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View Full Version : Whiteleaf - A World of Fragile Perfection



willpell
2013-02-05, 11:02 AM
I've mentioned my Whiteleaf setting numerous times on this forum, and recently I answered a PM inquiry by doing a very condensed yet detailed summary of it, which I've decided to edit a little bit and go public with (with my correspondent's hearty approval). I will attempt to detail what makes the setting awesome in my opinion; while it certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea, it has the distinction of being extremely different from a "typical" campaign world, and attempts to address certain dramatic themes that are underserved in the typical dungeon-crawling, paladins-slay-goblins-on-sight kind of "Points of Light in the Darkness"-esque setting.

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The name "Whiteleaf" does have me intrigued, though, since it does evoke an elegant, graceful tone. Is there any elven connection here, or is it a genteel, sophisticated human culture?

Neither, actually. The elves think they're still the picture of elegance, but they're actually a stagnated and slightly decadent regime, and while humanity is fairly civilized, you can't really say the whole thing in general is genteel, any more than was true of say Victorian England, where it was certainly true of some but by no means all.

To put it exceedingly briefly, the world is called Whiteleaf for reasons that few people in the world know, but we as players are getting it as a very straightforward thematic cue - were I to publish a book, it would have on the cover either a single leaf, blanched of all chlorophyll and dried to a crisp (not so much "autumnal" as "utterly dessicated"), or a picture of a sad-looking Eladrin standing in a grove of skeletal trees whose leaves have entirely gone white and mostly fallen off. The idea is that whereas in other settings, Evil is thought of as "darkness", in this world it's more like "bleakness", a subtle rot which causes the life and color to fade from all things until they waste away to mere ghosts of themselves. This theme is not visible at first to anyone playing in the setting, mind; it's more like a deeply-buried subtext that crops up in evocatively poetic moments, hopefully going unnoticed at first, until suddenly you realize that the clue that finally got through to you was only the latest instance of a detail you've been ignoring this whole time, thinking it meant nothing.

Okay, all that poetic subtext aside, the more pragmatic picture. Whiteleaf is a single huge continent with humanity occupying a little less than half of it, a broad diagonal stripe across the landmass which isolates the old elven and dwarven kingdoms in one corner, with a vast wilderness in the other. The lion's share of human lands belongs to a highly progressive, Good-aligned nation called the Tradespeak Empire, whose prosperity is largely a function of the fact that they were granted the Common language (which explicitly resembles RL English, and is formally titled "Angelic Saxon") by emissaries of the Seven Heavens. The Archons (often called Angels by those with too little Religion/Planar knowledge to know the difference) and their Chaotic counterparts, the Eladrins, have had a hand in the day-to-day workings of the material world since at least the rise of the elf and dwarf nations, possibly even their dragon and giant predecessors (I swear I did not rip off Eberron on purpose; great minds think alike heheh).

On other worlds, Evil is a juggernaut and Good fights a valiant but largely doomed struggle to keep it at bay, making for a rather desperate and gritty survival which helps explain why the world stays medieval. Not so on Whiteleaf; here, Good plays for keeps and has held the upper hand for centuries, positively reinforcing their own agenda on the material plane to keep people prosperous and vigilant in self-defense. The Empire is the latest and greatest project of these aggressively interventionist celestials; it aims to improve the quality of life for all humanoidity enough to basically deny Evil a foothold on the world, and it seems to be working. The Emperor is absurdly powerful, seems to know everything and to always be exactly where he's needed the most, and gives every indication of being morally uncorruptible, and that's been true for every holder of the title for a millenium and a half since the Empire arose.

