Designing Valedonia: Vallenheim
by, 28th October 2011 at 11:57 AM (3071 Views)
By Mark Hope, Senior Writer
Embers of Caerus features a number of different cultures and climates. One of these – Valedonia – can be broadly described as “Western European” fantasy. Sounds straightforward enough. But just what does that entail?
When we think of western European fantasy, we’ve been taught over the years what to expect. Countless movies, books, games and comics have given us images of castles and knights and wizards in robes and pointy hats. Now, while I like a pointy hat as much as the next guy, they’re not what really fascinates me about the topic. I’m a big fan of the broad sweep of European history, culture and myth, and when I think about those eras and locations, I’m not thinking about shiny armor and elegant head-wear.
The things that characterize the dark and middle ages in Europe for me are fourfold: war, religious strife, social upheaval, and war. Also, war. Take a look at any given century: you have rebellions, invasions, oppression, regicide, inquisitions, ethnic cleansing – the list goes on. Not that these things are limited to western Europe – they’re happening all over the place all the time – but in the crush of cultures that typifies medieval Europe, they are the defining influences.
So when I was handed Valedonia to develop, I sat back and gave the matter some thought. How am I going to make sure the region feels like a medieval western European fantasy, recognizable as such to players of the game, while at the same time giving it a strong sense of historical realism and a feel unique to Embers of Caerus?
The only real way to do that is to go back to the source material. Crack open the history books. Dig out the old myths and stories. Take these nuggets of historical and mythological inspiration and weld them to the game’s sweeping back-story. Stir gently, then serve.
So in this blog I’ll be taking a look at the cultures of Valedonia and the sources of inspiration that lie behind each. I’m hoping to give you an idea of what to expect from one of the game’s regions, some insight into the design process, and perhaps some inspiration of your own for when the time finally comes to belly up to your keyboard and play.
Let’s start with the big one where Valedonia is concerned: the kingdom of Vallenheim. There are three main issues that define the kingdom: An ancient and failing monarchy; an increasingly powerful church; and a fractured society. I’m sure you can already think of a whole bunch of possible influences for Vallenheim – let’s take a look at some of those I’m drawing on.
A Failing King
The monarchy that rules Vallenheim is a broken, incestuous thing. Yes, it has a history stretching back through the ages. But that history does not speak of a single royal line. It speaks of fratricide, hidden coups, poisoned coronations, and of kings thrown on the dubious mercy of the mob. By the time play starts, the monarchy has ceded much of its power to the church, and the current king is a virtual prisoner in his crumbling palace.
There are plenty of similar situations in European history, but foremost among these must be the Merovingian kings. The Merovingians were a dynasty of Frankish monarchs, whose kingdom spread across modern-day France, Germany, Belgium and beyond. Originally pagans, they converted to Christianity and forged close ties with the church in order to shore up their own power. Wracked by internal strife, many of the Merovingians came to the throne young and died in their prime, further weakening the crown. In time, their reliance on the church reduced the monarch to a figurehead. The final Merovingian king was deposed with the blessing of the Pope and ended his days powerless in a monastery.
There are a number of other interesting elements peculiar to the Merovingians. They had a tradition that long hair was an emblem of royal and supernatural power – so much so that they’re often referred to as the “long-haired kings”. Their founder Merovech was said to be the son of a Frankish queen and a sea-god, and there are some really crazy ideas linking the dynasty to supposed descendents of Jesus. These legends of divine ancestry among the Merovingians correspond very well with certain elements deep in Embers of Caerus’ backstory. And, of course, there’s a character in the Matrix movies called the Merovingian. Which is pretty cool.
So as you can see, we have a great source of inspiration here. A feudal monarchy is an essential part of a European-themed setting. Making that a faltering monarchy makes for great gaming opportunities – which is the most important thing, after all. A kingdom where the power of the king is not absolute, where there are opportunities for the daring to make their mark, where conspiracies fill the church with intrigue, where forgotten treasures wait to be uncovered – that’s the kingdom of Vallenheim.
A Rising Church
As mentioned above, the failing monarchy is only one of Vallenheim’s defining characteristics. A church on the rise marks another of the setting’s chief elements. In Vallenheim, monotheism is the dominant faith: the Church of the Nameless has the ear of the king and its influence is everywhere. Under the black banners of the Onyx Crusade, the College of the High Pontiffs spreads its doctrine throughout the realm – and the halls of the Catedra Inquisitora await those who will not kneel at its altars.
