Century of Iron: A setting concept for D&D 5E

O what a great time is this century of iron!
– Voltaire, Le Mondain

NOTE: This article was first published in French, my native language. Let me beg your indulgence for every time you’ll see me stumble in this shaky English prose.

La version originale en français est ici.

Well this is it, it’s settled in my mind, I’m going for it: I want to start playing Dungeons & Dragons again! Sure, I could join an existing group as a player, but I feel a burning desire to create something more extensive than a single character. I want to create my own campaign. Not only do I want to take up the challenge of stepping into the role of Dungeon Master, I also want to create my own setting. Fortunately I have an idea that’s been haunting me for the past few years: to take my players to the Age of Enlightenment. This is the Century of Iron.

I’ll admit: this is an ambitious project. If I had a shred of intelligence, I would start small. I’d find an easy-going group and shake the rust off with a few adventures before trying a stunt like this. But if there’s one thing I’m not it’s reasonable so let’s see where I can take this. I’m challenging myself here and I’m inviting you to this show, whether it ends well or not. Whatever happens, the following acts should be interesting!

The setting

Let’s start with the basics: what makes an interesting setting? In my opinion it’s its specificity, what it does that no other setting does with as much complexity and/or intensity. The official settings that felt the most captivating to me in the last twenty years or so were those that showed the most originality:

  • Dark Sun with its implacable deserts and its magic system that literally killed the environment
  • Spelljammer with its space ships that would take the characters from sphere to sphere
  • Eberron with its semi-steampunk aesthetic and its twisted cosmology
  • and finally my favorite, Ravenloft, the inescapable, with its tragic villains and its choose-your-own-gothic-tales!

(Conversely I never really liked the Forgotten Realms. It always seemed to me like a big amorphous potluck, without any purpose or direction. Come to think of it, it might be what made it so popular: being so generic, it’s also most malleable.)

The main differentiator for Century of Iron is the historical advance it has over most of the typical fantasy worlds set in an approximate medieval Europe. By « historical advance » I don’t mean only technological progress, even though there are a lot of examples. Firearms, optics, clockworks, Vauban fortifications, the ubiquity of printed materials, the first steps of modern medicine – all of these and more will have an obvious impact on the game mechanics ad the stories we get to tell.

This historical advance is also  – and mostly – manifest in the minds of the time. Starting a few centuries ago, the forgotten sciences of the Ancients have started to come back to light. Since this leap back is perceived as a return to the true sources of knowledge, it’s called a « renaissance ». Paradoxically, these ideas from the past suggest a more luminous future. Men and women of genius start questioning the preconceived ideas around them. They start addressing problems – social or technological – in a novel way, turning away from outworn conventions. For these Rationals, no challenge is too great for he who applies the full force of his Reason.

(In our own very real History, we called this revolution the Enlightenment.)

But, under the stern gaze of Reason, some worry of sacrificing too much on the altar of insensitive intellectualism. What remains of a man when the soul stays silent and only the head governs? When an era gets thrust under such a harsh light, it is bound to cast some harsh shadows. It would be imprudent to ignore the power hiding in this darkness, as it would be folly to neglect the strength that Passion is capable of. When you must face the firing line for your friends, when you need to unveil your very soul before ancient powers, when you have to choose to do what is good rather than what is profitable, the Passionals are who you’ll find on the forefront.

(And in our very ordinary world, we called this resistance the Romantic movement.)

Thus Century of Iron will feature two remarkable differentiating elements: a relatively modern technological context as well as a society in full ideological boil.

But a setting is nothing more than a stage in a theater whose wings are filled with backdrops, costumes and props. It calls out for plays. The theatrical season we set up is the campaign.

The campaign

A good campaign needs a central conflict. It will serve both as a theme and a narrative thread for all the adventures we’ll want to put our players through. Since Century of Iron is modeled after some already conflicting movements of history, it gives us a ready-made opposition that can easily serve for dramatic plotting.

Indeed the budding dynamic between the Enlightenment and Romanticism at the end of the 18th century can be boiled down to a very simple conflict: Reason versus Passion.

What’s interesting in this type of conflict is that it’s complex enough to steer away from the « good versus evil » conflict. Reason and Passion can both lead to the best as well as the worst outcomes. The former allowed Science to progress by leaps and bounds while the latter elevated Art to the highest peaks of creativity. However, one like the other have opened the way to unnameable horrors when pushed to their extremes.

This conflict is subtle enough to step back from clear-cut dichotomies and provide matter for richer stories than a simple fight between good and evil. All characters – be they controlled by the Dungeon Master or players – should find their place along the spectrum between the poles of Reason and Passion, without however remaining perfectly still.

