PDA

View Full Version : Looking for "Dawn of civilization"-type settings



Yora
2009-08-05, 12:23 PM
I'm currently (and for some years now) working on a setting that's based on the premise of a world, where the generic fantasy history hasn't yet arrived at the age of human dominance.
Though humans are the most numerous race by head count, the only aspect of social life they dominate is long-distance trade. Almost all the land is covered by forest, mountains, or ice, and there are less than 100 cities with a population of more than 6,000 in the whole known world. Elves and dwarves are smaller in number, but in the prime of their civilizations and much more advanced in technology and civilization. The forests are home to lots of spirits, and dragons and giants rule the mountains.

The biggest problem I frequently run into, is how to create a network of international power, that is not totaly dominated by humans. All my power groups usually end up as human organizations by default and my ideas for non-human countries often end up as one city with barely a dozen of villages arround.

So I'm looking for some inspirations how to design a setting in which humans are less advanced and dominant, without becoming a bad case of elf fan wank.
I've heared that Dawnforge is aimed at a similar direction, but I once flipped through it and it seemed only like a bunch of player options with prestige classes and feats. Any other recomendations?

Altima
2009-08-05, 01:02 PM
Well, the best way to accomplish this, I feel, as a resident human hater, is to reduce the world to the point of 'there's no room for you'. Make everything already taken by someone or something.

If it's pre-human civilization, you have a very good reason for making them equal to or even less populated than elves and dwarves. After all, elves have incredible magic and they're the best guerilla fighters in the world (in the woods). Dwarves, well, they have their mountain empire.

Given that they're so few in number, think about humans would react. They wouldn't be as interested in trade. They'd be vicious and violent, and it's possible the other 'civilized' races may see them as little better than goblinoids.

How much magical ability would they have compared to other races? If there aren't that many clerics, then the average lifespan would be quite short. If there aren't any schools of arcane arts, then there won't be so many mages walking around ready to defend settlements or improve lives.

If you're playing up the trade aspect, combine their short-sighted gain for profit with the long-lived goals of dwarves (who live, what, 200 years?) and elves (who can get past 700, I think). Have the elves seem like happy cheerful forest folk, but who are really just giving the humans short-term gain in exchange for eventual many-fold returns in their own profits.

Most D&D settings feature a cycle in which mighty civilizations build up and empires form, only for some calamity to happy and wipe out most of the races, and then the survivors migrate or reform to build their civilizations on top of the bones of the former.

If you're going for the first civilizations, I'd say the races who seem more 'content' in their modern incarnations to simply die out would seem a bit more...active. Elves violently defending their holdings. Dwarves not hesitating to forcefully evict someone from a profitable mountain. Dragons, well, pretty much deciding that all of creation should kneel before them because they're freaking dragons. Be sure to mention that. Lots and lots of dragons.

jmbrown
2009-08-05, 01:28 PM
The biggest problem I frequently run into, is how to create a network of international power, that is not totaly dominated by humans. All my power groups usually end up as human organizations by default and my ideas for non-human countries often end up as one city with barely a dozen of villages arround.

In generic fantasy tropes, this is what sets humans apart from everyone else. Elves stick to their forests. Dwarves stick to their ancestral homes. Halflings move from place to place but are never assertive enough to take over. Humans, by default, are more inclined to build a vast empire than any other race.

Like Altima said just make it tough on them. For one, the world is uncultured, wild, and dangerous. Adventuring passed the town outskirts will likely result in you being some monster's dinner. Historically, civilization has always clashed with the wandering nomads (or "barbarians" as they're often called); the former wanting land while the latter wanting to keep their land. If the humans expand too much they might encroach on a more powerful civilization's land thus drawing their ire.

Being the "dawn of civilization" there shouldn't be any other civilizations unless what you're trying to go for is a world pre established by other races that aren't human. Still, humans are generally the shortest lived fantasy race making them one of the few that strive to great lengths to ensure their names are remembered in history. Most other races are insular or don't care about building and expanded passed their borders.

OverdrivePrime
2009-08-05, 01:46 PM
I too would play up the dragons, but also giants and fey.

If it were me making this world (and I love the idea) I'd have a large expanse of hilly plains ruled by giants who tend to enslave the smaller, faster-reproducing races and use them as workers, food and battle fodder. In wars against the elf and dwarf nations, the giants would send in hordes of ill-equipped humans, orcs and goblins to try to overwhelm the elf or dwarf primary defenses, before moving in with giant troops pounding away with boulders and tree-sized spears.

