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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    Greywander's Avatar

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    Nov 2017

    Default Setting for undead kingdom, adventuring hub city

    A while back I posted a thread talking about a homebrew undead race I was working on, how what sort of society they would have. I've been tinkering some more on that particular homebrew, and thought it might be a good idea to develop some setting elements to use them in. It's occurred to me that I might eventually want to flesh this homebrew out into a full-on supplement, so setting material would be a very good thing to include in that.

    Rather than creating an entire setting, I thought I might just create a few specific set pieces that can then be dropped into an existing setting. Not only does this save me a lot of work, but it also allows this homebrew to be compatible with existing settings. There's one particular set piece I'd like to focus on, but I thought it might also be good to do a quick overview of several setting concepts. A fairly important one is the time period; specifically, how long this undead civilization has existed and what that implies about the rest of the setting. I think we can break this down into four different "eras".

    The Proto Era
    This is more of a non-setting than a setting. Basically, the undead civilization doesn't exist yet. You might be the only undead of your kind in the world. No changes need to be made to the setting you're playing in, the only thing being introduced is literally just your character. For those wanting to play an undead with all the roleplay that is implied, this is probably what they're looking for.

    It's probably not worth spending much time discussing this precisely because there's basically no work involved here: you're just using the existing setting as-is and adding your character into it. It would probably merit a small section in an eventual supplement, however, particularly because some of the social interactions your character would have would likely carry over to the next era. In this era, you most likely must hide your undead nature, as people will assume you are some other type of undead (and ergo a monster). No one will really be aware of what your abilities are, and will compare you to other types of undead.

    The Early Era
    This is the one I want to focus on, because, after from the Proto Era, I think this one is the next most interesting. In this setting, the undead civilization has been around for perhaps a hundred years, give or take, and much of that time it has been kept secret. The general populace is still ignorant of the existence of this undead civilization, and thus will react much the same as they would during the Proto Era. However, there are a few groups that know of your existence:
    • Governments. A number of rulers likely have diplomatic relations of some kind with this undead civilization, either officially or unofficially. Undead embassies may also exist in their cities that can provide support to you while you're there.
    • Religious Orders. Many of the Good-aligned gods (in D&D, at least) have strict "undead bad kill undead" policies, immediately putting them at odds with an undead civilization, even one that isn't Evil. Even among those orders that have accepted that undead shouldn't immediately be struck down, many more fanatical followers still exist that will not hesitate to smite you.
    • The Wealthy and Powerful. Individuals that have attained positions of power might come into contact with this undead civilization. This can include anything from merchants to nobles to beings such as dragons.

    Among these groups, enough knowledge exists that they can distinguish you from other types of undead (e.g. a stillblood might be initially confused with a vampire, until they observe the stillblood walking around in sunlight). Knowledge of your abilities as an undead will be spotty: some enemies can be surprised, while others will anticipate and prepare countermeasures. On this subject, someone in the previous thread suggested that phantomarions (ghostly undead that can possess and control objects, including machinery) would be kept as a state secret by the undead kingdom because of how useful they are. If the secret isn't out yet, then phantomarion PCs would be required to keep the secret or potentially face strict punishment, but in return no enemies would be able to know what your abilities were. If the secret has already leaked, then you wouldn't be required to keep the secret, but NPCs would know about your abilities (to some degree, at least).

    As I said, this is the era I want to focus on, so we'll come back to this after going over the last two eras.

    The Middle Era
    Perhaps the most boring but also least disruptive setting. At this point, the undead kingdom has been around long enough that everyone knows of their existence and has more less gotten comfortable with them. You might be a skeleton, but to even common peasants, you're just another adventurer. Maybe they've never seen a skeleton, but they've probably never seen a gnome or dragonborn, either. There will still be the loons and fanatics that hate you because of what you are; you'll probably experience more "racism" than a half-orc, but less than a full orc.

    If you want to play an undead PC in a game, but without having to worry about hiding your true nature all the time, this is the way to do it.

    The Late Era
    The Middle Era could extend potentially indefinitely, but all things must come to an end eventually. The Late Era is characterized by decline, making it a somber one. I can see two possible futures: one in which the undead take over the world, and one in which they fade away.

