Building My Ideal Basic D&D Setting, Alignments & Magic
Long ago, the Old King ruled Amter. He was a good king. A just king. All the things a king should be. His kingdom prospered. From far off lands where it snow falls unceasingly, to those further still where the ground is made of sand, his kingdom spread. Whilst the peoples of Amter prospered, outsiders came from beyond the kingdom. They coveted the power of the Old King. Their names are now forgotten, and they are known only as the lost prophets. The hateful shadow. The gilded claw. The wandering mind. The bloodthirsty maw.
These prophets used powers older and darker than the Old King, drawn from the dawn of all things and hidden beyond sight. Though each was mortally wounded in the battle, they vanquished the Old King.
But the King feared this day would come. That outsiders would threaten his lands and his people. He placed his will into his crown. All of the power he held. Some say the prophets could only defeat him because this part of himself was kept safe. That in this way he was his own undoing. But he knew his crown would endure. He knew with it one day he could return to restore his kingdom.
But he was made the fool. For no lost prophet took the crown upon their own head. They held it instead above his corpse, and shattered it. The Old King would never return. But his power washed over them and spread throughout the world. His drive to help his people created the alignment of Chivalry.
Each prophet felt this power course through them into the world, and attempted to taint it. Each succeeded in corrupting a part before they passed: Hatred, goldlust, wanderlust, and bloodlust. The kings will was powerful, and altered these as it could into: the alignments of Destruction, achivement, discovery, and survival.
These five alignments spread throughout the world, into the hearts of all living and thinking things. Each drawn to one more than the others. Each bent to their will.
The four fragments of the Old Kings crown taken by the prophets were shattered by this release of power. The shards they formed scattered all throughout the fallen kingdom of Amter. Each powerful, and in the right hands ruinous. Many have passed through the hands of warlords and tyrants. Wars were fought. Ages passed. History became legend became myth. Over great time, each shard was lost.
The above is the introductory lore passage for the world of Amter. A world I am creating to be my ideal (Basic) D&D setting. To provide an evergreen backdrop for my open* table game.
The game has gone through many revisions (and in fact, systems). Its been settled on being run in old-school D&D for a number of years now. Specifically the excellent "Old-School Essentials". The setting has gone through a number of evolutions, and the game has moved through time and space across my current setting: Adan (which in itself is an evolution of an older, non D&D setting I used to run one-shots in called Anbyrne).
I've been putting a lot of thought into Amter. The goal isn't to build a setting that facilitates perfectly Basic D&D, but instead one that facilitates as perfectly as possible the kind of D&D I want to run.
You'll notice I've baked a few things into the base lore of the setting, which are highly relevant to D&D.
- Alignments, though there are 5 (Chivalry, Achievement, Destruction, Survival, and Discovery) instead of 3 (Lawful, Neutral, Chaos).
- Magic, drawn from beyond the world and the dawn of all things (Arcane).
- Magic, the kind the old king used to unite the world (Divine).
- Fallen empires, many have happened since Amter was united, so there are ruins and unexplained histories and cultures everywhere. Nobody has a full timeline.
- McGuffins, the Kingscrown Shards scattered hidden throughout the land.
In this article, I'm going to focus on how I intend to use alignments and magic.
You see, I really like alignment language. I like how lawful can work as a kind of celestial or divine language. Used by clerics and holymen, and angels. While chaos works as a form of common for orcs, goblins, and other foul monsters.
What I don't like is neutral. Its always felt to me like its trying to do two things at once. Being both "unaligned" and "seeking balance". While I could justify Lawful as a language as a gift from the gods, and Chaos as a gift from the chaos gods (The Children of Nokwus, specifically, in Adan), lawful was always much harder to justify.
For this reason, I've actually run without a "Neutral" alignment language for qutie some time. Treating it as simply "unaligned". I've also restricted player characters from being chaos aligned.
My fix for this, is to remove neutral, and add in some new alignments. While Chivalry and Destruction can fill the roles Lawful and Chaos filled before, Discovery, Achivement, and Survival can fill the gaps left by Neutral. A friend of mine has pointed out this actually gives us WUBRG from magic the gathering, W (Chivalry), U (Discovery), B (Achivement), R (Destruction), G (Survival). They don't fit perfectly, but it's an interesting parallel.
Either way, these five alignments and their languages are justified in the world as being a manifestation of the power of the Old King and the four lost prophets, released into the world at the Shattering of the Kingscrown.
As for how this is introduced to players, I'll go back into prose mode.
