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🎨 Creative Non-Humanocentric Dark Fantasy Setting?

NobodyImportant

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Well, if you look at their mythology, hyenas actually have a lot of associations with black magic, demons, carnal desires, and even vampirism. They're "African" now, but they did once inhabit Europe. Heck, they used a striped hyena as a werewolf in the film Nosferatu. I mean, I can see where you're coming from, but... I'd like to see if we can make them fit.
That’s fair. Although that does raise an important question: What’s the scope of this? Do you just want to cover not!Europe and its environs, or will this setting be global?

That said, I would be perfectly happy with adding aranea - a canonical playable race of sorcerous spiderweres from D&D's past - to the setting, because I always loved them.
Concurred.

Werebats, though, I think I'd avoid, because that kind of steps on the dhampir's toes.
Perfectly understandable.

I was thinking basically to avoid the "common goblin" motif entirely, and instead explore the subranches of the archetype. So, you've got Spriggans and Xivorts, but not the generic tribal goblin, if that makes sense? I mean, I'm open to discussing this.
No, that’s cool. The notion of “goblin” being a category for weird faerie creatures, rather than a specific biological class, is an interesting one.

In fact... maybe Braunchens get a subrace based on if they are a "freshly converted" fanggen, or if they were born with a soul? The former may have more residual dark magic, but the latter may have better social skills and abilities?
I’m down with that.

Just to throw it out there, I really like 4th edition's general portrayal of the fey, and I think that should definitely be our starting ground. I'll quote the 4th edition MM3 lore for nymphs at the bottom of the post so we have a common reference of what the Feywild was like.
That works.

I think that, in a setting like this, the Great Wheel's traditional divisions of demon and devil and daemon don't work. Since 5e has only a singular Fiend racial category, I think we should create our own take on fiend
Agreed. However, maybe-

I really like a 3e 3rd party game called Infernum, which is set in a Hell that combines inspiration from Dante's Inferno and Doom.
I was just about to mention that! I was going to suggest doing something similar, where “demon” refers to a fallen angel-equivalent while “devil” refers to one of their more numerous pets, children and creations. But I would keep the fallen around to serve as unique, powerful boss-monsters and be a unifying force in Hell (or wherever) for heroes to fight against.

I’d prefer creating unique devils to appropriating the specific designs we see in Infernum, though. They’re designed to create a specific kind of feel, if that makes sense.

Plus, well, we were going to be doing Light Is Not Good to counterbalance Dark Is Not Evil, so I think this could be good to reinforce that.
I think I’m missing a connection here. How are demons Light Is Not Good?

My only problem with this is that there's the traditional issue of amphiboids: how restricted to the water are they? If they can't survive outside of swamps or tropical jungles, or too far away from bodies of water, nobody's going to play them. If we can keep them out of the "must stay wet OR DIE!" trope that befell actual locathah and too many other aquatic races in D&D's past, I'm all for them.
I’m with you on that one, yeah. All-in for landwalking gillmen.

On an aside, what would you think of incorporating Kenzerco's cannibal fairies into this setting? They did it in Hackmaster, so it's not entirely without precedent...
Love those little guys. Sure. Get them in here.
 

DeathbyDoughnut

a.k.a. Mr. Meat Popcicle
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A weird idea I had while reading this. About how martials are NPCs at best. Perhaps you can go a bit meta? Levels themselves are the character's connection to the shadow, then let the Player's choose when their characters level up. But give the PCs a sense that they are far pacing the standard power level of typical mortals.

Since these are monstrous characters their class levels can be exactly what dark gifts are to powerful supernatural creatures. Only by giving up a mortal soul in exchange for power in the form of levels does a creature of the night gain enhancements and abilities.
 

VoidDrifter

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That’s fair. Although that does raise an important question: What’s the scope of this? Do you just want to cover not!Europe and its environs, or will this setting be global?
Well, ideally, I'd like to stretch this out into a global setting at some point, but immediately I would rather focus on not!Europe so as to avoid overloading the plate, you know?