As this is a pre-civilization (or pre-human civilization) game, the humans, orcs, dwarves and other races haven't yet despoiled the wilderness. The pristine spaces of the world are fey turf, and will be zealously defended. I would much more play up the primal, chaotic aspects of the fey rather than the good or evil aspects of the fey. Every tree felled will be met with a dead human, every road carved into the land will be paid for in blood. The seers of the fey know that civilization will be their doom, and so they will fight to keep their territory clean of the stain of humans, dwarves and other wall-builders. The fey would tolerate the elves, but not in great numbers, being more friendly with ranger diplomats than elven wizards and clerics who warp the natural energies with strange rituals and false gods.

As Altima says, simply leave no uncontested room for the humans. The dwarves contest the mountains and hills with orcs and giants, and the elves contest the plains and forests with the fey and giants, and the fey fight everyone to try to keep their kingdoms pure of the encroachment of civilization.

The dragons would rule their own network of places, being on passable terms with others of their clan, but zealously fighting against one another and the other intelligent races. Like giants, the dragons would make heavy use of slaves (or serfs for the goodly dragons), and would likely find humans, orcs, kobolds and goblins to be the easiest pickings.

Epinephrine
2009-08-05, 02:06 PM
One fascinating setting I read was Dave Duncan's novel West of January. Not a huge fan of his other work (the King's Blades, for example), but West of January was a neat idea.

Essentially, it's a planet that turns very slowly. A day is 200 years long. No permanent settlements can be made, since the climate would change and eventually become inhospitable - 100 years in the dark and cold is just too much to take.

The sun is over the equator, so there is always a desert directly under the sun (excepting when a sea is instead facing out). Any land on the equator is a tundra for 100 years, a desert for several decades, and flourishes before and after the desert phase. All societies migrate as the planet turns - the plains dwellers have to move their herds along, and sometimes (once every few generations) a huge ridge of mountains (or a vast ocean) approach them as they migrate, and they must go around them, lest they be forced into the desert or carried around to night.

If you want a setting where there are no vast empires, it certainly provides one. In the story there was a large ocean that would force migrations around it, and of course there were slavers who would prey on those forced through their territory. You could easily stock a fantasy version of the world with various creatures, including heat loving critters that migrate to stay under the sun, and cold loving beasts on the dark side of the planet, feasting on those that can't make it around the mountain chains and are carried into the night. The animals in the world typically use their angle to the sun to stay in one place relative to the sun, which has the benefit of keeping them in roughly the same climate. Mining is done for a while, but one doesn't wish to have many heavy things anyway. Mines are forcibly abandoned, to be exploited again over a century later when they emerge out of the darkness. An ocean-going group stays on the big oceans and seas, but is forced into bad waters, rushing rivers, and icy territories with every turning of the planet (imagine living in the middle of the pacific for years, then being forced to sail south until you could round Africa - and then north again to the Panama canal, since South America is connected to Antarctica*)

Long lived races like the elves would have a huge advantage even without writing, as the planet's turning is still in their memory - they know when they'll be forced to leave, and hhow they navigated obstacles the last turning. Humans only see the same territory every 8-10 generations, and much is lost except tales of vast seas and looming mountains.
* obviously it isn't IRL, but you can come up with some neat geography that forces long treks.

Umael
2009-08-05, 02:34 PM
I recommend going back before the dawn of civilization itself. Start with the gods, or whatever primal forces you have, and have them play with their world for a bit. Decide which races they bring into being, what events they make to force the world into a shape they find more pleasing. Decide how long the gods let their playthings run around before interjecting the next divine occurence.

Take the power players, be it giants, or dragons, or elves or whom else, and have them get involved in a few millennia of existence and competition. Have THEM develop their own cultures and figure out how far you want their civilizations to be. Wandering tribes? Settled villages? Crude cities? Primitive empire? Don't forget that not only can the various races be a different stages, but the races themselves will be at different stages.

Finally, once you have your world dominated by the power players and there is no more room, introduce your humans, maybe along with a handful of other "lesser" races (orcs and goblins). Give the humans a history of oppression. Have the human village be a rare place indeed.

Good luck.

Yora
2009-08-05, 02:59 PM
I too would play up the dragons, but also giants and fey.
That's the other fcus of the setting, next to elven/dwarven/orc dominance.

