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The Dark Golden Age is a relatively classic fantasy setting, but unlike most of its kind it does not use Tolkien or the standardized tropes based on his works as a base line.
For centuries, the world of the Dark Golden Age was ruled by wizards and spellcasters. But since magic comes in tides, ages of high magic and ages of low magic alternate and the current Age of High magic has come to grinding halt. Old structures of authority around powerful wizard-potentates collapse, and new groups strive for power. The old magocracy makes place for new kingdoms. The mundane majority which was subjugated for centuries rise again and sheds the joke of their former masters, technological developments which were hold back for centuries through the wizard’s dominance blossom up, while the sheer wonder of magic shrivels.
The Dark Golden Age is intended to be a low fantasy, low magic setting, which features the ruins of its high fantasy predecessor, and describes a world where the old status quo is quickly tumbling down, and new opportunities arise. This is neither good or bad – the old status quo wasn’t any better than any new social order, only the contemporary chaos might be a problem.
The situation might be similar to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. This is a fantasy setting, but there are no traces of the typical fantasy folk: There are no dwarves, elves, or orcs. There are no clear cut and childish moral absolutes. This is decisively no larger than life games, but tries to come close to a grim and gritty verisimilitude in motivations, activities and the generic fantasy combats. As always, substance is more important that style.
What lies in the Name
To point out the obvious, the Dark Golden Age is a combination of both a Golden Age and a Dark Age. This describes the current historical situation in the setting: The waning presence of magic is a cataclysm, the old order is overthrown and arcane knowledge gathered through centuries is lost, perhaps for ever. At the same time, the vast majority of the simple people has suddenly the chance to make a difference. For centuries, mundane people were a subjugated, marginalized group ruled by powerful wizards and sorcerers who didn’t feel that the life of a non-Gifted measured much. Now, their rule is shaking, and in many parts even broken and any man or woman with the right amount of determination and talent can forge their own fate. In addition, the absolute predominance of magic has pretty much prohibited any form of technological or scientific innovations for centuries. The new age promises an end of the technological and social stagnation, and slowly, new innovations begin to spread.
The Tides of Magic
In the world of the Dark Golden Age, magic has tides, and waxes and wanes over time. This is a natural phenomenon, like climate changes, and similar to them, the changes appear only slowly and over a very long period of time.
For the last 1000 years, there was a high tide of magic, but eventually, it started to wane. Fewer children with the Gift were born, magic rituals became more and more difficult, and the powerful network of teleportation fields that interconnected the towns and fortresses of the Magocracy began to stutter and traveling by it has become a perilous task. Facing the end of their era, and effectively the doom of their world, the most potent wizards came together to search a countermeasure against the waning of magic, and in a way they succeeded and failed terribly at the same time. Their spells and rituals could temporarily halt the decrease of the magic level, but in the long run, these very rituals accelerated and aggravated the decrease. The current decline of magic is without example, both in its speed and in the harshness of effects. In the last ten years, there was not a single child which was born with the Gift. The Teleportation network, if it works as all, has become a death trap. Old spells which were meant for all eternity just vanished. And more than one wizard had to learn that his powers were diminished enough to be overthrown by a mob of angry peasants.
Nowadays, magic is only a shadow of its former glory. Less and less children with the Gift of magic are born, and it is quite possible that the current generation features the last wizards for a long time. But not only the quantity of spellcasters is diminished, the quality collapses with similar dramatic effects - old enchantments which were meant for eternity fizzle and disappear over night, it takes more and more time and strain to cast even simple spells. Back in the days, magic was common place and powerful, now it has become fickle and rare, but so much more precious. There is still a reliable way to cast magic, though: Blood magic. Blood magic requires a sacrifice - often an animal, but for powerful spells the blood of a sentient creature is needed. Magic comes at a high price, but it is open to the caster who is going to pay it.
The Beasts among us
Instead of the typical fantasy fare of Tolkien-clone fantasy species like Elves, Dwarves and Orcs, the Dark Golden Age features many beastfolk creatures These hybrids of humans and animals are often the result of magocracy experiments and come in a vast menagery of different creatures which were all created for different purposes. The breeding of Beastfolk or other monsters for arena combats was a source of prestige and income, and the frequent arena tournaments were also a way to entertain the mundane masses with bloody spectacles. Thanks to the popularity of gladiator games many of these creatures were forced to fight against each others. Others were created to create a strong but modest and hidebound workforce for heavy lifting and similar tasks, and some were created solely to express the artistic attitude and talents of their owners. The beastfolk are still abound, and for many of them the end of the magocracy meant an end of slavery. Some of them face vast prejudices, others are respected members of their respective society.
