The Iron Gates - Gold, Gods, and Sorcery

I'm working on an Alexandrian Dark Souls setting. Part 1, Part 2. You don't really need to read the other parts first, but it might help.

Dark Souls takes a video game necessity - respawning after death - and makes it part of the world's lore.

Gold for XP is a core concept in many old-school games. You don't level up by reaching checkpoints or progressing through a story. You get gold by looting it. Find a cunning, less risky way to get loot? Good job.

The following is very dry and organized. In setting, it will be presented in bits and pieces, not laid out in the open.
Franklin Booth

"For Gold, and Crowns of Gold"

"Remember the Golden Rule; he who has the gold makes the rules." 
- Peasant saying.
What if we make gold for XP part of the world's lore? Gold is a kind of magic, after all. It captivates people. Crowns are forged from gold. So are crosses, wedding rings, and idols. A golden age, a golden mean, a golden rule.

Gold is civilization. Gold is ambition, pride, and status. The more gold you have, the more "human" you feel, the grander your desires and dreams. Gold is a divine gift.
Artem Demura

"Iron Must be Quenched in Blood."

They did not fight at a distance with bows and javelins, but with one mind hacked at one another in close combat with their mighty swords and spears pointed at both ends; they fought moreover with keen battle-axes and with hatchets. Many a good stout blade hilted and scabbarded with iron, fell from hand or shoulder as they fought, and the earth ran red with blood.  
-Illiad, Homer
Iron protects and iron corrupts. As each age draws to a close, as the Barbarians come to tear down the cities of civilization, iron sings a song of blood. The song is quiet in most ages, but in this age, with the Iron Gates holding back the Barbarians and prolonging the Long Day, the song has become a roar. Those who wield iron lose memories and restraint. Their lives are pared down to a handful of instincts. They aren't bestial or mindless - not quite - but they are simplified. Knights plot furious wars, reach for their weapons at the slightest sign of dissent, perpetrate massacres, and duel to the death in the streets.

Iron is the setting's equivalent to Hollowing. In Dark Souls, repeated death can reduce an undead to a mindless husk. In this game, iron slowly drowns you in an endless thirst for war. It turns your heart to iron; you become callous, unable to love or even to hate. Knights can make vows to focus their minds. Berserkers deliberately choose to obey iron's call, gaining great strength but sometimes losing control.
Alexey Egorov

Gods and Mortals

Not at all similar are the race of the immortal gods and the race of men who walk upon the earth. 
-Illiad, Homer
Staring into the basin, he saw the gods of the Egyptians and they were leading the ships of the oncoming enemies from the barbarous nations - he was a man who was accustomed to being among and speaking with the gods magically through his sorcerer's skill. And upon learning that the kingdom of the Egyptians had come to an end, he filled his belt with much gold and silver and shaved his hair and his beard. Having disguised himself, he fled away, without anyone's knowing.
Ankai is the God of Gold. He is also the God of Civilization and Sunlight and Art. His power is over desire and ambition. His miracles are the golden rays of the sun, bright and obvious.

Ennu is the God of Water. She is also the God of Knowledge and Storms and Dreams. Her power is over fear, sight, and the written word. The first hydromancers were taught by her.

Nitan is the God of War. Nitan is a beast, neither male nor female and both at once. Its power is over iron, the earth, and blood. Nitan is also the god of mathematics, forges, and kilns. The first geomancers learned from Nitan.

The Gods sit outside the cycle of civilizations. They watch them rise and fall, helping some, harming others, playing inscrutable and distant games.

Sorcery and Magic in Dark Souls

All "magic" in Dark Souls falls into one of 3 classes:

Pyromancy: fire magic. Associated with chaos and losing control. From the Witch of Izalith.
Sorcery: soul magic. Associated with crystals. From Seath the Scaleless.
Miracles: holy magic (not really magic): Associated with heat and light (and lightning, the combination of both). From Lord Gwyn (and the other gods).

These three elements repeat over and over in other items.

With the cycle of fire and dark replaced with civilization and barbarism in my setting, I've needed to make some adjustments. Pyromancy is out (sadly). Sorcery becomes a catch-all term. The two main schools are Hydromancy and Geomancy. Miracles are similar to their Dark Souls equivalent (and generic D&D cleric spells), so I don't think they need a separate section at this time.
Fabian Krenn
For if ever a marauding horde rose against him, he did not work at machines of warfare, stockpile arms, prepare man-killing iron weapons, nor did he proffer any ingenious devices. Rather, he went to his palace alone, took a basin, and, isolating himself, worked this sorcery of the basin. He poured spring water into his basin, and with his hands created ships and men from wax, and set the men upon the ships and put them into the basin; and the men came to life. And he, Nectanebos, took an ebony staff in his hand and by incantation invoked the gods of the earth and the spirits of the sky; and in this fashion, he baptized the ships which were in the basin. As they were being baptized, the ships which were coming against them by sea from their enemies were destroyed. And because of the masterful magic power of the man, his kingdom was at peace. 
-Alexander Romance

[The Turkish nomads] do not wash after polluting themselves with excrement and urine. They do not wash after major ritual pollution, or any other pollution. They have no contact with water, especially in winter.

