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Chaos on the Old Borderlands - Introduction

This is the background to my current D&D project, a West Marches cover band cover band cover band. The prep started as just an exercise to do something in the vein of 'bog-standard D&D,' but I've ended up prepping enough material that I might as well post it in case I don't get to run it before my interest turns to something else. 

In a nutshell, the premise is to take the Keep on the Borderlands, and add approximately two centuries of settlement, plagues, invasion, decrepitude, and revanchism. 


The Eastern Principalities were once the edge of the Realm of Man, the Old Borderlands between Law and Chaos, but rugged explorers and bellicose adventurers slew the orcs and goblins and worse who plagued its forests and swamps, and founded new towns and castles to bring the land within the orbit of light and reason.

But now, as war and rebellion engulfs the Realm of Man, the return of Chaos to the Principality of the Keep again draws grim adventurers to seek fortune and glory...

The Realm of Man regards itself as the foremost bastion of truth, freedom and Law, at least for humans, in the world. It is both an empire and a federation, incorporating into itself kingdoms, principalities, free cities, dwarf-holds and theocrat-ruled territories. It is ruled over by a King, who is acclaimed so by the Electorate Council, made up of Princes great and small. The rights of elves, dwarves, goblins and orcs in its borders are strictly limited, though the Realm is more of a human-chauvinist culture than a anti-nonhuman one. The territory of the Realm lies mostly in the North and West, though it reaches into the East. Clerics are well-regarded, but wizards less so, as wizardly arts carry the stigma of Chaos. Wizards uninterested in being cloistered academics dealing only with the theoretical or creating magic toys for princes’ amusement risk heavy censure. The current ruler of the Realm is King Albo VII, a grizzled, salt-and-pepper-bearded warlord who sees himself as the stern father and protector of his peoples.

The Realm is currently at war with the Khaganate to the south, which sucks for the Eastern Principalities (of which the Borderlands are a part), because the Khaganate is much more interested in buying Eastern Principality grain and goods at a fair price than the rich cities of the Realm. The war began as a by-blow of the war of succession which wracked the Realm a generation ago, as breakaway provinces sought the protection of the Khagan against the rampaging armies of Realmish princes. Now that the throne is secure, the King seeks to claw back lands lost to the Khaganate and others, including the orc- and Chaos-ravaged Old Borderlands.

The Khaganate of Man is also both an empire and a federation; the spiritual and temporal power of the Khagan and his kin and court operating as a federal government uniting and managing an assembly of nations under his stewardship. It is spread widely over the South and some of the East, and has been moving West. Its law is distinguished from the Realm’s mostly in its nominal autocracy and its legal equality of all the peoples in its borders (although the local laws of sub-nations may complicate matters). Both wizards and clerics find themselves in demand in the Khaganate, though clerics’ organizations are less autonomous than in the Realm, and the legal penalties for evil magics are thorough. The nominal Khagan is Tanë II, but as he is a mere three years old, most of the decision-making is in the hands of his grandmother, the High Dowager Sirret-Cadaloz, a sharp and unsentimental woman.

The Republic of Man is a league of city-states which engages in maritime trade, located mostly on the shorelines of the West and South. Its culture is worshipful of ancient elven achievements but that worship does not automatically extend to modern members of the elven people. Government and laws vary between city-state to city-state, but most are ruled by some variations of councils of noble families, often half-elven or wizardly in nature. Their religious identity is fractious, with variations of the Realmish faith co-mingling with ostensibly Elven religions.

The Old Empire of Man toppled the Kingdoms of the Orcs, and ruled much of the known world for centuries, but fell into decadence and from there into the grip of evil Chaos. An isolated rump still exists in the East, squatting in cold deserts and feared and despised by all others. Though many of the clerical orders of the Realm descend ultimately from the Old Empire, the hermit-masters of the Empire’s secret desert lamaseries are seen as terrifying cultists, not co-religionists by Realmish clerics. No one outside the empire has seen the High Hidden One, nominal leader of the Realmish sects.

To the far North is the League of the Orc-Lords, a fractious alliance of orc chieftains who rule over semi-nomadic clans of orcs, goblins and humans, pressing always against the Realm’s northern borders. In the generation before the current war, most soldiers of the Realm fought in the North. Occasionally a Great Lord unites the clans for a concerted campaign of conquest; given the Realm’s perilous state of war and rebellion, a Great Lord’s army could make great gains indeed.

Legends place a Secret Isle of the Elves in the ocean to the West, though no elf has given up more details in living memory. Many elves would no doubt make the trip there if they knew where it was.

There are, broadly speaking, five peoples who inhabit the world. All else are considered beasts or monsters, regardless of their ability to converse with you.

Humans are all over the place.

Elves are an ancient people who once ruled the world in a glorious golden age but fucked it all up. Though there are small, sequestered communities of elves within the Realm, secret elven holdfasts are rumoured to exist throughout the world.

Dwarves are an ancient people who resent the elves for fucking everything up. They exist within the Realm, granted charters to mine by the Electorate Council and forming relationships with local Princes.

Goblins are older than all of them but don’t care. While many live in the wild places of the world, a large number also live in the Realm, often as part of the rabble of great cities or in bucolic suburbs of burrow-mounds. ‘Goblins’ also includes hobgoblins, bugbears, and sometimes other critters.

Orcs are an ancient people who invaded the lands of Elves and Dwarves when they fucked up. They are legally ill-tolerated in the Realm but common sights in princes’ guardian retinues or as mercenaries.

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