Story by Martin
WELCOME TO THE TUMBLEDOWN WORLD, a world of superstition and valour, of duelling ideologies and deeply-held faiths, of magic and dirt and mystery and, most of all, a world built on the shoulders of fallen giants. Literally.
My campaign is set in a world that’s coming out of a 700-year long dark age following an event known as the Tumbledown. Things aren’t quite post-apocalyptic anymore, although that depends on who you talk to – the elves, for example, may not agree with this assessment (see below). Seven centuries ago, a vast empire ruled much of the known world but was swept aside in a great cataclysm the nature of which remains a mystery. When this empire fell, it left few signs of its passing. Barely any ruins or cities remain, and its inhabitants left behind no written records. Though the popular wisdom is that the empire was a human realm, scholars are still undecided even on this. When the empire fell, it came tumbling down. Hence the name that it’s most commonly called, the Tumbledown Empire.
But there is one thing that everybody knows about the Tumbledown Empire. The one thing that it did leave behind, it left in abundance: the rusted and broken remains of thousands upon thousands of colossi, enormous metal statues that walked the earth, powered by slave labour and forgotten magical arts. Ruined colossi dot the land like discarded suits of armour on a battlefield the size of a continent. This is how the full extent of the Empire is defined: if you find yourself within two days’ travel of a colossus, you’re still within the former borders of the Tumbledown Empire.
Three Big Rules
When I began designing this campaign setting for my Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign, I decided I needed a few high-level guidelines of how the Tumbledown World would work. Everything that myself and the players developed in the world would have to refer back to these guidelines, even things that violated these rules – for as everyone knows, the best rules are those that can be broken the most spectacularly. So, these are the Three Big Rules I came up with:
1. No empires, no gods. Basically, I didn’t want a world that could be described by a list of kings or conquerors. In this world there would be no emperors or iron thrones, no dynastic lineages going back for thousands of years. To be sure there would still be politics and power in the Tumbledown World – this is no happy utopia, folks – but I wanted to draw on other traditions than feudalism or imperialism. Religion of a sort would still exist, but I didn’t want deities interfering in the world of mortals. There would be clerics – this was D&D, after all – but the sources of their power, while still divine after a fashion, would be decidedly not god-like.
2. The past is a mystery. I’m a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, so I decided to build a high-fantasy campaign setting that incorporated some of the tropes and conventions from this genre. The main thing I wanted to bring across through from the post-apocalyptic genre was the idea of forgetting. In the Tumbledown World, no-one is entirely sure what befell their world. What happened to the Tumbledown Empire? Who built the colossi and why? How did we end up in this mess? A relatively short span of recorded history and a forgotten past would be hallmarks of all cultures in the Tumbledown World. Except, again, for the elves.
3. Everyone has to pick sides. I wanted to design a setting where there would be no bystanders in the drama of this broken but slowly-recovering world. From the outset of any campaign or adventure in the Tumbledown World the players would find themselves having to make moral and political choices that went beyond mere adventuring.
In this Games vs Play post I will lay out some of the key aspects of the Tumbledown setting and then add other pages as I keep fleshing it out. Stay tuned for new links!
The ruined colossi are the defining feature of the Tumbledown World. For the inhabitants of the Tumbledown lands, uncovering the mystery behind the colossi is a preoccupation bordering on obsession. To some cultures and saintly cults the colossi are symbols of a lost golden age when giants literally strode the earth; to others, the broken statues are reminders of oppression and slavery. Attempts at studying the colossi have stimulated the growth of disciplines as diverse as anatomy and cartography – the first maps made after the Tumbledown cataclysm were treasure maps showing the location of various colossi. For less idealistically inclined adventurers, the colossi also represent a rich source of salvage in the form of iron, precious metals and magical apparatuses.
The idea for the colossi came from a number of different places. The original Colossus of Rhodes was of course a key source, but I’m also a big fan of Francisco Goya‘s paintings of giants striding across murky landscapes (left) and Henry Fuseli’s drawings of classical Roman statuary lying in pieces (above right). The other source for the colossi is much more modern – I like the idea of giant mecha in the style of Pacific Rim, and decided I wanted to have a medieval version of mecha in this world.
