It is a time of war, of a resurgence of things past; a time of instability and uncertainty. This is not a “black and white” war, with clearly defined villains or heroes. Each side has its fair share of villains, and each side has spawned just champions supporting its causes.
Eons ago, there was another such war, and it tore the world apart. In those ancient times, powerful wizards ruled the battlefields. They fought one another for supremacy, or to protect their kinsmen, or simply because they had been driven mad with unchecked power. Entire nations burned beneath their conflict, and the race of orcs stepped forward, crawling out of the mountains and underground caverns where their race was born. They had once been simple-minded, weak creatures like the goblins, but the uncontrolled magics tearing through the fabric of reality had changed them, made them stronger, smarter and, above all, war-like. They rose up as one, and struck against the races of men, elves, hobs and dwarves, carving themselves a place in the very heart of the land.
Then came the Oath-Sworn. This was a feared order of mages and warriors, jointly governed by elves, men and dwarves. They vowed to stop the rampant, reckless abuse of magic, to restore the balance of natural order, and to end the bloodlust of the terrible orcs. They were swift and true, and they destroyed most of the wizard warlords within the span of a single season. But they were unable to thwart the orcs, for the orcs had also learned the ways of magic, and thought to use it solely as a weapon.
In the end, it was the orcs that destroyed themselves. Their power grew far beyond their own abilities to wield and contain it, and their warlike nature turned inward upon itself. War chiefs rose and declared themselves the rulers of all orc-kind, only to be taken down by other, stronger orcs.
The details of the end of the war are lost. What is known is that the final blow happened deep within orc territory, in the very heart of the land. There was a great burning, and the thick, ancient forests were turned to smoke and ash. The gentle, rolling hills were rent into jagged, rocky wastelands, and the orcs fell silent. That area became known as the Black Hills.
The dwarves were horrified by this. They swore an oath to forever leave the surface world, which they thought had been utterly ruined by this terrible war. They soon vanished from the surface, and were not seen again.
The elves retreated to their forests in the far east, where they turned their focus to restoring the balance of nature, and maintaining that order.
Men and hobs settled in the north, south and west, forming the three Great Nations (Norric in the north, Weyral in the west, and Arwei in the south). Magic was all but forgotten to them, in part because of the workings of the Oath-Sworn. Those who discovered magic independently were scrutinized by the elves, and their motives and actions carefully judged. Those who passed the judgement of the elves and were considered stable and responsible were given permission to pursue their studies and were actively encouraged in their art. Those who failed to meet the standards of the Oath-Sworn were stopped.
Eventually, the orcs rose up again from the wastelands known as the Black Hills, but they were somewhat changed. They were still strong – much stronger than men – and were intelligent enough to survive the incredibly harsh, hostile conditions of their environment, but their bloodlust and fervor had quieted down. They were still a warrior society, savage and brutal by human standards, but the ceaseless battle-rage had faded from their hearts. The Black Hills returned to a natural, green state, and though it was nothing like its former glory, the orcs thrived there.
The Great Nations of Men took shape over thousands of years, defined by natural, geological boundaries, and this was generally a peaceful time. Some conflicts arose from time to time, as they always do, but these were swiftly resolved.
After a time, the orc tribes began to grow and expand, and were forced to push beyond the borders of the Black Hills. Some tribes relocated in the west, and the peaceful ones were permitted to establish new tribal ground within the nation of Weyral. The nation of Norric, bordered on all sides by mountain ranges, refused to let orcs step foot on their lands and fiercely defended their borders, occasionally sending military campaigns into the Black Hills to crush the tribes on the fringes and keep them pushed back. Arwei, which was a collection of soverign states nominally ruled by an emperor, did not allow tribes to establish lands in their nation, but did not discourage the immigration of displaced, tribeless orcs.
Occaionally, the ancient bloodlust would resurge in the orcs, and several tribes would unite under a single ruler to wage war with a neighboring land. For the most part, these uprisings were short-lived and lasted only as long as the great warchief remained alive, quickly falling apart when he was dethroned or killed in battle. One Great Warchief, Gudakh, stood taller than the rest, however; Gudakh was a wise and powerful general, who managed to briefly unite every tribe in the Black Hills. His goal was not to wage war, but to expand orcish territory to accomodate his peoples’ growing numbers. Unlike previous uprisings, his warriors were organized and disciplined. He delegated power to his chiefs, gave the orcs a common goal and a means to achieve it, and gave all orcs a code to live by, which became known as the Axioms of Gudakh. The Axioms set forth a rigid, hard code of honor, putting the tribe first above all other things.
