I’m publishing this here and on Santicore. It’s rough and way late, but here it is.
Also on the Santicore blog.
Campaign Setting: The Roof of the World
DM’s note: This is a rudimentary setting description based EXTREMELY loosely on Tibet in the 9th or 10th century or so. It’s not meant to be any more detailed than most RPG settings and of course there are elements that are inaccurate or grossly simplified because gaming.
I think this would work best as a place for a party of outsiders to venture. That way, the characters themselves (and the players) will experience the fun of exploration, not having little or no ‘common knowledge’ of how things work there.
The Roof of the World lies between the grand empires of the south and the horsemen of the north. The humans are mostly nomadic yak herders, distant cousins of the northern horsemen. Because the climate is so cold, the geography treacherous and the air thin, life here is harsh and generally short.
Why would a party of adventurers venture to an isolated wasteland so hard to get to? There have been persistent rumors that the god of wealth lives in the mountains. The locals themselves tell of a hidden paradise where men live as for centuries and never get sick. Sorcerers have been known to return from trips to the mountains with great and terrible new powers. Dwarves have an old legend about the largest vein of gold being under the world’s tallest mountain. Clerics may have heard that the priests of the southern beliefs have had success subduing demons and taming the wild folk. A thief might find sanctuary from the long arm of the law or the longer arm of the thieves’ guild here.
Getting to the plateau is difficult and dangerous. Not only are the paths from the south guarded by xenophobic clans of horsemen; there are monsters on the trails and demons in the mountains.
Adventurers will be extremely conspicuous here. They will look different, sound different and most will have a fortune in steel and armor with them. Ordinary arms and armor are rare here and very valuable. Men have been killed in their sleep for their armor. The best approach is to keep one’s best weapons hidden and wear the local leather armor (which is more comfortable in such cold climates anyway). Demihumans are almost non-existent so cover those pointy ears with a knit cap.
Adventures must take care to not offend the representatives of The Way (see below). Locals respect and revere these men and women. Most lamas, monks and yogis are dedicated pacifists, but if they need to resort to force to protect others, they will. After all, they are also protecting the wayward from earning bad karma and coming to a worse rebirth. Horesemen and mercenaries will act first and attempt to purify their karma later.
The air here is thinner. All party members suffer a -1 to constitution while in this climate and dwarves suffer -2.
Every mountain, every river, lake and forest has a spirit or demonic inhabitant. Small features such as ponds, small crags and streams are home to small elemental spirits who make only minor trouble for men and can be appeased by offerings of food and drink left at dusk (torma). Larger features such as mountains are the home of demons and gods, the original inhabitants of this land. Everyone knows what demon lives on the closest mountain and they take great care to avoid its notice and failing that, stay in its good graces. Caravans have been known to leave a great deal of wealth at one end of a bridge, hoping that will distract the spirits of a gorge while they rush across to the other side.
For millennia the people of the plateau have scraped by as nomads and traders of furs, butter and salt. Kingdoms are small here, as the weather makes widespread warfare and continued control difficult. Most of the ‘action’ takes place in the form of clan and family squabbles, which were generally resolved by marriages, contests or payoffs. In every clan or village, there were families that maintained the equestrian traditions of the north. This meant every small dispute could potentially become an extended, bloody feud. Petty kings employed these horsemen in their wars.
Legends tell of a great time of unification, when the people rode from the north and drove out the previous inhabitants, who are described as savage and demonic.
If there is great treasure to be had here, it is certainly not in the hands of the people.
A hundred years ago, a great caravan from southern kingdoms climbed the paths to the plateau. They brought with them great scholars and meditators who had been sent north at the behest of the gods, it is said, to tame the wild peoples of the north and to turn the demons of the sky toward the path of kindness. These Great Gurus, as they are called, defeated the demons of several high peaks in contests of logic and displays of miracles. These mountains became safe for people again, so long as they respected the newly reformed protectors living there. Despite these miracles, they taught the people a simple, pacifistic way of life called “The Way”. It combined meditation with a monastic tradition and quasi-magical utterances (mantras) meant to turn the mind away from evil karma, which they said was the cause of the plateau’s troubles.
Villages and cities were established around monasteries in the southern and central provinces. Much of the male population destined to become warriors, bandits or merchants instead took on robes at the monasteries and put their energies to good use, crafting items of protection, performing healing rituals and studying and copying the Thousand Scrolls of The Way. Because the missionaries were so successful at taming the demons and spirits of the wild and reducing strife in the community, The Way has become influential. With that has come of course the corruption and strife that comes with human institutions, and of course the demons and spirits are capable of subterfuge.
