The Grimdark Age

Posted: 2023-10-27
Word Count: 1134
Tags: d20 osr rpg settings

Table of Contents

In a previous post I outlined a setting that has gone through at least five ages, including the “Age of Confusion”.

In another post I whined about buying a YouTuber’s two pages of rules for $4. Not only was the content thin, the grimdark setting just didn’t work for me.

Through the weird alchemy of my brain, though, I somehow managed to plan out how I might play out the “Age of Confusion” within these minimalist grimdark rules.

The Dark Age

Many factors doomed the Great Empire: intrigue, famines, plagues, wars with the Northern barbarians, wars with the Eastern barbarians, wars for succession, and popular uprisings. One could also cite the corruption endemic in the Kalor Dynasty, the brutal slaying of the “mad” emperor Heliolus, and the breakdown of supply chains between the Empire’s heart and the nations of the South and East.

Brother Unco, an otherwise unremarkable Canonist monk, had a simpler solution: witches.

More accurately, Unco’s barely coherent screed condemned wizards, artificers, his fellow priests, and anyone who used any form of magic as opposing the Canon and the will of the Most High. But he reserved his harshest invective for Witches, an order of spellcasters neither quite Wizard nor quite Cleric. Unco accused them of leading “innocents” astray, making pacts with dark powers, causing misfortune, eating children, and any number of heinous but unprovable crimes.

Unco himself was excommunicated, but his words, recopied by superstitious men and cited by those who had not read them, crystallized unease and panic in towns and villages following the Empire’s fall. What could bring down the Great Empire but magic, after all?1

The Laughter of Witches

According to reliable sources the aloof tribes of Witches were not malicious. So-called “Green” Witches guarded the borderlands against man and monster alike, “Gray” Witches dedicated their lives to helping the common folk, and “White” Witches guided mankind and protected them from the rare “Dark” Witch.

All colors of Witches laughed off the furor. Had they not been villagers' helpers, the townsfolk’s teachers, the pioneers’ protectors? Surely the people would see through such obvious lies.

They did not.

The Brethren of Pure Truth, a splinter sect of the Canonists, first met in the town of Bolg. They hatched then executed a plan to persuade town councils, nobles, and even kings of this post-imperial world to exterminate all users of magic. It was for the salvation of the world, they said.

A conclave of Canonist Jurists convened to excommunicate the “Cabal of Bolg” once its activities became known. By that time, however, the Brethren became the dominant voice in half of the new kingdoms.

The Brethren founded a new sect, the Church of Pure Truth, with its own Patriarch and its own Credo, echoing the Canon in parts but ignoring it on the whole. This new Church pushed aside the dusty old Canonists. The nobility had new freedoms; the peasantry had new targets for their impotent rage.

Inevitably, the Purge began.

The Purge

An untold number of Witches were burned or hanged; those that did not wish to die fled, gave up their Craft, and hid.

Wizards’ grimoires were burned in massive bonfires, along with the Wizards, and the surviving apprentices preserved spells not on vellum but on their own skins.

Clerics, those priests gifted with a measure of their gods’ powers, were branded – sometimes literally – as apostates, heretics, or witches themselves. As if the gods sensed the turmoil in the mortal realm, no new Clerics awakened, and they effectively ceased to exist.

With overt magic users dealt with, the inheritors of the Brethren, the Church of Pure Truth turned their attention to any writing that departed from Pure Truth. This included treatises on law, natural philosophy, ethical philosophy, and any other work that did not agree with the Church’s doctrines. All were consigned to the flames, along with their authors.

Meanwhile the peasants became poorer, hungrier, and sicker than ever as various holy warriors trampled their farms to hunt down enemies.

The only victors were the Church of Pure Truth. They heralded “the Covenant of Bolg” as the beginning of the true war against Chaos, ignoring the chaos around them.

The Grim Lands

Three hundred years later the Circles of Witches were broken, their secrets lost to the ages.

In place of Clerics rose the Witch Hunters, who could sense and ward against evil but seemingly could do no good.

In place of Warriors stalked Deathbringers, mercenaries in the wars against witches and between kingdoms.

In place of mighty Wizards the wretched Grimscribes attempted to replicate lost spells. The results were unpredictable and often explosive.

Skilled “guilds” of Thieves gave way to masses of Scoundrels able to acquire anything for a price. If not for the black market many more might have starved.

Into the vacuum left by holy healers the Plague Doctors arose with dubious cures and even more dubious theories.

While the Church “won” its war against magic, the lands that had embraced it lost population, wealth, and culture. Noble families, little more than warlords, fought over scraps of land. Witch Hunters searched in vain for witches behind the turmoil, and found only men … and monsters.

Outside the Grim Lands

Lands outside the reach of the Church prospered, for the most part. Having accepted the loss of the Empire, the city-states of the West and South built new economic empires. Scholars fled the Central Lands for the coastal city-states, who found practical uses for their abstract musings. Treatises on magic, too, escaped the flames, forming the foundation of modern Wizardry. Clerics, extinct in the Central Lands, survived in the City-States and extolled the virtues of their various gods.

People of the far Western Isles rejoiced at the end of the Empire, for it meant they could concentrate on the enemies at home. Barbarians of the far North and East continued as they always had. And in the Eastern Lands it was said that the god Mitra manifested a third time2 to bestow his words of wisdom upon mankind. In the following centuries Mitra would become the unifying religion of the East, and the city-state where Mitra incarnated the pre-eminent power of an Eastern Hegemony.

But that, and the rise of a new Empire that would sweep the Church aside, lay in the future.

  1. It did not help that the Empire made use of numerous magical contrivances, all of which eventually failed because magic could not be contained. ↩︎

  2. Mitra’s first avatar was the warrior-hero Marduk-Mitra who wrestled the Storm Bull and became the first King of Ur-Kesh. The second avatar was Yset-Mitra, a queen of Ur-Kesh who increased its power through diplomacy rather than war. The third manifestation was little more than a voice that dictated the Scripture of Mitra to an astonished scholar-priest, Harauvatis. ↩︎