The 5 alignments are inherent to the world. They spread through all things in the wake of the kingscrown shattering. Each is a tiny fragment of an incredible power. These alignments give to their adherents a language. Thus, every creature capable of language is capable of using an alignment language. These are not like most languages however, as they are communicated entirely through gestures (as a Manual/Sign Language). Many choose to keep their Alignments a secret, and discussing them or revealing them is generally considered taboo within most societies. Scholars theorise this is due to warlord kings who wished to claim Chivalry while holding Achivement or Destruction, and the taboo has persisted though those types are long gone. Many people are unhappy with their Alignment, though few are able to change it.
The chivalrous are seen as manipulatable, often caving to the greater good over the benefit of themselves and their kinsmen. Achievers are seen as untrustworthy, seeking to further their wealth and station in society at the expense of others. Destroyers are understandably feared, and seen as in league with foul forces (as Orcs make no attempt to hide their use of the language). Survivors is seen as primative, it is thought that all beasts are survival, and a man with survival as his only ambition might be no better than a dog. Discoverers are seen as flighty, nosey, and too eager to learn things they shouldn't.
Obviously, for each negative trait, there are positives associated also, but it is generally considered a great weakness and vulnerability to reveal ones alignment, and thus their fundamental disposition, to anyone other than ones closest and most trusted friends and allies.
Introducing alignment languages, and why they are taboo to use, in one fell swoop. This gets them into the world, but also explains why people aren't just checking people can understand "Chivalry" all the time to check they are good people. Even within the church (we'll get to that) it's not widely or publicly used: except by the most brash of holymen.
I'm still going to restrict Destruction away from my players, the same way I did Chaos before, but overall I'm much more happier with this as a split and system. It gives more variety, and more room for player expression, while keeping the core jank with languages and taboos that is the alignment system of Basic D&D.
Alignment out the way, onto magic, lets start by talking about divine magic. Borrowing from some information given to Cleric players.
As a Cleric of the Church Of The Old King, you will learn the holy rites taught by the Old King throughout his clergy before the kingscrwn shattering. These are sanctioned magics, and the church approves their usage by all clerics who learn them. While you will be taught all magics, you will find your mind only has capacity to hold a precious few at a time. Each day, the will of the Old King left within the world will grant you the powers you ask of him, and are able to command.
The church bids you not use these powers for evil, and spread safety, light, health, and all that you can of the Old Kingdom throughout the land. The King is gone, but you are his vessel. Displease his will only at your peril.
Divine magic is the ancient rites that were sanctioned and taught throughout Amter during the reign of the Old King. They are still practiced today, and the religion has elevated him to a god who is worshipped.
The church is a trusted institution, existing all across Amter, and with very little dissent. Divine magic is much more readily available than Arcane magic, and requries only a person dedicating their lives to the church to learn the various rites premitted by the Old King.
Interestingly, though the Old King gave Chivalry to the world, there is no requirement for a cleric to be Chivalry aligned, only that they act as if they are. They must continue to do good to continue to receive the powers of the Old King, regardless of their personal wants.
Next lets visit arcane magic, which as you might be able to guess by how its been used thus far in this blog post is much darker in nature.
As a Magic-User, you have come across a mote of power, and expanded your mind beyond what is natural, to accomodate powers from the origin of all things. This expansion grants you two gifts, one temporary and one permenant. Temporary is the power to record a new spell. Letting madness take hold of you to write indecypherable symbols of power within a tome. This will record for you a new spell. Permenant is the power to read and hold inside your mind a spell which you have recorded within a tome, and to then release it at a later time of your choosing.
These spells can be powerful and ruinous, and were never sanctioned by the Old King. From mind control to unerring bolts of instant death (for a common man), even as a fledgeling of Magic-User you are a force to be feared by many. For this, Magic-Users keep their powers secret from all apart from those they trust most, for if you are known widely then the Church and people of your home will drive you out with fire and pitchfork, that is if you are lucky enough to have time to run.
We establish how both Vancian magic works, and how society treats mages. As a thing to be feared. After all, Charm and magic-missile are existentially terrifying threats to a normal human, and fear has always been mankinds reaction to things it does not understand, even if no threat is posed (and here a threat is most certainly posed).
While magic users do not need to operate entirely in secret, they are rare, and those who do not hold exterme renown or positions of trust and power will likely face dire consequences for revealing their magical abilities.
What is a mote of power exactly? It can be anything capable of expanding a persons mind. Perhaps a physical energy found within the world, perhaps enlightening knowledge written within a tome. Each Magic-User will have their own story to tell of how they gained their first powers.
