The campaign concept I'm calling "Motley" has one of the weirder settings out of the big campaign idea list. The basic idea behind the whole thing is to let the my group play weird gothic horror creatures and fight other gothic horror creatures, as well as to play up the idea of the wilderness the way humanity used to see it: as a vast darkness full of dangerous things, crowding in on the fragile lights of civilization. So, of course, I went with a pseudo-Eastern-European setting with a pre-20th-century tech level.
The country of Zerfaule (zair-FOWL) is a temperate, low-lying, land-locked nation of thick forests and the occasional swamp, bordered on almost all sides by mountains. Its government was, until recently, a weakly constitutional monarchy sharing power (unwillingly) with a cunning and semi-corrupt religious hierarchy. It's a largely rural nation, supported primarily by farming, along with some light hunting and logging. Technologically, most of the country is nearly medieval--with some of the more isolated farming communities still using crossbows--but its towns have gaslight and plumbing. Electric lights, crude radio telegraphy, and combustion engines are cutting-edge technologies that have only begun to develop. Zerfaule has very little trade or contact with other countries, but has had a bitter rivalry with neighboring Eisen for so long that the roots of their enmity have passed into myth.
Zerfaule's neighbor to the north-east, Eisen (EYE-zen) is a cooler, rockier nation, with slightly more advanced technology. Its mountains are rich in metal ore, and mining is its primary industry. While it's as landlocked as Zerfaule, it managed (until recently) to trade with the wide world through its neighbor, the small, coastal nation of Olin. Its government is an oligarchy that supplanted Eisen's monarchy through popular revolution, and then promptly became nearly as closed and repressive as the system it replaced.
The primary religion of both Zerfaule and Eisen (generally referred to simply as "The Church" in both nations) venerates a pantheon of virtuous and heroic human beings who are believed to have ascended to sainthood. These saints are humanity's connection to the vague, distant angels who created the world. There are some differences between the churches of the two countries: Most notably, Zerfaule's branch is ruled by the Supreme Hierophant--considered to be the voice of the saints in the mortal world--and does not recognize the newer saints claimed by Eiesen. Other than the two churches, countless tiny, illegal cults hide in isolated rural communities, worshipping demons and other things from the wilderness.
The history of the entire region was changed forever when an Eisener scientist named Staum Morgolak (STOWM MOR-go-lak) obtained copied of books thought lost hundreds of years ago in the destruction of the Great Library of Katatz (ka-TATS). With these, he rediscovered the forgotten art of alchemy, and improved upon it greatly through his own genius and the modern scientific method. Among other miracles, he invented a treatment to restore a semblance of life to the dead, and found that purpose-built creatures--surgically assembled from varied components--could be given not only life, but terrifying power. Morgolak's first successful creation--named Arku (AHR-koo), after the mythical first man--so impressed the Eisen government that they immediately employed him to create alchemically-animated soldiers for use against Zerfaule.
Morgolak's greatest achievement is a thin, dark green, foul-smelling fluid which restores a kind of life--at least activity and utility--to dead tissue which is properly saturated and electrically stimulated. Human beings reanimated by this process retain fuzzy memories of their previous lives at best, and greatly diminished sensory faculties. If the process is applied improperly or the subject isn't sufficiently fresh, mental capacity and motor control are also impacted. However, the reanimated do possess great strength and resilience, as well as a near insensitivity to pain. They do not heal normally, but are easily repaired by a trained surgeon, and it's theorized that they will never age.
The poster children of Morgolak's new science are a motley breed, composed of cunningly-assembled human parts with a variety of animal and inorganic components as well. A typical patchwork soldier will have two or more mortal men's weight in human skin, bone, and organs, augmented with the muscles of bears or horses, the eyes of a wolf, and some amount of internal or external metal reinforcement. Some of its organs will be wholly artificial devices, particularly filters built to mitigate the problems of a metabolism sustained by Morgolak's alchemical elixir. Additional weapons or other war-worthy components might be added to the patchwork as required, and modifications after the initial animation are entirely possible.
Eisen's patchwork army quickly made it the unquestioned dominant power in the region, able to extort goods, political concessions, and even land from Zerfaule and Olin with very little actual violence. That all changed the day Dr. Morgolak's young protégé, Lupor Harko (LOO-por HAHR-ko), defected to Zerfaule. Exactly why he did it remains a secret, but he brought with him all of Morgolak's discoveries and his own brilliant mind as well. Zerfaule began a secret and frenzied military buildup, emptying its graves and slaughterhouses and prisons for raw materials. Harko's first batch of patchworks were imperfect things, but they were the first patchworks made with real war in mind, as well as the first made to fight other patchworks.
The War of Monsters
When Zerfaule finally struck back against Eisen, the greater power was caught entirely off guard. But it was far from enough to break Eisen's stranglehold on the region, and the War of the Monsters dragged on for six years. In that time, unspeakable numbers died on both sides. Great and terrifying new technological leaps were made, both in the fields of alchemy and mundane engineering. A new kind of inhuman soldier was deployed by both sides almost simultaneously: the homunculi, living creatures created from scratch through alchemy. Towards the end of the conflict, Dr. Morgolak disappeared while travelling (and is presumed dead), and the commander of Zerfaule's forces, General Orku Gorskovoi (OR-koo GOR-sko-voi), maneuvered himself into ever greater power while the aristocracy hid in their fortified mansions.
