Welcome to the Dark Ages:
Some time ago, we tried a semi-“realistic” medieval d20 campaign, with cultures based on actual medieval cultures, somewhat limited magic based on classical ideas about how magic operated, and a world built around classical myths and legends. Some of the material was later adapted for other settings – for example, some of the magical restrictions turned up again in the Atheria setting – but here some of the basic cultural handouts. The Celtic version is the most detailed, since most of the characters came from that region.
THE CELTIC-PAGAN WORLDVIEW :
In the beginning was the Dragon.
The seasons turned in the oneness of the year and the life of the world pulsed with them – spirits and power passing endlessly from life, to death, and back again, smoothly flowing through the spiraling coils of time – the coils of the Dragon.
It was the first age. The age of Faerie, the first- born.
When man, and flower, and beast, and wind, were one – and death was but a dream.
But the spirits of man, the younger brethren of the elder faerie, tired of the endless cycle. They could not bear the unfettered power of the Dragon, and instead sought to control it’s dance – to stand apart from the world and govern it’s turnings. The aspect who would be the greatest among their gods – the one god who’s name is not spoken – found a key. He – and men after him – rejected the unspoken tongue of faerie, the wordless mind-to-mind language of dreaming, and called upon the power of naming – chaining the formless essence of the dragon, birthing individual beings and forces, splitting time into future and past the world between matter and spiritual otherworld, bringing desire and regret, knowledge – and oblivion. Spirits, if they returned at all, would no longer remember from life to life,
The greater Faerie, unable to bear such separation, began to withdraw to the otherworlds – the truer world – and into the forgotten past, to touch upon the earth only through the gates of magic and the dead – the great burial mounds and megalithic circles of power.
The first mortal magic was the magic of the Shamans and their more systematic heirs, the Druids – men who penetrated the otherworld to acquire the secret names, who learned to tap into it’s power – and who worked to maintain what they could of the balance which had been broken.
The one god also sought to redress the balance. He sent a portion of his essence into the world of matter and opened a bridge – but sought to bring all the powers of the world under his dominion, that he might correct and maintain the balance without further disturbance. As more and more of the world’s magic fell under his hand – and was funneled into the otherworld – his power grew, while others faded.
Across the world the magic faded, charms lost their powers, and the old bindings shattered – releasing the last traces of the old, wild, magic of the dragon in a final flowering. Inspired by that unfolding power, the Barbarians drove back the forces of the Roman Imperium – leaving chaos in the wake of it’s withdrawal.
The withdrawal from Logres, left the land wracked by invasion, and split between a dozen quarreling warlords. Myrddyn, Seer and Archdruid, brought peace, and a king – but saw his powers fading, the bond between king and land weakening, and the oncoming ages of darkness.
Myrddyn saw a choice. He might accept the fading, perhaps step into the otherworlds – and see magic weaken until even the greatest rites might summon up only the vaguest whisper of dream. The world would belong to man alone. He would master it utterly, and none would stand before him. The works of his hands and mind would outshine many of the ancient glories – but there would be an emptiness within. Man would have given up a part of his soul and the magic of his heritage – but what was bought might perhaps be worth the price; the fading of magic along that path cloaked it’s terminus in shadow.
There was another way. If he merged himself with the Dragon, he would cease to be, save as a dream and an avatar – but through him the Dragon would once more be linked to the physical world. Magic, the breath of the Dragon, would flow into the world once again – opening a thousand glittering paths of dream. The world would never belong fully to mankind, but it would be full of wonders to fill his heart.
Myrddyn, accompanied by Nimue and Morgan Le Fey, both high priestesses of fairie and the Dragon, walked into the crystal caverns, home of visions, the coils of the Dragon – and did not emerge.
Across the land the Dragon stirred again. Realms long faded into myth and legends found their places on the maps once again. The gates of the otherworld were opened; spirits of the land and of the dead spoke once more. Magic – the breath of the Dragon – pulsed within the veins of men. The wonders awoke. Even a few Elves, the Elder Brethren, returned to walk the earth.
Mordred, bitterly resentful of his Father and lacking both his Mother’s magical control, and her understanding that her differences with Arthur were mostly political – rather then personal – used his awakening talents to raise an army of the undead, to hurl against the round table. Nimue aided Arthur against Mordred, but Morgan stood neutral.
Nimue’s magic – the mortal magic of spoken spells and incantations – was no match for Mordred’s wild magic, the breath of the dragon. Only an equally primal force would stand against it.
In the end, Mordred and Arthur dueled. Excalibur, mortal skill, and the incarnate strengths of the land, against the unleashed power of the darker side of the otherworld. They gave each other mortal wounds. Morgan Le Fay was one of the priestess-queens who bore Arthur away to “Avalon”, while Mordred is said to have died – but no one knows if Morgan took her son away as well – or if personal death would really hinder a necromancer so powerful in any case.