The geography of the Tumbledown Lands
The Tumbledown Lands span a territory on a continent in the southern hemisphere of this world stretching several thousand miles east to west and a variable but lesser distance north to south. Their northern extent are defined by a range of great barrier mountains known variously as the High Knots, the Great Knots or the Palymnian Knots. Beyond the High Knots lie deserts and wild lands populated by goblin tribes, orc nations and half-legendary creatures such as St Crespīn’s Viper and the magdalanian cactus, key ingredients in the manufacture of the reality-bending drugs Dominion and same-same. Further north again but still part of this continent are the tropical highlands of the Spice Mountains, famed for their exotic spices and blue-skinned human inhabitants. No overland routes exist to the Spice Mountains, which are only accessible from the Tumbledown Lands by a long and perilous sea voyage.
To the south of the Tumbledown Lands stretches the Rift of Khaitan, a vast inland sea separating the northern, civilised cultures of the Tumbledown Lands from the barbarian nations of Khaitan. It’s not known whether the Rift is a true inland sea or rather a bloated strait dividing two separate landmasses. Certainly the western reaches of the Rift lead to the open ocean via the treacherous Sea Gates – this is the sailing route to the Spice Mountains, after all. But the Rift’s eastern reaches have never been fully mapped, and it may be that the Tumbledown Lands and Khaitan are joined in the far east to form one giant supercontinent.
The Tumbledown Lands have a mainly temperate climate, tending towards the Mediterranean the further north one goes. New Dowager City, the greatest city in the western part of the Tumbledown, is approximately 38 degrees south and has a changeable temperate climate modelled on my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. South of New Dowager City a mosaic of islands dot the Rift in glittering chains. These include Grand Sinopia, the large, mountainous island that faces New Dowager City across the narrow straits of the Broken Calf Passage; the Trans-Sinopic Isles, famed for warlocks and dark magic; and the Khashkhett Archipelago, a drowned maze of several thousand isles and islets that only a native sailor would dare navigate. Khaitan itself, lying further south across the waters of the Rift, is significantly cooler. Its northern coasts are hospitable enough, resembling parts of Great Britain and France, but further south the deep cold takes hold across boundless tracts of coniferous forests and tundra. No one knows how far south Khaitan extends, perhaps even to the pole.
Humans live throughout all the Tumbledown Lands, the islands of the Rift and across the wilds of Khaitan. As in most D&D settings, humans are the most populous of the sentient races, though not always the most powerful.
There are no human kingdoms or empires. This means there are no kings or queens, no feudalism, and no knights – at least not knights in the sense of vassal lords who have sworn fealty to a higher ruler. The highest level human polity across the Tumbledown Lands is the city state, but even many of these lack a central government or ruling elite (see below about freehold versus commonwell cities). Most humans live in broadly defined rural cultures based around networks of towns and villages, such as the people of the Drombroggian Knots, a region of hills and badlands a few days’ ride north-west of New Dowager City that also happens to be one of the richest sources of salvage for colossi.
Human city states are divided into two types. Freehold cities are usually ruled by noble families aspiring to titles like Count/Countess or Duke/Duchess. These city-states have highly structured social hierarchies of serfs, commoners, merchants and nobles, though their political influence rarely extends beyond a day or two’s ride from the city walls. Most freehold cities began as fortified settlements held by a local warlord or village headman that managed to resist the chaos and mass migrations that occurred directly after the Tumbledown cataclysm.
Commonwell cities are the opposite to freeholds. The defining feature of a commonwell city is the lack of a central government. Typically large and densely populated, commonwell cities are made up of sovereign and largely self-supporting colonies and neighbourhoods united only by the loosest of civc alliances. In New Dowager City, for instance, the only city-wide authorities are the waterworkers, the wall-builders and the thieves’ guilds. It might help to think of a commonwell city as being more like a coral reef than a human city. The first commonwell cities began as refugee camps following the Tumbledown – their name comes from the shared water wells around which these camps sprung up. Later, when these refugee camps became more permanent settlements, other commonwell cities were founded that deliberately followed the same decentralised and anarchic model of government.
Two of the most famous cities in the Tumbledown Lands are New Dowager City, the largest of the commonwell cities, and Broyssen, a rising freehold power further to the east.