None of the merchants, or indeed any Muslim, can perform ablutions in their presence after a major pollution; it must be done at night where they cannot see him otherwise they become angry and say, "This man wants to put a spell on us - he is practicing hydromancy."
And then they fine him.
-Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness
Hydromancy spells will include scrying, purifying, finding secrets, lightning, acting on things at a great distance, and dreams.
Artem Demura
Geomancy is an Art of Divination, wherby the judgement may be rendred by lot, or destiny, to every question of every thing whatsoever, but the Art hereof consisteth especially in certain points where of certain figures are deducted according to the reason or rule of equality of inequality, likenesse or unlikenesse,; which Figures are also reduced to the Coelestiall Figures, assuming their natures and proprieties, according to the course and forms of the Signes and Planets. 
-Of Geomancy, Henry Cornelius Agrippa
Geomancy spells will include prediction, direction-finding, separating, dragging down, measuring, and works of architecture and mathematics.
Krist Miha

Classes and Symmetry

I'm thinking of using 9 classes. Dark Souls has a lot of classes but they are designed for a combat-heavy video game. Here are a few vague ideas for class features.

Merchant: Associated with Gold. Cannot be corrupted by items as long as they intend to sell them. Can read people, evaluate items. Can choose to be the most obvious or least obvious person in a group. Can use anything as a weapon (dealing 1d4 damage).

Hunter: Associated with Water. Tracking, wilderness survival, bows (in some cases, ludicrously large). Dealing with nature, beasts, weather.

: Associated with Iron. Parry, shield, reroll Saves vs Fear or Mind-Altering Effects if you’ve taken a vow. Tank.

Pardoner: Associated with Gold. Not entirely sure on this class yet. Find and purge curses, cut deals, gain followers/cultists.

Scoundrel: Associated with Water. Can break any contract, vow, or promise. Must Save or betray someone if they put their faith in you. Can choose up to template # of people to truly trust. Disguise self as any other class or profession (might only last for a few rounds if you have no props).

Berserker: Associated with Iron. Big weapons, big damage. Can act in surprise round if action is to draw weapon or if weapon is drawn attack nearest enemy.

: Associated with Gold. Divine miracles.

Hydromancer: Associated with Water. See above.

Geomancer: Associated with Iron. See above.

Olya Bossak

Side Note: Player Skill

In my view, there are two types major types of player skills.

The first is hitting every gear change exactly right. Cutting every corner. Knowing the precise limits of your vehicle.

The second is taking a shortcut through the woods and arriving at your destination - with branches in your radiator and a cracked wing mirror, perhaps - thirty minutes ahead of schedule.

RoosterEma's very interesting Dark Souls RPG relies on the first kind of player skill, the almost gnostic-obsessive puzzle-pattern finder who can look at an Exalted charm list or a 3.5 splatbook (or a new set of Magic the Gathering) and figure out how to build "something good". This is a player skill, and it's a very good skill to have. Optimizing and min-maxing and carefully picking equipment and rings is a part of the Dark Souls video game experience, and his game replicates it very well (as far as I can tell, just by reading it).

But, for all that, it's not a skill I particularly value in my games. I don't typically write content for this type of skill. It's difficult. You need to balance a lot of things and do a lot of testing to ensure there are no extremely under- or overpowered builds. You need to create and then carefully curate your design space.

The second type of skill - the improvisational, the unexpected, the coming up with a cunning plan from unlikely ingredients - is my preference. It's easy for me to write content for this type of skill; I just provide a lot of odd tools and see what people build with them. I deliberately try to make it difficult to deliberately optimize a character.

Anyway, for the purposes of this setting, it really doesn't matter. Enemies and boss fights will be designed to work with both playstyles and system types.


  1. This is lovely Skerples. I've been following this project with a degree of scepticism, but I must doff my cap. Really, very clever.

  2. One day I'd love to hear some of your player's takes on your schemes and ideas. I want to know that these lucky bastards understand how lucky they are.

    1. Even second-hand his creations emulate this style. The giant hammer from TotSK with the shoving mechanic immediately resulted in a) backstabbing and b) frantic "shortcuts through the forest"

  3. I had no idea how much I wanted this setting until you started writing about it. I love it!

  4. what about the fourth type of magic in dark souls? the one stained by the abyss and connected to the dark soul.

  5. Water could also be associated with silver.

    Silver is a metal of the Moon, purity and gentle light. Silver talismans are used to exorcise ghosts and disease spirits, or in meditation to purify the soul. Silver weapons are used to cut down demons and other creatures of darkness. Silver mirrors are used by diviners to see the unseen.

    Where gold is associated with reddish yellow flames of the Sun and its searing hot light, bringing great emotions, ambitions and actions, silver is associated with moonlight, bluish white, cold and calm, bringing serenity, understanding and dreams.

    1. If gold is associated with the sun, and water is associated with the moon, then war could be associated with Mars. All three gods would then have celestial manifestations.

      "The sun was of crystal, the moon of adamant, Ares of a blood-red jewel"
      -Alexander Romance

      Of course, it wouldn't be called 'Mars'. That's the name of the Roman God of War. It would be called Nitan or Nitan's Eye, or the Blood Star or something.

    2. Ah, but the god of war does have a visible manifestation, technically. He is the god of the earth, after all.