Today, the mortal kingdoms war once again – but the twitching coils of the Dragon shake the foundations of the realms. Magic, now named and bound by itself alone, rises despite the one god. Mankind will never be alone again.
CELTIC-PAGANS AND MAGIC:Pagans see magic as powerful, necessary, and very, very, dangerous. The gods have aspects both light and dark, the wakened dragon is beyond mortal control, and the faerie are kind and cruel at whim. Careful magicians may propriate powers and establish the order which men need to survive as something other then the pets, playthings, servants, and property, or the elder races – but an incautious mage may readily awaken powers and forces far beyond his or her control. They use myths, tales, and ritual re-enactments, to bind the chaos of the world into a predictable form. To tell the tale of a mighty victory is to maintain that victory, to keep it from lapsing back into mutable chaos. That which has been forgotten may well never have been, that which is told, is.
THE WORLD OF THE NORTHMEN :
In the beginning, there was chaos. From it there arose the giant Ymer, who’s flesh was the earth, who’s bones were stone, and who’s blood was the ocean. Ymer drank of the power of creation, and from him were born the dreadful giants of Ice, and Fire, and Storm. But the daughters of the giants were gentler, fair and comely.
The power of creation also brought forth Bure’, the first of the Asa-Gods. To Bure’ and the daughters of the giants were born other gods. The giants, however, were filled with wrath against Bure’ and his sons – and there was war between the elemental powers of the Giants and the shapings of the gods. The war raged for unknowable time, for time had not yet been given form or measure.
In the end, the Asa-gods bound the elemental powers of the Giants and slew Ymer, taking the elements which had been his body and reshaping the world according to their desire. First among them was Odin, master of the spirit world, of Yggdrasil, the world-ash, which bears the worlds in it’s branches. His were the runes, the words of binding. Nine days hung Odin upon Yggdrasil, a sacrifice to himself, the runes he saw with his dead eye, sacrificed for wisdom, shrieking he took them – and then he fell back.
But the blood of chaos runs in the veins of the Asa -Gods, birthing monsters. Nidhogg, the Dragon, born of the heart of Ymer, coils endlessly in Niffellheim, the realm of death, and gnaws upon the roots of Yggdrasil. The world is built upon death and not even the gods will escape it in the end. Midgard, the world of men, rests within the coils of the Serpent, that shall one day be united with Nidhogg once again, to rise up against the Asa-Gods as the World-Serpent, Ymer reborn. The Giants will rage again, unbound, and Loki, the Brother-Son of Odin, will break his chains and escape Niffellheim, to once more lead rebellion. That day the gods will fight and die, and the spirits of men with them. All shall be cast into the chaos of Niffellheim, save for those few among spirits and gods and men who are free of chaos. From them shall the world be renewed, in peace and joy. The victorious darkness too is doomed.
Whence come the peoples of the world? Man and Dwarf and Elf and Troll? The flesh of slain Ymer was filled still with the Milk of Audhumla, the Power of Creation – and from it’s ever-burning spark within his flesh were born the Dwarves, creatures of the earth, endowed with mastery over it, and the power to create that which even the gods could not. The Elves were born of his breath, theirs is the power of the air, to pass freely between the branches of Yggdrasil. From his blood, the waters of the earth, were born the terrible trolls. Theirs is the power of the waters, the might of wave and storm and ice – and the power to take many forms. But the blood of Ymer runs pure in Trolls and allies of the giants are they. Men – like the forests – were born of his Hair. They are numberless, everywhere, and spread across the land. They are deeply-rooted and always return.
From Whence comes the power of one-eyed Odin? Three meads drank he in the youth of the world, that of wise Mimir, of wisdom and memory, the moon-mead of poetry – and the living mead of Urd, who is life, fate and death. Odin spoke the runes, bound chaos and shaped the world for men. He opened the ways of the dead, Great is his power and great his sacrifice! Dark the day when wise Odin falls! Yet fall he must, for to half the world is the All-Father blind.
What are the signs of Ragnarok? A Wolf Age, An Axe Age, A Sword Age ere the world’s ending. Brother shall fall against brother, and son against father. Beasts and monsters shall devour men, and neighbor shall be against neighbor. Comes the Fimbul Winter, thrice winter shall follow winter, a tempest unending shall darken the sun at noon. In vain shall men await the coming of summer, blood shall be scattered on the snow. The giants shall rise again to assail the Asa-Gods. The sun and moon will be devoured – and the final battle fought. Vidar, the silent son of Odin, shall avenge his sire’s death upon the Fenris wolf, few shall survive the twilight of the gods!
