Introduction to Shail

I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to update so often anymore, but it’s holidays and I was just going through my old D&D files.  I found something interesting: a campaign setting I wrote in 2007.  I never got to use this world for a variety of reasons – most notably the edition changed and I became disillusioned with D&D.  But I put a lot of effort into this setting and I always thought it was a pity that no-one saw it but me.  I even harboured a secret dream of sending it to a publisher one day.

So I thought I’d put it up on my gaming blog, since that’s what gaming blogs are for, right?  I really enjoy reading step-by-step campaign settings on RPG blogs (like Von’s recent Vampire Dark Ages one), so I thought other people probably do too.  I think what I’ll do is each post, put up some of the material I wrote, followed by a bit of ‘meta’ describing the approach I took, how I got the idea, whatever.  Maybe – hopefully – you’ll see something you find in the material or the meta discussion that’s interesting for your own fantasy RPG campaign.

Right, so I wrote this for Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition originally.  I guess that makes me an OSR blogger now 😉  The material could theoretically be used for any generic fantasy RPG, just ignore the rules stuff. In a couple of posts you’ll see what makes it a little different from your regular generic fantasy.

But first, I’ll begin where all good mythology should, in my opinion begin: with the gods and the creation of the world.

SHAIL AND THE CREATION

Of all the divine beings great and small who are the stewards of the world, it is Shail who is the oldest and mightiest.  Shail is a chthonic earth goddess:  She is the earth and the world, and that is why the world bears her name.  It is no coincidence, but a bold fact:  When a traveller walks the land he is walking over the face of the Great Mother.  Where Shail came from is beyond the ken of any scholar, for she is the world and what came before that?  A fruitless question.

What is known is that Shail grants mighty power to her priesthood, the primeval order of the Druids.  The Druids claim that they existed even before humans developed the faculty of speech, and that all forms of worship are degenerations of their truth.  That truth is that Shail is the only deity worth worshipping and that she is cruel and bountiful, capricious and kind, and life and death themselves are her domain.  It is for these very reasons that only the Druids revere Shail in her true aspect.  She is too unreliable a benefactress for civilized folk.

Equally mysterious is the origin of Shail’s consort Avrantos, the Sky Above.  Perhaps he travelled with her; perhaps she created him.  In any case he is the oldest of the True Gods besides Shail, and it was they who spawned many of the other True Gods and mortals alike.

After binding themselves together as earth and sky, Shail and Avrantos set to building their world.  First the pair created the sea, and from it sprang Essa, goddess of love and madness.

Next they lit the world with their twin children, Khiro the Sun Shield and Luna the Moon Lady.

The Gloom Barrier was created by Shail and Avrantos in concert when a crippled void-craft landed on Shail, bearing the ancestors of the Elves from an alien world.  Shail wanted to destroy the intruders but Avrantos, swayed by his merciful son and curious daughter, refused.  In a rage he struck the earth with his lightning staff.

From these sparks sprang the god Shotek, a genius and trickster without parallel.  Shail (who delights in entertainment) laughed and relented to her consort, and they compromised by creating the Gloom Barrier to keep out any further unwanted visitors.

The Great Mother was still concerned though, so she created the Humans, the Orcs and the Hashatra to keep the visitors in check with cunning, strength and wisdom respectively.  She then imbued the Gloom Barrier with the Accord, a power that prevents immortals from passing through.  Thus none of the True Gods can walk on Shail without giving up their immortality, and no being that transcends mortality on the the earth can ever leave to threaten the True Gods.  Shail herself is an exception – she is the earth and the Barrier is a part of her being.  It is nonsense to suggest that it limits her.

Clever Shotek watched the Great Mother shape the peoples and decided to try for himself, and so he made the sullen Dwarves.  Shail was pleased with Shotek’s mannikins, but as always she sought to keep the balance of her creation and so she formed the Gnomes and the Goblins, crafty small folk who would compete with Shotek’s Dwarves for the dark places of the world.

