A Blanket of Ashes

So I’ve been doing those things that lead to lots of nifty ideas ricocheting off each other — namely “reading stuff” and “talking to Kate” — having done so, I’ve got this pile of stuff I feel like hashing out in public.

I’d like to run a game, right? And I’d kind of like it to be big game — one of those epic tales with kingdoms rising and falling and like that. I imagine this is due in part to what I’ve been reading — A Song of Ice and Fire and Tolkien (again) and things like that.

Maybe I just want to roll some dice.

I like the Game of Thrones stuff — it’s fun. I know Martin based the setting on something he used to run for a tabletop RPG, so it makes sense that it tickles that part of my brain. (I like to imagine that the game he ran was actually people playing Ned Stark and Robert and those guys, back when they were young and taking over the Seven Kingdoms, and that he ended up writing the Game of Thrones story instead of running it because none of his old players could get super excited about playing their characters’ kids hopelessly fucking everything up beyond all recognition.)

It would be fun to run that kind of broad-reaching game with noble-borns (throne wars are fun) and maybe some kind of troupe-play where everyone has secondary characters they can play when the camera shifts to someone who happens to be 500 miles away from where your main guy is at. Reminds me of the way Galactic handled different starships, captains, and their crews. Also (maybe) it makes it easy to have a lot of players without caring if everyone can show up for every session, because you’ve got a big cast to work with. I did that with Spirit of the Century for a while, and it worked. Kind of.

That seems like kind of a cool game to play.

I got to thinking about it, though, and I realized one of the things I really liked about the second Martin book (Clash of Kings) was the idea that magic was coming back.

It seems like a really simple thing, but in that genre, it’s really quite unusual — in fact it’s backwards. If you look at Tolkien (which kind of formed the template for epic war fantasy stories for a LONG time), the idea is there’s good, there’s evil, there’s some magic, but the magic is weaker/subtler than it used to be back in the Age of Whatever, and when everything is all said and done and the good guys win, magic is going to pretty much go out of the world and we’ll be left with the plain old boring rules we all understand. There are many examples of this.

That sort of setting is where Game of Thrones starts — it’s really your basic “no-magic medieval society” default. There’s tales of magic and stuff, from the old days, but almost no one really really believes them anymore. Alchemists have these spells that let them make crazy-ass super-powered Greek fire, but that’s just Greek fire or something — it’s not MAGIC. Someone says they have a magic pendant that makes the wearer immune to poison and people kind of smirk behind their sleeve. I mean, we aren’t savages, are we? Surely we don’t believe any of that nonsense.

And then Something Changes and those old spells start working a lot better. Or… you know… just start working at all. It’s gradual, and it’s not (for many people) a central plot point, but it happens.

Wouldn’t it be cool if destroying the One Ring had put all that confined magic back into the world?

So anyway, I got to thinking about worlds where the magic has kind of gone away, and no one really believes it anymore, except for a few people who live in weird places.

There’s a fun-sounding game setting called (I think) Midnight that was kind of a big deal a few years ago. The elevator pitch for this setting was “Sauron won, and he’s in charge of everything now.”

I was talking with Kate about this, explaining why I thought this was kind of a really cool idea — what if the bad guys had won, right? And a whole bunch of time had passed with the bad guys in power, and then you start the story there.

And she says, “Like the first Star Wars movie.”

And I kind of shake my head and say “Yeah, kind of, I guess, but…”

Then I stop and think about it and realize that it’s not “kind of”; that’s exactly the situation — the bad guy’s won, they’ve been in power a long time, and we start our story there — it’s just never described that way.


So here’s a fun little exercise. Combine that with the dying magic thing.

You know what’s interesting about A New Hope? There’s very little Force use. Vader chokes one guy. Ben ‘senses’ a bunch of stuff. Vadar ‘senses’ a bunch of stuff. There’s a lot of sensing. There’s damn little space-telekinesis. Vadar’s scary because he’s ruthless, is made of a lot of robot parts that let him pick guys up one-handed and snap their neck, and has a laser sword. His big contribution to the final battle in the first movie is as a fighter pilot.

People mock the force. They don’t believe in it. No one who can do anything with it does very much. Ben’s biggest force trick in the first movie? Dying.

What if it was that way because the Force itself had grown weak? Maybe it really is just mumbo-jumbo at that point in the story. Maybe it’s like a well you have to keep primed, and with all those Jedi dead during the Clone Wars, and just like four living force users left, there just isn’t that much mojo left.

