Ærth


This is the main page for my Ærth (AErth - in case your browser can't render the special Danish letter) historical fantasy setting, which I've created for use in both roleplaying gaming campaigns and written stories. This page is very much under construction.

Ærth was inspired by many sources. Two deserve emphasis.

First of all, I found the Quest FRP v2.0 roleplaying gaming rules system on the WWW, back in 1997 when there were less than a thousand RPG sites on the web (or at least it seemed that way - very small, easy to "get a grip on". There are many orders of magnitude more RPG websites now than there was back in 1997). It captured my imagination, in part because of the thoroughness of the standard magic system - I liked the way magic was divided into "themes" in a flexible way, but also because it tackled religiously based magic in a way that was new (at least to me). In previous RPGs, the "Cleric" in the PC party was just "the guy who could heal". And maybe do something about undead. One Cleric was pretty much like another Cleric. Not so in Quest, where different religions - and Quest FRP v2.0 (also v2.1) used realworld religions, like Christianity, Judaism, Norse, Buddhism, "Wicca" and Satanism - gave wholly different powers. Norse priests could learn a spell for each of the 24 runes of the Futhark. "Wiccan" priests (Druids) could learn Nature-related spells. Satanist priests could sell their souls to the devil. It looked like a lot of fun.

Secondly, a fellow Dane wanted to start a GURPS campaign, and found me via a WWW-based RPG bulletin board (now defunct, sadly). He wanted to run a historical campaign (inspired by the Danish movie, set in the late medieval period, called "The Eye of the Eagle (Ørnens Øje)". His original intent, or so I understood it, was to make it straight historical, with no fantasy elements. But then one of the players that he already had on hand had asked if he could play a mage, and the GM had accepted this. He told me this in email, and pretty soon I dreamt up the idea of playing a 1/4 Elf 3/4 Human rogue who thought he was half-and-half (on account of his mother having been very beautiful). So I started creating my character. Unfortunately, that campaign never got started. But the idea stayed with me. Fantasy plus history. It looked neater and neater. I could see some very cool ideas in Quest FRP v2.1 (at that time, Gene and Todd had published the updated v2.1 rules - now they are working on the v3.0 rules, which will change quite a lot of things, including the removal of any real-world flavour of religions, sadly). I could do things with Quest FRP.

At that point, I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the typical pseudo-meviedal fantasy setting used in roleplaying gaming. It bothered me that there were all these pale imitation (imagine a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a original... blurrier and blurrier for each step) of the many exiting and dynamic cultures of our past. Quest FRP v2.0 showed the possibility of using real Vikings, real Christians, and so forth, in roleplaying gaming. Getting rid of the "pseudo-" prefix.

Obviously, I wanted the fantasy too. I didn't want to go "clean" historical. I became fascinated by the alternate history concept upon reading the second novel in Harry Turtledove's (yes, that is the name he publishes under, and yes I did read the second novel before I read the first) "World War [word] Balance" tetralogy (the one where reptilian aliens arrive in the middle of World War II). Making magic rarer - in the sense of being rarer than what emerged naturally from the magic rules of whatever system I'd be using (more on systems later) - was, even back then, an unpleasant concept for me. No matter what system I'd use (as long as it was an actual systematic system), magic would be on-screen, useable to some extent by the PCs. So it'd be an alternate history setting. Our timeline would obviously have been de-railed by the existence of magic. Things on Ærth would be somewhat different from how they were in our past.

When to set it? The original GURPS campaign was intended for the period around 1340 AD, which is late in the medieval period. I knew, although only vaguely at that time, that there was some good support for the period around 1200 AD, because of Ars Magica (3rd edition uses 1199 or 1200 AD as the baseline, 4th edition uses 1220 AD). But I wanted Vikings. Seriously. I also wanted pagan Celts. I could get Vikings by picking an earlier period, and after some thinking I settled on the late 10th century. This turned out to be a really good choice of period. Lots of stuff was happening at that time. You had really interesting characters walking around. Harald Bluetooth, Sven Forkbeard, Gerbert of Aurillac and Otto III are all authentic, and Styrbjørn the Strong is very intersting, even if he is (almost certainly) a myth.

Of course, me being me, I'd never be content with only historical figures. I've made quite a bunch of NPCs, and added them to the setting, some in very important positions. This also reflects what I expect the players to do. Not to create peasants and sailors, but rather movers and shakers. (This was always my intent, although earlier systems did not support this well, for one reason (Quest FRP) or another (GURPS)).