In her final act of shaping Shail created death.  She gave birth to Skorn the Bone King and so ushered in the doom of everything.  Avrantos became uneasy and begged Shail to have mercy, so she made Halahna, the goddess of healing and compassion, from the earth of her own body mixed with the blood of all the mortal races.  Halahna could not defeat Skorn, but she could delay his call, and take away pain.

All mortals must be taken by Skorn when their time is through, and all gods.  Some even say Shail herself will be taken by Skorn in the end, but the truth on that matter is the ultimate mystery of the Druid cult and is thus fated never to be known.

THE META

OK, so when I was writing this mythology I’d just finished reading Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, and I wanted the world to literally be a mysterious earth goddess who represents the bounty and terror of nature. D&D had this trope already in the form of the Druids.  I then wanted a pantheon so players would have choices, and it would make it not so strange.  Polytheistic pantheons are classic D&D, and Clerics lack depth without them.

I’m also not much of a fan of D&D worlds that completely subvert D&D to such an extent that it’s barely recongnizable, like Dark Sun.  I mean they’re imaginative and all, but why did I buy that expensive Player’s Handbook if I’m not allowed to use half the stuff in it?  That’s what your players will say, and fair enough I reckon.  I wanted Shail to give players more choice, not less, so if anything I would add playable races (but not too many!). Hence the mention of the Hashatra.

I unified the gods by making them all related, and as you’ll see later I gave them all sacred birds, which gives a handy symbolic system for omens and such.  The Gloom Barrier is a useful idea for explaining why there’s no Corellan Larethian, Thor or whatever, and has interesting implications for the relationship between gods and mortals, as you’ll see later.  All of the major races are accounted for (except halflings, who I’ll get to later, the little blighters).

Note: I originally wanted to call this campaign ‘Endworld’, but I just remembered there’s a famous SF series of the same name, so… better not.

Next time I’ll describe each of the gods in detail, the True Gods (above) and the Gods on Earth, as well as the array of spirits and devils that haunt the world of Shail.

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2 responses to “Introduction to Shail

  • Von

    I dunno about the ‘Clerics lack depth without polytheism’ part – I think the issues of the Cleric lie elsewhere, and Hordes of the Things makes a decent case for monotheist clerics as distinct from polytheist, well, stuff as unit types. Your setting wouldn’t work with monotheist clerics, though… unless one of the Gods of Earth turns out to have a “there can be only one” complex.

    I also disagree most strongly with the ‘I am entitled to play something boring and generic because I bought the Player’s Handbook’ perspective. Generic fantasy is cool but I think that automatically bringing in yr. standard-issue Tolkenian races kind of reduces design space. Adding anything interesting on top of that just creates more options than people know how to parse, and more sentient races than feels worthwhile. I don’t have anything against elves and dwarves in generic fantasy settings, but I do have something against duplicating elves and dwarves reflexively, whether their presence is warranted or not.

    That said, I really like what you’ve done with the divine family and with the druids being integrated into that mythology rather than being bolted on to the side in a rather awkward co-existent kind of way, and I like that you included the (well-reasoned) meta rather than just dumping your fantasy encyclopaedia on me. And that you seem to know when to stop developing. So this is pretty good ‘let me tell you about my campaign’ content, and I look forward to more.

  • James S

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I’m actually going to do a fair bit more with divine magic in this setting, as you’ll see. There’ll be room for shamans, monotheistic clerics, and even atheist clerics by next week!

    “Depth” may have been the wrong word to use. I think what I meant was that D&D clerics are normally tied to gods, and if there is only one god, or the gods have no rivalry (e.g. there are a million shinto-like spirits and clerics are clerics of all of them) then there’s less obvious story-generating content. Simple polytheistic paganism brings everything clerics need neatly, which is not surprising since that’s how Gygax built the game.

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about the generic D&D thing. I do see where you’re coming from though, and I think I should qualify a bit – as well as not wanting to put any of the basic rules out of bounds, I also see it as a kind of challenge to make an original(ish) setting within the limits of traditional D&D.

    If I was writing a fantasy novel (as opposed to a D&D setting) though, I would most certainly not use Orcs, Dwarves, Elves, or anything recognizably Tolkeinian. Their tired over-use irritates me as much as it does any jaded modern fantasy reader.

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