"Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again"
Robert Drews as quoted in Wikipedia
A 13th Age campaign set in the Middle East circa 1200BC. In our world, this was the start of the deepest dark age in history, when Egypt and Assyria started sliding into terminal decline - and every other civilisation in the known world was wiped from the map.
But hey, this is fantasy, not history. The survivors won't have to spend eight gruelling centuries struggling to re-establish peace, roads, literacy and law and order. The Orc Lord doesn't leave survivors. And at least those who fall prey to orc brutality are lucky enough to avoid the ancient and refined cruelties of the Three. Instead they can look forward to serving the Dead King as undead slaves in his war against the living. Oh, and did I mention the demons? The Diabolist has managed to bring them back, somehow.
So it's a good thing our defences are in capable hands:
- The Pharaoh of Egypt (life, prosperity and health to him) is Emperor over all human realms, holding everything together and organising the fight back. He's 16.
- The Archmage is his trusted vizier, serving his master with great wisdom and learning, whenever he takes a break from his unnatural experiments.
- The Master Dwarf is the finest craftsman of Greece - and perhaps the only one, now the Orc Lord has slaughtered every human there.
- The Elf Queen of Sheba is beautiful and deadly and has no inclination to join the losing side.
- The Crusader of Assyria is fierce and ruthless, kind of like the Orc Lord except not an Orc. So it's a good thing he's here, right?
- The Priestess of Babylon is a very nice person. Just what we need.
- The Great Sphinx is a stalwart bastion against demonkind. He hasn't moved since he was turned to gold hundreds of years ago.
- The Prince of Shadows is never seen, but when really important things go missing you can bet he was there.
- The Shaman of Africa is happy for demons and undead to ravage civilised lands and leave the wilderness alone.
- Then there are the PCs.
The concept is a high fantasy game rooted in a real historical setting. The Dragon Empire is comprised of the Near Eastern human civilisations, bolstered with magic, the favour of the gods, and the aid of powerful dragons and sphinxes. The setting is meant to provide scope for different styles of adventure, e.g.
- dangerous expeditions to remote areas of Africa
- murder and intrigue in the courts of Egypt and Babylon
- open warfare on the front lines in Asia Minor
To make it feel more historical, there are optional racial rules. The major playable races are all human beings, biologically and culturally speaking, but distinctive types of person with characteristic abilities and weaknesses.
Before: Formless chaos.
Creation: The gods create themselves, divide living from nonliving matter, define the elements, shape the world, populate it and give all things their purpose.
1st Age: Gnomes of Sumer develop magic, which spreads quickly to other lands. Human culture advances while gnolls decline into savagery. Osiris of the Nile valley becomes the first Emperor, his sister Isis is the first Archmage.
Dark Age: Osiris is murdered by his brother, the Orc Lord Set, leading to civil war and anarchy. Osiris expels demons from the nearest regions of the underworld and rules there as the Dead King.
2nd Age: Dwarves perfect the art of bronze working and elves develop funerary rites to ensure a safe passage to the afterlife. Imhotep, the first Master Dwarf, designs pyramids enabling Emperors to control traffic between the lands of the living and the dead.
Dark Age: The Fool, supreme wit of the age, tricks the Empress out of her throne, but his rule is a disaster. A series of audacious thefts culminate in the loss of the crown itself. Courtiers plot and generals revolt against the Fool-Emperor, leading to bitter strife and the Empire disintegrates.
3rd Age: The Tyrant Sargon allies with Zahhak the Red dragon and becomes the first Dragon Emperor. A succession of Tyrants rule a large empire from Akkad, but are unable to conquer Egypt, partly thanks to the protection of the Great Sphinx.
Dark Age: Losing patience with the latest weak Tyrant, Zahhak embarks on a rampage, burning a village every day until he can find no more settlements. Humans everywhere flee their homes.
4th Age: The Great Sphinx and Ammit the Green make war on the Red, who is defeated and imprisoned beneath the island of Thera. Ammit is slain in the battle and Osiris grants her the privilege of devouring the hearts of the wicked dead. She dines well, but her diet of sin gradually poisons the breath of all green dragons.
Dark Age: A corrupt Archmage experiments with combining mortal flesh with beasts and primal creatures to create an army of monsters. He attacks city after city in his quest for power until he is slain by his own creations, who disperse to wreak even worse havoc and destruction.
5th Age: Engineers build strategic forts and roads to hold off the monsters and fight back. Dwarves become the most powerful group in society and Dwarf Kings rule many lands under the direction of their Emperor.