    In the first, it's (probably) not on purpose. The undead don't age, and thus even a slow population growth would eventually cause their numbers to overwhelm and push out the living. The undead can't reproduce, though, so this conquest is still somber even for them. They rely on the living to supply them with new people who can become undead, and once all the living die out, that's it. The undead will be all that's left, and one by one they will die off, from accidents, or murder, or lawful execution. A dead world, full of bones.

    In the second, perhaps the necromancer and god-king who originally created the undead has disappeared, either finally slain by some misguided fanatic, ascended to proper divinity, or just left everything behind to travel the planes. The secret to creating new undead of this type has been lost. As with the Middle Era, the undead are regarded as just another race, but their numbers are dwindling, their once great kingdom is nothing but ruins, and what remains of their people have been scattered.

    The Hub City
    Circling back to the Early Era, let's discuss some specific set pieces. Obviously, I'd want to work on fleshing out the capital city (which might be the only city at this point, or perhaps not). However, this isn't the main thing I want to focus on.

    I had the idea that it might be interesting to have a city that wasn't part of the undead kingdom, but in which they have some influence over. In this city, you can openly walk around as undead without getting arrested, but at the same time there will still be people that might try to attack you. I feel like this sets the city up as the ideal adventuring hub, offering lots of possible adventuring hooks. Too homogeneous of a city (e.g. all undead, all gnomes, all wizards) is going to have a narrower set of problems that need dealing with, meaning less variety in potential plot hooks. You also don't want the plot getting constantly derailed by having to always hide your undead nature all the time; it's nice to have a place you can come back to where you don't have to worry about such things.

    This leads into setting up some of the background details for how this arrangement came to pass. Here's one possibility I had in mind:

    The undead cities were built underground in order to conceal and protect them. Each city has secret entrances in various villages on the surface, which are also secretly under control of the undead (though the inhabitants are living, and knowingly serve the undead). Naturally, this presents a problem when you want to "go public" with the existence of your kingdom, as you don't want outsiders using your "secret" entrances to travel to and from your cities. So it was decided that a fortress city would be built on the surface with the only "public" entrance to the capital. So far, the undead have kept mostly hidden, so this city on the surface will be the face of their kingdom.

    While the city is being constructed, the church of a particular god with a strong dislike for undead hears of it. Holy warriors gather at the main cathedral to their god in the capital city of a nearby human kingdom, and from there embark on a crusade to destroy the undead. Their attack catches the undead by surprise, destroying many of their number and pushing them back into the undercity. However, the undead reorganize, and their ruler, the King of Skulls, a monstrous lich with a flaming skull, leads the counterattack. The crusade is completely destroyed, and the warriors are raised as undead and sent to work as slaves for all eternity as punishment.

    Seeking revenge (and, more importantly, to send a message that such unprovoked aggression will not be tolerated), the King of Skulls leads his entire army in a direct march toward the city from which the crusade came, covering the distance in a fraction of the time (exhaustion immunity is great, folks). As the army approached the city, it did not stop. The gates opened seemingly of their own accord (later revealed to be the aid of infiltrators going ahead of the army), and the army makes a beeline for the cathedral, cutting down everything and everyone in their path. But this battle is by no means one-sided; the church still has many clerics and paladins, not to mention the king's soldiers, and not a few wizards, adventurers, and others living within the city. Angels and elementals are summoned, fireballs fly, and arrows by the thousands rain down on both sides. Heck, let's throw in some dragons, 'cause why not?

    In the end, the cathedral is captured, the fantasy pope is executed, and the rest of the city is secured. The highest ranking surviving cleric is brought forth, and told to deliver an ultimatum to his god: Make the undead kingdom an exception to the "destroy all undead" policy and stop harassing them. If the god refuses, then his cathedral will be desecrated, all his followers in the city executed and reanimated as undead, and basically a declaration of war on the entire church. (Note: Ultimately, Bone Daddy just wants to protect his people, but sometimes you gotta be strict. He really doesn't want to start a holy war, though, as attracting the ire of the gods in general is about the worst thing he could do.)