No, that’s cool. The notion of “goblin” being a category for weird faerie creatures, rather than a specific biological class, is an interesting one.
That's actually more or less how it's used in mythology, so I figured "goblin" being a collective name for various species of Small-sized fey PC races would work here. Plus, it's more interesting to make goblins have a few magical tricks in their arsenals than just making them green elf-eared mischievous halflings, y'know?

I was just about to mention that! I was going to suggest doing something similar, where “demon” refers to a fallen angel-equivalent while “devil” refers to one of their more numerous pets, children and creations. But I would keep the fallen around to serve as unique, powerful boss-monsters and be a unifying force in Hell (or wherever) for heroes to fight against.

I’d prefer creating unique devils to appropriating the specific designs we see in Infernum, though. They’re designed to create a specific kind of feel, if that makes sense.
I kind of thought that Infernum's demons were actually pretty archetypical. You have dwarf-like arcane engineers, manimal sorcerers, an "officer species" (Deceivers), sexual playthings (Malcubi), imps, a land warrior species, a flying warrior species, a supply officer species, and a scout species... but I'm down with discussing working out the finer details. I really loved how the World Axis handled the Succubus/Incubus split, for example.

So, basically, you were thinking reverse the terminology from the World Axis, with demons as fallen angels and devils as demon-created monsters? Sure, I can buy that. Maybe "daemons" is the collective term for both races?

I like the idea of keeping the First Fallen around as the current rulers of the Infernum (or whatever we choose to call the demon dimension).

I think I’m missing a connection here. How are demons Light Is Not Good?
I was referring to how the Angels, the "Race of Light", had a civil war and the losers of that civil war promptly started preparing for another one, which they did by creating brutalized child-slave-soldiers through a regime of what is either bestiality or rape, depending on how you look at it.

As an aside? I'd rather not go with some expy of the Christian God in this setting. Angels being tied to a Light-worshipping religion? Sure. The Light as a cosmic force? Definitely. But neither Light nor Dark should be purely good OR purely evil, and I'd rather have archangels, archfey and daemon lords serving as the gods for this setting, if we can.

I’m with you on that one, yeah. All-in for landwalking gillmen.
I'm sure you're aching to start discussing the gillfolk, then. Well, I have no other plans, and I'm winging this whole mess as we go along, so if you feel up to starting by sharing your visions for gillfolk, then let's hear them.

A weird idea I had while reading this. About how martials are NPCs at best. Perhaps you can go a bit meta? Levels themselves are the character's connection to the shadow, then let the Player's choose when their characters level up. But give the PCs a sense that they are far pacing the standard power level of typical mortals.

Since these are monstrous characters their class levels can be exactly what dark gifts are to powerful supernatural creatures. Only by giving up a mortal soul in exchange for power in the form of levels does a creature of the night gain enhancements and abilities.
....That's a really nice idea! I like this; what do you think, NobodyImportant?

Honestly I think those nymph descriptions make for more plausible "fiends" than the usual bizarre obsession with sins. Not Evil for Evil's sake but powerful, self centered, and callous, plus the perspective of immortality. Evil begins when you treat people as things.
Quite a long ways from the elfin druid-enchantress eye candy of the Great Wheel, aren't they?
 

NobodyImportant

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Well, ideally, I'd like to stretch this out into a global setting at some point, but immediately I would rather focus on not!Europe so as to avoid overloading the plate, you know?
Good to know.

I kind of thought that Infernum's demons were actually pretty archetypical.
Infernum’s demons were for good reason designed to create balanced characters rather than monsters. Most of them are good, but there are places where you can tell they’re brushing up against their limitations. (The “Hell’s most politically powerful breed of demons resembles the worst monster of all... MAN” thing is a cop out, at least in my opinion). There’s different goals when you’re designing creatures for characters to punch and designing creatures that do the punching, but they aren’t bad as a starting point. I’d port the technodwarves over wholesale.

