If you’ve played some flavor of D&D before, you probably have a specific idea of how a standard campaign world works, and how the rules function within it. That’s a good thing: it means most of the mechanics of this game will be familiar and comfortable for you. However, I’m trying something a little different, because I want a fresh angle on this game we all know and love. Using the Lamentations of the Flame Princess system is one part of that, but I’m going a couple of steps further.
I’ll try sketch out the world for you in several posts; if I do it right, I think it’ll answer any questions you might have about why the standard demihuman races (elf, dwarf, halfling, gnome, half-orc) aren’t available for play, while weird subraces like the Changeling and the Dagonian are, as well as what to expect while adventuring in this world, and how it differs from regular old D&D.
The world your characters know is a world where the nights are lit only by fire. It is a harsh and dangerous world, one where plague outbreaks still occur, where typhus claims hundreds in a week in London, and cholera a few months later, and then smallpox a few months after that. Science is only beginning to bloom in the vast, impenetrable darkness of superstition and ignorance.
It is not identical to our history, but there is a lot you would recognize, were you to wander into it. The continents are as we know them, and even many political boundaries stand where they did in our world during the Early Modern era, though others are quite different, ravaged by magical warfare, or home to kingdoms that, in our history, had long before collapsed.
It is sometime in the mid-1680s. The scientific method as we know and recognize it don’t yet really exist. As Isaac Newton himself would tell you if you visited him at his laboratory, scientific advancement and magic are not mutually exclusive: the alchemist and the physicist can be the same individual, after all.
The thing is, alchemy works in this world—at least some of it does, some of the time. Magic does exist, and is real… but it’s not really much of a boon to the world. Magic is like oil or nuclear power: it has an inherent cost, and ultimately, a profound one. Mages exposed to magic over decades end up… not quite human. Magical items are never just beneficial: they always have a cost, sometimes hidden and sometimes not at all hidden. (In mainstream D&D terms, most magical items would be considered “cursed” as well as beneficial… when they are beneficial at all, that is.)
Mages sequester themselves in “seclusia”—towers, cave complexes, floating castles, sylvan towers, and other hidden, enchanted places—where they can work on their research in the limited company of their servants (human and magical alike), apprentices, and, occasionally, partners, lovers, or fellow-minded researchers.
There are no familiar “monstrous” races—no orcs, no goblins, no kobolds to be mown down by wandering adventurers—and the magical beasts of folklore, like trolls, dragons, and faeries, seem to be at best misrememberings of more unique and terrifying creatures, stories that have spread over the centuries and taken on a comforting predictability and familiarity. In fact, each time an adventurer stumbles upon a magical being, a monster, some interdimensional interloper or Horrible Thing spewed up from the guts of the Earth, it is for the first time. One cannot “learn” how to best a certain monster, but grapples and fights for dear life each time as if for the first time… or, if one is wise, one knows when to flee for dear life instead. Adventurers, when they survive long enough, develop a haunted look.
There are, of course, mysterious beings exist on the periphery of humankind. Some, the players inevitably will have inklings about—the PC races mention several of these, for example, such as the obscure Deep Ones and the Abductors (who are, in most cultures, referred to in terms familiar from folklore, such as “eshu” or “faerie” or “little folk,” terms that obscure their terrifying and majestic alienness). These will remain mysterious for now, and for the characters to discover as they complete their adventures.
Secret societies exist throughout this world, some consisting of only a few members, and others comprised of thousands, who sometimes join forces, sometimes wage war upon one another, and most often operate in mutual ignorance of one another, struggling to master, defeat, or serve the occult forces that cling on in the shadows of the world.
This leads the peasants to be somewhat more superstitious, a little swifter to form pitchfork and torch mobs. Since what happens when people do nothing about the suspicious is usually really, really bad, they’re quite happy to burn anyone or anything unusual at the stake, and let the Inquisitors, ministers, or king’s representatives sort out the details later.
Which is to say that adventurers know, long before they cast their first spell or speak of encounters with the weird, that what happens in the wilds stays in the wilds, and spellcasters—unless they’re willing to pass off their magical workings as holy miracles—tend wisely to keep sorcerous activities to a minimum when they’re in mixed company. (Nobody wants to be accused of witchcraft, after all…)