Antagonists & Conflict
Man vs. Man is usually a common topic in any game, and so it appears in The Dark Golden Age as well. The current situation in the setting is marked by chaos and turmoil - the old order collapses and disappears, new parties appear and seek for power. There is no stability anymore, and it is quite possible that petty warlords, self-declared kings or theocrats fight each other about the dominance in the ruins of the old magocratic rulers. Perhaps the player characters are one of these factions and strive for power on their own, or try to protect their community from human predators and scavengers.
Man vs. Monsters: Roaming monsters and creatures are an inheritance of the old magocratic society. There are all kinds of creatures, some little more than very dangerous animals, others as sentient and intelligent as humans. Some of these creatures might become parts of the overall human society (especially the beastfolks have their chance of adaptation here), while others will be vilified and hunted, and some creatures might indeed be very, very dangerous. Player characters could face monsters and have to defend against them, or they could be seen as monsters and be hunted by humans.
New World Order vs. Ancien Regime: The setting also lives from the conflict between the new world, where ambition can bring you far, especially when you are a formidable individual. It might be a dog eat dog world, but at least it's fair. Everybody can suddenly rise to ranks of powers through dedication and talent alone, and the former system of a predetermined life under the tyranny of a tiny minority with supernatural powers wasn't any better. For an ambitious and powerful individual, this is a Golden Age of opportunity and chances.
On the other hand, people could stay on the side of the crumbling power of wizardry and trying to keep it all together. From their perspective, the accomplishments of the glorious past are lying in ruins and tatters, and the world around them turns toward chaos and brutality. The beauty of the age of magocracy is defiled, the collected knowledge burnt on the pyre of Wisdom. They face a flood of barbarism, and they try to keep it at bay, try to keep the remnants of a glorious (and highly romanticised) past alive and struggle against the upcoming age of ignorance. These people see the new times as a Dark Age, but they won't give up without a fight.
There are almost uncountable number of monsters in fantasy RPGs, which usualy have basically no real background, but are pretty much arbitrary heaps of... stuff. There is also no good reason why they are around (apart from "they are an interesting challenge for the players"; I mean a reason within the internal logic of the setting. There is a standard answer for this in D&D as well: "A wizard did it." Did you ever ask yourself Why the wizard did it? I mean, just look at Owlbears and ask yourself how they could get this idea. As the lack of internal consistency is a trademark of hack writing and just plain bad wolrd building, this is not good enough.
Therefore, the Dark Golden Age offers an answer, which makes sense in a way - all these creatures, from Owlbears to Rope Golems and other absurd monsters people have invented are there for a reason : They were created by bored wizards for arena games. In the magocratic society as it was in the days before the Dark Golden Age, there were many bored wizards, and the ideas of large circus games where the different beast master wizards could send their creations in death matches against each other in large arenas, also as a form of entertainment for the hoi polloi. I mean, who wouldn't like to see a combat between a Minotaur Retarius and a lindworm? Just think Gladiator and replace Russel Crowe with a charismatic anthropomorphic Wolf.
Exotic setting, mundane activities
A fantasy setting should feature strange and exotic places, creatures and occurrences. It is fantasy, after all. The problem is, that this is a comparatively small comfort zone – too little fantastic elements, and the setting seems unoriginal, too much and it becomes unfamiliar and elements which deserve to be extraordinary, special and awesome like magic become a mundane, every day appearance, which means that they are just banal and not special any more. To make sure that the supernatural is seen as something special and interesting, it must be exclusive, and somewhat rare.
The Dark Golden Age tries to walk this line, by adding many fantastic elements, but making them rare and exotic again (literally). This should maintain the sense of wonder and excitement that differs a unique setting from a run of the mill one.
The Dusk of Magic
Magic was once common place in the World of the Dark Golden Age, but is now leaving. Magic is a rare innate ability, and an equally rare occurence. Steel and determination are usually a lot more powerful than magic nowadays, especially if the spellcaster is not willing to use blood magic to fuel his eldritch powers.