The newest creatures in the world, and alchemy's greatest achievement, the homunculi are a technology that has yet to come into its own, or even truly be formalized. Eisen and Zerfaule each developed a variety of ways to produce the creatures--including such bizarre methods as simmering vats of chemicals, man-shaped molds, huge eggs buried in the earth, and skeletons constructed out of tree roots--and the incredible variety of shapes and powers these creatures can take is still being explored. Essentially, however, a homunculus is a living creature--usually humanoid in form to one degree or another--created from a complicated bath of alchemical substances and some small amount of biological material, usually human blood. They be created with various chemical and physical abilities--some of them quite bizarre--and range in appearance from unspeakably hideous to weirdly beautiful to almost perfectly human. Their main disadvantage as weapons of war in comparison to patchwork soldiers is that they know nothing at all at birth, lacking even the hazy memories that allow a newly-animated patchwork to walk and speak.
The war's end
After six years, Zerfaule extracted a conditional surrender from Eisen. Both nations are at peace largely because they can no longer wage war, and Eisen is nominally the loser because of its dangerous position between Zerfaule and Olin. Effectively, however, both Zerfaule and Eisen are a shambles: their infrastructures are shattered, a whole generation of young soldiers is devastated, alchemical poisons blight the land, bandits and would-be warlords emerge to take advantage of the chaos, and the ancient, inhuman powers of the wilderness are closing in. Zerfaule's king and church hold power only in name, while General Gorskovoi wields the only real power left in the nation, and the old guard of Eisen's oligarchy have been executed or exiled.
The land beyond the towns and farms of both nations is a wild, dangerous place haunted by mysterious and unfriendly beings. Dense and tangled forests, stinking black swamps, mountains of forbidding stone--all places beyond civilization's reach teem with supernatural terrors that are, at best, resentful of the upstart race of Man.
- Vampires — Any human corpse not properly sanctified (or mutilated) and exposed to the dark influence of the wild could potentially rise as a vampire. A newborn vampire is an animalistic thing, stinking and rotting, with no fangs or special abilities, and only the vaguest memories of human existence. Drawing on these, is makes its way to civilization, attacking on the first people it finds (frequently, of course, its memories lead it to its own family) and feeding on their blood and flesh. If it survives long enough, and feeds often enough, its decay reverses, it becomes frighteningly intelligent, and it gradually gains in supernatural power. Vampires burn in sunlight, but slowly. The quickest and surest way to kill one is to destroy the head or heart, or to separate the two through decapitation.
- Werewolves — Rumored to be mortals who either sold themselves to a demon for power or were simply exposed to unhealthy amounts of moonlight out in the wilderness, werewolves do not precisely turn into wolves, but into vague approximations of the most powerful and dangerous beasts the people of the region know of. These forms naturally contain much of the wolf and the bear in them, although stranger things also show up. Bull-like horns and even vast, useless wings have been seen on some werewolves. They are strongest and wildest in direct moonlight, but otherwise are uncontrolled by the time of month or day. They are cursed creatures who can sometimes will themselves to become beasts, but almost never have any control of themselves when transformed, and inexorably go mad even in their human forms.
- Fairies — Powerful, amoral spirits who create physical bodies for themselves from the stuff of the natural world. These bodies tend to be small as a matter of convenience, but can have any size or appearance. Fairies are capricious, immortal, genderless, self-centered, unstable, and possessed of terrifying powers of illusion and mental manipulation. They admire art, music, and fine clothing, but lack the intelligence and creativity to create anything of value for themselves, and so they steal from human beings and kidnap musicians and craftsmen. As they rely on the raw stuff of nature to grow new bodies for themselves, they bitterly resist human efforts to push back the wilderness. They do not reproduce naturally, and instead steal human children to instruct in the soul-bending powers of their kind.
- Goblins — These are simply fairies who, for whatever unfathomable reason, have been exiled from their people and cut off from the source of their powers. Without these, the are merely physical creatures. Their bodies become twisted and corrupted, still endowed with great strength and the potential for immortal existence, but no ability to restore themselves. This experience or the limited existence that follows drives the ostracized fairy even madder than it previously was. Lacking any means to avenge themselves upon their own kind, they instead tend to inflict their bottomless rage upon humanity.
- Demons — Demons are disembodied spirits, stranger, more solitary, and generally more powerful than fairies. They aren't necessarily malevolent--they don't need anything from mortals or from the wilderness that humanity threatens--but they are certainly amoral, unpredictable, and obscure in their motives. They might harm or even aid people on a whim or out of vanity. Many seek to be worshiped, to be given sacrifices, to have shrines built in their honor. What they demand of their cults and give in return depends on their tastes and moods. They are the greatest mysteries and powers of the wilderness, the most potentially dangerous, if the least actively threatening.