To Fly on Metal Wings
The Aetheria is a world I created in 2008 for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign which I ran from September 2008 until May 2009, my senior year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. That campaign, “To Fly on Metal Wings”, saw the development of the Aetheria from a small idea I had about how awesome it would be to play in a world of islands in the sky into an increasingly-more-fledged world that (I like to imagine) caught the imagination of my players as much as it did my own.
I’d like to imagine that this world will continue to be viable and appealing for years to come. To that end, this introduction is meant to serve as a way for people who aren’t familiar with the Aetheria to get a basic overview of how it differs from the sort of world you might be expecting. Information contained in here, then, is aimed at universality. Many things change between campaigns, depending on when and where the campaign is set, and the canon for the Aetheria is also fluid; at best this is a good starting point. For more detailed or specific information, follow the links to the specific sections.
The Aetheria consists of a sea of sky with islands of various sizes floating/flying in it. These islands are subdivided into three rough levels. The uppermost layer resembles an asteroid belt, flush as it is with small, rocky islands that tend to travel at high speeds and occasionally crash into each other. The middle layer is composed of many larger islands, mostly flat on their uppermost surface (thus generally possessing earth-like geography. These travel at much more leisurely speeds, and almost never collide. They tend to be arable, and in many cases are incredibly fertile. Large bodies of water are rare, but frequent rainfall in most part of the Aetheria ensures that there are few ‘desert’ islands. The lowest layer is comprised of the largest islands, termed ‘continents’ by the inhabitants of the Aetheria. Their geography varies drastically even within the confines of a single continent (as is typical of such large landmasses), and they travel at extremely slow speeds. They have the most earth-like geography, with large bodies of water, rivers, and even some tectonic activity.
Above the uppermost islands is a thick layer of frigidly cold white mist, and below the continent is an impenetrable cloud of purplish fog, crackling with lightning. None have ever crossed either and survived. The sun and moon can be seen through the mist most of the year, but the stars are visible only when the mist is at its yearly nadir.
Traditional DnD worlds tend to rely pretty heavily on the idea of ‘planes’, alternate realities which are concomitant with an earth-like material plane. For most people living in this world, these alternate planes might as well not exist, but adventurers interact with them and their expatriates (known as outsiders) with alarming regularity. The Aetheria does not follow this model. There is a sort of afterlife, or so some religions claim, but there are no elemental planes, no heavens, and no hells.
The Aetheria is a big place, and a dangerous one. Explorers have never been able to circumnavigate it (is it even round?) and in fact few explorers who leave the area we call the Known Aetheria ever return. What lies beyond its ill-defined borders is the subject of much speculation, but these amount to little more than rumors and tales of places that are the stuff of dreams, or nightmares. What is known is that beyond the Known Aetheria there are on every side increasingly inhospitable environments that have never been successfully crossed. In these dangerous realms any number of strange creatures and races reside. On rare occasions, truly fantastic creatures appear in the Known Aetheria, claiming to come from beyond its borders. Most are charlatans, for the Known Aetheria and its shadowy borderlands are large and diverse enough to hide all manner of strange creatures, but perhaps a few of these wanderers speak the truth.
The Great Basin region
Let us zoom in even closer, to the part of the Aetheria where you are likely to spend most of your time. The Great Basin is a large storm-wracked area in the south-west of the Known Aetheria where no islands can be found. Islands drift around the Great Basin, but as far as anyone knows, none have ever drifted through. Few attempt the hazardous journey through the Basin, and only those who know when to accept defeat and turn back have survived to tell tales of enormous sky monsters, terrible storms, and a haunting sound in the wind. Surrounding the Great Basing, however, are many important islands. It is here that “To Fly on Metal Wings” took place, and it is here that you, too, will be adventuring.
The Aetheria calendar is based on cyclical changes in mist thickness that mark out a period of time roughly equal to an Earth year. There is also a ten year cycle of waxing and waning wind strength with serious implications for travel and commerce in the Aetheria.
The typical DnD races are present to varying degrees in the Aetheria, though there are some noteworthy differences.
- Halflings do not exist, or at least have never been encountered by other races.
- Elves, after centuries of decline, left the known Aetheria for the outlands en masse some 600 years before the present date. Rumors abound that a few scattered clans remain in the upper islands, but these are likely no more than tales.
- Half-Orcs do not exist, as orcs and humans are not reproductively compatible. Full-blood orcs are common on the continent and in the middle islands, and statistically identical to half-orcs.
- Half-elves are stupendously rare, except in myths and legends, even before the elven exodus.