During the magocracy, life was heavily urbanized. While the cities were huge and under the direct control of the ruling wizards, the rural areas were pretty much wilderness and a dumping ground for dissidents, unfashionable creations of vivisectionist magic and the usual wildlife. Thanks to the Teleportation network, this hinterland was not even relevant for travels. Now, this has changed massively: The infrastructure of the large cities is failing, as it was pretty much built on golem workers, magical supplies (water elementals for the canalization were a typical example, and when suddenly the water supply broke down and half of the city feared to die from thirst and illnesses, there were riots). In the Dark Golden Age, the outskirts of the once vast cities are abandoned and decaying, while new, smaller settlements for a better survival are formed in the wilderness.
Technological Stagnation –No More
The strong focus on magic and its rule have detained technological developments for a long time, both willfully and by accidental neglect. When more technology is available, the gap between a mundane person and a wizard becomes closer, and thus many wizards actively tried to keep their subjects in a state of a comparative primitive living. Others just didn't care for technological developments, because there was no need for it, at least for those who could create rich luxuries through magic. There is no need for a printing press when you can just enchant a feather to write on its own. These two factors have led to a very long stagnation of any kind of technology, and only now and still very carefully, new discoveries are made and new ideas have suddenly gained the possibility to become significant. This effect will eventually lead to a significant jump forward in the technological development, but currently, the most modern acknowledgements are steel, stirups and watermills.
Countries and Cities
National states and feudal society structures are a novel development, which only ascends now during the collapse of the magocracy; the magocracy rule was almost completely focused on large city states, while the region between these cities were just … there, but not really important for the ruling class except as a dumping ground for unwanted projects and dissidents. Through the decline of magic-powered infrastructure, these regions became suddenly much more important and regional authorities appeared – sometimes new rulers crowned themselves after a conquest, others were elected or acclimated by their subjects. Still, settlements and towns are rare and far between, and many of these settlements have to struggle hard for their survival, as food and other resources are hard to get and some of the dumped projects of the magocracy proved to be very effective predators...
Religion and Fanatism
During the Age of Magocracy, religion was a ridiculed trait, and many wizards proved often that their powers were much more impressive than anything the silent and uncaring gods could do. Some clergies trained spellcasters on their own, but these were just wizards with a different education, despite the dogma that their Gift had a divine origin. For many of the magocrats, religion and superstition were synonyms, and religious fervor a trademark of simpletons and naive children.
The current turmoil has changed this attitude. The gods are still silent and uncaring ,but in a time of crisis and chaos, many people search for comfort in faith, and the religious communities form a haven of certainty and the feeling of belonging, which has become unfortunately rare. On the downside, this has also lead to a strong movement of fanaticism and iconoclasm. Flagellants and zealots try to create a new world order based on their religious ideals, or to destroy any remnants of the old "blasphemous" magocracy. In some regions, self-declared theocrats have established a new rule, and in some of these ‘divine kingdoms’ the mere rumour of spellcasting can lead to a witch hunt.
The gods are still silent and uncaring, though, no matter how much blood is spilled in their name.
The Dark Golden Age is not meant to be a one-dimensional, highly focused game, it tends more into the direction of a world simulation - there are many different approaches which might be interesting, and the best settings are usually those who grow from their intrinsic logic, and not a prescriptive approach following an intended agenda and enforcing it towards it. Therefore, the Dark Golden Age should have a strong 'sandbox' feeling to it and be based on the idea, that the plot of any campaign is strongly influenced by character motivation, ambitions and actions.
Depending on the campaign, there are several roles the PCs could fit in: They could be classic adventurers, who hunt roaming monsters or delve in the ruins of magocratic despots to search for rare and precious artifacts. They could also be a warlord and his retainers or the defenders of a small community trying to establish a power hold and secure their followers. They could be the agents of stability, and try to protect as much as possible of the old knowledge and accomplishents, and try to keep magic alive, or they might be witch hunters who haven't forgotten or forgiven the cruelty of the magocratic age and hunt down the remaining spellcasters and destroy everything that remindss of them.
Player characters could be humans or beastfolk, or perhaps even stranger creatures; naturally, this may change their roles significantly. Some beastfolk might just be an exotic but tolerated - or even celebrated - member of a society, others might be outcasts or worse. Gondal is the name of the world in which the Dark Golden Age is set.