Spirits are really everywhere. It's a known fact that the spirits could destroy your village any time they want. So people are really careful to never do anything that might anger the local spirits. And better not go to any unknown places, because at home you at least suspect to know what might anger the spirits.
But on the other hand, being on the spirits good side and having them assist a village, is a great source for power. But it's dangerous, as the gifts recieved from the spirits can be taken away any time, so you better don't rely to much on them. Also are the spirits highly strange and enigmatic and even if they are benign, they may occassionaly do things that would probably beneficient to spirits, but could actually be quite harmful to mortals.
Shamans and bards can become very powerful individuals, but you probably have to be somewhat mad to consider dealing with the spirits more than absolutely neccessary.



Regarding the humans: They are allready there and have established some trade cities on the central sea and even have to small "empires" in the very south, where there are no real competitors for regional dominance. Except for the lizardmen, but their time of dominance has ended some thousands of years ago, and they know it.

The rest of the known world is covered in many smaller and some larger elven and dwarven kingdoms, and the tundra and mountains in the far north have been the established homes of orc tribes for ages. Orcs are less numerous than humans and their population isn't as far spread, but their culture is much more older. Before the beginning of recorded history, orcs and elves had been of mostly equal power, but when the elves got their high civilization running with steel armor and magic schools, they could take full advantage of their longlivity, and had the upper hand ever since. In fact, humans have surpassed orcs in the advancement of civilization just a couple of hundred years ago, and they only did it by shamelessly incorporating any useful knowledge they got from trading with elves and dwarves.

The role of humans is somewhat like that of halflings in many generic settings. They have no advantages in warfare, craft, or magic, but are willing to wander between distant places and getting accustomed to the local customs. Most people think they are somewhat quirky, but human traders are mostly accepted at almost any place. They are not really liked much, and often even looked down on, but their temporary presence seems to be tolerable to most races.
Both elves and dwarves can not deny, that humans really do have a growing impact on "international affairs". There's currently not the slightest chance that humans might become the dominant race at any point in the future, but it can no longer be denies that they have risen above the status of goblins and trolls, and even the orcs. They don't have any large armies or powerful archmages, or hoardes of magical weapons, but everyone benefits from the trade between distant kingdoms and cities, and this trade is firmly in the hand of human traders. If you want to ignore them, you just end up cut off from valuable goods and informations. And you really don't want that with your own elven or dwarven neighbors being your greatest rivals. But most of the big descisions are still made by elven and dwarven kings and high priests. There may be as many humans in the world as there are elves and dwarves combined, but they often live barely more than half a century, and live either on tiny farms in the wilderness, or crowded in massive citirs, which consist mostly of slums with a very small rich aristocracy.
The more advanced humans in the far south live in conditions aproximately similar to those in ancient egypt or very young greece, while those in the north mostly house in wooden huts and wear coarse wool and pelts. But they do have steel for swords and chain shirts, and their local kings/(chiefs) often have homes that are really impressive, given that they are made from carved wood and unpolished stone.

Pharaoh's Fist
2009-08-05, 03:00 PM
The role of humans is somewhat like that of halflings in many generic settings. They have no advantages in warfare, craft, or magic, but are willing to wander between distant places and getting accustomed to the local customs. Most people think they are somewhat quirky, but human traders are mostly accepted at almost any place. They are not really liked much, and often even looked down on, but their temporary presence seems to be tolerable to most races.

Like the pre-WW2 Jews?

Yora
2009-08-05, 03:09 PM
Depends on what country and what century focus. :smallbiggrin:

Apparently people couldn't make up their mind and turned from almost loving to completely hating any couple of generations. But in general, that's not a completely wrong comparison.
With the exception that humans do have their very own countries and cities. Sometimes they do open small trading posts at the fringe of the cities of other races, but the traders there are no permanent residents and usually leave their families at home for the two ot three years they work at the Kontor.

But also yes, sometimes they are hated and occassionally murdered. But that's not something special to humans. It can happen to almost anyone in any country not his own. Elves and dwarves can be quite some bastards, even to their own people and sometimes espacially so.

Altima
2009-08-05, 04:46 PM
I recommend looking up Rashemen in the FRCS (pre-4e, god, I hate 4e FR). That has a very good base for what an untouched world filled with spirits might be like.