Moreover the central conflict that we’ve chosen can be split into many sub-conflicts on which to base adventures. Let’s consider the following examples:

  • The City versus the Countryside:
    « The city is a haven of civilization. It’s an impenetrable fortress against the dangers of the wilderness outside its walls. »
    in opposition to
    « The city is a place of damnation, filled to the brim with deviants who have turned their back on their humanity. It’s only by keeping away that it’s possible to live a healthy life, in accordance with the natural order of the world. »
  • The Nobles versus the Commoners:
    « Nobles have been blessed from birth with a naturally greater soul. This blessing however comes with a heavy duty towards the lower-born. »
    in opposition to
    « What makes you an aristocrat or a commoner is the happenstance of birth. Anyone can attain greatness but while the nobleman has the advantage of his title, the commoner has that of the habit of labor. »
  • Humanism versus Religion:
    « The gods might truly exist but it is the priests who make the laws. All of recent progress comes from the labor of man not the priests’ prayers. We can do without the mumbling of cultists. »
    in opposition to
    « Man should remain humble before the breadth of Creation and the mysteries therein. His limited mind cannot grasp the unfathomable depths of the gods’ plans. He needs guidance. »
  • Technology versus Magic:
    « What was yesterday an unsolvable riddle is today but one of the Universe’s many cogs. We still do not see all of these cogs, we do not know how they work together, but we do know they exist… and they await discovery! »
    in opposition to
    « It is of little importance to know how the Universe works if it still escapes your control. Academics are welcomed to scrutinize each part of the Great Machine. We Mages will make it run as we wish! »
  • Tradition versus Progress:
    « Every day that goes by pulls us away from what our elders knew. They were closer from an ancient revelation than we’ll ever be from a future truth. Our duty is to strive to preserve this treasure of knowledge before it disappears forever – at any price. »
    in opposition to
    « It’s crucial to let go of the crutches of the past and to walk by ourselves towards new ideas. Daily we find new ways of being and doing. What changes profits and survives. What stagnates dries up and dies. »
  • The Known versus the Unknown:
    « Everything that is harmful hides in the dark. Light must strike everywhere darkness lurks still so we can see what remains to be seen.. By understanding everything, we fear nothing. »
    in opposition to
    « We’ll never see the end of all mysteries… and it’s better like this. There are things that are hidden for a good reason: man should not wake what dreams of destroying him. »
  • Culture versus Nature:
    « We are born as amorphous clay. It’s up to us to shape ourselves into something more complete and useful. Nothing is more tragic than a life wasted in ignorance of one’s own potential. »
    in opposition to
    « Look to the oak: it has no ambition to become a tree… still it grows. Everything follows a course outlined by nature and reaches its destined purpose. To fight against this fate is as futile as hoping to see an acorn grow into a goat. »

Pondering this shows how the Century of Iron setting can be a fertile ground for narrative developments that can engage players interested in a certain type of roleplay – one founded on complex characters and nuanced dramatic situations.

At least that’s the plan!

Aesthetics and mood

It’s important to make of Century of Iron more than « Dungeon & Dragons with tricorn hats and muskets ». To make sure that the differentiation is more than cosmetic, we need a special « mood board » featuring the following:

  • urban environments
  • plots based on reputation, politics, business deals and sentimental relationships
  • immaterial treasures such as prestige titles, art, access to exclusive social groups and knowledge
  • antagonists with untouchable public faces
  • stakes hinging on difficult compromises with social mores
  • light equipment that will take on the role of art pieces for wealthier characters

Conversely, the setting also needs to have its darker side. We can then surmise that the above bullet points should be contrasted with:

  • forgotten locations far from urban centers
  • communities that have fallen behind technological progress
  • monstrous antagonists whose barbarous ways shock more civilized characters
  • strange powerful relics hidden away in dangerous ruins
  • ancient knowledge extracted from the mists of time

Thus in the Century of Iron a +2 sword is not a simple piece of loot taken from a generic dungeon; it’s the weapon that the maréchal inherited from his great great grandfather and which he takes to court even though the enormous flamberge draws oblique stares from the foppish courtiers.

Furthermore, the following can serve as inspirations:

  • Movies
    • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
    • Amadeus
    • Dangerous Liaisons
    • Brotherhood of the Wolf
    • Quills
    • Sleepy Hollow
  • Video games
    • Assassin’s Creed Unity
    • The Council
  • Music
    • Joseph Haydn
    • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    • Antonio Vivaldi
  • Painting
    • Jacques-Louis David
    • Jean Honoré Fragonard
    • Antoine Watteau

And now what?

The most perilous trap to look out for is to try and create too much too fast. Hence I want to follow the most frequent piece of advice I’ve seen so far: I won’t do more than what is necessary to give my players a good time.

The next step will be to write an introduction adventure for Century of Iron, preferably one featuring many of the elements brought forth in the Aesthetics and mood section. Thus this adventure should constitute a pretty good proof of concept for the setting as well as a swell initiation to roleplaying in a more modern fantasy universe.

However, as a way of limiting how much effort this will take – and perhaps also because I’m eager to go from design to practice – I’ll create pregenerated characters for the first group of players. This strategy will allow me to offer some select novelties to whoever is curious about the setting without having to re-do all of the classes in the Player’s Handbook.

Well, I hope you won’t hold it against me if I let you go so abruptly but I just realized all of the work I have to do. The next time we speak about Century of Iron, I’ll present the outline for the introduction adventure and – maybe! – you’ll get to see some pregen characters!

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