    Here's where I could see things splitting into two timelines: the "light" timeline where the god accepts and makes peace with the undead, and the "dark" timeline where he refuses and the undead make good on their threat. I'm not sure which one is more interesting.

    Regardless of the outcome, the king is also executed for not preventing the crusade. His heir succeeds him, but his city is more or less occupied by the undead and it's clear he can't take any action against them. Fearing the undead, the rest of that kingdom declares independence and prepares for war, but the undead have no interest in conquering the kingdom, merely in making an example out of the ones who attacked them. Things settle into an uneasy peace, with many factions still wanting to liberate the capital and drive out the undead, while others are seeing the value in peaceful relations with the undead and certainly don't want to further antagonize them.

    It's been a couple of decades since then. Tensions simmer. Many have heard of the horde of undead who conquered the capital, but much of the common folk are still short on the details, and it's beginning to be accepted as the new normal. But some still remember, survivors of that terrible battle, old enough to remember the horrors.

    Anyway, how does this sound? Are there ways I could tweak this backstory to make it better to use as a setting? Maybe something I haven't considered that makes it not-so-great? What about the city itself, what sort of details should I put into it (e.g. location, surrounding terrain, local resources, etc.)?

    Oh, another point to consider is that the "recent" war depleted the undead population quite a bit, so a bunch of new undead were created. This opens up a lot of plausible backstories for undead PCs to use. As mentioned in the Late Era, undead can live basically forever, so usually the population growth is heavily controlled, making it difficult to justify a backstory, but this circumvents that.

  2. - Top - End - #2
    Barbarian in the Playground
     
    OrcBarbarianGuy

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    Jan 2017

    Default Re: Setting for undead kingdom, adventuring hub city

    Meandering thoughts:

    FWIW, I rather prefer the 'light' timeline, because I suspect that there will be a non-trivial number of clerics who immediately disagree with their god. Internal schisms make it more fun!

    Also do note that the undead are likely to be scary, even among those who want peace- both flavors of zombies fall directly into the Uncanny Valley, and skulgrim have no visible facial expressions.

    One thing that wasn't resolved from the last thread is whether or not undead remember their past life. If not, then the "eternal slavery" aspect loses a lot of its weight. If so, then there may be schisms within the undead- the most likely source of recently raised would be those who killed when taking the city, who would be much more sympathetic than the "old" undead who lost their friends.

    The most immediate impact will likely be in immigration and emmigration from the city (depending on the general mobility of the setting); I'd guess that noncombatants who lost family are most likely to leave, while those who think they can "fight back" (in whatever form) would stay. As a result, the mood of the survivors likely moves from fearful to angry, while the news people received is heavily weighted towards fear.

    I'd expect rebellious movements to simmer, but they can't move easily; once one member dies, they can be turned undead and spill all they know. Perhaps there are magic items to destroy the body on death? Relatedly, how is law enforcement split between the previous government and the undead invaders?

    Some ideas: Relationships between the living and dead might come up, particularly among palebloods. Undead may use disguise magic to pass as the living if they feel uncomfortable. Taverns are one significant social space, one in which undead cannot participate; where do they socialize? Some of the recently-raised are likely from the city originally; how do they reconnect with their past lives?

    I think that putting the cathedral in the capital is a mistake, primarily because there's little reason for people to stay there; they tend to be very very reliant on imported food, goods, taxes, trade, etc., so without being the center of the country and maintaining diplomatic ties, I think the economy would fall apart after a few years. Instead, I think that the conquered city should be somewhere that is irreplacable economically- maybe an important mine of a magical mineral, maybe at the mouth of a river key to trade. This forces the surrounding countries to maintain a relationship with the city. Additionally, it gives a reason for the population to not leave; their jobs are tied to the city (in contrast, skilled craftspeople might find work elsewhere).
    This might mean that the king himself remains alive, and the local ruler (I'm a fan of dukes) is replaced by his heir instead. If so, I would expect there to be a general conflict between the king (who wants peace, because war is costly) and various nobles who argue for war in order to score political points and make the king look weak.
    My one piece of homebrew: The Shaman. A Druid replacement with more powerlevel control.
    The bargain bin- malfunctioning, missing, and broken magic items.
    Spirit Barbarian: The Barbarian, with heavy elements from the Shaman. Complete up to level 17.
    The Priest: A cleric reword which ran out of steam. Still a fun prestige class suitable for E6.
    The Coward: Not every hero can fight.