Personally, I've always felt that imperialistic elves would have a single massive empire composed mostly of the 'civilized' versions of their race (moon and sun, for example) while the woodsey versions lived in mini-fiefdoms within the forest. Dwarves, in my mind, would create a series of loosely affiliated lands ruled by families who could trace their ancestry back to a king. The idea being that either race would be too massive to mess with--a human raiding party sacks an elven caravan, and suddenly there's an army of angry elves murdering your children in their sleep.

Another possibility to consider is that since unnatural magic is probably rare and in its infancy, the world relies more on martial and manual prowess. In this way, there wouldn't be healing potions in every city or someone passing out magic weapons for the fun of it--heck, a +1 longsword would probably be something like an artifact. With that in mind, other, non-PC races, such as hobgoblins, could carve out their own lands. They may not be coordinated under anything other than 'these are our lands, you stay out or we eat you'.

Mark Hall
2009-08-05, 04:51 PM
First of all, where do humans come from?

I think this is going to be a big question that needs to be understood as to why they don't have any major place in the world. The elves and dwarves may be native, having grown into place over the generations. The orcs and halflings may be native, reacting to the other two races. But where do the humans come from, and why have they only been a factor in the past couple generations (by dwarven standards, at least)?

Are they mutant elves? The cross-breeding of elves and dwarves, or dwarves and orcs? Are the refugees from another place, or from another time? Are they similar to the Polynesians, having come from across the sea in small numbers, only recently growing into a real population?

Harperfan7
2009-08-05, 10:20 PM
My homebrew world is like this. If you want " a network of international power that is not totaly dominated by humans," then just say that the other races can contact each other and combine forces when and if necessary. There can be multi-racial organizations that span race and region, too. You might end up with a WOW alliance vs. horde style setting, though admittedly, that's not a bad thing in theory.

Dervag
2009-08-05, 11:00 PM
Another possibility to consider is that since unnatural magic is probably rare and in its infancy, the world relies more on martial and manual prowess. In this way, there wouldn't be healing potions in every city or someone passing out magic weapons for the fun of it--heck, a +1 longsword would probably be something like an artifact.Not likely; it just doesn't give you that big an advantage.

If you want to make magic rare, strip out the low-level items, rather than removing everything across the board. That way, PCs don't acquire magic until high levels and as the result of important actions on their part, which preserves its value. Moreover, the low-level items are the ones that present the greatest threat of creating a "Tippyverse" scenario in which the world is turned inside-out by civilizations exploiting magitech.

On a side-note, preliterate civilizations produce no scrolls.

Altima
2009-08-05, 11:09 PM
Not likely; it just doesn't give you that big an advantage.

If you want to make magic rare, strip out the low-level items, rather than removing everything across the board. That way, PCs don't acquire magic until high levels and as the result of important actions on their part, which preserves its value. Moreover, the low-level items are the ones that present the greatest threat of creating a "Tippyverse" scenario in which the world is turned inside-out by civilizations exploiting magitech.

On a side-note, preliterate civilizations produce no scrolls.

Most cases of PCs finding magical items are because, well, those items were created by someone at some point. That holy avenger? Yeah, someone made it. The +5 platemail? Someone made it.

At the dawn of civilization, magic should be raw and wild, and magical items should be quite rare (unless they're 'naturally' magic items, such as a sword being bathed in the Blessed light of Melora for an eon, for example).

There may not be much difference, mechanically, for low magic items, but think of them in world. A +1 longsword will never rust. It will never break under normal strain. It never requires sharpening or mending, and it's always perfectly balanced. May not seem like much, but I imagine it's a heck of a blessing for an adventurer.

Yora
2009-08-06, 02:54 AM
Are they similar to the Polynesians, having come from across the sea in small numbers, only recently growing into a real population?

Yes.
That.
Exactly that! :smallbiggrin:

Humans descended from some kind of proto-ape millions of years ago, and are actually distantly related to orcs, somewhat like the relationship between homo sapiens and neandertals. Orcs came to live on the northern continent and humans on the southern continent. During the last ice age ocean levels droped to a point that turned a submerged land-bridge between the continents into a very dense island chain, that got settled by raft-building cave men. When water levels rose again these island humans were cut in two seperate groups, one slowly migrating south again, the other one migrating farther north. Some northern groups settled the coast of the main continent just 4000 years ago, where they made contact with other races, which highly acclerated their cultural evolution. These regions are today the big centers of human civilization, while those that live on the remaining islands or have expanded farther into the mainland, are just now reching a stage where walled cities begin to evolve.