As an aside? I'd rather not go with some expy of the Christian God in this setting. Angels being tied to a Light-worshipping religion? Sure. The Light as a cosmic force? Definitely. But neither Light nor Dark should be purely good OR purely evil, and I'd rather have archangels, archfey and daemon lords serving as the gods for this setting, if we can.
I’m good with that.

I'm sure you're aching to start discussing the gillfolk, then. Well, I have no other plans, and I'm winging this whole mess as we go along, so if you feel up to starting by sharing your visions for gillfolk, then let's hear them.
Here’s what I’m thinking right now. Long ago, an archangel descended to protect the primordial waters from the corrupting darkness, as the oceans had no champions of their own. To create retainers to aid it in its task, it took a strange, savage animal it found in the rivers and lakes than ran into the seas, an animal that combined the features of fish, reptiles, and apes. The archangel made them leaner, added color, and gave them a soul. As two final gifts, it granted them the ability to walk on land indefinitely, and it gave them a powerful internal fire that burned underwater, so that they could fashion tools for themselves even in the darkest depths.

For a time, things were good. The archangel and its gillmen hunted sea devils and aquatic demons, culled undead and mutated animals. They were winning, for a time. Region by region, the world’s oceans became safer. They started building cities, always close enough to the surface to touch sunlight. Trade began between gillmen and the surface dwellers. But beneath the waves, the war continued, and wars have ways of ruining things.

It would be a mistake to say that the archangel went mad. That implies something far more dramatic than the truth. It would be more proper to say that the archangel got very very old, and very very tired. It was immortal, and mentally built to handle the stress of such advanced age, but it was not built to handle unending battle, with all the horrors and loss that come with it.

The archangel, very suddenly but very calmly, realized that it wholeheartedly hated humanity. Their diabolists and necromancers summoned or created monsters in untold numbers. Some transformed themselves into monsters directly, becoming weresharks or sea hags. They plied the waves and they died there, infesting the seas with ghost ships that only attracted malign spirits which wished to feed from them. The archangel had descended to protect the seas from evil, but it only just then realized what was drawing evil to the seas: Humanity. Humanity had to go.

This was not a decision accepted easily. In fact, the majority of the gillmen turned on their archangel. Some had developed relationships with humans, some had no interest in such an all-encompassing war, but most were simply too good. They had been made too well to accept their maker. But even with the advantage in numbers, it was the pro-human gillmen who lost the day. They were leaderless, unorganized, and the clerical magic they had often depended on was suddenly denied to them. They were driven out, up through the rivers and into the swamps, lakes and wetlands of the surface world (Though they don’t need to be immersed in water to survive, they do need it to lay their eggs and nurture their tadpole-like young).

Most of the world’s gillmen are still there, living in clans, villages and towns sprung up around landlocked water sources. Some become wealthy river traders, some keep to themselves, and some continue their old mission, hunting the monsters of the land. Other souled surface dwellers rarely have reason to quarrel with them, the most willfully ignorant aside. After all, it is not difficult to tell the difference between them and what has become of the gillmen they left behind beneath the waves.

They’re usually called abyssal gillmen, or just abyssals. They always come at night. Sometimes they slaughter seaside villages, sometimes they tear apart ships from below the waterline. When they go on land, they announce themselves through bioluminescent algae, and they always disappear beneath the waves before first light.

If you follow them, you’ll find that those sun-touched cities are now mouldering. Most gillmen left the sea, and the population of those that remains has been slow to grow due to their constant war with the world. There aren’t enough to maintain them anymore. Most of their territory is infested with mutants, monsters, and wildlife, none of which seems to be a concern for the abyssals. Only the core of each city is still inhabited, where dire courts are held, and their monstrous kings preside over horrid feasts of human flesh and marrow. Those kings... there’s something off about them. They don’t seem to stop growing.

Nobody remembers the archangel’s name anymore. Maybe not even it. The gillmen call it Father, while those humans who know about it usually just call it the Thing in the Sea.

That was significantly more than I meant to write. Wow.