Dark Age: The dwarves grow ever more greedy, plundering the natural world. The High Druid summons storms and beasts to fight back. The Elf Queen seizes her chance to rally the common people against their unpopular rulers and the Empire collapses.
6th Age: The Elf King Minos establishes a maritime empire centred on Crete and gathers the most gifted young men and women to his court. Minoans trade peacefully with other lands, spreading culture and prosperity.
Dark Age: after centuries stoking his revenge, Zahhak the Red bursts his prison, destroying the entire island and showering the inland sea with molten rock. Apep the Black attacks the sun and blots out its life-giving light. The Minoans are destroyed and famine grips every other country.
7th Age: The strongest dragons assert themselves as overlords to their weaker kin, who in turn use lizardmen and kobolds to rule over humans and other races. The Red and the Black reign as co-Tyrants. Other chromatic dragons scheme for power at the expense of their metallic brethren.
Dark Age: The Witch Queen assassinates many powerful dragons including Kur the Blue and Python the Black. Most of the others withdraw into hiding. But the demons who empower her spells drive her insane before spreading madness across the world.
8th Age: The Great Paladin and the Great Gold Sphinx fight back against the demons, aided by The Inquisitor who roots them from their hiding places. Many dragons recognise The Great Paladin as Dragon Emperor.
Dark Age: Goblins and bugbears raid the fringes of the weakening Empire, aided by descendants of the aberrations that ended the 4th Age. Hobgoblin kings claim the title of Tyrant and lead their legions on campaigns seeking to exterminate humankind. People retreat into fortified cities and the Dead King reluctantly sanctions the animation of skeletal and zombie soldiers for self-defence.
9th Age: The Archmage designs the first practical golems, an improvement on undead troops. Dragons and sphinxes support human armies. Human and hobgoblin leaders vie for the title of Tyrant until the Dragon Emperor slays the Goblin King along with every other goblinoid he can find. The surviving goblins retreat beyond the Empire.
Dark Age: The Archmage and Master Thief attempt to rob goblins of the power of speech. The ritual backfires, and language is instead split between races, each retaining a small fraction of their original vocabulary. The Archmage's golems misunderstand his commands and tear down his tower in Babylon. Later historians speculate this was exactly what the Thief intended.
10th Age: The Fool invents new words and Elves spread them through poetry and song. Priests of Mesopotamia lead the people to greater piety. Blessed by the gods, many kingdoms flourish. No great Emperor arises to unite them, but the Elf King is recognised as the standard bearer for culture and civilisation.
Dark Age: Ravaging bands of monsters grow in strength: orcs, giants, and the remaining goblins. Striking from the wilderness, they make inroads everywhere and conquer numerous cities. Some establish themselves in Lower Egypt as the Hyksos. Wadjet claims the title of the Green and enters the underworld, but Ammit defeats her and eats her heart.
11th Age: The pharaoh defeats and isolates the Hyksos, who submit to his authority after purging their ranks of evil driders and medusae. His dragons and chariots respond quickly to monstrous incursions, bringing relief to all human lands, earning him pre-eminence and the title of Dragon Emperor.
Dark Age: The Four greatest chromatic dragons (excluding Ammit) form an alliance, The Thalatth, and defeat the Emperor's metallic dragons. Some rulers try to fight the Four and others to pay them off, with little success. The Red tyrannises Persia, while the Blue, considered the brains of the group, rules Egypt. People flee the cities to escape the rapacious monsters.
12th Age: The Elf Queen seduces Ladon the White, splitting the Four. Human kings reassert their authority. The Archmage lays down magic wards to detect, repel and weaken the remaining Three and other powerful monsters when they venture into human lands.
Dark Age: The Diabolist fractures the barriers between worlds. Osiris and his loyal dead attempt to guard the breaches, but many demons manage to enter the mortal realm. The more subtle devils corrupt officials and incite rebellion, then powerful Lords of Hell invade in force.
13th Age: The Great Sphinx takes up a strategic position before the gateway of the worlds at Giza. The Alchemist turns the great Sphinx's body to living gold as a stable and incorruptible base for his spiritual fight against the demons. A New Kingdom rises in Egypt, while the Assyrian crusader dynasty wars against the remaining demon-influenced states. When in doubt, the Crusader kills them all and lets the gods sort them out.
Now: The Orc Lord sweeps across Greece and murders the Pirate King. Using his new fleet he invades Asia with armies of Orcs and giants. Osiris claims his right to rule the living, and dead rise from their graves as his agents. The Diabolist tempts the desperate with offers too good to be true. Both the Orc Lord and the Three court the support of the Shaman. And a mere child inherits the title of Dragon Emperor - life, prosperity and health to him!