  3. - Top - End - #3
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    Greywander's Avatar

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    Nov 2017

    Default Re: Setting for undead kingdom, adventuring hub city

    Quote Originally Posted by aimlessPolymath View Post
    FWIW, I rather prefer the 'light' timeline, because I suspect that there will be a non-trivial number of clerics who immediately disagree with their god. Internal schisms make it more fun!
    Good point! This also lets us have our cake and eat it, too, with splinter factions of the church still hunting down undead and being hunted by undead in return. Lots of potential quest hooks there.

    Also do note that the undead are likely to be scary, even among those who want peace- both flavors of zombies fall directly into the Uncanny Valley, and skulgrim have no visible facial expressions.
    I imagine this is something people would eventually get used to, especially if the "present day" is a couple of decades after the initial invasion. Even so, there's likely to be a certain amount of deference to the undead merely out of fear. Probably not too different from how peasants would defer to nobility.

    Also, I can't help but think that trying to socialize with someone who has no visible facial expressions is basically what autistic people deal with on a daily basis (not that the other person has no face, but that autistic people just have a hard time reading emotions). I can just imagine all the autistic people watching everyone freak out about not being able to read undead expressions, and they're just thinking, "Bruh..."

    One thing that wasn't resolved from the last thread is whether or not undead remember their past life. [...] If so, then there may be schisms within the undead
    I think this was mostly a question for the fleshdolls, who could conceivably be assembled from more than one corpse, something I should have anticipated considering Frankenstein's monster was the inspiration. I never did settle on how that specific scenario would play out, but the general rule is that they do keep their memories.

    Schism among the undead would be a real concern, and weighed carefully when raising anyone. Those raised would likely be educated/indoctrinated regarding the history of the undead and the injustices that had been visited upon them, then given some sort of job as a test of loyalty (often something that includes spying within the city). In a way, though, this is merely a smaller part of the greater project of winning the sympathy of the greater public. Also, not everyone raised as undead may have died during the battle; anyone, anywhere, who died at around that time could be selected as a candidate to be raised as undead, which should allow for wider variety in player backstories.

    The most immediate impact will likely be in immigration and emmigration from the city (depending on the general mobility of the setting); I'd guess that noncombatants who lost family are most likely to leave, while those who think they can "fight back" (in whatever form) would stay. As a result, the mood of the survivors likely moves from fearful to angry, while the news people received is heavily weighted towards fear.
    These are all good points, and it suggests to me that there would probably be some effort on the part of the undead to help rebuild the city and generally improve the lives of those who remained living there. Looking like the villain runs pretty much counter to what they're trying to accomplish, so appearing benevolent might help foster sympathy for their persecution.

    I'd expect rebellious movements to simmer, but they can't move easily; once one member dies, they can be turned undead and spill all they know. Perhaps there are magic items to destroy the body on death? Relatedly, how is law enforcement split between the previous government and the undead invaders?
    The local government would probably handle the regular law enforcement, but with the understanding that undead are "privileged". Some form of embassy or governor from the undead might exist, and any undead that get arrested might be brought to them instead. Of course, depending on the seriousness of the crime, the punishment they would face from the undead might be worse than anything they'd get from the regular government.

    As for rebels, yeah, death is not any kind of release when you're dealing with necromancers. Especially ones capable of raising you as an undead, but with your mind intact. They'd need to go deep underground (metaphorically, not literally), and I can see using some kind of magic to destroy themselves if they get caught.

    Some ideas: Relationships between the living and dead might come up, particularly among palebloods. Undead may use disguise magic to pass as the living if they feel uncomfortable. Taverns are one significant social space, one in which undead cannot participate; where do they socialize? Some of the recently-raised are likely from the city originally; how do they reconnect with their past lives?
    I assume you mean stillbloods (who are pale)? Magic or an effective disguise would likely be necessary to conceal their nature outside of the city, and might be used within the city as well. In some cases, undead might try to pass themselves off as living, either to spy on those with anti-undead sentiments or just to fit in better.

