good” as something that ought to be pursued above all other values is something mostly seen in the codex of the Hearthstone Church that combines its philosophy of aspiring to moral purity with a strong adherence to the cause of Law.

It is mostly only such evolved beings as angels, paladins, high clerics of the White Goddess and Heart Masters who are morally pure enough to tangibly register as Good. 

Evil: “Evil” is generally reserved for the most reprehensible of beings and people. 

The sadist torturer who also abducts innocents just to practice his craft on them, the coward who would deceive and betray his family for profit and demons of all kinds (who are known to revel in human suffering) are examples of people who could be considered genuinely committed to Evil.

This guy might be deranged enough to be "evil" in Erce.

Ponderous Notes

This outlook on alignment is strongly inspired by celtic and viking age worldviews, where things like honor, reputation and such were tangible qualities and less the vain affections they have become today.

As you can see, the law/chaos angle is one players will have to wrap their heads around, whilst good/evil is left in the optional category (in-world, this perception of good/evil as tangible forces similar to law/chaos is a modern development). 

Given that it was the gods who basically invented Lawfulness to impose some order on this part of the cosmos, alignment is defined by the perspective of law - If you are not with us, you are, per definition, Chaotic. Those who try and pass off as 'neutral' are just chaotics who deny the name.

That means Chaotic runs a pretty wide spectrum. There are factions of Chaos that probably have more in common with Law than they do many other factions of Chaos. And other cosmic themes run across these spectrums as well (primarily life/death). 

But for the purpose of the gaming setting, Law/Chaos is the pivotal axis, as it is this that defines the safe lands to protect and the borderlands and mythlands that adventurers go to adventure in - It is essentially the Raison D'etre for Erce being eminently adventurable. Some may say, a world of murderhobos shouldn't need such metaplot, but I don't agree. It's as open-ended a metaplot as you can find and takes the world exactly where it should go: From the looting sandboxy style of Keep on the Borderlands to the epic quest of Three Hearts and Three Lions. In other words, a good wide spectrum for adventure that handily avoids the issues good/evil sometimes presents for D&D adventurers.

A Song of Ice and Fire is actually a decent analogy to where I am going with this, though they are not explicit. Westeros is Lawful. Full of treacherous and selfish assholes sure, but they all follow the conventions that one obeys one lord, etc. At the very least, they pay lip service to it. And on the other side of the wall are the chaotic wildlings. They may be good and honourable (though just as likely to be perverted murderous psychopaths), but given that they bow to no ruler and acknowledge no law, simply can not be trusted. They are, a priori, "Other".

Jon Snow is a bit of an odd one out, because he doesn't actually follow this paradigm. He is simply "Good" and will align himself with any lawful or chaotic man who has similar tendencies. His battle with "Evil" makes the battle between law and chaos irrelevant in his eyes. Which of course is anathema to those who are Lawful. Jon Snow would be a Paladin in Erce and an excellent demonstration of why Paladins are not really trusted by society (and much less the clergy - Paladins are also godless)  - Their fight is not necessarily the same fight as that of all decent law-abiding folk. They are too purely "Good".

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Law & Chaos

Although Erce has simmered in the visions of authors like Zelazny, Poul Anderson and Moorcock and in many ways seeks to make sense of the original Law/Chaos dichotomy of old D&D (such as presented in Keep on the Borderlands), the primary inspiration for its alignment structure (and developed well before my encounter with the OSR inspired me to take things up a notch) is Nordic mythology.

A brief sketch of their worldview will go a long way towards understanding the worldview of Erce - The Aesir, the gods, were the upholders of Law, who kept humanity safe from the Chaos of the wilderness (which is full of predators, Jotun and monsters) and even built great cosmic walls to keep them at bay. The Aesir may rule the roost before Ragnarok, but they are essentially usurpers of the cosmic order and self-aware of being so (they know Chaos will get the upper hand again at Ragnarok), having killed the first Jotun to shape the world and subjugated the rest to fit their world order. In other words, Chaos (the Jotuns) was there first and then the gods came and ordered creation.

