While Adventurer Conqueror King can be used to simulate a broad variety of fantasy settings, we do have a well-developed default setting for the game, called the Auran Empire. The Auran Empire fills the role that, e.g, the Imperium plays for Traveller, that Greyhawk played for 1st edition AD&D, and that Night City played for Cyberpunk 2020. So what is the Auran Empire setting like? To make sure all of our authors and designers were on the same page, we created a "setting bible" which defines its themes and feel. I've excerpted some key areas for you below:
- Built for Gaming: A fantasy RPG setting needs a reason for wandering heroes to travel into the wilderness, fight monsters, and take their treasure. Thus towns and castles must exert control only over a local area, with outlying regions infested by robbers and monsters. Empires must have collapsed and lands grown depopulated in order to provide a source of ancient ruins and treasure, and an ancient war or wild magic must have created terrible monsters that, in the declining age, can no longer easily be held in check. The Auran Empire setting was defined with these needs in mind.
- Genre: The setting is adventure fantasy, not high fantasy. Adventurers seek fame, power, and loot. Nobles live in luxury while slaves toil in misery. Human cities teem with vice and villainy. Virgins are sacrificed to chthonic cults. The characters may be adventurers like Conan, or willing heroes like Aragorn, but they are not reluctant heroes like Frodo.
- Era: The era is historically akin to the age of Late Antiquity circa 350AD as the Roman Empire slipped into the Dark Ages. Opulent long-standing empires are shattering in a tidal wave of violence. It is not the Middle Ages and the tropes of the Middle Ages (knights in shining armor, chivalric orders, and so on) are not strongly present.
- Theme: The overall theme is of decline and fall of a great empire. Characters may simply be scavengers and vagabonds feasting off its corpse, or they may choose to be heroes fighting to save what they can. Good is not certain to win, and indeed the odds are stacked against it
- Cultural Analogues: The Auran Imperial culture is based on Late Rome/Byzantine Empire. The Sunset Kingdoms of the west are akin to Indo-Persian civilization. The North is akin to German (Anglo Saxon) civilization. The Skysos riders of the far west are based on the Asiatic mounted hordes (Huns) that threatened the Late Roman Empire. Northern Elven culture is Celtic British, assuming it had not been Romanized. The deceased classical elven civilization is “Atlantean” (hypothetical Bronze Age with both Greek and Egyptian motifs combined with early Christian burial practices). The deceased Thrassian (Lizard-man) civilization is inspired by Aztec civilization with an Assyrian aesthetic, while the deceased Zaharan civilization is inspired by Babylonian, Egyptian, and pre-Hellenistic Persian civilization. The early Auran Empyrean era civilization is Heroic Age Greco-Roman (Illiad, Aeneid). This creates a wide range of settings, ruins, and landscapes for adventure.
- Pagan Religion: The gods did not create the world, nor are they omnipotent or omniscient; and they fight each other to control the world, not to redeem it. As such, religion is a powerful force, but does not dominate Imperial society. Ammonar’s worship is akin to the worship of Sol Invictus in the Late Empire, or the Byzantine Christian Church (i.e. subordinate to the Emperor, rather than vice versa). The other Empyrean gods are mystery cults popular with different factions of society, much like Mithra, Isis, etc. The Chthonic gods are worshipped by various city-states in the Sunset Kingdoms, much like occurred in the ancient era, and there priest-kings are common.
- Alignment: The setting assumes a perpetual struggle between Law and Chaos, but not in a sense of “good” and “evil”. Law represents humanity and its works; Chaos represents inhumanity and its alien works. To have an alignment is to have chosen a side in this perpetual struggle. Most people, choosing no side, are Neutral, although most Neutral humans enjoy the protection of Law. (To paraphrase George Orwell, Neutral humans sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because Lawful heroes stand ready to do violence on their behalf.) Human vices, such as greed, lust, and vanity, are widespread and common; the true enemies are characterized by inhuman vices, insanity, wanton destruction, cannibalism, necrophilia, and so on. Evil is all-too-human, but chaotic is something both less and more than human.
- Heroic Morality, Not Modern Morality: “With great valor comes great reward.” Like Achilles and Beowulf, and unlike Spider-Man, heroes seek out fame and fortune. A beautiful wife, chests of gold, magnificent weapons, and grants of land are considered by all to be the rightful rewards for great deeds of valor on behalf of Law. Wealth is a positive value, a symbolic measure of a man’s worth.
- When the Planes are Right: The Material Plane, a great crystal sphere made up of all the elements, floats within the center of an infinite silvery sea known as the Astral Plane. Above the Material Plane is the Empyrean Heaven, source of law and goodness. Beneath the Material Plane is the Chthonic Darkness, the source of chaos and evil. Ringing the Material Plane are the four Elemental Planes of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. These positions are not static, for the 4 Elemental Planes and 2 Outer Planes metaphysically orbit around the Material Plane, interacting with it and each other. Depending on their current location, the Planes are considered in one of four states: Ascendant (close to the Material Plane), Descendant (far from the Material Plane), Conjunction (actually touching the Material Plane), and Eclipse (furthest from the Material Plane). The planes were set adrift from their natural orbits when the Tablet of Destiny was shattered, and their movement is now partly dictated by spiritual factors as well as physical law. The shifting of the Outer Planes, which is part of the struggle between Law and Chaos, is greatly correlated with, but not causal of, great historic events. One such great event, the Awakening, looms as a possibility in the future.
- There Is No Destiny: The Tablet of Destiny was shattered in a primordial age. Fate is adrift, and the outcomes depend on the will of men and the whims of chance. Gods and heroes can seek to influence the outcome but there is no assurance of a happy ending. In game terms, PCs can and do die, the Awakening may or may not come to pass.
- Magic is Natural but Mysterious: The setting’s level of magic is equivalent to what the ancients historically believed magic to be capable of; which is roughly the implicit level of magic in B/X Dungeons & Dragons, not the high level of magic assumed in 3rd Edition or 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. It is wrong to treat magic in a scientific manner, because the entire society is pre-scientific. It is equally wrong to treat magic as fundamentally non-comprehensible, either. Instead, magic is considered part of “natural philosophy,” which is the pre-scientific manner that classical thinkers attempted to understand the world. Physics and metaphysics are not yet distinguished; an alchemist is both a scientist and sorcerer.
- Weird Science: Ancient civilizations from long-forgotten eras had advanced in scientific knowledge beyond what is known to the setting. Ray-guns, death rays, floating packs, grenades, and laser-swords can be found in rare and out of the way places. The ruins of the elves and Zaharans are comparatively recent (circa 3000 years old) compared to these far more ancient artifacts.
- Monsters were Mostly Created: While some creatures, such as dragons and unicorns, are natural to the world, most monsters, including giant vermin, undead, all aberrations, and all evil and monstrous humanoids, were created, either when the Tablet of Destiny was shattered, or by the elves, Thrassians, and Zaharans as slaves, pets, and soldiers. As such they are innately unnatural and should be destroyed. PCs need have no moral qualms about killing orcs, undead, and so on.
- Literary Inspirations: Key inspirations for the setting are R. E. Howard’s Conan stories; Lin Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria series; Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone and Hawkmoon series; David Gemmell’s Drenai series; R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series; and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.
Hopefully you find this setting as exciting and appealing as we do! But, of course, if you hate it, it's easy enough to ignore. There's nothing to prevent you from using ACKS with your own favorite setting, Rob Conley's Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Gygax's Greyhawk, Arneson's Blackmoor, or anything else!