The average home has a small shrine to the Enlightened One, the Great Gurus or to a local protector deity. They leave offerings outside their tents and sing mantras as they go about their day. This focus on protection and good deeds has enabled the family to live longer and feel safer. They believe their bad deeds could lead to rebirth in the hells, or as animals or hungry ghosts. Their goods deeds cold lead them to rebirth in the heavens, but if they devote themselves to the Great Guru or one of his servants, they will be reborn in a secret land where one may meditate and work toward enlightenment for many eons.
There are four main NPC classes here. Horsemen replace fighters, Monks are clerics and cleric/illusionists, Lamas are cleric/rangers and Yogis are Illusionists (with psionic powers if applicable in your game).
If your rules have a barbarian class, this is an excellent fit for the plateau. Take the class, add riding and archery skills and apply no penalty to attacks when shooting from horseback. Their horses are able to travel a quarter further than common warhorses without tiring. In mountainous terrain that would normally slow a mounted party, native horsemen suffer no penalty.
While some clans have specific traditions and codes, just as many serve as mercenaries to local lords, demons and wizards. In lands of the peaceful way, warriors have either become bandits or anointed themselves protectors of holy men and pilgrims. These last can be found on the paths leading up from the south, sometimes turning away foreigners and adventurers while allowing pilgrims and monks through.
Monks are not the AD&D masters of the martial arts. A few of them are low level clerics, capable of casting various spells protecting, blessing, healing, curing and clairvoyance. While individuals might live up to their code and vows to varying degrees, all monks follow a lawful good path. Even those who have previously been thieves and murderers are allowed to follow The Way (albeit with careful supervision).
Treat most monks as simply 0 level humans of Lawful Good alignment. They have renounced the world and joined a monastery where their energies are turned towards copying books, building holy sites hard labor to improve their karma. They follow a strict code of pacifism and renunciation. There are literally hundreds of vows of renunciation they must take.
Monasteries are headed by an abbot, who is the spiritual head of the community. Treat NPC abbots as cleric/illusionists with no combat ability They can cast spells simply by concentrating, without the need for speech or gestures. They usually have healing, curing, protection, clairvoyance and illusionist spells prepared. They emanate a bless spell and protection from evil spell at all times with a radius of 10 feet/ cleric level. Abbots typically have one level in both classes for every 50 monks in their charge. High-level abbots are revered as avatars of saints and Buddhas.
Monks are easily recognized by their maroon and yellow robes and shaved heads. They always have rosaries called malas with them. They have taken vows of celibacy, non-killing and will not take intoxicants or steal. (In extreme situations, they would if it prevented harm to a living being). All monks can cast a protection from evil spell ritually. The power of this spell should ‘stack’ if cast by multiple monks.
Monasteries serve many functions. The spiritual had often acts as a magistrate if no local warlord exists. Monasteries buy many blankets and consume great quantities of firewood, butter, milk, and salt. Well-respected monks travel the countryside performing protective ceremonies, pacifying ghosts and teaching practices meant to pacify the spirit and generate positive karma. There are a few nunneries, but their locations are kept secret to protect their inhabitants.
Monasteries serve as stand-ins for keeps. Use them as sources of shelter, quests or mysteries. A haunted or abandoned monastery works well.
Nunneries also exist, although they are rare and their locations kept quiet.
Lamas are trained in ritual practices. They are capable meditators, healers and lore masters. In some cases they are also monastics, but they are usually part of the lay populace. Some even have families and homes. Many travel between villages. Depending on your rule system, treat them as non-combative ranger/clerics. In addition to their normal spell allotment, they can perform ritual versions of any healing, curing or protective spell. These require material components (hallucinatory herbs, pure water, rice, gold, etc.) and take one hour per spell level to perform. Lamas are sitting ducks to physical attacks during these, but magical protection circles are a standard beginning for all rituals.
Lamas who have taken monastic vows are still part of this class, although they are also 0 level monks.
Yogis and yoginis are men and women who have abandoned their homes (or monasteries) to pursue meditation in remote places. Most of them are normal 0-level people, but once in awhile one of them will attain a level of realization that immediately puts them at the level of an illusionist of fifth or higher level. These accomplished yogis and yoginis usually want to be left alone, but are often hounded by jealous demons or eager students. They will use their powers of illusion to avoid detection or to educate these eager passersby.