Then the Force start waking up. Maybe because the by-blow of one of the living force users grows up enough to start using the force himself — maybe because Ben died and poured all his mojo back into the well — whatever: the magic starts flowing again, and up until that happens, Vadar is left tossing guys around with his robot arm, swinging his glow stick back and forth, shooting guys with his custom fighter, and sensing things.

With me on this so far? Cool.

Now take that situation, except the Emperor is Sauron, Vadar’s a Nazgul, and all those skeptical imperial generals are Uruk-hai who don’t really have any use for hokey religions anymore, not since the Old Kingdom of Good got its teeth kicked in five hundred years ago.

Evil won. It won so long ago that that people don’t really believe there was ever a time when they were free. The Good King? Wizards? All those whimsical creatures like “dwarves” and “elves” and “horses”? Those are nice stories that are going to get your hopes up and get an overlord’s whip in your face. The sky’s always been that color. The mountains have always burned. We’ve always had to figure out a way to find clean water and grow food under a blanket of ashes. Just keep your head down and do what you’re told. That’s the way the world is.

Until something changes.

Kate wants there to be a secret society of female warriors, plotting the downfall of the Wight Lords.


  1. Oooh.

    There’re a lot of elements of this in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn (which I’d recommend just for the worldbuilding; I didn’t actually care for the story all that much).

    (Actually, I half-wrote half of a really bad novel in college using the “five hundred years after Sauron — or Saruman, maybe — won vs. the Fellowship” kind of motif.)

    Sounds very cool.

  2. I like it, I was going to argue about the Empire and a New Hope, then I read the preamble again and you are right, it’s never described as the “Bad Guys Won, this is 30 years later.” I just know the bad guys won because I’ve been around that crap for over 30 years now.

    1. Exactly.

      One of the things Kate doesn’t like about the Star Wars prequels is that it makes the time between the fall of the Republic and A New Hope too “short.” As in, there hasn’t been enough time for people to stop believing in Jedi and stuff. She’s right – it should have been a couple generations, somehow.

  3. Spooky. I was having almost this identical conversation about two weeks ago (started because we were talking about Risk: Middle Earth and, “What happens when Mordor wins?”) with a discussion about the elves fleeing, the defeat of Tom Bombadil and the other guardians, the fall of the wizards, and what it would take to get the Valar involved… if they had any reason to… and would Sauron continue to strengthen if all the magics that used to be available (presumably lost treasures of Khazadum and in the hordes of the ColdDrakes in the north, and the like) slowly disappeared. I think we decided that mankind would generate heroes and continue to try, but at the heart, I may be an optimist.

    1. I liked the idea that, with Sauron winning, the Elves fleeing, Gandalf dead or gone, and all magic pretty much stuck inside a single ring, magic would just fade. Even the Eye would just be a shadow of itself, and the Nazgul would be like Vader — scary, strong, and able to do a bit of weird stuff, but no where near the army-shattering fear factories they were in the books.

  4. This sounds fantastic! Makes me wish I had never moved from Denver… 🙁 I loved your stuff from the early days of Serial Pulp. Can’t wait to read more about this!

  5. I liked the idea from Ironwall that people get on getting on.

    Just because there are bad guys ruling doesn’t mean every day is Conan pushing the wheel in a circle under the whip. Or orcs singing “where there’s a whip, there’s a way”.

    It’s possible, just possible, that people live under an oppressive regime just fine.

    At least until social media comes along, and green-tinted avatars. 🙂

  6. A good point, Tim. I mean, if you think about it, the majority of human history has been under autocrats, theocrats, arguable tyrants and oligarchs of various sorts. People in, say, China, or the former Soviet Union or East Germany, or Saddam’s Iraq generally got along, even if there’s an overlay of fear, things that can get you disappeared, the occasional purge or pogrom or Cultural Revolution.

  7. A question:

    Do we more commonly play roleplaying games about downtrodden pig farmers who find the strength to throw down the evil witch king, or about stoic soviets soldiering on through yet another bread shortage, surviving it, and then returning to the status quo?

    Crime and Punishment is an undeniable literary classic. So to, The Lord of the Rings; I think it’s obvious why one has inspired a bunch of RPGs and the other… hasn’t.

    (For what it’s worth, Ironwall — apocalypse survival adventure with magic — isn’t really the same thing as “the whole of a fantasy world trapped under the bootheel of the evil god-conqueror for a thousand years.” To start with, the protags in Ironwall are free, if besieged.)