(A detail I forgot to mention previously: the Emperor in question is invariably Chaotic Good, and is basically a benevolent dictator, whose status as an Author Avatar and something of a Marty Stu is openly acknowledged both by me and himself. What hopefully makes him not a boring character is that he's totally self-aware about it. He understands the effect that his night-unbeatable power has on the politics of other nations; being unflinchingly Good, he won't just march in and take over because he decides other people's rights no longer matter, and is very careful about making sure everyone knows this and doesn't get worried about his intentions. He carefully considers - well, tries to, at least - the effect that his personal intervention in situations will has, and knows perfectly well that Imperial enemies love to arrange distractions in the hopes that they can pin him down in one place and get away with stuff elsewhere. He wants to ensure the Empire can take care of itself if he's unvailable, and even that it has defenses against him in case he wakes up on the Evil side of the bed one day, and so he goes to great effort ensuring that he can't solve every problem in the Empire before lunchtime, despite being objectively powerful enough and metafictionally central enough to the setting for this to otherwise be possible. Basically, he is his own worst enemy, as is necessary given that nothing else is in his league; he's there to enforce setting stability and to make fourth-wall-bending commentary on worldbuilding details, and in both cases his role is explicitly supplemental to whoever the PCs are in any given game, by Word of God literally whispered in his ear when his mind wanders.)

The legislature sees to it that the Emperor's will is carried out in a fair and reasonably efficient manner, keeping obstinate bureaucracy to a minimum because it is well understood that inflexible rules only help Evil drive people to desperation. Highly powerful Good churches, a pan-alignment Druidic hierarchy devoted to enhancing the populace's health, and various other projects and agencies (thousands of them; the org chart for the game would be a nightmare to actually draw up, as it aims to rival real life in its complexity) all work together to make the Empire a bastion of Good which seems poised to conquer the entire world in record time and erase the very concept of Evil. Other human regions, if they aren't close to equally good, tend to face an uphill battle as their citizens drift in droves toward the Empire's beacon; very few credible threats to Imperial hegemony exist, and the Empire's combination of idealized medievalism and ultramodern ideas (the technology isn't even Renaissance for the most part, but the ideology is pretty damn near 20th-century, lacking little more than an Internet analogue to make it match our own paradigm) mean that the Imperial citizen of today can see plainly how his life is getting better all the time. Reasons for discontent exist, but few of them get much of a head of steam; mostly people feel that life is good and they're glad to do their part to help keep it that way.

What's the catch? Don't worry, there is one; drama is still a thing in this setting, but it takes a different form. I already hinted at it before - the invisible creeping doom beneath the surface. As I said, Good plays for keeps, and therefore Evil must do the same; there's no cartoon black-hat theatrics here. Evil relies primarily on deception rather than brute force, and it is even more self-aware than Good; phrases like "Evil's greatest trick was to convince the world it didn't exist" are very applicable. Relying on extremely subtle infiltration and the arrangement of no-win situations, Evil aims to chip away at the foundations of society so gradually that nobody ever gets a hint of danger, until one catastrophic moment brings EVERYTHING crashing down into a ruin that can NEVER be rebuilt. It's the ultimate high-stakes game, and Evil loses hand after hand after hand, yet it doesn't care, because it only needs to win once. And, for any given campaign, it's probable that the players will eventually be involved in that final confrontation - which, if they manage to thwart it, will just be bumped back to the bottom of the agenda, to be tried again as soon as everyone forgets to be careful anymore.

As I said before, the setting has a very postmodern and self-aware attitude to it; sacred cows are slaughtered and underlying assumptions questioned non-stop. The intent isn't to make yet another world of high adventure and epic fantasy, since there are no shortage of those lying around; I try for something different, something vibrant yet laid-back, exotically familiar and refreshingly parallel to our own experiences. If you know Magic: the Gathering, think of Ravnica; if not, probably the closest analogue is Star Wars, or the Marvel and DC comics. It's a lot like our world, only with the blatantly fantastic front and center; people still behave like people, and make fun of the black knight for wearing a skull on his shield so that everyone knows how evil he is (whereupon he might explain that he isn't evil at all, he just found the shield and hasn't gotten it repainted yet, but it's a +4 shield and he's not just going to throw it away because it's bad PR). It's kind of like the other half of Eberron; instead of bringing modern trappings to a two-fisted fantasy game, it brings fantasy trappings to a setting that plays more like Shadowrun or World of Darkness, maybe even Call of Cthulhu (in the sense that things start out looking normal, and you hope they stay that way for a long time, because when excitement starts it's not likely to end well for you). The adventuring profession is openly acknowledged and people stop just short of discussing their character classes, but at the same time the general assumption that murder-hobos are good citizens gets turned on its head. Commoners are probably a full tier more powerful because of how good life has been to them, yet even dragons with druid levels don't think they're invincible, and genuine threats to their safety are taken with deadly seriousness more often than supervillain bravado.