A Note on Morality
Monks, lamas and yogis, are prohibited from taking life or causing harm in all but the direst circumstances. In fact, a monk, lama or yogi would not kill in self-defense. For this reason, they make poor player character classes. In no circumstances would they associate with “murder hobos” who kill monsters and loot them. They would, however, do harm if it were necessary to prevent a great tragedy (harm of a child or of many innocents) and it were clearly the only option. Morality in this land is not what the law or tradition or a king says, but what causes harm. Also note: don’t play these NPCs as hippies or wimps. They are also not vegetarian as there are no vegetables here. Adventurers should not assume, however, that everyone they meet in a robe is trustworthy. There are charlatans, thieves, spies, doppelgangers and weak-willed individuals as well.
Demons here can mean genuinely evil-minded demons of most RPGs, elementals or semi-spirit creatures such as dryads or sirens. Many have a reputation with the locals who know them by name. They feed on ignorance, fear and conflict. They resist the monasteries by killing wandering monks, caravans bringing goods to monasteries and in some cases hiring mercenaries or infiltrating the monks.
Many demons have a sorcerer apprentice who does their bidding.
Demons are the main Bosses of this setting and while are spoken of a great deal, they shouldn’t be over-used.
Some demons are converted to The Way by powerful lamas and gurus. Lower-level demons might become dakinis or helper spirits. Medium-level demons convert to guardians of locales or protectors of sacred treasures. The most powerful become wrathful deities who use their horrific appearance in the service of The Way.
Demons do not suddenly lose their powers or become sweetness and light after conversion. A demon might continue to protect his mountain, for example, from those whose greed has lead them to try to steal treasures. Instead of actually killing adventurers, he might enslave them for a few centuries or polymorph them into animals or make them experience death only to awake in a remote village.
If killed, demons are banished to another plane. In this case, we’ll say the hells of the Buddhist cosmology.
These powerful female spirits might manifest as old crones, young demon girls or as giant dancing goddesses half-dressed in bone garlands. Their appearance and energy is always feminine. Treat them as efreet or djinn. They travel between planes, see the past and future. They absolutely might kill someone and then immediately resurrect them to show the illusory nature of the world. They are pure mischief and generally mean trouble. They are excellent for giving quests to parties.
These Monster Manual staples are human-headed snake demons. They are usually dangerous and untrustworthy, but a few employed as guardians of great treasures of The Way.
Most bodies are ground up and fed to vultures, so undead are not so common here. A sorcerer might animate a corpse to do his bidding. These are called rolangs. They are mid-to-high level undead and should not be treated as zombies. Rolangs, it is said, can kill by casting their shadow upon someone. Those dead become a rolang at the next sunset unless burned and there is a ninety percent chance they will not be under the control of any master at all. Rolang walk stiffly, with their arms out. Every house has a low door to keep them from entering at night.
Lamas, monks and yogis know rituals to dispel them. If a DM wanted to have PC monks, lamas and yogis, a party or rolang-hunters would be appropriate.
There are lost-spirit ghost and there are hungry ghosts, or pretas. Lost spirit ghosts are the same as in your game–undead spirits and/or plot movers. Pretas are spirits with giant stomachs and small mouths, who are always hungry. For gaming’s sake, you can make them hungry for human flesh, brains, blood…
There are animals that speak human languages here. They are rare. Most will not be helpful unless bribed or caught. Treat them as the animals behave in fairy tales.
Witches, Sorcerers, Dopplegangers, Penengalens, Giant Animals and Bandits
The plateau should be just rife with these.
Use Chinese dragons, not western wyrms.
Many of the world’s most powerful artifacts and magical items can be found on the plateau, often on the world’s highest peaks. These are usually items that cannot be destroyed but also cannot be allowed fall into human or demi human hands.
There is almost no gold, silver or diamonds on the plateau, but lapis, turquoise and other precious stones serve as currency in the larger markets. Salt, meat, butter and livestock are the most important items of barter. Iron, steel, tin and precious metals are brought in via caravan.
Relics are considered great treasures. Any body parts of holy people such as bones, hair, skull cups, femur horns and so forth are considered sacred and valuable. You can use these as the macguffin for many adventures.
Even the locals will tell you there are places that fold and twist between the mountains, cities that can only be found during the worst snowstorms and valleys from which travellers never return yet are never found frozen.