The church does not have an iron grip over the souls of the Vallenheimers. Despite its doctrines and the teachings of the six Catedra, heresy flourishes. Many of these heresies are actually pagan belief systems that still linger in the shadows of the Onyx Crusade. The Nameless was not always the sole god of the Vallenheimers, and fragments of forgotten faiths still flourish where they can. Beyond this are the heresies of the monotheists themselves. Many are those who still worship the Nameless while rejecting the teachings of the church. For them, countless interpretations on matters of dogma have led to heresies springing up over Vallenheim’s history. If anything, the College of the High Pontiffs hates these heresies more than it hates the pagan beliefs of the polytheists. Heresies of the Nameless erode the power of the church from within, and their adherents are persecuted with zeal.
To find inspiration for this kind of thing in the real world, you only have to open a history book and stab a page with a pin. Religious strife is everywhere, and the lands of Vallenheim echo this across the board. Obviously, the spread of Christianity across Europe, and the corresponding decline of ancient pagan religions, is one inspiration. One need only examine Christianity’s successes dealing with Norse paganism, Old English religions, and the Teutonic faiths to see how one set of beliefs can supplant another over the course of a handful of generations. In Vallenheim pockets of polytheism still exist, much as isolated areas of paganism endured well into the Middle Ages. Maybe your character follows one of the old gods, hiding secret beliefs, or is a proud adherent of the Nameless who would like nothing more than to see these remnants of failed divinity erased from the land.
Beyond the existence of polytheistic beliefs, it is in the spread of heresies that Vallenheimer religion finds inspiration in the real world. And for this, we’re looking to the 13th century and beyond, when the last of the great Christian heresies were stamped out in Europe. Take the Albigensian Crusade as an example; a crusade carried out by the French crown against its own subjects, with the purpose of eradicating the Cathar heresy from the Languedoc region. Or the campaigns against the Bogomil heretics in eastern Europe. These heretics viewed themselves as Christians, but held divergent beliefs that earned them the enmity of Popes and kings alike.
So it is with the Onyx Crusade. It’s not an attempt to recover a holy land from another faith. Nor is it strictly a crusade of conquest. No, the Onyx Crusade is first and foremost a crusade against the Vallenheimers themselves. It’s an attempt to bring unity to a realm fractured in the aftermath of disaster. It’s an attempt to unite a broken people under a single belief. And it’s an attempt to place the devout upon the throne of the land, where currently only an ineffectual king sits. For players, this provides a strong set of potential allies or antagonists, sources of information and social advantage, and an ever-present backdrop to the setting filled with conspiracy, conflicting beliefs, and hidden cults.
A Fractured Society
Finally, for Vallenheim, the last defining characteristic is that of clashing cultures. This applies to Vallenheim’s relationships with its neighbors as much as it does with its own people. Firstly, the Vallenheimers are not native to the region, having arrived in successive waves a few centuries ago. This brought them into direct conflict with the peoples of Caerloth and the Dalwyn, an uneasy relationship that continues to this day.
More than their interactions with their neighbors, though, Vallenheim is internally fractured. As a society, the Vallenheimers are in crisis. If you’ve read the overview of Embers of Caerus at the main Forsaken Studios site, you’ll know that the game-world was recently torn asunder by a magical apocalypse, and this event still dominates Vallenheimer life. Simply put, in the wake of this disaster, those with the privilege of wealth have risen to power, while the have-nots labor underfoot. Society is crippled by this inequality, and injustice is commonplace.
On the large scale, this echoes much of the history of Europe, which was typified by the often-violent migrations of early tribes, territorial wars, and outright invasions. Taking Britain as an example, over the course of a single millennium, the land was invaded by Romans, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Danes, Vikings, and Normans, to name but a few. This kind of conflict is going on in the background in Valedonia all the time, primarily due to the presence of the Vallenheimers.
On an internal scale, we can look to the Norman conquest of Britain as an example of how things work in Vallenheim. Following the invasion, Norman nobility replaced Saxon lords and a foreign aristocracy ruled over the local inhabitants. Initially at least, theirs was not a gentle rule. Oppression followed. So it is with Vallenheim: the aftermath of the apocalypse has reinforced the feudal hierarchy. Those with wealth and power are in the best position to gain even more wealth and power, while those less fortunate see their situations worsen.
Into this fractured realm step your characters. Vallenheim is no pastoral medieval fantasy, with a pristine castle on the hill, knights in gleaming armor riding by, their pennons snapping in the wind. It is a hard and unforgiving land, wracked by internal strife, where the naked blade speaks as clearly as the most eloquent of tongues. But it is also a land rich in opportunities, where the brave and the daring might gain much, where the careful and the crafty might forge a niche of safety, and where the cunning and the curious might steep themselves in mystery and learn secrets from the dawn of the world.
Next we’ll be taking a look at Vallenheim’s neighboring realms: the shattered kingdoms of Caerloth and the untamed Dalwyn highlands. As with Vallenheim, we’ll be examining the defining characteristics of these realms in-game, then checking out some sources of inspiration from the real-world. And when that’s not good enough, we’ll abandon reality altogether and plunder some myths instead…