New Dowager City
New Dowager City, or NDC as it’s known to its teeming inhabitants, is a port city located in the western part of the Tumbledown Lands. Built on a hilly peninsula projecting into a narrow strait separating the mainland from the thickly forested island of Grand Sinopia, New Dowager City is the largest, richest, most influential and most chaotic of the commonwell cities. Separated into several dozen independent neighbourhoods called themes, New Dowager City exemplifies everything that’s best and worst about the commonwell way of living. With over 1.000,000 inhabitants drawn from all races, cultures and ways of life, NDC is home to the largest elvish ghetto in the Tumbledown Lands and the largest colonies of blue-skinned Spice Montagnards and Khaitani barbarians outside their homelands. It also hosts a clutch of heavily fortified, extraterritorial dwarven enclaves, each attempting to outdo its neighbour in the construction of multi-storey stone skyscrapers.
In NDC every drug, vice and dark thrill can be entertained. With a notoriously complex and corrupt legal system based on the three pillars of custom, contract and challenge, NDC enjoys a reputation for anarchy and lawlessness from one end of the Tumbledown Lands to the other. Nevertheless, the dowagerfolk will tell you that they are the freest people in the world. New Dowager City has no patron saint of its own – it’s far too mixed up to have just one saint looking over it – but is named after the Lady Dowager, a colossus that closely resembles New York’s Statue of Liberty except that NDC’s Lady Dowager is almost completely submerged in the city’s harbour, with only the top of her crown and upheld torch emerging from the waters.
New Dowager City will be the first urban setting I’ll work on for the campaign. I like to think of NDC as being a high fantasy combination of tenth-century Constantinople, nineteenth-century Hong Kong and modern day New York. But its weather is definitely Melbourne’s – four seasons in one day, and no two days alike.
Common character types from New Dowager City: all races and classes, though paladins and rangers would be a rare sight in NDC.
Broyssen and the Eliandish Lands
Rich from trade, ruled by a solid central government and protected by a professional standing army, Broyssen is the freehold city that every other freehold city aspires to be. Like NDC, Broyssen is also a port city (albeit a river-port), but that’s where the similarities end. Located at the confluence of the Eliande and Moyen Rivers in the central Eliandish region, Broyssen is ruled by House Rovellas, a noble family whose patrilineal head has taken the title of High Duke, a translation into Common of a dwarven word for a hereditary ruler (House Rovellas claims part-dwarven ancestry, though this is hotly disputed by the noble families of rival freeholds). Through several generations of secure rule House Rovellas has built Broyssen into a rising power, with the city grown rich from its position at the crossroads of trade. Spices, drugs, and other exotic goods come from New Dowager City to the west, amber and timber are ferried up from from Khaitan to the south, while dwarven metalwork and battlesuits arrive from the east. Broyssenards are famed throughout the Tumbledown for their never failing but sometimes rigid sense of honour and duty, values which are reflected by the city’s patron saint, Saint Peroval, champion of righteousness and rebuilder of past glories.
Broyssen is the largest city located in the broad and fertile lands drained by the slow-flowing Eliande River and its many tributaries. These lands form the most densely populated human region of the Tumbledown world. Other notable Eliandish locations include the conjoined twin cities of Vaste and Vaude, paired freehold and commonwell cities that share a river, a set of city walls and several centuries of mutual distrust and enmity; Cartelonde, headquarters of the Holy Flagellant Order of St Croyss; and the Vale of St Chantrey, birthplace of the dancing madness known as St Chantrey’s Jig. Veneration of the Hallowed Saints is strongest across the human communities of the Eliandish lands, and the region is known for its many millenarian movements and holy orders of paladins and monks. With so many mouths to feed, it’s no coincidence that the Eliandish lands are also the source of countless human fighters and adventurers who find coin as mercenaries in the armies of the dwarven princes, or who take up holy vows to fight in the human-orc frontier conflicts collectively known as the St Calen’s Land Crusades.
Common character types from Broyssen and the Eliandish Lands: Human fighters, paladins, clerics, monks, bards, rogues, wizards and warlocks (though the latter are often persecuted as witches); halflings and occasional dwarves; rarely elves.
The elves (O Maturīn)
The high elves of the Tumbledown Lands are a diasporic culture without a home. They live primarily in urban ghettoes in the larger of the commonwell cities, where they are usually tolerated though rarely accepted by their human neighbours. Less commonly the elves will live in freehold cities, where their position is often more precarious. Scattered communities of wood elves exist throughout the forests of Grand Sinopia and the Trans-Sinopic Isles, and there are reports that refugees from the elven cataclysm made it as far Khaitan, where they have adapted to life in the cold pine forests of the south.