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Okay, that's the very short version. :smallcool: More details to come, both from the flurry of PMs in question (the other half of which is welcome to identify him/herself if so desired) and made up specifically for this thread, to answer y'all's questions or just because I feel like expositing. I should add that while I would love to spool out all the setting details I've lovingly crafted, I have remote but not entirely unrealistic hopes of someday publishing this campaign setting (as probably the last 3.5 OGL product ever released, a full decade or more after anyone cares anymore, unless I ever get up the ambition to stop revising D&D rules and start drafting entirely new ones different enough to count as their own copyright). So I may decide to keep the details minimal and vague in certain places so as not to steal my future self's thunder, but realistically this is probably not too much of a concern, and I'm too proud of this baby of mine not to talk about it at some length.

Amaril
2013-02-05, 02:11 PM
Is there anything you can tell us about the magic system or cosmology? I'm curious to see how this emphasis on the different roles of good and evil affects how the multiverse actually works.

willpell
2013-02-06, 05:21 AM
Cosmology details will come later; for right now, a bit more detail on the setting's ground-level primary conflict (as opposed to the potential apocalypse already hinted at).

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Good is unquestionably the most powerful of the four great cosmic forces on Whiteleaf, at least in terms of the impact it has on the material plane - and therefore, it faces an unending and thankless task in trying to ensure that reality is protected from the various agencies of its potential devastation. With an open and enthusiastically welcomed presence in the day-to-day lives of the common people, the archons and eladrins have the final say in keeping the world functional and shepherding its progress at a sustainable rate; more questionable moral guardians such as metallic dragons and churches of various Good-aligned deities hold a secondary degree of authority, since their power is lesser and their potential fallibility greater. Various forces of Good tend to work together, albeit in well less than total harmony; it is generally understood and accepted that strife will only give Evil a foothold and that internicine struggle can only be a vaste of virtuous lives, so tensions may simmer below the surface but are usually either expressed through nonviolent competition or sublimated altogether. The forces of Good, taken together, form a magnificent monolith which ensures the health of the world as a whole - but its job is never done, never perfect, and always on the verge of going significantly awry. And whenever the normally unblemished skin of the world parts for a moment and begins to bleed, Evil never passes up a chance to rub salt in the wounds.

The activities of assorted Evil agents across Whiteleaf are loosely coordinated into an orchestrated and multifaceted campaign of misdirection and corruption, known most commonly as the Web of Lies. While arch-devils and arch-demons, predatory druids and aberrant mind flayers, agents of rival Evil churches and fiercely irreligious villains such as Binders or Vasharans, and members of all other major Evil-aligned agendas are involved in the Web, and naturally all of them continually jockey for position and are not above turning upon each other, in general it is recognized that the efficient dominion of Good can only remain unchallenged if Evil does not turn its most characteristic advantage, unity, back upon it. The Web has no charter, no bylaws, no chairman and no unifying methodology. Different versions of it are practiced by every faction, but overall it is best likened to a combination terrorist agency, spy ring and propaganda campaign, which fights a fierce series of skirmishes now and again, appears to be defeated, and sinks into somnolescence for a while, hoping to ensure that its very existence is forgotten so that it may begin to infiltrate anew.