As indicated in the brief history above, several other iconic titles have existed besides current thirteen. Perhaps powerful individuals will rise to claim them again, while some of those below are vanquished.
The Pharaoh of Egypt, Akhenre Setepenre Siptah, life prosperity and health to him, is known through the world as the Emperor. Leader of a loose alliance of human kingdoms, he is responsible for fighting back the tide of evil and chaos. A heavy burden for 16-year-old shoulders to bear.
His vizier, the Archmage Bay of Syria, is a renowed scholar and practitioner of magic. His knowledge is invaluable in administering and safeguarding the Empire. But it is said he pursues his own ends first and serves the Pharaoh second.
The Great Sphinx is a giant creature, heroic and honourable. To seal the walls protecting our world, it placed itself at Giza, the gateway between life and death, and turned itself to solid gold in order to battle the invading demons in sprit.
Osiris the Dead King once reigned over Egypt and for many centuries since has ruled the virtuous dead. But suddenly he has claimed dominion over the living once again and sent undead servitors to act as his agents. At first he demanded people's allegiance politely, but now those who stand in the Dead King's way get to meet him in person.
The Crusader Ninurta of Assyria is a ruthless warlord, feared and hated, but also respected for his power. His forebears purged Mesopotamia of demons, now he leads his armies in constant battle on the front line against orcs and other monsters. And after he defeats them? Maybe he'll seize the throne for himself.
The Priestess of Babylon is the champion of the good gods, perhaps the world's most pious mortal. Her temple is a green cathedral, a terraced zigurrat growing the plants sacred to every god. She has persuaded the gods to work their miracles through mortal clerics, a more practical and flexible strategy than direct divine intervention.
The Orc Lord is a dangerous enemy, as cunning as he is violent. The Greeks, Hittites and many others have fallen before his horde of Sea Peoples. His armies are dominated by Orcs - men who have become monsters - and he commands even worse creatures.
The Elf Queen of Sheba has ruled the land of Punt for hundreds of years, achieving great longevity through sorcery. She Who Must Be Obeyed appears in many guises, all beautiful, and it is said she can charm any animal or any person. The Emperor wants her support, but her favour is not easily won.
Daedalus the Master Dwarf is the world's finest craftsman, but a homeless refugee. He wanders in exile but has grand designs to retake his Greek homeland from the Orc Lord.
The Shaman of Africa protects the wilderness from intruders. Even in these dangerous times he refuses to ally with the Emperor, and claims to threaten none of the icons. Is he genuinely neutral, or just biding his time?
The Three (also known as the Thalatth) is an alliance of three of the world's oldest and mightiest dragons:
- Zahhak, a.k.a Aži Dahāka the Red ravages the mountains to the East, burning what remains of the Persian civilisation. He dominates a loose gang of destructive dragons, the Azhdarchids.
- Apep the Black thrives on darkness. He believes his destiny is to devour the sun, and assaults Ra with fresh vigour every night. He considers himself the master of darkness and shadow.
- Leviathan the Blue is sworn to the Emperor's service. She governs the City of Susa in his name, but retains her ties with the Red and Black.
The two other greatest chromatic dragons are powerful, but not players in their own right:
- Ammit the Green is dead, yet lives on in Osiris's domain. Once she feasted on the hearts of the wicked dead, now Osiris uses those for other purposes and the Devourer grows ever hungrier.
- Ladon the White is the Elf Queen's willing slave. He has deserted his domain at the Pole to serve her in the equatorial heat of Punt.
The Diabolist can be found wherever men and women are desperate enough to seek aid from the underworld. Her predecessor weakened the barriers between the worlds, but the Great Sphinx has largely sealed the breach. Now demons have started appearing again and the new Diabolist claims the credit.
The Prince of Shadows can never be found, but his (or her) presence makes itself felt whenever something of great importance goes inexplicably missing. It's said he stole something from the Pirate King that led to his downfall at the hands of the Orc Lord.
The map at http://sitemaker.umich.edu/mladjov/files/ane1350.jpg shows most of the known world.
Ten years ago, the green areas in Greece were civilised trading cities acknowledging the Emperor as their overlord. Other parts of Greece were settled by human tribes. Now the Orc Lord has completely taken over this region, and those who could not escape have been killed or turned into monstrous orcs.
The Hatti (Hittite) kingdom has also succumbed to orcish forces, but the Crusader is fighting back. The area is now a vast no-humanoid's-land, dominated by bands of marauding orcs, Crusader patrols, and remnants of Hittite forces who increasingly resemble the many bands of desperate refugees who wander the region searching for a safer home.