What about the Celts? Druids? Britain was pretty much Saxon (except for Wales and Cornwall) in 1000 AD, and thoroughly Christian. So I decided to go majorly alternate history here, and have the Arthur, the High King and brilliant war leader, kick the Saxons entirely off Britain. So Britain is still Celtic in the 10th century, and nearly 100% pagan - Thanks to a certain Christian monk, who told a British lord to throw Ragnar Lodbrog into a snake pit - ever since then (the result of Lodbrogs slow and painful death was a massive invasion, which created the Danelaw, a huge Viking-occupied area in northern Britain), the British have disliked Christians, and been very distrustful of any advice given by them. Problem solved. I could have Celts and Druids just fine, both in Britain and in Ireland.

Another piece of alternate history is that upon Harald Bluetooth's conversion to Christianity, there was a rebellion (there almost certainly was one in our timeline too, the one on Ærth was just bigger), and Denmark was split into two parts, a Christian western part (Jylland and Fyn) and a still pagan eastern part (Sjælland and the small islands to the south, and southern Sweden). Harald Bluetooth ruled the Christian part, and his son Sven Forkbeard ruled the pagan part. Upon Harald's death, Olav came down from Norway (no, not the Saint Olav of our timeline, but his father, who was also named Olav - Saint Olav is too young to have worked in this role) and took up the throne, as Olav the Norwegian.

In Christian feudal (and manorial) Europe (I emphasize the feudal part to distinguish it from Ireland, where the Christian areas are not feudal (nor manorial)), magic is forbidden by law. All magic, not just the subset that is evil (e.g. Necromancy, Curses) or "questionable" (Illusion Magic). All magic. That doesn't mean it isn't practiced, of course (I hate worlds designed by people who think they can make something not existent just by having it be forbidden by law. Check out Ars Magica for an excellent example of a world designer who actually thinks - lots of NPCs break the various laws, thereby creating a strong precedent for the GM to allow the PCs to do so as well). It's just kept secret.

The Islamic world is divided into three Caliphates, of which two are quite civilized. The Iberian Caliphate is a decent place to live, legally tolerant of Christians and Jews ("People of the Book" - those who base their religious practices on a prophet acknowledged in the Quran. In this case Jesus or Moses), although not of pagans (I use the term "pagan" to define that which is polarly unlike the Semitic ("Desert"-originated) religions. I find the distinction very useful in a lot of situations). Magic is allowed, and there are schools for it. The only "problem" is that wine is illegal, even for non-Moslems. This bothers the French and Spanish wine growers (nobles), who would very much like to be allowed to sell wine to the thirsty Christians and Jews who live in the Iberian Caliphate. The Arabic Caliphate is much like the Iberian, except that Christians and Jews may buy, sell and consume wine. The African Caliphate, however, is a very unpleasant place. The laws change often, and the rulers are despotic, moody and arbitrary (living in the African Caliphate resembles what it's like to be a player under most GMs, in fact). Imagine stereotypical ideas about the horrors of Christian medieval Europe. Then add in theocratic Iran, and elements from the former Taleban regime in Afghanistan. That's the African Caliphate. Not a fun place to live, not at all. But there are ancient ruins, here and there, with valuable treasures, and there might also be something to be gained in the Sahara desert (if nothing else, then lucrative trade with the sub-Sarahan communities). The African Caliphate and the Arabic Caliphate are often at war with each other, over grain-rich Egypt.

China is not really relevant to Ærth, as such. Ærth is concieved as a very European (plus Vinland, of course) setting. But rumours travel, about an Undead Emperor (he's a Lich, and has been that way for more than a thousand years - and if you think you can guess which Emperor it is, you're probably right). A secondary campaign might be set in Asian lands, where heroic proto-Ninja (Tibetan or Japanese) fight the oppressive rule of the Emperor Lich.

My original intent may have been to use my old Multiclass system for the Ærth setting. It was certainly my intent, earlier, to use Multiclass for a pseudo-medieval setting that I'd create, with pseudo-Vikings, pseudo-Druids, pseudo-Christians and so forth. But I think that by the time I was thinking the first thoughts about Ærth, my mind was set on Quest FRP v2.1. Unfortunately, it had some problems.

It doesn't deal well with exceptionally talented characters at all. Lots of Ærth NPCs are exceptionally talented, one way or another, and I'm the kind of GM who feels that players should have an unalienable right to create characters who are exceptionally talented in specific areas of their choice (e.g. extremely dextrous, extremely charismatic, extremely agile, extremely intelligent...).

Secondly, spellcasting magic was too easy to use, and it was not possible to create a specialist spellcaster. I did try to solve the second problem with house rules, by inventing a Discipline that represented specialized ability to cast spells from a particular Spell List (e.g. Fire Magic or Necromancy), but it didn't work well. Also, magic items were too easy to create, as Quest FRP employed the easiest, worst and most common "limiter" on item creation: Time Cost. All it took to create a magic sword was the necessary level in the Enchantment skill, and then a number of months. This meant first of all that the world would have to be rich in magic items, because there was nothing stopping NPCs from making them, and making more, and keep making them. Secondly, with time the only cost, it'd have to be a huge cost (and it was - making a tiny item would take one, two or three months. Making a powerful item would take years!), which serves to push the activity towards NPCs, thereby giving the GM a completley unacceptable degree of control over what magic items the PCs have.