What is the path a man should take? What laws have the gods set down in the Allthing? Know this; Cattle and Kinsmen die, as will each man. One thing alone endures undying; the fame of the deeds you’ve done. Serve your lord well, Suffer no outlaw upon your lands, and bear no insult or stain upon your honor. Vengeance or Weregild must answer for the blood of kin. Value and trust your Kin, be generous with friends and allies. Chose wisely among your offspring*. Respect the Gods. Valor, Honor, and Hospitality are the greatest of virtues; those who perish in battle or childbirth shall fight at the side of the gods at the end of days. Strike not those who are weaker then you; evildoers pass untimely into dark Niffellheim to become tormented monsters. Walk warily, for any man may be a foe. Fear not pain and death, for they are the companions of every man. Shun the straw- death – and may the Valkyor’ attend your passing!
*Unwanted, sickly, or defective children were left to die of exposure. It was a parent’s right to decide the fate of his or her offspring.
THE NORTHMEN AND MAGIC: For the Northmen, magic is a part of life. Their gods move among them sowing curses, blessings, and the occasional son or daughter, their dead rest unquiet in their barrows, names summon forth spirits, and the power or Odin’s runes runs through word and writing granting potency to both. Hags and Trolls move among men, and steal their strengths to add to their own. Women wield magic both more persuasively and subtly then men, since they touch upon the otherworld to bring forth new life from the shadow of death – but the magic of men is fiercer, and more overt, drawn from deeper in the otherworlds and paid for in bloody coin, for to draw upon the power of the otherworld is to be claimed by it. Death is the portion of all men but to the hero and the mage it comes neither softly nor slowly. Glorious is their passing!
ON PLAYING NORTHMEN: The philosophy of the northmen Is notoriously dark and brooding. It acknowledges – indeed, it embraces – inevitable death, pain and war, the ultimate futility of mankind’s endless struggle against fate, chance, and the uncontrollable power of nature. It’s sole “soft spot” may be the gentle paradise awaiting deceased children – and even that will not endure beyond Ragnarok’.
And that is it’s power. It calls for meeting death with courage and defiance, for generosity with – and the defense of – all friends and kinfolk, for the doing of mighty deeds, for living to the full, and for grasping glory and honor despite their bloody price. It could be, and often was, used as a pretext for glorifying battle and plundering outsiders – but it’s greatest tales are those of defense, of honor, of victory, and of family. In the end they were right; their tales of great deeds are still told today, long after their authors and their world have passed away.
THE CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW :
“In the beginning – when God began to create – the Earth was without form and void, and darkness moved upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of god was moving over the face of the waters”.
Thus begins Genesis, the tale of creation according to the priests of the One God, whose name is not to be spoken.
The One God gave form to the chaos of the beginning through the power of Logos – the Word of God. Mankind was made in the image of god, granted the power of the Word, and thus set apart from the beasts, whom mankind named and so assumed dominion over them. While mankind foolishly succumbed to the temptations of the “fallen” angels, and so lost much of his divine heritage, and his physical immortality, the Earth and all that was on it was still given onto him.
At some point the One God created lesser, but still great, supernatural entities – the various “orders” of Angels – and assigned them tasks, governing the workings of the world through them.
But some of the Angels turned away from the One and would not serve in their appointed places. Others even rebelled against Him – and there was war in heaven. The legions of God were victorious; the rebel third of the Angelic Host were cast out, to call into the depths of the Otherworld and there became Demons, their habitation Hell. The third who had turned away were also cast out to walk the Earth and it’s otherworldly borderlands as the Fey; still immortal and powerful, but subject in the end to being driven out by mankind, to whom mastery of the Earth had been given.
God, mourning the fall of man and his separation from his creator, begot a Son who would be both God and Man and so would renew the tie between his people and himself. That Son – Christ the Redeemer – made it possible once more for those who accepted his aid to ascend into the heavenly regions of the otherworld after death, and once again be in the presence of God.
Today the renewed Word Of God is spreading over the lands, albeit in numerous variants and against a great deal of opposition from older belief systems. Some of the major variations include Roman Christianity (Which should be reasonably familiar), Celtic Christianity (A good deal gentler. It holds that mankind is basically good and must actively refuse redemption to fall), Grail Christianity (Sees the Virgin Mary/Sophia/The Goddess/ Divine Wisdom as a major power – with her symbol being the grail/cauldron of renewal), and Irish Christianity (Basically a tribal version, priests are usually part- time, married, farmers). “Satanism” is a sort of anti-Christianity mixed with pagan beliefs. It’s followers generally believe that the One God is an usurper, that the angelic “rebellion” was in the right, and that the enforced order of the One God must be shattered. Only then will the chaotic glory of the Dragon’s dance once more rule. Naturally enough, allegiance to chaos and the destruction of society is generally seen as evil.
CHRISTIANS AND MAGIC: Christians usually see magic as White – drawing on the One God or his Angels – Grey – drawing on nature and the Faerie – or Black – drawing on Fallen Angels. They do not yet see it as being inherently evil.