The Orc Lord's main forces are believed to be concentrated in the west of Asia Minor. With the ships that once belonged to the Pirate King, vast numbers of orcs could strike anywhere along the coast.
The Assyrians occupy the same area as the Mitanni of the previous age. They are led by the Crusader, and the entire country is geared towards supporting his armies. The Crusader welcomes immigrants fleeing the orcs ... and conscripts them to work in the fields, the mines or on the battlefield.
The brown area is controlled by Egypt and therefore under the direct administration of the Emperor. The deserts to the east and west of Egypt are populated by various tribes, including gnolls who hate human beings but are smart enough not to encroach on the Empire.
The green Kassite (Kar-Dunias) area in Mesopotamia is made up of numerous city-states of which the most important is Babylon.
There is no Elamite kingdom due to the depredations of the Red, but some humans live in southern Persia, keeping a low profile. Goblins and various other creatures are found further north. There are rumours of human kingdoms, perhaps even empires, further to the east.
The Kingdom of Punt, ruled by the Elf Queen of Sheba, lies well below the bottom of the map, in the Horn of Africa. Kobolds occupy the lands between Punt and the Empire, worshipping dragons as gods. But you could write hic sunt dragones anywhere on the map: they live wherever they want, which is everywhere.
When the first gods shaped the world, they kept some of all the best materials to build their own homes in the Overworld. But they did not take very much, so although the Overworld lies directly above the earth, it is much smaller. An hour's walk there might equal a week's travel on the ground, assuming you can walk on clouds of course. Unless you have the blessing of the gods, you will need some way to get past the other inhabitants: powerful dragons, sphinxes and cloud giants.
The gods designed the world with lush forests, fertile plains, mineral-rich mountains, mighty rivers, broad seas and populations of virtuous, wise people who would live forever. Not everything went according to plan, but that is a tale of another time.
After fashioning the Overworld and the Earth, masses of inferior and surplus material remained, which the gods swept away out of sight as the Underworld. The most troublesome monsters were also banished there and became the ancestors of today's evil demons. It is very easy to reach the Underworld: all you have to do is die. Nobody, not even the Dead King, has ever returned physically from the Underworld. It is also possible, though more difficult, to visit temporarily in a dream trance.
Deceased human beings and other sentient creatures have secured some regions of the underworld and built various kingdoms of the dead. But most regions are either empty wastes or under the control of demons who treat human spirits as slaves, toys or raw materials. The Underworld is much larger than the Earth - for example, the Dead King's realm mirroring the Nile Valley can accommodate over a hundred generations of Egyptians.
Some speculate there is an even more terrible realm beneath the Underworld. Maybe it's tortures all the way down.
Optional Racial Rules
For my campaign I tweaked the 13th Age racial rules to fit into the historical setting more easily. Executive summary: almost everyone is human.
The main playable races are human, at least in a biological sense. But everyone knows distinctive types of people with particular strengths and weaknesses. At a glance you may recognise a stranger as an elf, or you may not, it depends how they are acting at the time. But you know exactly what kinds of people your close friends and relations are. Races in this sense are almost invariably fixed from an early age, but they are not hereditary: two dwarves can produce a human or even elf child.
In this campaign racial powers are the same as normal, but there is more flexibility over stat bonuses. In addition, all characters get a bonus background point related to a racial trait. But those who are not quite normal suffer from a psychological weakness. Nobody is forced to give in to their weakness, but it can sometimes be hard to conceal it.
Humans proper form the majority of almost all civilised settlements. Most are able to fit into normal society without difficulty. As in the standard 13th Age rules, they gain +2 to any one ability and a bonus feat. They also get +1 in a background relating to an established place in society, such as merchant or gang member.
Dwarves devote much of their energy to useful crafts. Their creations sometimes lack flair, but are always practical. One of the most famous dwarves was Imhotep, architect of the pyramids. Dwarves gain +2 to any one ability except Charisma and +1 in a background relating to a useful art such as woodworking or surveying. However, all dwarves have a greed for one or more material things such as beer or gold.
Half-Orcs should not be confused with true Orcs, people who have given into their base instincts and become monsters both morally and physically. Half-Orcs are still human in the broad sense. They lack the patience of dwarves, and solve problems through direct means, often by force. The Israelite warrior Samson was a famous Half-Orc. Half-Orcs gain +2 to any one ability except Intelligence and +1 in a background relating to physical prowess such as bull-leaping or charioteering. But all Half-Orcs hate one or more things and find them hard to tolerate. Half-Orcs' peeves may be based on past experience or may be entirely random: horses, mages, merchants, midnight, stringed instruments, temples, cold meat, nursery rhymes, sharing, swearing, bones and riddles are typical examples.