That's not to say I used Quest FRP v2.1 because I had it, or because it was free. I was aware of more than a hundred different rules systems, and I picked Quest FRP because it was the least bad of those more than a hundred different rules systems of which I was aware. I must emphasize that it was a very conscious and considered choice. But my attempts to tweak and improve Quest FRP, with added house rules, didn't work well.

There was then a brief period, lasting a couple of months, in which I tried to figure out a way to fix GURPS. But it turned out to be impossible. Not impossible for me, but conceptually impossible: The flaws of GURPS exist on the primary level of design. To fix it, I'd have to tear down the system, practiclly demolish it, and then re-build it from scratch. Upon realizing that, I decided that I'd resume development of my old system (actually older than Multiclass, by half a year or so), which was at that time nothing more than a dice roll mechanic and an attribute list. I had originally stopped developping FFRE because it was growing more and more similar to Quest FRP, so I had decided that I might as well save the effort and just use Quest FRP. But upon using Quest FRP, I found that it lacked flexibility, the kind of flexibility you only get in point-based systems (like GURPS). So I had to discard it, and upon realizing that GURPS was unfixable, I started making a whole system out of FFRE, stealing ideas from any and all intelligent sources, but primarily Quest FRP and GURPS.

Switching from Quest FRP v2.1 (+house rules) to FFRE created something like an explosive renaissance on Ærth. Suddenly I could do all my cool NPCs justice. The intellectual brilliance of Gerbert of Aurillac could be expressed (Intellect 24 in Quest FRP is ridiculously low, compared to Intelligence 8 in Sagatafl). Sigurd (the 1/4 Elf (now Faerie), 3/4 Human from the aborted GURPS campaign) worked much better. Sagatafl's much more versatile character creation system also gave me ideas for fun and unusual characters which the Quest FRP rules could never have inspired.

Characters now had to pay Life Force (later re-labeled to Essence) to Enchant magical items (or create any other kind of permanent magic), which put a total stop to the "Enchanter workshop" which every month would churn out a Broadsword +1 Damage. Now, every magic-capable character wopuld produce 1-3 magic items in his entire life time (more, obviously, for low-powered items, but not a lot more, because of the extra "buy-in" cost of the Open and Close Enchantments). This made magic items much rarer, and also made it an eminently feasible type of activity for PCs to engage in, since I could do away with the time cost altogether (I haven't done away with it entirely, though. Enchantment still takes some hours or days, but that's for "flavour of realism" rather than for balance).

Of course making a complete RPG rules system is a lot of work. Just check out John Kim's free RPG list. In my browser window, the full list is 73 pages long (I press the Page Down button 72 times) whereas the list of fudge-heavy games take up 44 pages. Much more than half of all the games that John Kim links to. And my hunch is that most of those games who lack the fudge-heavy tag aren't so much systems as they are worlds. Making a complete roleplaying gaming rules system is a lot of work, and most people avoid work like the plague. I'd avoid it myself, if I could. But I need a good system, under which I can GM. I have no alternative to making my own.

There are some good sides to all this work, though: (A) It's fun, in a satisfying kind of way, to produce a piece of work that you actually think is good, sound and thoroughly complete. In between all the sweat, there are those moments of joy. (B) You also get things exactly as you want them. Assumign you're competent, of course. Since my competence is finite, I sometimes have to settle for solutions that merely work, without being good (except in comparision to how other systems handle whatever the problem is - if they handle it at all), but there are a lot of things that I feel I've gotten nearly perfect. And (C) you get control over the material you produce, and the right to distribute it. This was a problem with Quest FRP. For instance, I turned the Mage and Cleric chapters of the Player's Handbook into a hypertext, so that I could quickly jump back and forth to the various Spell Lists, to first learn the system and later to quickly look up details. But when I asked the designers (Todd Richmond and Gene Masters) for permission to distribute this hypertext, they said no. Sure, it's their system, but I had created a valuable tool that others would benefit from. Later, as I modified the MS Excel character creation spreadsheet, both to incorporate my house rules and to enhance its general functioning (e.g. calculating equipment costs), I didn't even bother to ask if I could distribute it. I knew Todd and Gene would say no, so I kept it for myself, even though I could have benefitted from being able to send it to potential players.

I sure won't be as restrictive with Sagatafl. Third-party documents and spreadsheets are freely distributable (as long as nobody makes charges money without giving me a share) - this part is no different from how it was with Quest FRP - and others may also modify my documents and distribute them, provided that the modified documents are clearly marked as "modified", so as to reduce the potential for confusion between official and third-party documents. (All this will be put into a "license" text eventually).

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