- Goblins are a common PC race.
- Were creatures of every variety are common in some parts of the Aetheria, particularly in and around the islands Chukos, Drakar, and Greater Nemoi.
- Many anthropomorphs from the outlands beyond the known Aetheria have immigrated over the 900 year history of the current era; some have integrated well, but many of them have been marginalized by a human and gnome dominated society that views them no better than beasts to be tamed and used or feared and expelled depending on their tractability.
- The natural life spans of elves, humans, gnomes, goblins, orcs, and anthromorphs vary only slightly.
- Elves and orcs are approximately the same height, much taller than humans, but elves are significantly less muscular than orcs.
The Aetheria is an unapologetically racist place: organics mistrust emotionless automatons who consider organics to be unpredictable fluid-sacks; the other races worry that Goblins will steal their children and break their nice things in the night, but the Goblins remember a long history of slave-like servitude to the taller races; Gnomes know they are infinitely superior to all other races, and aren’t afraid to flaunt it; Elves remember a time when they were the chosen acolytes of the old Gods, gifted with immortality that they have since lost, and an even more recent era when they were unstoppable masters of the sky, and the dwarves, shut up as they are within their ancient citadels, know little of an outside world they consider dangerous and unpleasant.
The Aetheria is, strictly speaking, a low magic world. This is complicated by several factors. First is that there are several varieties of magic in the Aetheria:
Arcane magic, being the magic of sorcerors and wizards is more properly referred to as Resonant Magic. Concentrations of resonant magic sufficient to allow spell-casting are rare, so spell-casters of this type and magical items based on it are necessarily rare and expensive. N.B. Mages wielding resonant magic require an arcane focus in the same way that clerics require a divine focus. Staves and wands are typically, but not universally, favored.
Some who practice this magic lack the skill to perceive or manipulate the resonance directly; instead they focus it through a normally-mundane activity like playing a song, reciting a poem, or weaving a basket. The magical effect of a bard’s song is still resonant magic, and though Bards may recognize that their songs have magic-like effects, they perceive the resonance through the lens of their craft; very powerful bards can hear the resonance as though it were music, and very powerful basket-weaving mages can see its flows knitting themselves together into the wicker sides of an arcane basket.
Technomancy uses the principles of science and technology, combined with low power applications of resonant magic, to mimic the much rarer and more difficult effects of resonant magic. Its great promise, the Technomancers claim, is to put magic in the hands of the masses. Technomancers require technomantically prepared equipment to fully apply their powers. For example, a powerful technomancer wants to cast a fireball. However, unlike his resonance manipulating friend, he does not have the power to simply utter the magic words and conjure one from thin air. He must have a technomantic focus which has been imbued with the ability to technomantically enhance the small amount of power the technomancer channels through it. Llewellyn Danielson’s Arcantrik Gauntlet is a perfect example of a technomantic focus.
Divine Magic represents the abilities of the gods and lesser divines, and the powers granted by these beings to their supplicants. When a god casts ‘Flame Strike’ they are not manipulating the forces of nature to ignite the air, but rather they are applying their own personal divine power to the task of creating, ad nihilum, an enormous column of fire. In theory this magic has the greatest potential to destabilize the careful balance of elements in the world.
Innate magic, also known as natural magic, is similar to divine magic, but, when wielded, it usually functions without the conscious control of the wielder. Innate magic runs through the world, and many believe that ‘fate’ is a form of innate magic which guides the streams of life along certain paths (others argue that Fate itself is a divine entity). It is widely believed that druidic magic is the conscious manipulation of the world’s innate magic. In this way druidic magic resembles the divine magic practiced by supplicants to the gods.
At the end of the last age, sometimes called the Enlightened Age of Man, or the Waning (or Wasting) Gods Era, a mysterious event of great import occurred. The nature of this event has been aggressively debated, with no consensus to date. Perhaps the secretive record-preservers of RATATOSK know the truth of the event, but if so they have not seen fit to reveal it. During the Year 0 War, instruments recording fluctuations in divine energies throughout the skies detected a massive surge in divine energy unlike anything that has been seen before or since. In the years afterward many phenomena were ascribed to this event, but most noteworthy was the remarkable extension of life enjoyed by rare and exceptional individuals. Some saw their lifespans doubled, others tripled or more, as the physical aging process slowed to an imperceptible pace. The scholars of the Collegiae call this the Year 0 Mytho-Cosmological Event, but in common parlance it is called Loki’s Last Gift, but no two stories agree on why it bears that name.