The elves lost their homeland centuries ago in a cataclysm that they refuse to speak about but which appears to be part of the general chaos that accompanied the fall of the Tumbledown Empire. Many non-elves, and especially humans, believe that the elves’ unwillingness to talk about the past is a sign of guilt, and that the elves themselves are responsible for the fall of the Tumbledown Empire. Resentment towards the elves runs high in many human communities, periodically boiling over into vicious attacks and pogroms directed at the elvish ghettoes. Half-elves experience even worse discrimination and often go to elaborate lengths to conceal their elvish ancestry when living or travelling among humans, such as wearing long scarves or hoods to conceal their pointed ears.
For their part, the elves are a culture living with collective post-traumatic stress. Because of their long lifetimes the events of the Tumbledown cataclysm that led to their exile are still raw, having only happened a single generation ago. Many elves see their ghettoes as temporary refugee camps which they will eventually abandon, with the result that they rarely engage with the non-elf communities surrounding them. In the Tumbledown Lands the otherworldly hauteur usually associated with elves has turned in upon itself, and most elves live withdrawn, reclusive lives. Elvish adventurers are a rare sight in the Tumbledown Lands, and are often greeted with intense curiosity and suspicion.
Obviously I’ve modelled the elves of the Tumbledown upon the experience of Jewish communities in Europe during the Middle Ages. The main difference, however, is that when they choose to use it the elves can still wield considerable power, both magical and military. A side-effect of being so long-lived is that most elves have trouble keeping up with the pace of events in a human-dominated world. Things simply happen too fast for the elves to respond with their due consideration, and so more often than not they let anti-elven taunts and attacks slide. The way the elves see it, these are just briefly unpleasant episodes that will soon pass and be forgotten. However, when the outrages grow too great the elves have been known to finally sally forth from their ghetto walls in great force, joining the hosts of other elvish ghettoes to march on the offending communities and raze them to the ground.
A note on names. The elves call their original homeland “Elwen Ewess,” which translates roughly as “the lost forests.” The Common words for “elf” and “elven” are thus derived from “elwen,” such that “elf” actually means something like “the lost ones.” Elves find this mildly insulting (though they have learned to live with it), and prefer their own word for their people, “O Maturīn,” which translates loosely as “shining face.” The long bar or macron over the letter “i” in Maturīn makes the sound similar to the nasalised “ai” sound in French, as in the words pain (bread) or main (hand).
Common character types from the Elvish Diaspora: elves and half-elves of all classes (obviously!)
The dwarven principalities
Taken collectively, the dwarves of the Tumbledown World are a force to be reckoned with. If the fall of the Tumbledown Empire can be likened to the extinction of the dinosaurs rather than the collapse of the Roman Empire, then the dwarves are the small, furry mammals that emerged from their burrows once the smoke had cleared to fill out the empty ecological niches. Since then the dwarves have flourished and risen to unexpected power and prestige.
The dwarves of the Tumbledown World are more numerous and more fiercely interested in playing an active role in the events of the world than they are in many D&D settings. After coming down from their mountain fastnesses after the fall of the Tumbledown Empire, the dwarves have carved out some two dozen glittering principalities spread across several hundred square miles of the fertile Plain of Pontosh. The dwarven principalities are ruled by aggressively independent princes, dukes and popes, all of them caught up in an intricate game of shifting alliances and constant warfare. Human mercenaries are a common sight in the dwarven principalities, where the humans’ greater numbers and ability to replenish their losses more quickly make them a valuable asset to the dwarven princes (the dwarves’ nickname for humans is “long rabbits,” for reasons that I think are obvious).
Missing their ancestral mountains, dwarven princes built their cities around artificial mounds or cores raised above the surrounding countryside, giving the appearance of small mountains rising from the plain. More recently, noble families have started to compete with each other in who can build the tallest stone towers. Dwarven cities are architectural wonders to behold, their small area (compared to commonwell cities like New Dowager City) made up for the height and sheer density of buildings. The dwarves are also the only culture in the Tumbledown to have successfully back-engineered the technology and thaumaturgy behind the colossi, albeit only partially. The idea of building giant colossi powered by slaves, however, is utter anathema to the free-thinking and independence-loving dwarves. Their engineers have therefore taken the technology behind the colossi in a different direction, building single-person “battlesuits” that are essentially twenty-foot tall medieval mechas. Few sights are as intimidating as a dwarven noble wading into battle in full battlesuit, towering over dwarven and human fighters alike.