Gudakh’s campaign was more successful than anyone would have imagined. His armies pushed out of the Black Hills to the west and south, far past the borders of Weyral and Arwei. His armies established themselves in the regions now called the Borderlands, and it is said that Gudakh is the only Great Warchief to ever die of old age, though this is probably false. He is revered to this day by most orcs, and his teachings are followed religiously by some tribes.
The Oath-Sworn have, until recently, managed to keep the spread of magic tightly controlled, fearing that an uncontrolled spread would lead to another apocalypse like the one that happened millennia ago. All non-elven wizards were closely monitored, forced to submit to regular reviews. Those who were found unworthy were silenced – some killed outright, some taken to the elven homeland, Edann, and others entombed in the mountains where they could do no harm.
For thousands of years, this worked well. However, a number of events transpired that changed the course of history.
Firstly, a powerful elven wizard, who operated independently of the Oath-Sworn and lived in the nation of Weyral, was killed in a bizarre conflict. He had made friends with a dangerous man named Dereyn, unwittingly indebting himself to this person, and when that man’s personal and professional problems built to a head, they were both murdered by an ex-convict who had kidnapped and seduced Dereyn’s wife and turned her against him. Some time after the wizard died, his lair was ransacked by a group of organized thieves. The thieves studied his works and took everything, making many copies of his writings and selling them for outrageous sums to any that would pay. They did this in the name of freedom, believing the elves and the Oath-Sworn to be tyrants who were bent on keeping all non-elves ignorant and powerless. They truly believed their cause was jsut, and they found a great many people who supported these beliefs.
Elsewhere, the elves had been entombing people in the mountains. What they did not know is that the dwarves had claimed the mountains as their home, and had carved an ever-expanding civilization out of the rock. Some of the entombments happened to land inside the dwarven halls, and these rebel wizards soon found that the dwarves had vast stores of ancient, powerful knowledge. The dwarven halls were an inescapable prison for some, a never-ending maze of corridors and passages and mine tunnels with no exit to the surface world. Furthermore, the dwarves were now unaccustomed to alien visitors, having not seen a surface dweller for thousands of years, and they did not know how to deal with these strange, hasty people.
It is not known why the dwarves decided to eventually return to the surface. What is known is that the dwarves did not feel that such a return was a betrayal of their ancient oath, and that when they did return, they came out in force. The dwarves still remembered much of what was lost – the crafting of powerful magic artifacts, for example – and the power of their convictions made them nearly unstoppable. They quickly overtook the nation of Norric, believing the rulers to be oathbreakers, and claimed that land as their own.
Many Norricians fled south and west from the mighty dwarven armies, but found themselves in hostile lands, as their rulers had declared hostility against the Oath-Sworn and a great war had ensued.
The dwarves sent diplomatic envoys to neighboring lands in an effort to restore peace and order, but the spread of magic had once again grown far too large. Once again, the orcs had discovered magic, and the confusion of the Norrician war against the Oath-Sworn had proved to be fertile breeding grounds for orcish bloodlust.
To make matters worse, many of the rebels who had bought stolen lore had grown in power. Some of them commanded cities in Weyral and Arwei, and declared themselves independent nations. The Great Nations of Men shattered, and the entire continent once again found itself embroiled in a terrible war.
During the height of the conflict, there are four chief factions:
1) the Oath-Sworn, led by the elves of Edann, the king of Weyral and the Emperor of Arwei. Their goal is to bring down the power-mad warlocks and rebuild the Great Nations of Men, to re-establish peace, and to restore the balance of nature. Some view their methods as needlessly harsh, but the elves are goverened by their pursuit of the greater good and natural order.
2) the Independents, rebels who believe the Oath-Sworn are oppressive tyrants. These groups are only loosely affiliated according to the whims of the warlords who command them, and they are widely varied in ideology.
3) the Orc Nation, which is ruled by a Warband of great, powerful chiefs. Some human settlements, particularly those in the borderlands, are affiliated with this group, some of them even by choice. The orcs fight simply because there is fighting going on, though some will proclaim loftier ambitions.
4) the Dwarven Nation, led by Grand Steward Bengrd and the Guild of Smiths. The dwarves believe that the Oath-Sworn have forgotten the meaning of their ancient oaths and no longer fight for order and justice. They believe the Independents and the Orc Nation are agents of chaos and destruction and must be put down. In short, they will not choose a side in this war, but will fight on all fronts to re-establish law and order. Their ultimate goal is to restore lawfulness and peace to the continent, and then to return political power to the rightful rulers of men, elves and hobs.