Escarnum may be a world without gods, but this is not intended to keep characters from drawing upon divine power as their source of strength. This section discusses how divine power is intended to function, mechanically and thematically, in an Escarnum game.
The basis of this is that divine power is not granted deliberately by a higher power, but accessed directly through transcendent devotion to an ideal.
Divinity in the World
The divine power source itself does not require any mechanical changes to suit the nature of Escarnum. Of course, the concept of a patron deity who grants holy magic doesn’t make sense here, but there are no special rules needed to shift the understanding of divine power from worship to conviction.
For some, this conviction does indeed take the form of an organised religion with a deific figure at its head. However, the difference is that divinity itself comes from the mortals who believe, not the god they believe in. Rituals and prayers are not transactional—offerings to a god who grants power in return—but rather effective methods of reinforcing the devotion that creates such power.
The Mechanics of Devotion
Instead of choosing a deity, divine Escarnum characters should determine the philosophy or ideals they wish to champion, then choose one or more domains that embody those beliefs. Feats and other rules that relate to domains can then be used normally. The GM might wish to impose a limit of 2-4 domains per character, both to limit mechanical complications and to encourage players to distil their philosophy to its most important ideals.
For the purpose of game rules that require a specific deity, the GM should look at the domains and ideals associated with the deity in question, and map the requirements to domains accordingly. (We recommend being permissive as a rule, as flavour requirements like these are rarely of mechanical significance.)
Moral Codes and Fallen Champions
As in core 4th Edition content, Escarnum leaves the idea of “falling” for narrative spaces only. While organisations may lay out specific moral codes, a character isn’t made to lose divine power just by breaking rules or changing religious fealty. No matter how their ideals shift, a character’s divine power remains as long as their conviction stays strong.
Accordingly, if you want to explore this narrative space, a crisis of faith is a clear reason that a divine character might lose their powers in Escarnum. They can’t be denied by a patron, but they can certainly be stolen by doubt and insecurity.
Belief and Reality
Gods don’t exist in the world of Escarnum. But, powerful conviction can manifest to change reality in the form of divine power. Therefore, does it not also follow that enough divine power, devoted to belief in the same god figure, might in fact cause it to become real?
This concept has certainly not escaped the notice of Almish scholars, and is the topic of much discussion. No such thing has been documented thus far, of course, but it certainly appears to be a logical conclusion.
This section presents various rules adjustments and updates recommended for running a Skies of Escarnum game.
Escarnum is intended to be played with a few rules adjustments which are strictly functional in nature, intended as “fixes” to areas of the rules we find inadequate. They aren’t meant to tweak the feel or flavour of the core D&D4e game, but rather to balance or streamline play game in the absence of further official development.
If your group has also found that the rule in question seems unfair, inadequate or unnecessarily complicated, you may find these useful even for non-Escarnum games. For this reason, we keep rules patches and errata at The Square Fireball, our general 4e development site.
These adjustments are tweaks to make 4e even better suited to the sort of romantic combat stories we seek to tell in Escarnum. Unlike the patches, these aren’t strictly in the name of balance or tidiness; they are actively trying to change the feel of the game, if only in small ways.
In general, these variants will skew the game away from survival and toward spectacle. If your group wants to smash through walls or jump up cliffs without magic getting involved, these variants will probably suit you nicely. On the other hand, if your favourite gameplay revolves around things that would trouble real-world adventurers—like travel, ammunition, supplies, weather, and day-to-day expenses—then you would be better served by not adopting these rules.
Skies of Adventure
Floating far above the surface of the world, mysterious crystals known as escarnum await those bold enough to claim them. Infused with tremendous arcane energy, escarnum is the key to powering precursor relics—and developing new devices in their image. The crystals are amongst the most sought-after resources in the world, and various trade cartels wage daily economic wars for the right to harvest and sell them.
Gathering escarnum, though, is a challenging and costly practice. Funded by enterprising kingdoms or wealthy private interests, crews of daring sailors traverse the skies in whatever vessels they can acquire, hoping to strike upon the mother lode that will bring them fame and fortune. Competing with vicious sky pirates and airborne beasts—as well as each other—are your characters willing to brave the Skies of Escarnum?
The Ancient Future
Wherever they go, adventurers in Escarnum can discover strange relics that serve as the legacy of an ancient civilisation, the precursors. Far advanced in their knowledge of both magic and science, the precursors combined both to create incredible items whose secrets are now lost to the world. Most such relics are buried deep beneath the surface of the world, or concentrated on the continent of Aethys, and it was the kobolds who first began to discover and experiment with them.
Many relics are still a mystery to modern races, and more still are long-since broken. However, as engineering and magic advance once more amongst the peoples of Alm, their understanding of these powerful devices also deepens. As adventurers in the age of humanity, your characters have the chance to seek out and recover devices most people only dream about—and maybe even to be amongst the first to discover their true purpose.
A Godless Sky
For all its mystery and magic, perhaps the most surprising trait of Escarnum is this: it is a world wholly without gods.
Powerful astral beings abound, both celestial and infernal. Ideological orders and zealous cults are hardly unknown, and some even have convinced entire nations to worship them. But the fact remains: in this world, nothing exists that is rightly called a god. One might similarly expect divine magic to be absent from the world, but this could not be further from the truth. In fact, divine magic thrives, found even in those who have scarcely heard of gods, much less petitioned them directly.