Agents of the Web are the ultimate invisible enemy, impossible to identify before they strike and nearly impossible to capture afterward. Those who are in a position to threaten substantial damage to the Web (whether by going rogue, through incompetence, or for any number of other reasons) are quickly isolated from the bulk of it, kept in the dark about anything they didn't already know, while projects they did know about are discreetly cut down to only the most disposable of pawns. Unlike a terrorist agency, the Web's faceless overseers evince no concrete goal and do not seek to draw attention to their activity or causes; unlike isolated villains gathering power unto themselves, they claim it in the Web's name rather than their own, and don't hesitate to throw it away as a diversion. Where structure and hierarchy, or complete parasitic anarchy, would have been ground beneath Good's heel, a subversive army of anonymous foes is free to slither through the unwatched spaces of the world, undermining here and seducing there, taking advantage of the slightest lapse of efficiency in Good's impossible balancing act.

willpell
2013-02-07, 11:03 AM
For the most part, the Tradespeak Empire's perennially progressive government upholds education as the greatest hope for all citizens to uplift themselves; many of the old superstitions that have dogged humanity for millenia have been vanquished by the light of reason, and most facts that can be known are featured in the curricula of one or another populist universities, ensuring that ignorance seldom flourishes in any but the poorest and most remote regions (and the Empire is working to be rid of those as fast as its engines of prosperity can spool out new wealth to be directed toward them). So in few places do the old supersitions of humanity's early years still hold sway. But there are a few facts which the Emperor and many of his top advisors know, yet they make considerable effort to discourage from being distributed to the populace. And among these state secrets, one seems so innocuous as to be hardly worth concealing: that the world is round.

Ask the average Imperial resident, or anyone else in any of the major nations of Whiteleaf, what shape the world as a whole must have, and the usual answer would be to assume that the landmass is a huge, slightly rounded disk rising from an ocean which stretches off to the farthest horizon, either continuing forever or vanishing in some unknowable distance. Now and again, some foolhardy explorer thinks to set off into the wild blue yonder, either by ship or under magical flight-power; those who ever return inevitably report that they found naught save scattered islands and eventually ceased to find any of those, leaving them with a vast uncharted expanse of featureless water. Residens of the sea have little to say on the subject either; their world ends at a perimeter of impassible barriers of one sort or another, and few have thought to map them and discover that all interconnect. Yet in truth, the world is neither a finite circle as these benthic denizens believe, nor the endlessly radiating plane suspected by surface travelers. It is in fact a sphere, and nearly half of it remains unexplored. Officially, that is.

Unofficially, the Empire's devotion to knowledge means that it has invested more effort than any other agency in plumbing the secret of the world's furthest distances, not least through the efforts of the Emperor's personal divinations and those of the vast surveillance corps which helps him keep tabs on happenings nationwide. All magic fails to pierce beyond the hemispherical perimeter, however, and so several well-funded and well-equipped expeditions have departed under heavy secrecy. A few have gotten close enough to learn the truth: a second continent does exist on the far side of the world. But this is not the wide-open frontier which the Empire would love to gain anew, having civilized so nearly all of its side of the world. Instead, what has been dubbed the Lost Continent is simply a dead end, in the most literal sense - nothing can survive there for long, and details on why exactly this is true remain sketchy. All anyone is sure of is that, a short distance from every coastline that has been reached and mapped, a forest stands - of which every tree is a bleached-white husk, seemingly petrified and left to stand forever, the almost-nonexistent wind very gradually crumbling the stiff white leaves into a pervasive inorganic dust. Samples brought back to Empire labs of the dust, intact leaves, the soil of the shoreline and so forth reveal little of interest - no special reason for the plants' death can be found, nor do they evince any special properties. But no research expedition has learned much, for those that stay for too long soon lose contact, regardless of their efforts at long-range communication, and by the time another group investigates their vanishing, no traces can be found.

By now, the Empire has essentially given up all hope of cracking the mystery, and prefers to discourage any talk of lands beyond the sea. But a few explorers still survive from the earlier trips, and the image of a dead white forest still haunts their dreams every night, encroaching upon all happier or more compelling vistas which they might explore in their sleep. Perhaps it is these dreams, more than anything, which have convinced the Emperor to let the Lost Continent remain unfound.

Palanan
2013-02-09, 04:21 PM
So, as someone who is sorely tempted by this setting...what player races are available?

You've hinted at elves and dwarves, who have their own realms and who seem to have been marginalized and left behind by the Empire's inexorable growth. What about halflings, who are often presented as better able to integrate with human cultures?

And, in general, how open would the setting be to goliaths, or aventi, or killoren, or hadozee, or any of the other offbeat races in 3.5?