I’ve modelled the dwarven principalities on the northern Italian city states of the early Renaissance. Just like the rulers of Florence, Milan, Verona and the rest, the dwarven princes are also great patrons of the arts and scientific achievement. A visit from a dwarven ruler is an event of great pomp and circumstance, and dwarven nobles, warriors and artists are often given rock star treatment in human communities.
Common character types from the Dwarven Principalities: all dwarves and gnomes; human fighters, bards and wizards; rarely human clerics or paladins.
The Hallowed Saints
There are no gods in the Tumbledown Lands, but a type of truncated religion does exist. Instead of deities, prayers are offered to a vast and bewildering array of Hallowed Saints. There are patron saints for everything – most often for places or communities, such as Saint Peroval who looks over the freehold city of Broyssen, or Saint Chelmo the Pilot, the patron of the Drombroggi people. But there are also saints for bakers, librarians, candlemakers, drug couriers and professional wrestlers. Saints are overwhelmingly humans, but dwarven saints exist, and there’s even one or two elvish saints (though the elves never worship these saints themselves).
The one thing all the saints have in common is that they were once mortals who have ascended to Paradise. Ideas of what this “Paradise” looks like vary wildly from one Saintly cult to the next, as do the means of ascension. Some Saints gained sainthood by living especially pure and pious lives. Others were martyrs, who died in typically gruesome deaths. In a way the saints of the Tumbledown are a little like superheroes – each has an origin story, each has a special power, and all have a flaw or weakness.
Many Saints are connected with the fall of the Tumbledown Empire. Some are seen as defenders of the Empire; Saint Peroval, for example, is revered as the restorer of a future golden age. But there are also saints who are opposed to this vision, Saints of Reason and Logic who stand as bulwarks against the power of irrational belief, whom are themselves contrasted with other Saints whose followers preach an End of Times when the injustices and inequalities of the material world will be destroyed and all races will ascend together to Paradise.
Saints are worshipped at chapels or shrines. Shrines generally house relics associated with the particular patron saint, and also often incorporate pieces of colossi. For instance, the shrine of St Chelmo in the town of St Chelmo’s Helm is built into an enormous metal helmet believed by devotees to be part of the colossus once piloted by St Chemo.
The cult of the Saints has given rise to many strange and outlandish millennial movements. Parties of flagellants, orders of questing paladins, and victims of the dancing madness are common sights across the Tumbledown Lands. For my inspiration here I’ve drawn on the millennarian movements of the early European Middle Ages. Norman Cohn‘s outstanding and at times almost unbelievable history of this period, The Pursuit of the Millennium, was my primary source for these ideas. It’s a truly amazing book, one that I go back to every few years and discover something mind-blowing that had escaped me previous times.
One last note on religion – the only people who worship true gods are the barbarians of Khaitan. According to the civilised peoples of the Tumbledown Lands, this is the exact reason why the Khaitani are such atrocious barbarians. The gods of the Khaitani are strange and alien to Tumbledowners, and indeed the Khaitani often fear their deities as much as they revere them. In addition to the Barbarian class, Sorcerers and Warlocks are also common character types among Khaitani adventurers, as these two types of magic-users typically derive their power from contact with the eldritch gods of deep Khaitan.
So, this is enough for an overview of the Tumbledown World, the campaign setting I’m developing for my D&D 5e game. As I continue to build the world I’ll add links in this story to other pages with more information. Any comments, suggestions or swapping stories from your own campaign settings are all very welcome.
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Image sources: Nemrut Dag (including banner image) – UNESCO; Henry Fuseli, Drawing of a figure seated before gigantic antique fragments – Tate; Francisco Goya, The Colossus – Wikipedia; medieval Constantinople – Mystagogy Resource Centre; hand from the Colossus of Constantine – Wikipedia; Statue of Liberty in frozen lake – WUWM 89.7; Statue of Liberty hand and torch – How Tall is the Statue of Liberty?; Lubeck, 15th century – Wikipedia; Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog - Wikipedia; medieval towers of San Gimignano – Pinterest; Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Dance at Molenbeek – Smithsonian; Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium cover – Amazon; flagellants – Wikipedia.