Elves, in contrast, are the most artistic and persuasive race. Dwarven workmanship may construct a monument to endure for centuries, but elves will make it beautiful. Samson's nemesis Delilah was an Elf. Elves gain +2 to any one ability except Strength and +1 in a background relating to the arts or social interaction, such as dancing or leadership. But Elves do exhibit one (or occasionally more) of three disagreeable foibles. High elves consider themselves more important than anyone else, dark elves find cruelty enjoyable, wild elves do not consider themselves bound by social conventions, laws or loyalty.
Gnomes are strange where Elves are charming. They enjoy games and intellectual challenges, and are almost by definition gnomic, pursuing novel speculations for their own sake. Sometimes their ideas have practical value, more often not. A famous - or infamous - gnome was the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten. Gnomes gain +2 to any one ability except Constitution and +1 to an intellectual background such as astronomy or history. But every gnome rejects at least one useful element of normal life such as footwear, money or cooking.
Half-Elves are an awkward in-between caste. They cannot conform to human norms, but neither do they have the flair and daring to succeed as elves. Indeed no great figures of history are known to be Half-Elves. Half-Elves gain +2 to any one ability but Dexterity and +1 to either an Elven background or one reflecting a troubled past, such as foundling or exile. No Half-Elf is comfortable with his or her state. Some insist they are humans, with any elven behaviour simply a mark of artistic temperament and high spirits. Others are wannabe elves, convinced they can be recognised if only they can get the right break.
Halflings suffer no such angst. They have a childlike simplicity of outlook, indeed young children are sometimes described as halflings. But not all are small: the carefree barbarian Enkidu was a very big and strong halfling. Some halflings are half-witted, but most are of normal intelligence, they just see the world from a plainer perspective. They are usually followers, not leaders, but the gods of light are fond of them. Halflings gain +2 to any one ability except Wisdom and +1 to a background relating to a straightforward life, such as honest or ascetic. Unfortunately they take an overly simplistic view of life in one or more ways, such as blind optimism or dividing everyone into friends and enemies.
Truly non-human player characters are also possible. A particularly friendly kobold, intelligent golem or civilised gnoll would be playable, for example. Mechanically they should work like one of the races in the core book.
These are the character creation rules for my campaign, other DMs are welcome to ignore them.
Abilities are generated with the standard 28 point-buy. Dwarves, Halflings, Half-Orcs, Half-Elves, Elves and Gnomes are types of human being as described above. They have more flexibility in their ability bonus, but get a minor personality flaw.
The PCs should come from the Empire or nearby. The Empire includes the Egypt, Mesopotamia, and until very recently Greece and Asia Minor. Arabia, Persia, Punt (modern Somalia) and parts of North Africa also have human tribes in the Empire's sphere of influence.
Most equipment in the 13th Age book is available. Weapons and tools are usually bronze, not iron. Tack and harness isn't well-developed: if you want to be horseborne, the choice may be riding bareback or in a chariot. Armour is rare and most warriors don't wear it, but thanks to defensive training classes will have the same AC given in the book.
Some specific weapons such as rapiers don't exist, but you can have a bronze weapon with equivalent stats. Crossbows are unknown. A skilled dwarf would be perfectly capable of manufacturing one, using bronze or brass for the metal parts, but you won't find ready-made ammunition.
You can speak whatever languages make sense for your character. Egyptian is the common tongue in the known parts of Africa, and educated people everywhere know it thanks to the Empire's cultural influence. Assyria, Babylon, the other Mesopotamian states, Arabia and Persia speak Semitic languages which for game purposes are mutually intelligible. The Greeks and Hittites have/had their own languages, and the orcs have now adopted Greek too. Some scholars have learned the ancient Sumerian language, which predates the linguistic troubles at the end of the 9th Age. More exotic languages include Draconic, Goblin and Gnoll.
At the start of the game, everyone is at the Imperial palace in the Nile Delta, waiting to see the Emperor (life, prosperity, health). It takes time and money to secure an audience, so you must have an important reason for being here. Are you entreating Pharaoh to settle a dispute in your favour? To bring help to your home village? To appoint you to some official post? Do you bring a message from another icon? Or have you been dragged here in chains to face the Emperor's justice?
A good source of character names for this game - and for most other games - is Kate Monk's onomastikon.