Some of these are secret lands occupied by saints and yogis of centuries past. Others hide entire communities hidden from the ravages of time, war and disease. Some conceal doors to other planes. Shambhala, or Shangri-La, is one such hidden land.
If you want, replace resurrection in your game with some form of reincarnation. Coming back from the dead was not an option in the Way. Moving forward is, however. Have a PC roll a new character but with the same memories. How did he get old enough to adventure? You figure out a way. One tradition is the magical transference of consciousness at death into another being. But whatever you do, don’t make it a respawn. Make it something that has to be worked through.
A TPK is an opportunity to take the party through the bardo, a place between lives. Here they could encounter tests, traps and peaceful and wrathful demigods within a mandala-shaped palace. Google it and have fun.
Clockwise is good. It keeps the clean hand toward the center. Many pilgrimages and rituals involve circling a holy object or structure in a clockwise direction. Counter-clockwise is bad.
Prayer wheels, cylinders with mantras printed on them, are ubiquitous in civilized areas and common in the nomad’s camps. They can be small and handheld or giant and part of the architecture. They are always rotated clockwise. They can be used for designing puzzles where specific syllables or letters must be matched.
Wheels used for transportation or work are considered tasteless. The wheel is a symbol of The Way.
Flags with prayers printed on them provide protection from evil in windy places. Count them as minor protection spells whenever the wind blows.
Tea is served with butter and salt. Butter is also used in lamps.
Hospitality is a paramount virtue. Even an enemy would not dishonor his name by harming a guest or turning away someone in need of shelter if anyone might know about it. Guests are expected to behave themselves and accept any and all food and drink offered until full. One does not refuse a meal because it displeases, only when one has already had enough to reasonably claim to be stuffed.
The dead are fed to vultures. If the vultures do not eat the body, this is seen as a sign of bad deeds.
It is a great honor for a family when a son is accepted as a monk or lama in training.
I have taken care not to tie this setting to closely to Buddhism, but it is a natural fit. If you want to add realistic flourishes, research specific historical figures such as Padmasambhava, Milarepa and Gesar of Ling. Real meditative deities and art can be used. In most cases, it is the trappings that matter in the game, not the actual beliefs. Using made-up names and ideas is perhaps more respectful.
At its core, the Way, which is the stand-in for Buddhism in this setting, should be about non-harming. This sets the stage for tension with the violence-loving demons and the warriors who have ruled for millennia. This also prevents high-level locals from becoming a deus ex machina.
I have left out some important aspects in the name of simplicity: tantric aspects of Buddhism are very misunderstood in the west and I think better to leave out. There is also a long tradition of reincarnated teachers who take over their predecessor’s role (the Dalai Lamas are the most famous of these). I have left this out as well, but you can do a little research if you want to use these elements.
- For foreigners, just making your way up the paths to this part of the world is dangerous. Sprinkle steep paths with classic giant animal monsters (a vulture-like roc) and of course a (or the, your choice) Yeti. Mounted warriors seek to turn away anyone they don’t deem a holy man, scholar or genuine pilgrim.
- A hidden terma (treasure scroll) has a spell that repels the rolang. You are given a few clues and must escort a lama to find it. She is, however, a demon in disguise.
- A prominent abbot has passed, and a stupa (tomb) is being prepared for his interment. Protect the body from relic-seekers and the stupa from demons that would ruin it before it is finished. A single drop of blood on the unfinished stupa defiles it completely.
- There is a monastery that has abandoned the belief of non-violence and is training its monks in destructive sorcery. You must bring as many of them back into the fold as you can, but cannot trust them all. You have been given a bound rolang to help you sniff out deceivers. Be careful not to break that leash.
- A dakini has tasked you with hiding the path into and out of Shangri La. Will the party be able to resist the temptation to stay? Why would they need to obscure the way out?
The high plateau sits about 5000 meters above sea level. It should be the highest or nearly the highest region in your gaming world. To the north and far below are vast grassy plains. To the east and northeast, a desert. To the west are lower mountains and hills and to the south there is a large, rainy subcontinent. This geography assumes the wind and moisture comes from the south, hits the side of the mountains and returns down as mighty rivers. The rain shadows are north and east. If the winds come from another direction, adjust the rain shadow accordingly.
The southern part of the plateau is warmer and more humid, but never getting warmer than 16 degrees C (60 F) during the rainy season (May to September). In winters, it gets to -16 C (3 F). In the north, it ranges from a high of 10 degrees C (50 F) in the rainy season to far below freezing depending on altitude and wind.