Tl;dr: Gillmen are a well-liked race of fish people who build civilizations around inland bodies of water and have a long tradition of monster hunting. They were created by an eldritch horror that used to be an archangel, and are great foes of those few who never left its service and continue to dwell in the seas.

Of course, this is just my first run-through with the concept. If you have any suggestions or problems, let me know. I’m good with brainstorming through this.

....That's a really nice idea! I like this; what do you think, NobodyImportant?
I like that. I recall Earthdawn doing something similar. I think I’d call them ‘circles’, though. ‘Levels’, as a term, feels a little out of place in a gothic setting.

For what comes next, I’m curious about the cosmology of the setting. You’ve mentioned cosmic forces of light and dark; what do those entail?
 

VoidDrifter

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Sorry, I'm exhausted, I can't really say anything detailed at the moment, but that gillman fluff sounds awesome. Got any plans for how they look?

As for the Cosmology... I haven't really thought about it in detail yet, plus I'm wiped as I type this, but... basically, the multiverse is made of two Cosmic Forces; Light and Dark. But neither is good, nor evil. Too much of either is bad - think Moorcock's Eternal Champion Multiverse. An extreme of either Light or Dark is bad, and creatures that are too closely tied to one force are generally dangerous - Angels at their worst are merciless, ruthless, self-righteous and fanatical, for example. I don't know, maybe this is not the way to go. Basically, I'm leaning towards the trope Both Order And Chaos Are Dangerous... or whatever that last word is.
 

Leliel

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Sorry, I'm exhausted, I can't really say anything detailed at the moment, but that gillman fluff sounds awesome. Got any plans for how they look?

As for the Cosmology... I haven't really thought about it in detail yet, plus I'm wiped as I type this, but... basically, the multiverse is made of two Cosmic Forces; Light and Dark. But neither is good, nor evil. Too much of either is bad - think Moorcock's Eternal Champion Multiverse. An extreme of either Light or Dark is bad, and creatures that are too closely tied to one force are generally dangerous - Angels at their worst are merciless, ruthless, self-righteous and fanatical, for example. I don't know, maybe this is not the way to go. Basically, I'm leaning towards the trope Both Order And Chaos Are Dangerous... or whatever that last word is.
Hm. I'd mine Torg 2E's Asyle here; the Dark is not something you can draw on too deep without being corrupted by it, the Light is something you can swim in and remain a good person - but that's not good and evil. The Dark in its rawest state is best described as Elemental Objectivism; not a good thing if you have any self-awareness, but careful tapping into it doesn't result in inherent corruption. In fact, selective use can make you a respected and loved hero of the common folk, as within the Dark is contained a genuine respect for reason, self-determination, and the fundamental agency of all beings. Light is sometimes said by Dark forces to be "born of shadows" because Light is largely defined by being opposed to the Dark - hence, ultimately it was born from the Dark both as an ideology and an abstract force. That isn't justice, although it often is; however, if you already lacked any of the nicer precepts of Dark, well...
 

NobodyImportant

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Sorry, I'm exhausted, I can't really say anything detailed at the moment, but that gillman fluff sounds awesome. Got any plans for how they look?
Take a typical black lagoon creature / reaver. Make them shorter, just shorter than the average human. Make their heads just a little more piscine, and give them a short, spine-like fin that runs down their back. Make them colorful. Red, gold, lime green; if you could see it on a tree frog, you could see it on a gillman. Give them smooth, shark-like skin that always feels cool to the touch.

As for the Cosmology... I haven't really thought about it in detail yet, plus I'm wiped as I type this, but... basically, the multiverse is made of two Cosmic Forces; Light and Dark. But neither is good, nor evil. Too much of either is bad - think Moorcock's Eternal Champion Multiverse. An extreme of either Light or Dark is bad, and creatures that are too closely tied to one force are generally dangerous - Angels at their worst are merciless, ruthless, self-righteous and fanatical, for example. I don't know, maybe this is not the way to go. Basically, I'm leaning towards the trope Both Order And Chaos Are Dangerous... or whatever that last word is.
I think I get what you’re saying. How do the two forces typically manifest in the world? You said earlier that the souled peoples must unite to fight the forces that infringe on their world. What do those forces look like?
 