  8. That sounded snarky, but my point is that we, as a species, don’t remember the sixty (or six hundred) years when everyone ‘goes along’; we remember Tianamen Square.

  9. I didn’t take any real snarkiness from the above. 🙂 But you do have a point. Most people play RPGs to be heroic… or evil depending… 😉 But on an epic scale. We want to take down bad guys and over throw evil (not ours) governments. 🙂

    This video is what we don’t want to do. Though it is pretty damn good. 🙂

  10. In answer to the question: no, because suffering and enduring and returning to the status quo is not “heroic.” Well, unless we’re talking about “Mulan”. Though even that’s not a good example.

    Frodo’s journey is, in fact, how you *can’t* return to the status quo. “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm once they’ve seen Mt Doom?”

    I think the point is that in an evil, tyrannical regime, there’s a lot of getting on, regardless (“I Was a Teenaged Haradrim” or “The Uncle Owen Story”). Those aren’t the hero tales that people are looking for to play, though they may make fascinating literature.

  11. Pretty much my point. I entirely agree that you can see lots of real life examples where evil regime exists and people suffer onward, but when it comes down to it, games aren’t meant to tell that kind of story, but the other. 🙂

  12. No, no, no. The time of Man has passed. The ash and the poisons and the malice of Sauron did them in — heck when the Dark Lord was Ringless they still couldn’t repopulate Eregion over centuries. The blood of Man lives on only in the Uruk-hai. *They* are the ones who strike for freedom.

  13. Maybe some hobbits around as plantation labor. They’re tough, good farmers and not much of a threat. And they can brew BEER and MEAD and maybe make WHISKEY. They’re some uruk clan’s *herd*. Most uruk would be nomads — on foot, they don’t need no stinking horses — out away from the warrens, where a fellow can breathe free and not eat the… wtf-ever it is the orcs eat in the caverns. (Tasty rocks?) Raiding and warring over hunting territories. And where The Wraith (like The Man) isn’t all in your face.

    Sauron reduced to a wraith himself, gradually working his way through his last Sylvan elf prisoners for bodies to possess. Sauron misses being pretty and orcs just don’t cut it.

    Ringwraiths tooling around in chariots drawn by orcs (or uruks, though the wraiths can’t stand the light of day and the sun does occasionally peek through) because the horses and oliphants are dead and the fell beasts sleep until sufficient magic can be spared to give them vigor.

  14. The idea that Men are (largely) gone … is interesting, when you consider the Ringwraiths were, themselves, the Kings of Men. How would they take that …?

    (Human resistance group, living in the shadows, the broken forests of Lorien, the ruins of the last refuges of men … led by a shadowy, mysterious, never-seen figure … one of the Nine …)

  15. The Nine have been working towards the doom of Men for centuries. OTOH if their master’s power is fading some of them may well become angry at the slow genocide of their species, or of their own remote descendants. Plus they may now be capable of seeking an end to their own tormented existence.

  16. The doom of Men? Or the doom of Men’s kingdoms. Imagine being a king, being given seemingly limitless power and eternal life, and then being turned into a simple enforcer (and mocked by that whole “doomed to die” thing).

    1. I’d pictured wraiths in this magic-weakened land as being like Vadar in the first movie — very little overt show of mystic power, lots of being intimidating and smashing people with inhuman strength, and sensing something’s afoot.

  17. Our speculation has continued, and we have an off-shoot that asks, “But how does Mordor win?” Because if Saruman gets the Ring instead you have a power struggle between evil forces. (I also mull: there are other Maiar that Morgoth left. Any of them could decide, “Hey, why is Mr. InNeedOfVisine in charge?”) The real question is how sustainable the regime is without magic. Do orc spawning pits require magic? The plants of Mordor were twisted and provided little if anything in the way of sustenance (hence Sam’s Deep Thoughts about the garden.) The ravages of war burning across the lands will drive a declining population even further to the dregs. So what is Sauron’s hope? To expand to the Undying Lands, I presumed… but if they cut the mystic cord…?

    Oh, and +1,000,000 on the Uruk-Hai idea, Randy.

  18. Sauron, I think, felt that if he was stuck in Hell — exiled from the Undying lands — he would at least rule them. And maybe, since some of the Valar and Maiar loved Middle Earth, ruin it to spite them.

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