The Jotuns embody something more Natural, Primal and Chaotic, embodying the wilderness humanity struggles to thrive in. They aren't evil anymore than the passionate and often selfish and inconsistent, but civilised, Aesir are 'good' – The Aesir just happen to represent a cosmic order friendly to humanity. Rather than an ethical allegiance, humanity's bond with the gods over the Jotuns is pragmatic – they can survive much better in the world the Aesir built.

The Jotun Utgard-Loki toys with the hapless gods Thor and Loki
Of course, it wasn't as cut and dried as that – The Nordics knew when to pay respects to natural forces rather than just beat it down (just as the Aesir would do every now and then, even marrying Jotuns at times!) and those who would practise Seidr (magic), whether they were within the Law or Outlaws (ie without tribe or home and so not protected by any laws or customs anymore), must become intimate with Chaos in ways that were innately unsettling to people of Lawful and godly outlook (just as Odin's Seidr, though valued, was unsettling to the other Aesir). Walls held both practical and metaphysical value – they kept human enemies out – but they also served as a barrier between the ordered community, where the gods could watch over them and the chaotic realms outside humanity's reach. Jotunheim was also known as Utgard ('outside the fence'). Asgard and Midgard then were Ingard, inside the fence. Literally. There are myths about how the Aesir built a wall around Asgard to keep Chaos out and for that matter Jotunheim to keep Chaos in.

Erce is like this in many ways. Except, instead of Jotuns there are Faerie (though these Faerie are more of a cross between the savage Jotuns and magical Faerie), and besides these, demons, dragons, elves, Slumbering Things Beyond the Stars, etc are all creatures of Chaos only too happy to tear down the constraints of Law. On the side of Law- Gods, angels humans, Dwarves and halflings bring some order to the cosmos and the Middle World - or at least the parts of it humanity lives in. Stray far enough from the human demesnes, the Dominions of Law, cross the borderlands and into the Mythlands and the world begins to follow different natural laws, more narrativist than physical, as Chaos reigns.
The Faerie of Erce also look like this sometimes...

The Dominions of Law are often defined by consecrated fences and walls - Borders that allow the gods to assert their Law on that part of the world. Even the roads are markedg with runestones - enough that travellers can be somewhat safer from monsters and Strange Things when crossing the wilds. Stray from the path though and all bets are off....

It is tempting to say the Dominions of Law are akin to Points of Light in a sea of Chaos in Erce, but affairs are not quite that bad. Law is probably still the most powerful singular faction in this region of the cosmos. It's just that Chaos has a lot more factions with little interest in banding together against Law, yet are still opposed to it. Or at least alien to the aims of Law, if not exactly hostile…

Keep on the Borderlands

- Tying all this back into the origins of D&D, I like how this classic blurb from Keep of the Borderlands look in the light of the Nordic Mythic view of all this:

The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them. Yet, there are always certain exceptional and brave members of humanity, as well as similar individuals among its allies - dwarves, elves, and halflings - who rise above the common level and join battle to stave off the darkness which would otherwise overwhelm the land. Bold adventurers from the Realm set off for the Borderlands to seek their fortune. It is these adventurers who, provided they survive the challenge, carry the battle to the enemy. Such adventurers meet the forces of Chaos in a testing ground where only the fittest will return to relate the tale. Here, these individuals will become skilled in their profession, be it fighter or magic-user, cleric or thief. They will be tried in the fire of combat, those who return, hardened and more fit. True, some few who do survive the process will turn from Law and good and serve the masters of Chaos, but most will remain faithful and ready to fight chaos wherever it threatens to infect the Realm.
Keep on the Borderlands

I'd like to think the Mythlands of Erce is not only a good fit for this vision, but takes this vision and runs away with it until it takes on a life of its own. Probably in ways Gygax and friends didn't really intend to go, but which their adventures would naturally come alive in.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Welcome to Erce