VoidDrifter

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Take a typical black lagoon creature / reaver. Make them shorter, just shorter than the average human. Make their heads just a little more piscine, and give them a short, spine-like fin that runs down their back. Make them colorful. Red, gold, lime green; if you could see it on a tree frog, you could see it on a gillman. Give them smooth, shark-like skin that always feels cool to the touch.
Mmm. Not my preferred look, I'll admit, but I'm not exactly a huge fan of fish-folk in general outside of zoras and certain sharkmorphs. I certainly don't have any alternative looks to suggest at the moment.

I think I get what you’re saying. How do the two forces typically manifest in the world? You said earlier that the souled peoples must unite to fight the forces that infringe on their world. What do those forces look like?
I don't really know. Like I said, maybe the Darkness vs. the Light is the wrong angle to go for here. Off the top of my head...

The Darkness is... primordial. It's the Id made manifest; hot, seething, tempestuous, primal chaos. It steals away conscious thought (the gift of the light) and lets the most base impulses rule, washing away civilization and leaving behind primal savagery. The Darkness manifests in elemental catastrophe, carnivorous plants, monstrous beasts and men-made-beasts.

The Light is... cold, analytical, mechanical. It isn't necessarily passionless, the mad zealot or the witch-burning inquisitor or the self-rightous slayer are all expressions of the Light's evil side, but it is focused and precise, intense where the Darkness is murky. In the physical world, it is luminescence and crystal and metal. Angels are creatures of radiance partially wrapped in marble and gold. When the Light swells to taint the world, it burns away nature and leaves behind cold, gleaming minerals in its wake.

...Yeah, this probably makes no sense, does it?
 

NobodyImportant

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Mmm. Not my preferred look, I'll admit, but I'm not exactly a huge fan of fish-folk in general outside of zoras and certain sharkmorphs. I certainly don't have any alternative looks to suggest at the moment.
My main design goal was to make them a little weird. We’ve got “non-humanocentric” in the thread title, but most of the races we’ve discussed are humans, human-descendants, or can make themselves look like humans. I wanted to make at least one race that was both out-and-out monstrous and a steadfast ally of humanity.

...Yeah, this probably makes no sense, does it?
Not at all! Dark is corrupted nature, Light is mad science, right? I like that. I really like that.

That means that just like in real life, the church-equivalent must be a bastion of knowledge and learning. I’m picturing a standard DnD cleric-type wielding a tesla coil in place of a mace. Brings to mind the Hammerites from Thief. It means the malborn (probably need a different name in this context) are respected, holy creatures instead of being reviled. It creates a clear picture of what the ‘hordes of Light’ that your heroes must vanquish might look like from level 1 onward without resorting directly to angels. And it makes sense, because the role of a mad scientist in any work of fiction is to create things: Technology, robots, monsters.

On the Dark side, it tells us less that’s new, it creates a very strong binding aesthetic. I’m kind of picturing demons as horrible, fleshy monsters built up around the mechanical frameworks of their original metal bodies. Devils are animal hybrids, but crude, not like natural creatures such as shifters and gillmen. They look almost bolted or grafted together, and not all their parts match up quite right. Vampires are probably closer to nosferatu and gangrel than to ventrue or daeva. They’re ultimate shapeshifters, and ultimate predators, although some of them may get quite good at hiding it.

It probably means we can’t use Infernum’s technodwarves... unless we port them directly over to Light. Imagine your DM telling you you encounter a cherub or something and then shows you (something like) this picture:

(They’d be gussied up a bit prettier, of course.)

You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. This is some great stuff you’re coming up with.
 

VoidDrifter

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Thank you for the well-wishing, NobodyImportant. It really means a lot to me. I'm glad you like the ideas here - and I like the idea of "The Church" as this weird techno-theocratic organization, so it sounds good to me.

So... where do we go from here?
 
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