“Setting” entries detail various aspects of the world itself. Here’s a colorful one that I hope to use for a coming RPG campaign.
The continent of Vestan, heart of the known world, is a vast open grassland, surrounded by mountains, deserts, and the gulf known as the Budov Sea. The Diarchal Archipelago extends northwest from one shoulder of that continent into the Vermillion Ocean, and is thought by some geographers to be a half-submerged (or half-emerged) part of the same mountain range that encircles the Armhold Valley on Vestan’s western coast. The archipelago comprises dozens of islands, some large enough for multiple city-states to share, others too small and poor to support a single inhabitant year-round.
The islands are mountainous and a little volcanic; their interiors, forbidding and heavily forested; and the waters, deceptive and dangerous for the unwary to navigate. But the volcanic soil is fertile and the rock under that, rich in metals and minerals, and everywhere teems with life. Most of the islands are within eyeshot of at least one other in the chain, at least for the keen-eyed on a clear day, and the mountains of the mainland can be seen from the peaks of the most landward of them.
Therefore it should be no surprise that the islands have seen successive waves of invasion over the ages. Most historians guess that five distinct groups have made the crossing and left their mark on the archipelago’s population, from the very first inhabitants – a few of whose original communities still remain, using bronze tools in isolated mountain valleys on the farthest islands – to the russet-skinned descendants of the Slakiv soldiers who fought, and failed, to subdue the territory.
For much of recorded history the archipelago has been fought over by a patchwork of city-states, contesting arable land on the larger islands, control of the surrounding smaller islets, and the use of the surrounding waters. Unknown numbers of warlords carved out tiny realms for themselves every generation. Into this chaos the Empire launched at least seven invasion attempts. Of these, only three were successful enough to establish what they dared call a “permanent” garrison; of these, only one lasted more than a generation. At its greatest extent the Empire controlled only a little over a third of the archipelago.
The natives, fractious as they were, always banded together for a while against external threats; this final occupation promised further encroachment and so they make peace among themselves and formed an alliance, ruled by a religious leader (a druid, called the Insularch, who had visited and communed with the native gods of all of the most important islands in the chain) and a secular one (originally called the High Admiral, but now called the Lawgiver). The alliance was successful, the Empire mostly driven out, and most surprisingly, the alliance did not immediately dissolve. And thus the nation known as the Diarchal Archipelago was born. That was a little over two centuries ago, and marked one of the expensive and fruitless foreign wars that led to the Empire’s dissolution.
The Diarchy has not always exercised perfect control over the entire island chain during those two centuries, of course. Even at the best of times, the dispersed nature of the kingdom has allowed pirate chiefs and warlords to rule small nooks and corners of it, and isolated inland communities have ignored the outside world. Bandits and raiders live off the fruits of their attacks on civilization. Street duels, feuds, and riots break out due to tensions between racial enclaves, merchant houses, and guilds. At the worst of times, the Archipelago has been split by civil war, including a span when one particularly crafty Insularch ruled alone, crushing all secular and religious opposition, for over a decade.
In practice, each major city is all but an autonomous state. Skirmishes or even war occasionally breaks out between them, perhaps even more often than they find themselves banding together to drive away Slakiv or other foreign interests from the Archipelago’s more vulnerable islands.
But the kingdom remains, however tenuously; each city large enough to build a wall or a regular port has a Levy-Master who collects tariffs on certain goods and taxes on certain properties for the central government, and who rallies men and women to sail and fight when there is need. People harvest the riches of the land and sea, craftsmen band together in guilds to control the fruits of their labor, merchant houses move goods back and forth, everyone worships or at least pays lip service to uncountable gods, and life goes on.
The Order of Magi came with the Empire, of course, and was far more successful in penetrating the archipelago and remaining in it. The Order brought libraries of lore, schools for orderly study, and the promise of hedge-wizards and druids to aid each community against angry spirits, lurking monsters, and the vicissitudes of everyday life on in a volatile part of the world. There is an impressive Order academy near the Insularch’s seat of power in the City of Shrines, and Order-trained magicians serve over half of the Archipelago’s communities.
But magic here is still largely untamed. If one ventures away from the civilized coastal cities it is not uncommon to find necromancers, enchanters, and worse, researching forbidden secrets or ruling over isolated communities. The Archipelago is no less a hotbed of magical experimentation than the Waplands to the northeast, but the subject of research here is darker and more dangerous. Even the Order adepts, seeing the need to be able to fight back against sea-witches and cave-dwelling sorcerers, regularly study and wield lethal and terrifying magic that would never be countenanced in the tamer Slakiv heartlands.
For this reason many mainlanders call the islands “The Darkhold Archipelago” or simply “The Darkhold.” Looking out to sea, they see nothing more than a source of piracy and raiders, demonic magic and blood-curses, disease and bad weather, a nightmarish trap baited with the promise of riches that has swallowed tens of thousands of adventurers, soldiers and sailors over the years. The idea that from the Archipelago they look like an unceasing engine of war only rarely crosses their minds. There is commerce, of course, and hope for stability and peace, but for now the future remains uncertain.
That’s all for now! I may follow up this overview of the territory with more-mundane details, or I may zoom in and focus on the city of Fair Vickelt, the planned campaign’s “home base.” We shall see.