Thus the truth of divinity in this world becomes clear; it is not granted to mortals, but born of them. Divine magic—the will to alter reality itself—is not granted in exchange for worship, but manifested though personal conviction.
In this world, every soul who commands divine power is nothing short of an avatar of their own beliefs—whether for good ends, or for evil.
“Adventurer” isn’t just a game term, but a well-known—if perhaps reckless—career choice. Since the Age of Empires came to an end, the massive booms in relic hunting and escarnum gathering have fuelled demand for unique and diverse explorers with equally unique and diverse combat skills.
Of course, where there is money there is exploitation. Many merchant companies seek to take advantage of would-be adventurers—saving on expenses by providing shoddy equipment, downplaying the danger of risky jobs, and generally treating them as expendable.
Many adventurers began to form parties—small groups who learned to work together more effectively, and could only be hired as a team. This was surely safer than acting as a solitary adventurer, but a party still had no real leverage against a larger company. Thus, parties quickly led to guilds—a union of adventurers who agreed to cooperate and support one another’s welfare under a common charter.
Guilds proved to be the winning strategy for Almish adventurers. Companies who tried to exploit their hirelings would find themselves blacklisted, unable to recruit any but the most shady agents. And while individual guilds were still in competition—just as their members were in competition with one other—they could form agreements to ensure that competition stayed healthy. The largest even formed cross-border alliances, so one guild could trust another to provide aid and support to their members abroad, with the understanding they would receive the same in turn.
Today, the system supports countless guilds across Alm, in almost every nation. Whether a guild has thousands of members, or barely enough novices for one party, they can count on basic resources and emergency aid nearly anywhere on the continent.
The land of Alm is a strange and beautiful place, shaped equally by magic and science. Indeed, there is little difference between the two; with the extraordinary power source of escarnum in plentiful supply, magical devices have become a part of every big city’s infrastructure. To most people, the magic in their street lamps and cooling chests is certainly more valuable than the magic of a fireball.
Magic also plays a big role in production, with low-level creation rituals employed to ensure an abundant supply of almost any mundane item. Such goods are typically of mediocre quality—spellcasters are rarely dedicated artisans or chefs themselves—but they serve well enough for everyday purposes. Thus, stable populations rarely find themselves desperate for any staple goods—except where a selfish actor tries to exert control over such supply.
This is not to say that magic is dull in Escarnum—merely that it is everywhere, an inextricable part of science and engineering. While your wizard battles a zombie horde, your less adventurous peers are designing airships and maintaining power lines—at least, the lucky ones who didn’t wind up in Independence as sanitation technicians.
As for the truly unscrupulous, have they told you about the incredible opportunity to invest all their gold into “aether coins” ™?
Running the Game
If you are a GM in Escarnum, think of how you can pitch plot hooks at the characters’ individual motivations, rather than just offering treasure or fame as universal incentives. Involve them as deeply as possible; don’t let a plotline be something they can just walk away from.
Try to empower the PCs as much as you can. This doesn’t mean giving them more power in terms of game rules, but in the way the world and the story treat them. Run with their ideas when you can; reward them for taking initiative and use their own concepts to keep them hooked.
Use the world to treat the characters as their players envision them. If somebody is playing a gnoll because they like their character to be alienated, have NPCs draw attention to them or challenge their presence. If a player wants their wu-kan to be an infamous rogue, have them be recognised (for better or worse) except in the most backwater towns.
Strong characterisations can make or break a story, and a story is what you create in Escarnum. Work together with your group to make sure each character gets to be the person their player envisions, and the experience will be better for everyone.
If you are a non-GM player in Escarnum, you should think hard about the character you want to portray, whether you are planning their personality in advance or developing it as you go. Consider ways you can use your character’s goals and quirks to enrich the game for everybody—especially ways to cooperate and advance the story. Work together with other players, and be conscious of how much time you spend in the spotlight so you can make sure everybody else gets their turn.
In-character conflict is valuable when roleplaying, but make sure it doesn’t leave the game world. If you foresee a situation where your character might make things difficult for the group, conspire with your fellow gamers to keep them in check. Share your ideas, and be open to suggestions from other players. If you don’t let it become an obstruction, your character’s personality will be a powerful tool for adding to the story.
The world of Escarnum is one that grew organically over years of play.
Factions changed, nations appeared or disappeared, and new races had now been there for ages—if it made for a better story. Alm grew in the shape of the group it served, and it’s presented here with the intent that it should do the same for your group.
If something here doesn’t work for you and your group, please ignore it! The goal of this setting is to support the story that the players (GM included) want to tell. We would prefer for you think about the world not in terms of what characters and stories it could produce, but to think of it in terms of how it could produce the characters and stories you want to see.
Likewise, we encourage you to allow non-GM players to contribute their ideas to the setting. Even if this means “retconning” aspects of setting lore between games, we believe having a world which the players find satisfying in the moment is more important than striving for consistency or realism for their own sakes.
Your Escarnum is yours, and is not necessarily the Escarnum of its creator. We hope you will enjoy what is presented here as a whole, but we also invite you in your own games to change it as you will.