The setting is also based on E10-ish rules. That means no characters above level 10, no 6th level spells, and no magical items above CL 10th. The very rare +3 swords or +3 rings of protection are the best what's available, if you have tonnes of gold, and anything above that is an artifact.

Maybe let's call it the late morning of civilization, or something like that. :smallbiggrin:

But the biggest challange I face is organization like elven thieves guilds, dwarven demon cults, or cabals of gnome sorcerers. Though I admit that all these sound like cool ideas I have to look further into, it's still difficult to come up with organizations that have their own identity first, but are non-human only second.

You might end up with a WOW alliance vs. horde style setting, though admittedly, that's not a bad thing in theory.
I'm thinking abot War of the Ancients meets The Silmarilion. :smallbiggrin:

That's a lot more awsome than I realized, when you put it into these words.

Mark Hall
2009-08-06, 09:17 AM
Your first job is to go to the library and get some Robert E. Howard Conan books. Read them until your eyes bleed.

Humans and Orcs = Cimmerians, Picts, Aesir, Vanir
Elves and Dwarves = Stygians, Aquillionians, everyone else

Your Elves and dwarves are OLD. They've been at this civilization stuff for tens of thousands of years, fighting off barbarian invasions from the North (which occasionally wreck things, slowing down their advances in culture, and leaving ruins everywhere). Maybe this northern continent is low in some materials... it might have a relatively low iron content, leaving them primarily with bronze... there's enough adamantine and mithril, mind you, but bronze tools can't manage to mine THAT.

Into this comes the humans, who've been pretty tame until recently. They're on the southern edge of the continent, and don't have a lot of resources for expansion... until recently, when their sailing technology got good enough to cross continents. It's a perilous journey, not so much for the month of travel as the demons that live in the southern sea (Sahuagin? Dragons? Actual portals to the hells?). Half the ships that go down there don't make it north again. Some that do come north are empty, or filled with demons, or undead... nasty things live on those southern islands. The result, though, is that they can trade bronze tools for the "Red Rocks"... lumps of iron that are near the surface of the southern continent.

Humans have an advantage, but it's a tenuous one, and one that they've only gotten in the last decade or so.

EDIT: On non-human organizations and the like... just ignore that they're non-human, and create organizations. A dwarven thieves' guild isn't going to require that you demonstrate that you can see in the dark... they KNOW you can see in the dark, because you're a dwarf like them. They may, however, require you to OPERATE in the dark, because dwarven homes have no light in them (who needs light when everyone can see in the dark and your written language can be read by touch?). I'd look into rituals and oaths and the like... things that impress upon players that these people play for keeps, because individuals are far less valued in this sort of society.

Also, since you're going E10, I would still set the maximum spell level at 4, with 5th level spells being lost secrets that no one but sages even KNOW about... most use their 5th level spell slots for metamagic. Some of them exist in relatively common knowledge as rituals, however, which would be a big deal. Once people can teleport and raise from the dead, things become a LOT easier.

EDIT 2: In addition to Howard, you might want to grab SM Stirling's "Island in the Sea of Time", "On the Oceans of Eternity" and "Against the Tide of Years", which talk about a modern island going back to around 3000BCE.

Tiki Snakes
2009-08-06, 10:59 AM
First of all, where do humans come from?



Humans descended from some kind of proto-ape millions of years ago, and are actually distantly related to orcs, somewhat like the relationship between homo sapiens and neandertals.

Suggestion; Humans are essentially crude, petty creatures who eventually succeed in other settings almost entirely due to their prodigious birth-rate.

Humans are clearly Goblinoids.

If in your setting, they share an ancestor with Orcs, perhaps that 'proto-ape' was actually a common goblin? Orcs and humans split off in ancient(er) times, but the Goblin species has split again more recently, (probably due to populations of Goblins being isolated from each other in highly-magically-ambient locations, or just over large periods of time), giving rise to the Hobgoblin(which is a case of paralell evolution, probably competing heavily with the Orc's that it is so clearly distantly related to) and the Dire-Goblin(Bugbear, basically a Goblin from the evolutionary period of gigantiscised creatures like dinosaurs and uber-chickens.)


As to why and how they aren't already dominant, they live and are treated like any other untrustworthy, cruel and violent goblinoid.

(Nb, I really used to like Orcs as Goblinoids because of Warhammer being an early influence on myself. The idea of Humans as 'the missing link' is so good for me.)