dire wolves have been seen about the town.
fiery pools are opening underground.
the ocean lost its hold over the Deep.
the Old Blood spell now fails to turn the feet.
there's a God and a Hell that can't believe in themselves anymore.
what had once seemed demons dream of all they once were before.
the Lady of the Mountain has lost control of the Wild Hunt.
both the Djinn and the Fae have been poised to reconquer this world.
the Lightbringer's banners are once again being unfurled.
it seems fear itself
might just rip our small world apart,
and now none may doubt
what's been concealed inside each human heart.
When I first started working on Golden Age a few years ago, I have to admit my ideas were a bit fanboyish and one-sided. The original concept for the game came out of my passions for mythology, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Islamic Spain (also called al-Andalus). I wanted to show a historical period in which the convivencia of Muslims, Christians and Jews created a society in which literature, art, and science flourished in a way rarely seen in European history (let alone the Middle Ages). Cordoba was the ornament of the world, featuring technologies and even tropical fruits that were unknown in the rest of Europe, and a cosmopolitan society unlike any the continent had seen since Rome. Al-Andalus was a veritable paradise of religious and cultural toleration, before such terms had even been invented. I was going to educate the world (or a few gamers at least) about interfaith dialogue and religious toleration, through the historical tale of the wonderful land in which rabbis and imams studied each other's scriptures, advancing kabbalah and Sufism rapidly in a comparatively short amount of time.
The truth, as is usually the case, turned out to be far more nuanced than the myth above. That interpretation is the one currently in vogue with most historians, but it also happens to be primarily the narrative of the minority Muslim and Jewish aristocrat and merchant classes. The Spanish Christian ("mozarab") majority's day-to-day life was far different. Much as I enjoy the poetic justice of Christian Europeans as conquered rather than conquerors, living in a society where Muslim and brown are privileged over Christian and white, the fact remains that colonialism is an ugly and destructive business, regardless of how supposedly enlightened the conquerors are. Thanks to my new coauthors, Simon Zealot and Sara Mastros, I've come to realize that this game does not have any one villain, least of all the forces of the Unformed, who are simply performing their function: un-creating things whenever they can. There is only a single villain if we define it nebulously as "the forces of patriarchy, colonization, and slavery". That definitely feels like a win for everyone.
Al-Andalus was a society constantly at war with both the Spanish expatriates to the north, and between various small kingdoms within its own borders. Certain non-Muslim groups - Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sabians - were allowed to live in their own communities, under their own sets of laws, so long as they paid a steep tax (Arabic: jizya) and did not blaspheme against Allah. Maliki legal sources are clear on the dual purpose of the jizya: to humiliate the conquered people, reminding them of their place, and to provide a means by which the Muslim elite would not need to work (or work much) to earn money. In practice, Spanish Jews had higher social standing than their Catholic neighbors, because many helped the invaders in the hope of receiving better treatment under Muslim rule.
So if Spanish Muslim society divided its citizens into faith communities and determined their rights and privileges that way, we've already covered everybody, right? Well, no. Especially in rural areas, several types of paganism still existed, primarily involving deities from the Roman, Lusitanian, and Basque pantheons. Over time, some concealed their practices within a Catholic or Sabian exterior, while others simply went deeper into hiding. Regardless of its long-standing Iberian roots, paganism was a weed to be destroyed at any cost. Muslims, Jews, and Catholics could all agree on that, so being openly pagan in medieval Spain was a death sentence. Likewise with being openly LGBT, but that hang-up is exclusive to humans; the non-physical races have little interest in legislating each other's gender or sexuality. Women did have more rights and autonomy under the Spanish Caliphate than they had under the previous regime, though still less than in pre-Roman matriarchal societies (of which only the Circle of Gibraltar survives, below).
Now we come to the supernatural elements of the game. It was always my plan to have the metaphysics and gameplay reflect Golden Age's commitment to presenting cultures in an accurate and balanced way, with a special emphasis on the need for cooperation and dialogue with those who differ from oneself, in order to survive a harsh and unforgiving universe. As one example, I decided that the water elementals of both Spain and the Middle East had long ago been transformed into blood elementals because of near-constant warfare between tribes with close blood ties. The resulting blood elementals are considered both Elementals and Undead from a mechanical perspective; when brother kills brother, even the lakes and rivers eventually begin to weep that blood. A bit heavy handed, perhaps, but my heart was in the right place.
But I had some pretty big blind spots.
While the game is highly focused on magic, I had only thought of one magical school, the Solomonic College. Intended as the precursor of 11th- and 12-century Solomonic grimoires, this school caters mainly to male Jews and Muslims, and is also willing to admit Catholic men. While women are able to join, climbing the ranks would be difficult if not impossible for them. The College's magic, on a good day, is about striking bargains with djinn, angels, and demons... but Solomonic magicians are not above binding or outright enslaving an uncooperative spirit. So despite my lofty goals, the only magical school in this game was an agent of the patriarchal, monotheistic belief that God authorized the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths to be spiritual bullies in the tradition of King Solomon / Suleiman. Need some magic? No problem - just go to the Solomonics and buy yourself a ring or a lamp with a djinn imprisoned inside. Thanks to my coauthors, we now have the older and more egalitarian (as well as historical!) Sabian Academy, practicing a syncretic form of hermeticism, as well as the Circle of Gibraltar, heirs to ancient feminine mysteries of Moon and Earth that predate language itself. Everyone knows the best midwives come from Gibraltar, but only a few still remember how far their abilities extend beyond the anatomical and the herbal.