Erce is most fundamentally a setting where mundane people can leave behind their regular homes and enter a dark and chaotic mythic wilderness. In the human dominions of Law, the gods rule and they have ordered the lands and made them relatively safe.
Beyond the divine dominions, in the wilds, Chaos rules and all bets are off. Here one may encounter bloodthirsty elves riding with goblins in wild hunts; troll sorcerers abducting babies for their thaumaturgic rituals; woodlands that are larger on the inside than the outside and paths that can not be retraced. Conversely, one may also meet with an elven champion of life, song and laughter who arrives to save villagers from undead incursion, a cunning giant wizard who will trade ancient spells for a small favour and demonic imps who wish only to show you the true meaning of free will.

Hildebrandt captures a lot about the feel of Erce.

The champions of humanity who enter these mythic lands are inevitably touched by the gods and saturated with the magic of the lands they battle with, becoming mythic heroes themselves – Epic, larger than life and perhaps even alien to the very mundane lands they grew out of and protect. Such are the fickle fates of the Mythlands of Erce.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

A Setting to End All Settings

Erce started out as one of those teenage love affairs – A setting to end all settings, that would have room for all the fantasy elements I loved and wanted to see in a world – When only this setting was fleshed out, I would have a world that I could run any campaign of any kind I'd ever want to. A perfect and inclusive vision of everything fantasy meant to me! And also keep alive those most precious glimpses of vital nostalgia from my emergent adolescence. Small task indeed.
It started out in my mind as a sort of Dragonlance + Greyhawk mix, but with 'better done' Tolkien inspiration. And stayed like that, mostly dormant, unpolished and wholly unfinished, for a long time. Fast-forward a decade or so, and I began to re-visit my old notes. Only now, my fantasy inspirations had broadened quite a bit – The Sword & Sorcery of Conan (and Red Sonja too, I like comics), Thieves World and Jack Vance; the terrible mediaevalism of A Song of Ice and Fire; the hodge-podge gonzo of Mystara that it somehow pulls of; the exotic S&S of Talislanta, The grim humour of Warhammer, the proper post-apocalyptic worlds of Titan (of Fighting Fantasy) and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy – and most of all: Endless hours on Wikipedia and small websites studying the actual medieval ages, post-Roman Europe and the glorious myths of that age.

Erce: Something like this and much more.

Though my vision of fantasy had grown, I still liked what I had done as a teenager with my somewhat naive 'setting-to-end-all-settings'. I felt ready to take the bones of it and re-image it to be a setting that could satisfy the very same demands for me today. I wanted an evocative setting, but equally so I wanted a setting that made sense. And on top of those (often mutually exclusive) demands, I wanted to be able to pick up something random from the Complete Ranger's handbook and it would just fit in well. And handle all these genres. In short, a setting to end all settings. 2.0.
Studying Nordic mythology gave me the perspective for it – In the past, I had always tried to make sense of the world from a modern perspective. A fantasy world that still had mediaevalism and structure to satisfy modern sensibilities. But the world I had been waiting to make was not that. It was a fantasy world with a mediaevalism, and more importantly a fantasy, to satisfy medieval sensibilities. In short, the door was open for a completely different world view. I decided in advance to give one nod to modernist thinking – It should also make sense of the implied world of D&D. This might seem like a big ask, but I quickly found it is often surprisingly simple when you aren't trying to make sense of it from a modern perspective.
With that in mind, I immediately discarded the modern elements we take for granted – That modern physics play any sort of relevant role in the world. That any of the social sciences are applicable. That modern ethics are relevant. And just as importantly – The notion that the gods and monsters our ancestors believed in were just fictions. What if all that old stuff was 100% literal and representative of reality as lived in medieval times? This last strain of thought stimulated my imagination like nothing else.

A world where D&D made sense, grown in the mould of medieval mythology and history with copious sprayings and homages from a vast variety of fantasy fiction, felt ready to come to life.