    Taverns would still be usable by undead. While they don't need to eat, nothing prevents them from eating. Food is considered a luxury, rather than a necessity, for them. I like the idea of skulgrims making a Constitution check to contain anything they eat or drink. It's true they probably can't get drunk (poison immunity typically covers this), and it's debatable if they can even taste food. As for social venues specifically for undead, places such as theaters, gambling dens, arenas, or libraries should all be just as viable for them as for the living. Though perhaps there's something that would be tailored to their specific nature.

    As for those raised from among those who died during the conquest, I expect a lot of mixed sentiments. Some would just be happy to see their family or friend again. Others would treat them like a different person, a stranger. Some might view them as traitors. Once they've sufficiently demonstrated their loyalty to the undead, they would probably be released from their duties. Some may try to return to their old lives, while others may opt to move to the undead city.

    I think that putting the cathedral in the capital is a mistake, [...] Instead, I think that the conquered city should be somewhere that is irreplacable economically [...]
    This might mean that the king himself remains alive, and the local ruler (I'm a fan of dukes) is replaced by his heir instead. If so, I would expect there to be a general conflict between the king (who wants peace, because war is costly) and various nobles who argue for war in order to score political points and make the king look weak.
    Again, great points. A capital is not necessarily an economic center. Washington DC is much smaller than New York City. A duke sounds good. So the city should certainly be a big economic center, but could also have other strategic importance. In any case, it's not just any random city, it's one that confers power and strategic dominance to anyone who controls it. Hence, it's loss might sting rather badly to the king, and other factions (rebels, separatists, neighboring kingdoms) might have an eye on trying to capture it. So there might even be an additional ulterior motive for the undead to maintain control over the city. So many juicy plot hooks.

    Thanks for the reply, you covered a lot of good points. There's still a lot in this idea that has yet to crystallize, so I'll need to spend some time fleshing it out.

  4. - Top - End - #4
    Barbarian in the Playground
     
    OrcBarbarianGuy

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    Default Re: Setting for undead kingdom, adventuring hub city

    Quote Originally Posted by Greywander View Post
    Taverns would still be usable by undead. While they don't need to eat, nothing prevents them from eating. Food is considered a luxury, rather than a necessity, for them. I like the idea of skulgrims making a Constitution check to contain anything they eat or drink. It's true they probably can't get drunk (poison immunity typically covers this), and it's debatable if they can even taste food. As for social venues specifically for undead, places such as theaters, gambling dens, arenas, or libraries should all be just as viable for them as for the living. Though perhaps there's something that would be tailored to their specific nature.
    One issue that occurs to me; there are a couple of reasons (other than those social venues) would attract the undead to the city. Some possibilities:
    -Novelty: Lots of new people and ideas. Access to news. Socialization (the underground is something of a closed system socially)
    -Social venues, like you mentioned.
    -Jobs? I'm not sure what the undead economy looks like; I've been assuming it's some kind of centrally managed economy where taxes and living space is the main "cost of living" (replacing food). What sort of employment might they find on the surface? Law enforcement to some extent; work in the embassy; labor and crafts? They might suffer enough hiring discrimination that it's hard to find work, but depending on the difference between their internal economy and the surface one, it might be profitable anyway. You might see living people hired as the "public face" of a business to improve sales.
    -Living space; depending on population, its likely much cheaper to have a room on the surface then underground. Since they don't sleep, they might not need much more than a locker to keep their stuff in while in the underground; houses might be a luxury that they wouldn't be used to.
    -Reconnecting to past life; we already went over this a bit.

    I assume you mean stillbloods (who are pale)?
    ...it's been a while, okay?
    My one piece of homebrew: The Shaman. A Druid replacement with more powerlevel control.
    The bargain bin- malfunctioning, missing, and broken magic items.
    Spirit Barbarian: The Barbarian, with heavy elements from the Shaman. Complete up to level 17.
    The Priest: A cleric reword which ran out of steam. Still a fun prestige class suitable for E6.
    The Coward: Not every hero can fight.

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