Another blind spot: I had originally conceived this game as a high fantasy RPG mixed with a historical RPG. But at the same time, I was trying to include as much real-world magical theory as possible, for the benefit of those who might like to learn some Western occultism while they play. With the help of my new coauthors, it quickly became clear that the game couldn't be fictionalized high fantasy if I wanted it to be based on sound occult principles. At best, I'd end up with a sloppy hodgepodge of made-up silliness and historical magical systems. So we have re-conceived the game as historical magical realism: the magic is as real-world correct, in terms of historical magical practices and beliefs, as we can make it. That isn't to say the core book is primarily a book of spell recipes, but you can generally expect that the procedures and components of the included spells will have sound correspondences, research, and occult theory behind them. We have removed anachronistic elements such as the Lurianic Tree of Life and the tarot, in favor of systems that were actually used at that time, such as the seven planetary intelligences and geomancy. Instead of eight or more arbitrary types of magic, we have reduced them to four essences that echo the four classical elements: Soul (Water), Energy (Fire), Substance (Earth), and Thought (Air).
For the sake of verisimilitude, we've also removed some types of humanoids (such as fish people) and replace them with species that could have reasonably have evolved from currently-known hominid species. Hence, we now have the Okeanids, with one tribe a bit like otters and others more like walruses, whales or dolphins. They evolved this way after being driven from the land by early homo sapiens:
The legends tell that, before even the Old People came to Europe, there were people in Iberia. As the Old Ones moved in, they pushed the First People out of their caves, to the coast. The Old Ones were smart; their tools were sharp and strong, and they had no need to wait for fire from the sky, they could make it on their own! Soon, the Old Ones, with their big heads and sharp knives, pushed the First People to the brink of extinction. And so the First People entreated with the Sea, who was their Mother, to show them a new way. And she did. The First People retreated first to the swamps and the islands, and then into the Sea itself. The Mother who bore us took us back into her womb, and there we thrived. The Great Teachers, Whale, and Orca, Dolphin and Porpoise, Walrus and Seal, and Little Otter taught us the ways of the Sea. We made pact with them, eating their flesh and communing with their spirits. The ice retreated, and most of the Great Ones with it. Many of our people went with them. Here on the coasts of Spain, only Little Otter, the Mother Ocean’s beloved son, remained with us.
As written now, events only diverge from real-world history circa 950 CE, sometime after the Fateful Eclipse. This brief solar eclipse was immediately followed by a lunar eclipse that lasted three full days and nights... and the moon wasn't just in shadow, it was completely gone, inexplicably, with no individual or group claiming responsibility. This, in turn, caused problems with the tides, people's moods and sanity, and the failure of an ancient spell called the Turning of the Feet, which hid the nonhuman species from the eyes of most humans. For three days, everyone could see these "monsters" everywhere, and there was widespread panic. When the moon reappeared, most people lost this ability and returned to their normal lives, but enough found themselves unable to explain it away that interest in the various magical schools skyrocketed as everyone tried to figure out who stole the moon, and why this replacement moon didn't feel or act quite right. Each of the major species has its own story of the creation of the world, each of which hints at a different likely culprit for what happened to the moon, and different tribes or religions within those species also have their own takes on what happened, how, and why.
The Solomonic College, far from being ancient and tied to Solomon himself as I originally thought, formed in response to this crisis because "obviously" the djinn or the demons must be to blame. The Sabians and Circle of Gibraltar had their own ideas, as did the various djinn and fae tribes, and this is how things have always been. So while some djinn may have converted to Islam, as the Qu'ran and various hadith specifically address them and set forth Allah's laws as it applies to the djinn, this is far from universal. Many djinn consider Islam to be a joint plot between the humans (Mohammed) and the angels (Gabriel) to relegate the djinn to permanent second-class status. Humans are given preferential treatment over djinn in the Qu'ran, and many would be resentful or suspicious of that. Likewise, the feud between the loyalist and rebel angels has more facets than one might expect... but I don't want to give away too much right now. Certain secrets should be for your GM only, but suffice it to say this game can be solely about angelic politics if that's how your group wants to play it. And not everyone currently in heaven is a loyalist.
I have to be honest and admit that many of these changes felt threatening for me at first. This was my game, my vision, and I didn't like the idea of anyone (even close friends) coming in and totally revamping it. But what Simon and Sara saw, on joining the project, were the ways in which my first draft was in conflict with my goals. In order for the game to feel organically progressive instead of clumsily didactic, the issues that result from colonization need to play out on every level, whether we're focusing on about Arabs and Spaniards; haves and have-nots; Muslims and Christians; colonizers and natives; Abrahamics and pagans; angels, djinn, and demons; humans, spirits, and Okeanids; or Solomonics and djinn (just as a few examples). We aim to present a 360-degree view of both al-Andalus and the supernatural realms such as heaven or Jinnistan. Whatever levels of reality your game inhabits, whether you're playing a rich human city official or a great warrior of one of the faerie courts, the effects of war and conquest will be all around you, for you to engage with or ignore as you choose. The social justice elements, much like the magical theory, are now woven into the fabric of every aspect of the game, so that you can learn about them as a natural consequence of gameplay rather than having them shoved in your face. I want to thank my collaborators, Sara Mastros and Simon Zealot, for making this not just a possibility but an ongoing reality.