Now you might be wondering, what would bring clerics and magic-users together to adventure within a party in my setting. Well its time for some more lore for how this open*-table west-marches has formed. Lets start with our starting setting
Protected by mountains to the north and east, and vast ocean to the south and west, the vales span from the mountainous Upper Vales at the edges of the mountains, to the verdant Lower Vales along the river valley and at the coast. These lands have had their share of history, with ruins and stories of ancient kings and warlords, but now exist within a time of peace.
King Erastel has reigned over the lower vales for 40 years, and his family has reigned for longer than any who live can remember (House Fostelia). The vales have had their share of warlord kings in the past, and even what was long ago the capital of the lower vales has fallen to an undead blight. Still, the king of the lower vales is a good king, and the vales enjoy peace and prosperity.
The upper vales are ruled by the Dwarf-King Brokkur son of Bruni son of Bruin, from his mountain hall. The deep tunnels through the mountains are long since collapsed, and like their siblings in the lower vales their lands are peppered with Ruins and old myseries.
House Fostelia and the line of Bruin have held peaceful alliance for their reigns. The lower vales finding propserity from the sea and land, and the upper vales from the mountains. The world outside the vales is said to still be full of warlords and tyrant-kings fighting over scraps. With the mountains deadly to pass and the old tunnels collapsed, and the ocean hostile to sail, little knowledge in truth is held about the lands outside the vales.
Our setting, pretty standard fantasy affair. We have the Lower & Upper vales, and all kinds of normal D&D fantasy races (Dwarves, Gnomes, Elves, Halflings, Men) live within them.
Next, lets look at more recent history:
A group of knights, on the honour of King Erastel, found within a crypt on the outskirts of the Fallen-once-capital city of Brusnel, a mythic kingscrown shard. All bar one perished in its recovery, and the survivor perished of his wounds after returning. The shard in posession of the king, he placed it upon his crown as a sign of his rite to rule, though no power it seemed to have to him.
While journeying throughout the vales with it on, the king came by a small shrine by the road between the capitals of the lower and upper vales. He felt the shard was drawn to it. Curious, he removed the shard from his crown, and placed it upon the shrine.
A holy light sprung forth and high, and spread along the path. Its cracked cobbles restored to fine brickwork. A golden sheen lay upon it. Returning to it he found his horses moved at great speed, and the many days journey between kingdoms was completed in a mere hour.
The two kings met, and have agreed a great force is to be mustered. But not of soldiers and warriors, but of seekers and delvers. To them they have promised great wealth and title, and no tax or tithe upon any treasures found. "The Kings Seekers" this grouping is called, and any who wish to risk their lives to search the deep and secret places of the vales for more shards is tasked to do so. Registering in town, and pledging to heed the call to adventure, wherever it may take them!
So, parties get together to plunder for a better life, with the permission of the kings of the lower and upper vales to do so without facing heavy taxes on any treasures found (as was the case previously), with two main tasks: find kingscrown shards, and find any places such as the roadside shrine that kingscrown shards can be used. For this group, great liberties are taken, and magic is sanctioned as any means justify the ends of finding such objects of power.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about my new setting. Nothing is fully set in stone, and I imagine this will be the first of many articles covering ideas I have. You can probably see the foundations of a few more of these already hinted at in this post. Hopefully nothing in here has surprised the players or referees I've already been discussing this with, and can help serve as some inspiration for you!
*the table is not publicly open, but is open to people from a certain geographic area (even though it is an online game), this may change in the future.
- Announcing Horizon, The End of RPG Content on This Website12/02/2023TTRPG
- Are we there yet?18/12/2022TTRPG
- Why My Orcs Are Monsters29/04/2022TTRPG
- A Genealogy Of Dungeons & Dragons & Old-School Essentials26/04/2022TTRPG
- There is almost always a better choice than an Ability Check13/07/2021TTRPG
- Response: Dungeon Antology Orthodoxies I12/03/2021TTRPG
- How I Run The Thief27/09/2020TTRPG
- When is it?22/08/2020TTRPG
- The skills you didn't know you had11/07/2020TTRPG
- What Is That Gem or Jewel?03/06/2020TTRPG
- Did I Hit?06/04/2020TTRPG
- YOU DIED... Would You Rather Not?12/03/2020TTRPG
- Which Saving Throw Should I Use?10/02/2020TTRPG
- So You Want To Buy A Person's Life?29/10/2019TTRPG
- Lost In Space, a Savage Worlds One Sheet30/04/2018TTRPG
- Gnoll Caverns, a Savage Worlds One Sheet16/04/2018TTRPG